Monday, March 8, 2010

What We Ate: Nice Edition

Those readers who were paying attention in high school history classes (and I hereby automatically exclude all readers who took not history, but “social studies,” which didn’t really teach us stuff like this) will perhaps recall vaguely that France was not always France. It’s been so nicely unified by now that your hazy memory on this point is to be expected, but really if you dig just an inch or two below the fact that every town has a Mairie and the same school curriculum and pretty much the same high tax rates, the culture varies like you wouldn’t believe.

Take Nice, for example, which is what my parents and my children and I did this weekend. Archaeologists tell us that the place has been continuously settled by humans, presumably starting with our proto-human ancestors, the Cro-Magnons, for over 400,000 years. Around 350 years BCE, some Greeks from Marseilles were the first to name it Nice (or Nikaia, which is close enough), after the goddess Nike. Then, after that, it functioned much more like a proto-Italian city-state than it did as a part of France.

A sunny port town with a terrific climate for growing food, but with a horrible propensity for being attacked by pirates, Nice was grabbed now and again by various other principalities and dominions. It was only truly signed over to France in 1860, as a thank-you gift for France’s support of Italy against Austria. Which is to say that Nice has really only been an official part of France only about forty years longer than Brooklyn has been an official part of New York City.

I know, I know – enough with the history, get to the food. But there’s a point to this political digression, which is to explain why eating in Nice is not exactly eating in France. The typical brasserie menu of salade bergiere, soupe a l’oignon and steak frites gives way here to a lot more fish, olives, and tomatoes. They speak French, of course, (and plenty of highly effective Tourist English and Tourist Russian) but they eat Niçoise, which is a little French, a lot Italian, but highly place-specific.

The town is pretty much dedicated to the art of chillaxing. You can sit on any number of sunny terraces, drinking a beverage appropriate to the time of day. Several of these terraces are right on the beach, but beverages there cost at least twice as much as usual. You can also get a picnic almost any day of the year, and make your own restaurant. The Fruit and Vegetable Marché in the Cours Saleya runs six days a week, and on the seventh day, they pack the place full of antiques. All summer long, one set of merchants sells food in the morning, and another crowd sells arts and crafts from evening until midnight.

They sell lots of stuff on the Cours Saleya, but really, you go there for the food. If not to buy it, at least to look at it. Table after table of artfully arranged vegetables, honeys, soaps, lavender, cookies, fish, and cheese. The girls’ favorite stall is the one selling glistening, sugar-preserved fruit, as well as marzipan sculpted into the shapes of other kinds of food – like cauliflower, pears, strawberries and eggplant. My favorite stall sells little glass vials of special salts, including sel du Camargue collected right nearby, salt flavored with lavender, with herbs de provence, with saffron, and even light pink salt from the Himalayas. But each time you go, there is a surprise. This weekend, the market was overrun with bouquets of puffy yellow Mimosa (the flowers we saw blooming for miles in the hills along the coast) as well as with boxes of impossibly huge strawberries on every next table.

You get yelled at a lot in the Saleya market -- which you might not be used to if you were generally spending your market days in rural Aups. In Aups, the people in the market selling things are largely friendly and warmly encouraging. But in Nice, the merchants are battle-scarred warriors for tourist and local dollars. They do not gladly suffer fools. Or fools’ parents. Or their children.

For example, let’s say that a particularly adorable American child takes her two euro coin to a stall selling clementines in Aups. When said child asks, in perfect French, to purchase just two pieces of fruit, the vendor is likely to give her three, for free. In Nice, she’s likely to be scowled at and shuttled along – they don’t have the patience to sell her anything less than a kilo.

A lot of the shouting is simple marketing (along the lines of: "Hey, you! My stuff is great. And cheap!") but more than once we were shouted at not to stand in front of someone’s wares for too long without buying. This is strange, given that the way the place is set up, it is impossible to stand at all without standing in front of one thing or another. I guess you’re just supposed to keep moving along, as though you’re in line at the Louvre to get a glimpse of the other tourists taking photos of La Jaconde. The market is beautiful, and smells terrific, but boy does it keep you on your toes, just at the edge of sensory overload.

You can buy food at the market, but you can also pick one of about seven hundred restaurants. So far, our favorite Nice restaurant, hands down, is Le Safari. We go for the intense Nice food experience, but also for the entertainment. Sometimes the entertainment is intentional – a man with the world’s most perfect abdominal muscles doing Capoeria dancing in front of the restaurant’s outdoor terrace. But often, the show is in the interactions between the staff and the restaurant’s patrons.

Here again, the contrast between Nice and the countryside is stark. In the hinterlands, waiters might not always smile, but they’re also not particularly likely to get into a tussle with the patrons. But in Nice, the vibe is so perfectly balanced between the outgoing vigor of Italy and the plain old Attitude of France that you get some real fireworks if you watch long enough.

Mom and Dad and I arrived with the girls at Le Safari as the market was just winding down. The terrace was about half full, but since we didn’t have a reservation, the only tables available were indoors. The outdoor manager, a seriously effective grouch with a scraggly graying mullet-braid, seemed surprised we were willing to accept such an indignity as an indoor table, and waved us in. He’s not exactly fond of American tourists, or children (he seems to prefer elegantly dressed Eurotrash girls in big sunglasses) and it’s not like he can’t fill his tables at the restaurant, even with his take-it-but-I’d-prefer-you-leave-it approach to seating diners.

We took the indoor table because we were there to eat. And, because even in Nice, the start of March is pretty chilly. Le Safari has (to nobody’s surprise) the best Niçoise salad I’ve ever had, plus half-bottles of crisp Chateau Croste rosé. They serve a pesto pasta Grace loves, and a thin-crust pizza marguerite that Abigail eats half of, and the rest of us scavenge on like vultures. Bill usually orders in more adventurous ways (here is where he ordered the nearly-unbearable smelling Stockfish soup) so we get to try a bite or two of new things, as well.

My Dad orders just as adventurously as Bill does, so I knew he’d be excited about the menu. He quicky sought out some of the more flavorful items, choosing little tiny fish as an entree, served looking like a mound of French fries. And then he ordered lambchops, which were served with a scoop of ratatouille and creamy-rich daupinoise potatoes. Mom had the fried zucchini-flowers we all love so much, followed by a beef daube, spiced with cinnamon and cloves, that was so tender it fell apart into slivers in your mouth.

I say this as though the food all arrived just after we ordered it, and that we just shoveled it in, paid the tab and left. But that would be leaving out the soap opera that played out at the tables around us. We arrived about ten minutes before everybody French did, apparently on a mutually-agreed upon cue. The five of us sat at a round table dead-center in the biggest room, just alongside the aisle between the kitchen and the terrace. Waiters and managers sped up and down this corridor in their black t-shirts and pants. One sang, loudly, each time he passed, giving us just three or four words of whatever song was emerging at that particular moment. Mr. Grey Mullet-Braid, his jaw set with characteristic irritability, swept in and out, presumably on errands from the Eurotrash girls to find out what had happened to their salades niçoises.

The managers seemed to enjoy bullying the staff, and the staff seemed to enjoy bullying one another, but the best interactions were between the patrons and the waitstaff. Not long after we were seated and gave our order to the positively adorable and warmly sunny waitress assigned to our case, a group of four older women were seated at a table just off to my right and my Mom’s left (unfortunately for my father, just behind his head.) While three of them seemed relatively innocuous, the eldest of the four quickly started in on our poor waitress, upbraiding her and taking her to task for a series of errors, missteps, problems, and oversights. Because the room was loud, and I don’t read lips (in French, either) I couldn’t ever quite pick up on exactly what the problem was at any given moment. But the women’s facial expressions – the patron’s face squeezed like she were eating lemon, the beautiful young waitress’s hands raised to shoulder height and out at right-angles, with the inevitable shrug – played out a sort of silent movie that I took to captioning aloud for the entertainment of Nona and Pops.

I’m sure that the elderly Queen was asking specifically French questions about the specifically French food, but I preferred to imagine that she had gotten turned around looking for take-out Chinese:

Mean Old Lady: “Where on the menu are my eggrolls, you useless kitchen wench?”

Charismatic Waitress: “But dear Queen Prissy-face, we haven’t served eggrolls here since 1862, when you last visited us, you elderly shrew!”

MOL: “I will have my wonton soup, or heads will roll!”

CW: “Good luck, windbag! I’m off to go prance around and ignore the other tables!”

Their all-out conflict raged for the entire two hours we were eating our lunch, and thus the topics must have varied as well. Presumably the free olives were unsuitable, as were the menu choices, the table settings, and the precise temperatures of the various foods, once they arrived. Soon even the other women, who had seemed gentle enough at first, were aping the Queen's displeasure, sending her on mutually contradictory errands in several different directions.

The waitress tried a number of different approaches, including cajoling, smiling, frowning, gentle scolding, and talking-with-her-manager, just near their table and clearly loud enough to hear. They didn’t give her the satisfaction of allowing her to fix any of their many complaints, but I did notice the elderly Queen Bee smiling on two distinct occasions: she would grin very slightly whenever she took a sip of her wine, and then smile broadly and cruelly whenever she managed to drive the harried waitress from her table with some other egregiously unreasonable request.

The upside of this lengthy interaction was that our table had Oscar-quality entertainment throughout our meal. The downside was that, as a relatively easygoing group of diners not so disposed to flag down waiters like we were Nascar officials, we got pretty soundly ignored by Charismatic Waitress.

Eventually a slight, speedy little man assigned to the tables near us started to take pity on us, and brought out a few dishes we could eat. But soon enough, he too was being attacked on two fronts – first by a man to my left, and then by a dowager seated on my right. The man disliked everything, and our waiter barely gave him the time of day. I would have to guess that the disliker is a regular – and regularly difficult – customer, as the waiter had so clearly given up on even trying to please him.

But he was still doing his level best with the old woman to my right, who was dining alone. At first I had taken her for a polite and cultured woman, not unlike the pair of ladies quietly sharing a full bottle of rosé and later a huge ice cream sundae. She seemed happy enough with her meal, and made good progress on the plate for quite some time. But she must have noticed that the grouchy women on the other side of the room were getting extra attention, and wanted to fit in with the more challenging members of the crowd.

Just about the time I would have been finished with the plate, had it been mine, she called the poor waiter over, raising a wild hand to the air to pull him into her Royal Aura. She had just polished off her potatoes and vegetables and had mowed halfway through her steak. Suddenly, she looked frankly angry as she held up the plate to him as though it were covered in mud. I assumed she was displeased with the steak, but luckily this time I could hear her – she was actually complaining that the potatoes had been cold!

This was a disgrace! And could she have some more! Immediately!

She and the waiter went back and forth a few times on this question, and seemed quite fairly matched until she gradually enlisted the support of the diners at the tables scrunched up next to hers. “The menu said potatoes in hot cream!” she argued. “Mine were barely warmed through!”

Her outrageous gambit paid off, for she was soon served an entirely new plate, which she polished off with great enthusiasm and apparent moral satisfaction.

Once our own meals (delicious, and plenty hot) had trickled to our table and we had eaten every bite we possibly could, we waited for ages for Charismatic Waitress to be released from the hold of the coven of witches so busily tormenting her over their meals. She responded to their spell by shuttling ever faster from their table to the kitchen, barely registering a glance in our direction. By the time she finally arrived to clinch the deal on our meal, the girls had gotten bored and restless, and we had already decided to forego the desserts included with Mom and Dad’s menu. She plied us with all the charisma she had left over, smiling winningly and flirtingly at my Dad, but all we wanted was our check.

We left because we had spent too long there waiting for her, but really also because we had plans to eat ice cream at Fennochio’s, a famous cremerie with over 100 different flavors. Dad got the rhubarb he’d been dreaming about since he read about it in a blog back in September. Abigail chose an unlikely combination of flavors that had only color in common: green apple and mint. Grace, presumably already overwhelmed by all the sounds, flavors, sights, and smells of the day, stuck to soothing old vanilla. Mom and I got caramel, mine with salt.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking on the Promenade des Anglais, staring at and being started at in turn by the Brits, Italians, Russians and French retirees along the wooden boardwalk. It was windy, and cold, but we watched a crowd of Italian teenagers – the boys in their underwear and the girls stripped to jeans and their bras – frolicking around in the enormous waves. There were rollerbladers doing fancy tricks, and an old man playing his guitar to recorded accompaniment. Each song was beautiful enough, but ended in a disconcerting loud BEEP sound as the background music stopped. Despite Mom's fear of heights, we climbed up to get the full view of the town, hundreds of steps above the beach.

After the girls splashed around for awhile in the hotel pool, we cleaned up a little and found incredible lasagne, moussaka, and seafood risotto at a place a few blocks from our hotel. We were tired and chilled from a day of walking in the wind, and we slowly melted into the red leather booths in the warmth of the restaurant.

But the real score of the evening was the strawberry desserts. Mom got mousse au chocolate, but recalling the huge berries at the market, Dad and I got berries. I ordered a strawberry sundae to share with the girls, and Dad chose warm berries with ice cream and a sort of liqueur-soup of Cointreau, rum, and Grand Marnier. The berries were huge and fragrant, with none of that sitting-on-the-shelf flavor that supermarket fruit tends to take on over time. They were fresh and delicious, made transcendent by the cream and the alcohol. We all poured ourselves into our beds, shut the blackout blinds, and slept like the dead.

Sunday dawned grey and cold. Our dismal winter is hanging on a little more powerfully than I really want to admit, and thus we spent our morning tramping around Nice in a slight drizzle that was never quite powerful enough to require an umbrella. Since it was Sunday, most of Nice was of course fermé, and all the life and dazzle of the day before had evaporated overnight. There is nothing quite as pathetic and pointless as tourists walking around a beach town on a Sunday morning in a steely March rain. If it was going to rain, we all might as well get rained on at home.

In honor of Nice’s complex and checkered political history, we’d had an authentic Nicoise lunch, an Italian dinner, and a pretty typical pan-European buffet breakfast, with scalding hot café creme. So how did we finish up our big intergenerational, international adventure?

If you know our family well enough, you may already have guessed it. Travel with children, no matter where you go, and pretty soon somebody’s going to demand some good old fashioned globalized fast food. Abigail spotted it early – the familiar Subway logo over a storefront a block away from our hotel. You would have thought she had discovered The Holy Grail, the way it inspired her dedication and endless (whiney) striving for its mysteries. So just before leaving town, we stopped in so she could get her fix. According to her, the ham-and-cheese sub was perfect: just like they make it in Brooklyn.


  1. So how do you do it, Launa? Do you carry a journal with you and take notes at the supermarkets and street markets and various restaurants and ice cream places? Do you jot things down while you are sitting at the beach or in the rental car offices or poolside or in traffic?

    Your attention to detail, your imaginative descriptions, your comparisons, your ability to connect Nice with Brooklyn and history and politics and family relations and ordering Chinese food (!!!) is truly remarkable.

    So do share a few tips, a few secrets: how do you do it??????? If you are one of those lucky ones who is blessed with a wonderful memory and are able to remember the conversations and details hours later when you are in front of your computer, then I might have to stop being your friend...

  2. Oh, Gail, you're too nice.

    Basically, I just start writing, and remember some of the details, then make up all the rest. (!)

  3. Launa, whatever those things are in the picture - if you love me you will either mail them to me or make them for me when you back. The day you get back.