Cote d’Azur’s culinary crossroads
Vacay.ca occasionally publishes articles on destinations outside of Canada. In this article, Vacay.ca Contributor Mark Sissons profiles life in experiences in the French Riviera.
Story by Mark Sissons
NICE, FRANCE — In a nation synonymous with culinary mastery boasting nearly 600 Michelin-starred eateries, having an entire type of cuisine named after you is the ultimate honour. Only two French cities hold such a rarified distinction: Lyon, capital of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, and Nice, the charming epicentre of France’s Mediterranean playground, the Cote d’Azur. On a sun-drenched July afternoon, just a day before a terrorist attacked crowds gathered along famous Promenade des Anglais for the Bastille Day fireworks show, I decide to take a walking tour through the heart of Nice’s triangle-shaped Old Town and straight into the city’s gastronomic soul.
“Nicoise cuisine is very Mediterranean and very healthy,” explains local culinary expert Caterina Prochilo as we enter the Cours Saleya, the city’s most famous open-air market. Incorporating a healthy concern for well-being and an even healthier respect for fresh farm-to-table regional products, Nicoise dishes are always served with the area’s legendary AOC (protected designation of origin) olive oil and often smothered in fresh, fragrant, locally sourced herbs. It’s this generous use of olive oil that most distinguishes the cuisine on Cote d’Azur from the other French gastronomical traditions. “We call Nicoise the cuisine of poor people because you can get a lot of nutrients but with simple ingredients. Local, seasonal and very healthy,” Prochilo adds.
Running parallel to the sea just behind Promenade des Anglais, Cours Saleya is Nice’s epicentre for food. At one end of its long row of stalls lined with shops, cafes and seafood restaurants is a 19th-century townhouse that Henri Matisse once called home. At the other end, marble steps lead to Place Massena, a large plaza lying between the old and new towns, and lined with posh shops, cafes and restaurants. Complementing Cours Saleya’s panoply of farm-fresh flavours is its colourful flower market, a holdover from when Nice was the carnation-growing capital of France, and distributed its flowers all over Europe. The world’s first cut flowers were sold here in the 1800s. Fruit and vegetable stands pack up by 1:30 in the afternoon while the flower stalls stay open until about 5:30.
Packed with produce grown in small farms in the hills surrounding the city, Cours Saleya is a joy for the senses. Stacks of tin paniers overflow with red, yellow and orange tomatoes (perfect for Caprese salade) and fleurs de courgette (yellow zucchini), a Nicoise specialty. Rows of freshly baked stuffed bell peppers, zucchini and aubergines called Petits Farcis (the little stuffed ones) tempt passersby. Braids of plump garlic and some of the cheeses France is famous for — like Banon, made from raw goat’s milk and ripened in chestnut leaves, and fresh unsalted Brousse du Rove — add to the pungent milieu.
Prochilo and I stop often to sample street food like naturally gluten-free Farinata Socca, a crispy chickpea flatbread that is another Niçoise speciality, and pissaladière, a pizza topped with caramelized onions, anchovies and olives. Then we dip into Maison Auer, a Florentine-style shop near the Opera House dating to the 1820s that offers a tantalizing variety of artisanal chocolates, candied fruit, glazed chestnuts and other assorted delicacies.
After exploring the Cours Saleya market, Prochilo and I plunge into the narrow, labyrinthine streets that wind through Vieux Nice, one of the city’s main attractions. Buzzing with activity day and night, the Old Town has an unmistakably baroque Mediterranean vibe. As we stroll along rue St François de Paule, lined with designer shops, the ornate Belle Époque Opera of Nice is visible on the right. And nearby Palace of Justice Square, recently restored, is a stunning example of neoclassical architecture.
Ending our peripatetic morning, we decide to take a leisurely lunch at Restaurant Acchiardo, one of Vieux Nice’s hidden gastronomic gems. Heavily influenced by Provence and Italy’s nearby Liguria region, Acchiardo serves hearty versions of homegrown classics like Petits Farcis, pissaladière, Assiette Nicoise and perhaps the city’s most famous dish, Nicoise salad (occasionally referred to as insalata nizzarda). All of it washed down, of course, with robust local wines.
Restaurant Acchiardo has received the “Cuisine Nissarde” label awarded to local restaurants that work to promote Nicoise cuisine by following traditional regional recipes using quality ingredients. Easily identifiable by the Cuisine Nissarde sticker on their window, such establishments are continually reviewed by anonymous inspectors to ensure the label’s strict criteria are maintained. For foodies, the Cuisine Nissarde distinction invariably means a Nicoise meal to remember.
After lunch and double espressos we muster enough energy to go museum hopping. Our first stop is the Théâtre de la Photographie et de l’Image Charles Negre, situated in an impressive Belle Époque-period building. Its fascinating photographic collection traces the history of Nice and the surrounding region. We then proceed to the Musée d’art moderne et d’art contemporain, also known as MAMAC, located near the Place Garibaldi. On display is a compelling collection of drawings, posters and photographs by Ernest Pignon-Ernest, a French urban artist considered one of the forefathers of what is today known as the street art of urban intervention.
Our day’s gastronomic odyssey finally ends with another excellent meal at a new restaurant called Sentimi located in Place Garibaldi. Once again, the Italian influence in Nicoise cuisine is on full display in tantalizing dishes with names such as Tagliata Senese, Tonno di Sicilia and Polpo Alla Ligure. Stuffed and content, we decide to end an amazing day by working off a few of those calories by heading up nearby Castle Hill for some stunning sunset views over Old Nice, the rest of the city and in the distance, the twinkling lights of the Cote d’Azur.
Where to Stay in Nice
I used Booking.com to secure a one-bedroom apartment for my stay at Residence Lamartine. This four-star apartment hotel is housed in a lovely 19th-century building in the heart of Nice. Just a seven-minute walk from the city’s central train station, Residen Lamartine is just over a kilometre from the Musée Marc Chagall and 1.6 km from the waterfront Promenade des Anglais. Bright, functional studios feature kitchenettes, WiFi, flat-screen TVs and desks.