Niçois Cuisine: Eat Like a Local
As you might expect from the capital of the French Riviera, Nice is a foodie's dream, with a plethora of restaurants serving varied international fare. Yet some of Nice's most memorable and authentic eating experiences still revolve around the city's simple traditional dishes – a uniquely flavourful cuisine that draws elements from the Mediterranean, the mountains and neighbouring Italy.
Niçois cuisine makes abundant use of several traditional Mediterranean ingredients. Olives and wine grapes, which grow easily on the Alpes-Maritimes' sun-drenched hillsides, have been cultivated here since ancient times, along with Mediterranean garden classics such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, zucchini, onions, potatoes, Swiss chard, parsley and other aromatic herbs. Adding zest to the mix, the region's uncommonly mild climate allows the cultivation of lemons, oranges and other citrus fruits. All of these ingredients find their way into Niçois cuisine.
Niçois cuisine places as much emphasis on meat as it does on fish, which may come as a surprise given the city's seaside location. This phenomenon hearkens back to earlier days, when the sea was considered a place of piracy and danger, and the coastal population was concentrated largely on fortified hilltops rather than along the waterfront.
Niçois Street Snacks
A morning stroll through the back streets of Vieux Nice and the port area offers a palpable feeling for the city's culinary roots. Several city blocks are given over to the city's iconic produce market on Cours Saleya, a lively hubbub of local producers selling fruit, vegetables, olives, cheeses, meats and baked goods. Tucked among the vendors' stalls and in the neighbouring streets are numerous places selling traditional Niçois street snacks.
Foremost among these is socca, a savoury, griddle-fried pancake made from chickpea flour and olive oil. Pressed into large metal pans and baked pizza-style in wood-burning ovens, it emerges piping hot and gets instantly chopped into individual servings, known as parts. At the best places, there's always a line of people waiting for their part, which will typically come served on a humble paper plate, sprinkled with a liberal dose of black pepper. There's no more distinctively Niçois flavour, and while many visitors don't know what to make of it at first, its appeal tends to grow over time.
Nearly as revered in the pantheon of Niçois specialties is tourte aux blettes (tourta de blea in local dialect), a kind of pie made with Swiss chard, raisins, pine nuts, apples, egg and cheese sandwiched between layers of dough and sprinkled with powdered sugar. (A savoury version of the same pie dispenses with the sugar.)
Next up is pissaladière, a scrumptious tart of caramelised onions spread over a bed of anchovy paste and topped with black Niçois olives. The French word pissaladière derives from the anchovy paste at the root of it all, known in local Nissart dialect as pissala, meaning 'salted fish'. You'll find this supremely savoury treat at bakeries and snack counters all over Nice.
No local snacking session would be complete without a plate of petits farcis, mixed vegetables (typically tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and/or zucchini) stuffed with ground meat, garlic, parsley and breadcrumbs. Similarly appealing are the stuffed cabbage rolls known as capouns, typically filled with meat, rice, eggs, cheese, onions and/or parsley.
Equally tasty and easy to nibble are Nice's variety of beignets (fritters), made with everything from fleurs de courgettes (zucchini flowers) to sardines (yep, sardines).
Italy's impact on Niçois cuisine can most easily be seen in the prevalence of fresh pasta in local shops and restaurants. A variety of shops in Vieux Nice tempts passersby with homemade ravioli and other noodle-y goodies, including the quintessentially Niçois treat known as merda di can. Thankfully, the name – which translates politely as 'dog poop' – refers to the cylindrical shape of these chard-and-potato green gnocchi, rather than to their flavour. Also well worth a taste are barbajuans, pasta pockets stuffed with Swiss chard, onions, parsley, rice and grated cheese and deep fried to a golden brown; originally from Monaco, they're also present on many a Niçois menu.
Other Niçois Specialties
Most travellers to Nice will immediately recognise the names of two ubiquitous local specialties: ratatouille and salade niçoise.
The former, served either as an appetiser or as an accompaniment to main courses, is a slow-cooked stew of tomatoes, zucchini, aubergines, peppers, garlic and onions, seasoned with basil and herbes de Provence.
The latter, in its most authentic version, may differ considerably from the salade niçoise you've eaten back home. Indispensable components most Niçois chefs will agree on include the familiar tomatoes, green onions, hard-boiled eggs, anchovies and olives, sometimes accompanied by peppers and/or tuna – but Nice locals also swear by some potentially unexpected additions such as raw purple artichokes, radishes, celery and fava beans. Meanwhile, most Niçois agree that the boiled potatoes and green beans often found in American or British renditions of salade niçoise are totally out of place, and many also question the inclusion of cucumbers or salad greens.
Especially on Fridays, look for aïoli, a local classic featuring codfish accompanied by vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, green beans and cauliflower and served with delicious garlicky mayonnaise.
Other southern French dishes you'll often see on Nice menus include soupe de poissons de roche (fish soup) and daube provençale (a hearty beef stew made with red wine and vegetables such as carrots, tomatoes or potatoes).
You'll find plenty of delicious sweets in the streets of Vieux Nice, but perhaps none so memorable as the chocolates and candied fruits sold by Maison Auer, a fifth-generation confiserie (sweet shop), in the same family since 1820. It's especially well-known for its candied lemons and oranges, steeped in ancient copper vats, and for its exquisitely crunchy, chocolate-covered toasted almonds and hazelnuts.
If you're visiting in late February or early March, don't miss Nice's delectable bugnes de Carnaval, doughy fritters perfumed with orange flowers.
Thanks to Nice's long-standing ties to neighbouring Piedmont, Italian desserts such as tiramisù and panna cotta are very popular here, as is gelato (Italian-style ice cream. Another sublime temptation is the toasted hazelnut spread sold at Olio Donato, an Italian-run food shop in the old town.