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.

Staples

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).

Prime traditional spots to sample all of these include Socca du Cours and Chez René Socca in Vieux Nice, or Socca d'Or and Chez Pipo in Le Port-Garibaldi.

Fresh Pasta

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).

Sweets

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.

Carnaval in Nice

To experience Nice at its off-season best, visit during the city’s exuberant late-February Carnaval. For three weekends and two intervening weeks, Nice’s streets fill with colourful parades featuring gigantic papier-mâché figures and displays of locally grown flowers. Accommodation prices are lower than in summer, reservations easier to come by, and the weather – if you’re lucky – can be almost springlike.

History of Nice's Carnaval

Nice’s Carnaval in one form or another goes back to medieval times. Way back in 1294, Charles II d’Anjou, Count of Provence, legendarily visited during the big event and – as recounted in a letter – enjoyed himself immensely. Although details are sketchy, it’s clear that the narrow streets of Vieux Nice were already filled with some kind of rowdy annual winter festivities.

Carnaval in its current form really got going in the late 1800s, just as Nice was coming into its own as a tourist destination. In 1864 the train began bringing new waves of northerners to the Côte d’Azur in search of mild winter weather, health benefits and frivolous entertainment. In the early 1870s Napoléon III’s defeat and the rise of the Paris Commune ushered in an era of political uncertainty, prompting a growing exodus of upper-class families from the capital. It was in this context that Nice founded its Comité des Fêtes (Festivals Committee) in 1873, whose revival of the Carnaval tradition was partly an attempt to lure well-off northerners. The event was perfectly timed for the February period that marked peak season for out-of-town visitors.

Two of Nice’s greatest Carnaval rituals date back to this period: the custom of creating giant floats beautifully decorated with local flowers, and the grand corsos (parades) featuring outsized papier-mâché figures of a Carnaval king and queen. Other innovations followed as Carnaval took off in popularity, including the introduction of the now-ubiquitous paper confetti in 1892.

Les Corsos: Carnaval Parades

Corsos (parades) remain the heart and soul of Nice’s Carnaval. The main parade route has varied over the years (most recently being confined within giant security fences), but place Masséna in the city centre has long served as the ceremonial start and finish point. This huge square, ringed with colourful 19th-century Italianate buildings, is an ideal venue for the giant figures – some more than 20m tall – that adorn the floats, and it’s large enough to accommodate the sprawling tribunes (grandstands) where spectators gather to watch the festivities.

Nice’s modern-day Carnaval revolves around a new theme each year, reflected in the costumes of the gargantuan papier-mâché king and queen who lead the evening parades, as well as in the dozen-plus other floats that follow them. Recent themes have included outer space in 2018, music in 2015 and gastronomy in 2014. Individual floats range from the nostalgic – 2018’s space themed parade had a float dedicated to Laika, the dog launched into orbit by the Russians in 1957 – to the politically satirical, including Donald Trump as King Kong, Theresa May clinging for dear life to Big Ben and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un being fired from a cannon. Mixed in with all of this are elements drawn from the French circus tradition – acrobats, stilt-walkers and dancers in flamboyant costumes – along with giant insects and other whimsical creatures.

Corsos take place two or three times per week, mostly at night. The atmosphere is festive and family-friendly, with spectators of all ages, Unlike at Rio’s Carnaval or New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, there’s no conspicuous drinking, just loudspeakers blaring pop music and an announcer getting the crowd appropriately worked up.

Construction of the floats – each measuring 12m long by 3m wide and featuring a 2-ton interior framework overlaid with papier-mâché, paint, hydraulic mechanisms and electric lighting – begins in October.

Batailles des Fleurs

Forming a colourful counterpoint to the nighttime corsos are the daytime batailles de fleurs (flower battles), a completely different variety of parade that’s all about celebrating the floral bounty of southern France. A full 80% of the flowers used in the batailles are grown right here in the Nice area, with mimosas being the event’s most iconic symbol.

The batailles de fleurs got their start in 1876, when Niçois and foreign high-society families began decorating their carriages with floral motifs, and young ladies riding in these elegantly decorated carriages would shower the Carnaval-going crowds with flowers grown in the Alpes-Maritimes’ foothills, helping to promote the image of the Côte d’Azur’s mild winters. Over time, a sort of competition ensued, and the finest carriages were honoured with silk banners.

The modern-day rendition of these batailles follows the same route as the night parades and retains classic elements from a century and a half ago, with splendidly dressed young women gathering bunches of roses, lilies and mimosas from their floats and tossing them into the crowd. Interspersed with the floats are costumed dancers and other performers from all over the world. Spectators scramble to build the best bouquet, and when the event is over, it’s delightful to wander Nice’s streets surrounded by locals bringing armloads of flowers back home.

L'Incineration du Roi (Burning of the Carnaval King)

All good things must end, and Nice’s Carnaval is no exception. Since the early days, the festivities’ closing ritual has been the ceremonial burning of the Carnaval king, symbolising new beginnings and a clean slate for the year ahead.

In years past, the Carnaval king was sent to sea in a little boat and burned out in the open Mediterranean, followed by a dramatic fireworks display. New security measures adopted in recent years have brought the king-burning ceremony back within the enclosed confines of place Masséna and have done away with the fireworks, but the king still goes out in a blaze of glory, and it remains an awe-inspiring spectacle. The evening’s sweetest moment for many native Niçois is the traditional a cappella singing of Nice’s civic anthem, Nissa la Bella. The lyrics, written in the local Nissart language, pay homage to the city’s beauty with phrases like la miéu bella Nissa, regina de li flou (my beautiful Nice, queen of flowers).

If You Go

Bear in mind that Nice’s Carnaval – unlike most such festivities around the world – is not timed to coincide with the beginning of Lent. The Niçois version is always scheduled during the last two weeks of February, regardless of when Ash Wednesday falls, and sometimes spills a day or two into March.

Tickets are sold in two main categories: grandstand seats, which give you a comfortable elevated place to watch the festivities but are more expensive, and general admission, which puts you out on the streets closer to the floats for less money. A third alternative, if you want to attend the ceremonies for free? Simply come in costume.

The best grandstand seats generally sell out fast; book ahead online at www.nicecarnaval.com. General admission tickets, by contrast, are often still available on the day of each event.