Why had I never heard of socca, or la trouchia, tout-nus or tourte de blettes? By the time I moved to France, to the village of Bar-sur-Loup in the nearby hills behind Nice, I had spent years cooking my way through dozens and dozens of French cookbooks, learning the styles of cooking– from Normandy, Alsace, Provence, the Basque country, Bordeaux and Lyon. I had lived in Paris. I had vacationed every year in France. I had eaten my way through the French Michelin stars. Yet I’d never come across the term ‘cuisine Niçoise’.

It wasn’t until I moved to my village, dined with neighbours, and took food-shopping excursions to Nice that it became clear I had missed something very big. It was not only a cuisine but also a way of life defined by the sea, the garden, the sun and the proximity of this corner of France to Italy. Bar-sur-Loup was where I would eventually learn to cook cuisine Niçoise. This was where I would learn to forage, till a garden, harvest olives, buy fresh every day from the local farmers and in the open-air markets, spend my Sundays cooking and sharing meals with friends, and buy locally made pottery to serve it on and locally made wine to serve with it.

The Roots of the Cuisine

Cuisine Niçoise is the style of cooking found in Nice, in the countryside around it, and for the most part in our village. It comes from humble origins, with most of the recipes having been inherited from grandmothers who prepared farmhouse cuisine from produce grown in their kitchen gardens using recipes that were handed down for generations – and often served to three of them sitting at the kitchen table for Sunday dinner.

Many of those grandmothers were either Italian or French influenced by Italian cuisine, because the entire area along the coast from Cannes towards Monaco had been part of Italy until 1860, when it was ceded to France. So the cuisines of those two countries are entwined and intermingled in the most ideal culinary match of Italian and French traditions. The resulting cuisine Niçoise springs from that marriage – with a strong dash of its own unique dishes not found anywhere else in France.

This area of France fits snugly close to Genoa, so subtle changes were made to typically Italian dishes on a daily basis, thereby creating the evolution of a new blend of French and Italian cooking. French Niçoise cooks make gnocchi, but they fold in chopped Swiss chard; they make ravioli but stuff it with orange-scented beef stew or fry it. A favourite meal of pizza at a restaurant for lunch might be followed by a stew at home for dinner, made with an inexpensive cut of meat that has been marinated overnight in wine. The meat is enhanced with vegetables from the garden at the back of the house and herbs harvested wild from the side of the road during an afternoon walk. The daube, or French stew, is most likely served with homemade Italian tagliatelle.

Cuisine Niçoise is as unique a way of cooking as that of Lyon or Alsace; however, you can find the cooking of Lyon and Alsace in restaurants throughout France, whereas much of Cuisine Niçoise is found only in the region around Nice. It would be hard to find socca, a traditional Niçoise pancake or crêpe made of chickpea flour, once you leave Nice.

Niçoise cooking is vibrant and healthy, with an emphasis on vegetables and fish. It is honest, simple and frugal, based on what is available from the surrounding land and the sea. It is designed with olive oil rather than butter and cream; it is light rather than bathed in rich sauces. Because there is little room for cattle to roam in this region, there is less beef and more lamb, pork, rabbit, wild game, duck and chicken. And cuisine Niçoise depends on fresh, locally sourced produce, either wild or tamed by farmers. You can’t speak about it without mentioning the local farmer or fisherman.

In the open-air market in Nice and in small family shops in the area, you will find wild asparagus; wild mushrooms; mesclun; zucchini flowers; Mara des Bois – tiny strawberries; red, green, and black fresh figs; fresh green walnuts; lamb from the nearby Alpes-de-Haute Provence; and lean sheep and goat cheeses as well as a vast array of brilliantly coloured fruits and vegetables. As much as imaginable, everything at the market is local.

The olive oil that dressed my salads was from the old stone press in Opio, a village down the hill; like my neighbours, I scooped up the olives beneath my trees and drove them down to the olive mill in exchange for a bottle of oil. Bread came from the village baker. Our house wine, Belette rosé, came from the hills behind Nice. Our salad bowl in the summer was filled from my garden, and in the winter still filled from my garden but with sturdier varieties of greens. Much of the fish I bought was line-caught from local waters and the cheese that I coveted was from shepherd farmers who descended from the mountains behind Nice to bring their small quantities of handcrafted cheeses to our markets. Neighbouring beekeepers, as well, stocked us with golden goodness from the hives in their gardens.

Soon after moving to Bar-sur-Loup, I found guardian angels of the culinary sort living in and around my village, who taught me traditional cuisine Niçoise that they had learned from their mothers and friends and grandmothers. I took their tutoring seriously, mastered their authentic Niçoise dishes, then updated them for my taste and streamlined them for my busy life.

At home, cuisine Niçoise is casual, served on mismatched pottery rather than fine china. It has the cosy familiarity of a grandmother’s kitchen, where food was prepared in well-loved vintage pots and served on a long wooden table. Although its allure is a nostalgic one, it fits very much into our times and lifestyles. Simple and homey, using local ingredients or what you have on hand, cuisine Niçoise is an inexpensive and healthy way of cooking that I am thrilled to share with you – because I learned that this unsung cuisine is indeed worth singing about.

Goat Cheese Ravioli with Wild Mushrooms

Serves 4

1 recipe Food Processor Fresh Pasta (see below)

1/4 cup boiling water

2 tablespoons raisins

8 ounces goat cheese, room temperature

8 ounces whole milk ricotta

1/2 teaspoon sea salt, divided

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

coarsely ground black pepper

1 pound mixed wild mushrooms, halved or quartered

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. Roll out pasta dough in your machine to the second thinnest setting, then cut into 6 sheets measuring 12″x12”. Cover with a towel. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. Pour the water over the raisins and allow to sit until plump; drain and coarsely chop. Scoop raisins into a mixing bowl, add the goat cheese, ricotta, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and mix well. Taste and add more salt if needed.

3. Place one pasta sheet in front of you horizontally on a clean work surface. Place another sheet just above it, and cover the remaining sheets with a kitchen towel.

4. Put tablespoons of filling with spaces in between on one sheet. Lightly moisten the dough around the filling with water, then place the other rectangle of dough on top. Use your fingers to press down around the mounds of filling so there are no air pockets. Slice into ravioli squares or circles, or use a cookie cutter or small glass as a guide to cut shapes. Press the edges once again firmly with  your fingers to seal. Place on baking sheet until ready to use.

5. Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a gentle boil, then lower the raviolis into the water. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 3 to 4 minutes. When the raviolis float to the top, they are done. With a slotted spoon, gently lift the raviolis out of the water and drain in a colander.

6. Warm the olive oil, garlic, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and pepper to taste over medium heat for 3 minutes. Add the mushrooms, and gently turn them with a spoon to coat and warm.

7. Place the raviolis on plates, drizzle with a little olive oil, top with the mushrooms, and serve with grated Parmesan.

Food Processor Fresh Pasta

2 large eggs

4 large egg yolks

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups flour

Whisk the eggs, yolks, olive oil and salt together, then pour into the bowl of a food processor.

Add the flour and process. If a ball forms, fine; stop there. If not and you have fine pearls, that’s okay too. Just scoop them out onto a piece of parchment paper and bring the dough together into a ball with your hands. Knead three or four times.

If the dough feels wet, add 1 tablespoon more of flour and knead it into the dough ball. Eggs vary in how liquid they are and in how much flour they can absorb, so start with the lesser amount, test with your finger, and add more if it seems sticky. Wrap the dough ball in plastic wrap and allow it to rest for 30 to 45 minutes.

Divide the dough ball into six pieces, working with one and covering the others. Roll out, one by one, through the pasta machine. When you reach the #5 position, you may want to slice the sheet of dough in half if it has become too long. I roll my pasta to the #8 position, or very thinly, before feeding it through the cutters.

If you are working by hand, roll out the dough as thinkly as you can with a rolling pin, then cut the dough into pasta with a sharp knife or pizza cutter. Either way, use no extra flour or as little as possible, since adding flour will make the pasta a bit gooey when cooked.

Hang the pasta as you cut it on the backs of chairs covered with clean towels. When it’s all done, drop into boiling water to cook. Depending on how thinly you rolled your dough and what width of pasta you cut, it could take from 30 seconds to 2 minutes to cook; so stand nearby and test a strand to see when it gets to a good place for you. Drain, toss with sauce, and serve.

Pistou Tomato Tart in a Basil Crust

For the crust and tart

1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, plus 6 to slice into ribbons

1 large egg yolk, room temperature

1 stick unsalted butter, cold, sliced

1/4 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

4 1/2 tablespoons ice cold water, plus more to bring

dough together, if needed

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup hazelnut flour, hazelnut meal or almond meal

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

4 tablespoons pistou (see step 5)

2 pounds tomatoes, different sizes and colours, including cherry tomatoes

10 pitted, sliced black or oil-cured black olives as garnish

For the pistou

3 cloves of garlic, peeled

2 cups (tightly packed) fresh basil leaves

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese

1. Oil a 10- to 11-inch round tart pan with a removable bottom, or a 10-inch springform pan.

2. Into the work bowl of a food processor that is running, drop the 1/4 cup basil leaves and mince them. Add the egg yolk, butter, lemon juice and water and pulse 8 times. Add the flour, hazelnut flour, salt and sugar; pulse until just mixed and the dough looks like coarse meal. Do not process until it forms a ball. Scoop out the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap, gently bring it together with your hands, wrap it in the wrap, and press down with the heel of your hand to make a flat, round disc. Refrigerate the dough for 45 minutes or longer.

3. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured work surface between two pieces of parchment paper and then place it into your pan. I cut the dough a little bigger than the pan and fold it back over itself all around, to make a crust that sits up a bit higher than the edge; this gives leeway for shrinkage when baking. Pinch it in a decorative way all the way around. Prick the bottom of the tart with a fork, then refrigerate another 25 minutes while you heat the oven to 400 degrees F.

4. Place a piece of parchment paper or foil in the pastry shell and weigh it down with uncooked rice or beans, then bake the shell for about 10 minutes. Remove the weights and paper, and bake for another 8 minutes or until golden. Take the pan out of the oven, leaving the oven on, and cool the crust to room temperature.

5. To make the pistou, pulse the garlic, basil, and salt in a food processor until it reaches a pasty consistency. With the machine running, slowly add the olive oil drop by drop, then in a thin steady stream until you achieve a thick paste. Scoop the paste out into a bowl and mix in the cheese with a fork until well blended.

6. Spread the bottom of the crust with pistou and shower the fresh basil ribbons over the top. Slice the tomatoes and arrange decoratively on top, then scatter the olives over the tomatoes.

7. Bake the tomato tart in the oven for 30 minutes, until cooked through. Allow to come to room temperature before slicing.

Madame’s Peaches and Cream Tart

Serves 8

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature

2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup sugar, divided, plus 2 tablespoons

7 peaches, unpeeled, sliced thickly or quartered

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon almond extract

1 cup heavy cream

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Butter and flour a 9-inch pie plate or a tart pan with a removable bottom.

2. In a bowl, beat the butter until fluffy. Add the flour and 1/4 cup sugar, and work with your hands until it comes together into a dough. Press dough into the pie plate or tart pan.

3. Lay the peaches, cut side up, in a decorative pattern in the pie plate. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup sugar.

4. Bake at 400 degrees F for 20 minutes.

5. Beat the eggs with 1 tablespoon sugar and vanilla and almond extracts. Whisk in the heavy cream and pour all on top of the peaches. Sprinkle with remaining 1 tablespoon sugar and return to the oven. Bake for 30 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Allow to cool and set before serving.

Excerpt from Cuisine Niçoise: Sun-Kissed Cooking from the French Riviera by Hillary Davis, with photographs by Steven Rothfeld, published by Gibbs Smith. For more information, please visit www.gibbs-smith.com

As seen in France Today magazine

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