In May I spent a week with my husband in the south of France. Très élégant, n’est-ce pas? It was right at the height of all the Côte d’Azur fun—the Cannes Film Festival, the Monaco Grand Prix, and the Telemanagement Forum World Conference in Nice. Okay so that last one, while not so glamorous as the other two, is the reason my husband heads to Nice every year in May, and the reason I got to go there myself as a tag-along. I’ll take whatever way I can get to spend time in France. And the TMF World Conference, while not possessing the caché of an international film festival, is a big enough thing in Nice that the Mayor hosted a reception for conference attendees at the Musée Masséna on the Promenade des Anglais—it was a treat to have a private tour of the museum, kir in hand, with one of the most passionate guides I have ever met.
Since my husband would be working for some of our trip, I had to find ways to amuse myself. Yes, I know. Such a bother to have to spend time alone on the Mediterranean. Believe me, I’m not complaining. One wonderful day I spent taking a cooking class at Les Petits Farcis, run by Rosa Jackson, an expat Canadian who has lived in France for something like fifteen years. Rosa has written a few cookbooks for the Paresseuses series in France as well as a book of recipes for children from ages two to twelve. Her courses, taught in English, are mentioned in Rick Steve’s guide, plus they top the Google list when you look for cooking courses in Nice. Check out Rosa’s website for more information.
Beginning a lovely day in the south of France as one should when possible, we met at a café. There were four students in total: I had the pleasure to meet Amanda from Hong Kong, whose boyfriend was attending the same conference my husband attended; and Dave and Victoria from Australia, who were beginning their honeymoon. Clearly a romantic, Dave had planned the class as a surprise for his bride, actually phoning Rosa on his wedding day a few days before. I’m thinking this is starting to sound not so romantic, but really, it was, and Victoria was certainly surprised. How great to start their marriage off as a culinary team!
The class began with a stroll through the market, where Rosa made some purchases to be used for the class, and shared with us some of her knowledge about the bountiful fare on hand. One of the many things I love about the French is their markets. What a wonderful way to buy your food. The best known market in Nice is at Cours Saleya, in Vieux Nice (the Old Town). Every day except Monday, purveyors of fruits, vegetables and spices sell their produce from 6 am until around 1:30 pm. There’s something that feels just right about heading to the market daily to base your meals on what looks best. (It doesn’t fit so well into our way of life here in North America, but I’ll talk next week about how some people are working to change that.)
One needn’t wait for a meal for satisfaction; the market itself is a feast of aromas, colours, and tastes. A walk by the spice vendors fills the nose and blows the mind—who knew there were so many varieties of pepper? And the variety of olives impresses, too. It’s little wonder they are a staple of the Mediterranean diet. Further on, I see strawberries, the colour of which I’m sure I’ve never seen the like. With a staging talent unseen at grocery stores, vendors arrange produce to highlight the vivacity of its colour in ways worthy of the city that was once home to Matisse. Coming to the end of the square, if you find you’re in the mood for sprucing up the table with some flowers, you can find those as well, and at prices that would convert me to the custom of weekly bouquets.
Is any market complete without street food? Where you might find hot dogs in Toronto or pretzels and weisswurst in Munich, you find socca in Nice. Socca looks sort of like a giant crêpe, but has a completely different taste and texture. The batter is made with chickpea flour, olive oil, and water, and is cooked on a large disc-shaped pan in an oven. It is transported by bicycle to the market where it finds its way to the top of a large heated drum. Rosa bought some socca for all of us to try.
Thérésa, a woman well known for her role as Madame La Socca set to drizzling, chopping and scraping, and made short work of wrapping a serving into a paper cone. She handed it to Amanda and then promptly began chastising her in French to hold it properly. It eventually fell to Dave to carry it for the group and we all tried some—pulling off pieces with our fingers as is the custom. It was burn-your-fingers hot and tasted good, but I think I would have liked it cooked a little more—it was kind of gooey. It would have been delicious had it been crispy.
After a trip to the local cheese shop (fromagerie) and the wine store, we were off to Rosa’s apartment, in the heart of Vieux Nice to begin the cooking. I’ll tell you all about it in my next post, and share some of the cooking tips I learned.