I don’t often go on organised tours, particularly in my home area, but when a friend suggested one she wanted to try out, all about food, and asked if I’d go with her, I thought why not? A Saturday morning of tasting my way around one of my favourite cities, Nice, without bored children, sounded very appealing. And I’m always on the look out for interesting things to recommend to guests in the gîte, so the decision was made.
Our group met on the Promenade des Anglais, under a weak October sun with the usually-present blue sky threatening to be swallowed up by cloud. After an initial snack of delicious orange blossom fougasse and introductions (there were 7 of us – 4 tourists from California, Taiwan and Poland, Karin and me, the “locals”, and Gustav our adopted Niçois but originally Swedish guide) we quickly moved into the Hotel Negresco and the “opulence” began.
Let me explain: the tour focuses on two very different sides of Nice and its history, both cultural and gastronomic. It looks at the “opulence” and the “pure”. Nowadays Nice and the Côte d’Azur are mostly associated with wealth, extravagance and opulence; they are often seen predominantly as a millionaire’s playground. But it hasn’t always been this way and Gustav, our very amiable guide, was at pains to point out the “pure” (or poor) side. This is far less known and really what the tour concentrates on. However, I just said we’d started on the opulence and what better place than the iconic belle époque hotel situated right on the Prom. This hotel, that looks like a wedding cake, is as famous a landmark as you can get in Nice. It’s 5 star and seriously quirky, but I’d actually never been in. So, we found ourselves in La Rotonde, a bistro decorated as a children’s merry-go-round. It’s as OTT as you can get! Whether you think it’s kitch or kooky, grotesque or groovy, it’s certainly not ordinary. The hotel itself was built at the beginning of the twentieth century but the Rotonde bistro was only decorated as a carousel in the 1980s.
Under the watchful eyes of the merry-go-round horses we snacked on what I consider the best recent invention in French gastronomy – the “café gourmand”. It is an superlatively indulgent way to have a little of everything! Basically a café gourmand, a greedy coffee, is a coffee (however you like it, short and black/long and white) with a selection of the day’s deserts in miniature. Depending on the establishment you get between 3 and 5, sometimes even 6, mini desserts. Heaven for a sweet tooth like me! While we ate, Gustav regaled us with stories about the hotel’s history – very colourful indeed and perhaps the subject of another post in its own right.
After leaving the Negresco next on the tour was the fabulous Maison Auer, a traditional confiserie (sweet shop), worth visiting for its ornate Florentine decor alone. Established in 1820 by a young Swiss man who was attracted to Nice by its abundance of Mediterranean fruit, the company is now run by the 5th generation of the same family. Initially and still famous for its candied fruit the current owner of Auer is a Master Chocolate-maker too. The tour, however, focused on the unusual candied fruit such as kiwi and angelica which we got to taste in the grandiose surroundings of this very original sweet shop.
I won’t go into the detail of every single thing we ate and did during the morning for fear of ruining the surprise for any future clients. But I will say that we got to sample some local wine in an amusing experiment about its price and while we covered a fairly large area of Nice it wasn’t tiring mainly due to Gustav’s unerring enthusiasm, information and funny stories. We ate in ordinary cafés, snacking on regional specialities that proved Gustav’s point about Nice’s paucity in high gastronomic terms but not in taste. Everything we ate was simple, fresh and totally delicious. I will mention one of my favourite Niçois foods though as I love it and apart from anything else want to include a picture of it! Socca. Nothing to do with the Caribbean music genre, nor football, socca is a heavenly thin pancake made out of chickpea flour and olive oil and served warm with lashings of black pepper. It’s cooked in an enormous woodfired oven, on a wide round dish about 60 cm across, and served up in bite-sized scrapings, often to be eaten on the go. It’s as “pure” as you can get, found nowhere else in France and it’s absolutely scrummy.
Being a “local” on the tour and not a visitor I knew about all the food we ate but I didn’t know nearly so much about the history of Nice and its lack of gastronomy. When you think of French food you tend to think of rich sauces oozing in butter and cream, extravagant desserts again heavy on dairy, a vast choice of cheese, flaky pastries made with plenty of butter…are you seeing the theme here? But the Nice area has no dairy products. The climate is too harsh for cows, it’s hot and the landscape is relatively barren, so the only small amount of cheese produced locally is chevre, goats’ cheese. In fact it is because of this harsh landscape that Nice cuisine has such a low place in the French gastronomic league table. The County of Nice only became part of France in 1860, having led a separate and somewhat isolated existence as part of the Kingdom of Savoie until this time. Surrounded by mountains and the sea it was cut off from the rest of the Kingdom and even the sea was feared as the route from which invaders arrived. So despite its prime location on the shores of the Mediterranean, Nice turned its back on this vast wealth, not exploiting this obvious natural resource and to this day there isn’t a fish market here. The climate is perfect for olive production, citrus fruit, many vegetables and flowers but not milk and meat.
I thoroughly enjoyed A Taste of Nice and would happily recommend it as an original way of exploring this great city. I learnt a lot and I ate a lot! Take Gustav’s advice; go with an empty belly and don’t plan on eating lunch as you won’t need it after all you’ll have eaten on the tour.
*** UPDATE 2015 *** I have been informed by Gustav that the tour no longer visits the Hotel Negresco
photo of socca courtesy of A Taste of Nice
Disclaimer, I was offered this tour for free to review but all opinions are my own.