Postcard from the south of France
Cold weather is not my thing, so when autumn rolls around, I generally try to head south, like a migrating bird, to try to make summer’s warmth last just that bit longer. This year I got to southern France for two quick trips: one to Nice and the other to the coastal stretch between Perpignan and Montpellier. Allow me to share some of my food-and-drink finds…
In Nice, Chez Pipo is known for its socca, a thin, crisp chickpea-flour pancake that’s a speciality of the city (see pic above). Socca is just one of several savoury ‘breads’ based on chickpea flour made in various parts of the Med. Cade is made in nearby Toulon; thicker-set panisses is synonymous with Marseille; farinata hails from over the Italian border in Genoa; and karantika/calantica is a street-food speciality of Oran in Algeria.
Traditionally, socca is made in a wide copper pan and cooked quickly over a blazing-hot wood fire. That’s how it’s made at Chez Pipo – and when it comes out, crisp-edged and finger-stingingly hot from the oven, it practically cries out for a cool glass of rosé (or two). It’s not the easiest thing to make at home, but this recipe from delicious. magazine really does work.
Pan bagnat – fundamentally a salad Niçoise that’s stuffed into a hollowed-out loaf of bread to make it transportable – is another speciality of the area. The très petit Chez Pipo version lacks the oomph of an olive-oil-soaked full-size version (try this one from Waitrose Food magazine), but it’s a nice-enough nibble.
Also on the menu at Chez Pipo is is tourte aux blettes sucrée, another speciality of Nice. The main filling ingredient is, er – chard… This hardy, leafy-green vegetable has been cultivated here since Roman times, thrives in the local climate and is a staple of the region’s traditional cuisine du pauvre. The golden top of the tourte is sprinkled with granulated sugar to give a bit of crunch, and the overall effect is quite delicious. The dish is a masterclass in how expectations can so easily be trounced.
The Cours Saleya flea market is held each Monday in Nice and overflows with an unquantifiable amount and incomprehensible range of brocante and bric-a-brac. I was intrigued by this collection of fèves. These are the ‘little kings’ that you put inside a galette des rois, the cake traditionally made at Epiphany on 6 January. Whoever finds the king in their slice becomes king or queen for the day. The word fève means bean, of course; originally a dried bean was used, but they have since been usurped by these beautiful ceramic figures.
On the topic of local tradition, one that I could (and did) get on board with was aperitif hour – which here means pastis. It’s a sign of civilisation in these parts that a pastis, served with small jug of water that turns this anise-flavoured spirit that beautiful opaque, pale-green colour, generally costs less than a can of Coca-Cola. If you like things a bit sweeter, add a bit of almond-flavoured orgeat syrup to the mix and you have the Mauresque, another aperitif-time regular in Nice.
Last week I ended up in Sète, just a few miles down the coast from Montpellier at the northeastern end of the Etang de Thau, a huge brackish lagoon just inland from the Mediterranean. I’d been meaning to come to Sète for decades, having heard countless enthusiastic accounts of the port city’s excellent seafood – its oysters, in particular.
The étang is ideal for shellfish farming, and oysters and mussels – and restaurants serving them – abound. The local oyster, the Bouzigues, has firm, pearlescent flesh and a clean, briny taste. There’s nothing better to drink with them than a cool glass of the local Picpoul de Pinet. Oysters, mussels and many other sea creatures are on proud display at the central (and unmissable, in both main meanings of the word) Halles de Sète market.
Sète oysters were on my ‘must-try’ list, but I’d never come across the tielle. This double-crusted savoury pie is filled with octopus slowly simmered in a spicy tomato sauce. The tielle’s roots lie in Naples (and, even further back, Spain, the home of the empanada), and were first made by Neapolitan fishermen who settled in Sète in the second half of the 19th century.
We stumbled across the tielle shop run by Sophie Cianni, tipped off by the lengthy queue of hungry people standing outside to claim their pie. We devoured it on the flight back to London for a last, lingering taste of France; it didn’t disappoint.