Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Favorite Outdoor Markets of Provence

              Provence's ethereal Cavaillon melon is a foodies' can smell it 50 yards away

The French Riviera is part of the larger region of Provence.  Nearly every town in Provence has a weekly market.  Vendors take their bounty to Vaison on Tuesday, Nyons on Thursday, Valbonne on Friday, and then to the grand-pere of them all, Isle sur Sorgue on Sunday.   Some, like Isle sur Sorgue, are huge affairs with tour busses full of mesmerized tourists jockeying with locals for a taste of the area’s famous Cavaillon melon.  Others, such as the Riviera's tiny Valbonne, are more intimate affairs that take over the small village’s central square turning it into a colorful theater stage filled with culinary gems & the area’s handicrafts.

              Shoppers in Vaison must cross this ancient Roman bridge to enter the city for its market


Located in the northern part of Provence (30 miles northeast of Avignon), Vaison makes my list because its a two-for-one:  significant Roman ruins plus a fabulous market.   As its name implies, Vaison was a famous “Roman” town.  Rich ruins of the Roman occupation dating before the birth of Christ marry with a charming medieval town to create a picture-perfect backdrop for the market.


Olive-centric gift shop in Nyons showcases products made from or about olives


Not far from Vaison, is another market I really enjoy.  Nyons is the epicenter for Provence’s famous olive production.  In fact, these olives are so renowned that they have their own appellation (A.O.C).  While all Provençal markets feature the ubiquitous local olives, Nyons takes olives to an entire different level:  there are stalls specializing in EVOO cosmetics featuring a cornucopia of lipsticks, body creams, shampoos & conditioners, and soaps in every color of the rainbow.   Other sellers tantalize you with food products ranging from tapenade to an unforgettable multi-layer hot potato gratin oozing with cheese, carmelized onions, local olives and lardons (France’s bacon)---all cooked in a super-sized paella pan in a wood-fired oven.


        Tantalizing Provencal fabric abounds in the form of tablecloths, napkins, runners & placemats

Isle sur Sorgue

This town, called the "Venice of Provence," is enchanting.  Built along the winding waterways of the Sorgue river, Isle sur Sorgue is a cluster of small “islands” all connected to one another with tiny foot bridges.  Always on Sunday, this market is packed with weekenders who come for the city’s outdoor antique market and uber fresh local produce.   Word of warning:  go early (before 9).  The last time I visited it took nearly 30 minutes to find a parking place, and another 30 minutes to walk from the outskirts into the center.

Valbonne is tiny, but knocks it out of the park for an extraordinary experience


In some ways I’ve saved the best for last.  In spite of the fact that this is the smallest market of the four, in many ways it’s the most magical.  Located 10 miles from the Riviera's jet-set Cannes, Valbonne is a pedestrian-only town of 13,000.   The entire village is a medieval jewel box so it’s no wonder why it often used as a movie set (e.g. French Kiss with Meg Ryan).   Valbonne’s weekly market, held on the charming central square, also spills over onto the cobblestoned side streets and arcaded alleyways leading away from center.   Once you finish with the market, head to these charming backstreets where you'll see another side of the French Riviera.

 Viva Provence!

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

A Foodies’ Stroll Through Nice

                                 The Cours Saleya is Nice's epicenter for food-lovers

Tomorrow I'll arrive on the Riviera for two weeks at Julia Child’s villa with two different groups of food-lovers.
  One of the area’s foodie highlights is the historic center of Nice, just steps from its elegant beach promenade.  There’s no better place to begin a foodie trek than the Cours Saleya, the city’s open air market.  Since pretty much anything can be grown in the French Riviera’s favorable climate, the autumn produce here is a cacophony for the senses.

The Cours Saleya is filled with food stalls that have been owned by the same family for generations.   One of my favorite vendors is a woman selling socca, a crepe-like snack made from garbanzo beans.  While there are several folks selling socca, the best one is made from the lady who cooks it in a giant cast-iron skillet over a wooden fire.  Originally from neighboring Italy (the border is only twenty-something miles), socca has become a classical Niçoise specialty.

                                     Chevre is synonymous with the French Riviera

Provence is famous for its goat cheese and the Cours Saleya has every size and shape for sale, from small hearts to large pryamids, from small discs to big logs.  There’s goat cheese made with the herbs of Provence, or cheese covered with black ash to protect it during the ripening process.   Other renditions include those wrapped in aromatic chestnut leaves, or even chevre studded with Provence’s black truffles.


                  Olives were brought to Nice before the birth of Christ by the Greeks & Romans

The olive is the other classical food symbol of Provence’s Riviera and the Cours Saleya is replete with vendors selling everything olive.  Like goat cheese, olives come in multiple renditions from the colossal green picholine to the teeny-tiny  “Nicoise” varietal.  These petite olives are only grown in this area of France and are prized for their nutty, intense savory flavor.   Also, there are many merchants who will tempt you with samples of tapenade, a pungent olive paste.   Anything and everything goes here for tapenade:  there’s tapenade from every type of olive, but there’s also tapenade made with roasted artichokes & herbs of Provence, tapenade infused with dried tomatoes, tapenade with figs & rosemary, and tapenade mixed with grilled aubergines (eggplant).

                           The Alziari shop is like a museum paying tribute to the olive

A block or so from the Cours Saleya there’s another olive experience I recommend.   The Alziari family has been producing “Grand Cru” olive oil in Nice since 1868 and their retail shop is worth seeing.  More of a museum than a store, it’s chocked full of history.   Up until twenty years ago, olive oil was sold in bulk and shoppers brought in their own containers to be filled from a giant stainless steel vat in the store.  Today, Alziari has become an international upmarket brand and is sold in the US at high-end foodie retail shops and online.

            Located across from Nice's Opera House, Maison Auer deserves a standing ovation 

A one minute walk from Alizari will take you to the next must-visit foodie emporium, La Maison Auer.  This opulent jewel-box of a shop is the Versailles Palace of chocolate and candy.   Run by the same family for five generations, Auer has been making irresistible edibles since 1820.   Exquisite packaging makes for the perfect gift to bring a foodie friend back home.  

Next in this three-part series will be an article on the best of Provence's outdoor markets.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Authentic Flavors of the French Riviera


                Restaurant Arcades, featuring only authentic Niçoise recipes, is a dying breed

I can think of no better way to begin this month's three-part segment on the French Riviera than with an overview of the tastes of this magical area.  I’ll be flying to Nice soon and I’m already contemplating what I’ll order for my first night's dinner.   Fifty years ago Julia Child wrote about the restaurant in which I’ll be dining.   Julia lamented that Les Arcades in Biot was one of the last bastions of true Niçoise cooking on the French Riviera.  Les Arcades is still owned by the same family as it was when Julia visited.  Having dined at Les Arcades over twenty times, I couldn’t agree more that its menu today is even more of a rarity.  This article will explain Niçoise cuisine and why it has become an endangered species.

                  Arcade's roasted red peppers with anchoiade sauce is going to be my starter

Nice’s culinary profile is a true fusion cuisine of its past conquerors.  It begins with the Greeks who arrived on the Riviera by boat 600 B.C.  They brought with them olives & olive oil, as well as a ubiquitous fish soup (now known as bouillabaisse).  The Romans, who arrived 500 years later on foot with their own olives & olive oil, named this area “Provencia.”  Not only did the name stick (Provence) but so did these Roman dishes:

  Anchoiade:  a thick anchovy paste made with olive oil, vinegar & garlic.  It's used to flavor everything. 

~ Fougasse:  a baked flatbread very similar to ancient focaccia baked in outdoor community ovens.

                       Pissaladière, mostly served by the slice, is a great Niçoise on-the-go lunch

 ~ Pissaladière:  thin crusted bread topped with carmelized onions,  olives, anchovies & olive oil.

But the Romans are not the only Italian influence on Nice’s gastronomic ways.  The French Riviera was part of Italy’s House of Savoy from 1388 to 1860.  During this nearly 500 year period, Italian foods became even more prominent in this French area.  Here’s a sampling of Italy’s gifts to the French Riviera:

  •   Pesto became pistou
  •   Farinata (Italy’s chick pea pancake) became socca
  •  Tuna salad from the area of Genoa became Salade Niçoise

                          Niçoise olives are very tiny black bundles of super-charged flavor

To understand Niçoise cooking there are a two important cornerstones.  First, is olive oil.   Second, Niçoise cuisine is difficult to master because it’s so simple.  This means that every ingredient must be of the highest quality, seasoning must be just right, and the execution flawless.  There are no complicated sauces to hide any mistakes.   Mess up one thing and the dish quickly falls apart.

                  The above authentic Niçoise salad is far more simple than today's version 

So why is Niçoise cuisine a dying art-form?  The French Riviera receives five million tourists annually and they come from every country in the world.  Tastes are changing and restaurants reflect this globalization of food; for example there are > 200 Asian restaurants in Nice and > 400 Italian restaurants.  Sushi and pizza have become more popular than bouillabaisse.  Eating habits are changing, e.g. fast food is becoming more common.  Many travelers also equate French food with complicated rich sauces, so super simple French dishes are often an oxymoron.   Finally, while nearly every seaside restaurant on the French Riviera has a Salad Niçoise on its menu not even these salads are truly Niçoise---the authentic version does not include potatoes, green beans or lettuce!      


Stay tuned for the following two articles in this Riviera trio:  A Foodie’s Stroll Through Historic Nice, and Provence's don't miss outdoor markets.