Nice — The City Where Nothing Happens

Approximate Reading Time: 30 minutes

It lives for tourism

Written in August, 2005, and since published as a chapter in my book, Same Difference, published by Bertha Books (available on Amazon). Obviously, without having to say too much, things eventually do happen in Nice, making it impossible to write like this again.

The streets in the Old Town are worn along the paths the visitors take, in packs, in groups, couples and singletons. This wear is most evident where the streets are paved in stone, whether cobbles or whole slabs. The stone has taken on a patina that can only result from untold short lashes from strips of leather the size and shape of, well, the sole of a shoe. Sidewalks have the contours of old river banks or natural terraces on hillsides, stone as smooth as pebbles rinsed by a million tides.

Watching visitors walk is the lowest common entertainment. We in the United States have either lost the ability, or never yet discovered it, to simply sit and watch our fellow humans move about, irrespective of caste, class, social advantage. To the European it is the basic social pastime. In this way, life as a passing parade is metaphor made real.

The modern city of Nice is founded, in many respects, on this notion. Tobias Smollett discovered Nice, its climate, and its Italianate ways, for all intents and purposes, as a potential benefit to the northern sensibility—the hardest to please at that—Smollett’s sensibility: that of the dyspeptic curmudgeon. He unleashed, from the instant of his publication at the end of the 18th century, a torrent of humanity that ran through the streets of Nice, even through different sovereignties, until today.

Since the turn of the nineteenth century, except for the World Wars—especially at critical times, for example, those times when the Axis and the Allies decided to bomb the shit out of each other, going and coming, retreating or advancing, the SS taking particular care to burn bridges, and barns, etc.—Nice has rarely seen a significant drop in tourism.

The longest decline was a kind of interregnum, between the nineteenth century and the twentieth. Nice converted itself from a winter resort to one of the most popular summer destinations for Europeans. First it was Western Europe. Now the Eastern Europeans are beginning to make up for shortfalls in tourist business, especially since the advent of September 11, 2001. The better part of half of the Americans who used to come to France simply stopped coming. The American wave began in the 1920s, and with the inflated economy of that period came the sybarites, the sophisticates and the cinéastes. The depression put a temporary end to it. And then the war, of course.

Nice and the Riviera were occupied by the Italians, until they surrendered in 1943 to the dismay of the Nazis, who then had to divert what were dwindling resources to contain the bumptious and unruly French of this quarter. At the end of the war, even with the destruction wrought by the retreating Germans, who plundered and ruined what they couldn’t carry out, tourism began to pick up almost immediately.

The film festival at Cannes, started before the war, established itself quickly as an institution. Thereby the romantic allure of the Côte d’Azur was extended even to the movie-going bourgeois masses of the United States. Reconstruction instigated development, and a boom in housing and tourist destinations attracted more and more Americans (and other Europeans of course). Fact: in the late 50s, the airport at Nice processed barely 495 thousand passengers a year; by 2003 this figure had swelled (along with the facilities) to over nine million annually. It’s the second busiest airport in France, but these numbers stagnated just as the 2000s began.

The denizens of Niçois tourism began wringing their hands publicly about two years later, when they sat up and noticed that the declines had not abated, but were worsening. The vaunted 35-hour work week mandated as strict law eroded even the strictly French portion of the annual summer invasion from the north. With shorter weeks, and with the famous Monday holidays, generously distributed throughout the official state calendar, more and more citizens have elected to take many very long weekends—four day workweeks, and four day weekends. People still have six weeks of vacation, but the four weeks in summer? They stay home, or they indulge in ever greater numbers in another French pastime, little known to the rest of the world. Americans in general, if they have any picture in their minds at all about the stereotypical Frenchman, it is either of the city-wise, ill-bathed, cologne-sprayed sophisticate, or of the peasant farmer, redolent for other reasons; either image is a profoundly ill-informed fantasy about the “other,” but that’s a subject for another chapter, if not a book. The French now go camping. Or, as they say in French, le camping.

Back in Nice, in broader terms, the most conspicuous living remnant of the impact of foreign tourism is one of the most beautiful seaside boulevards, dedicated to the pedestrian, on the planet: the Promenade des Anglais (yeah, the English, that great nation of dapper boulevardiers…), and devoted entirely to watching, if not other people, then the great Mediterranean Ocean as respite. Incidentally, in one of those curious linguistic notes, and despite my parenthetical cynicism just above, I should make clear that for many years “Anglais” was used as a generic term, like Kleenex® for facial wipes, for “tourist,” no matter what their nationality. In this regard, given the mutual antipathy of the British and the French, Promenade des Anglais may be less an honorific distinction than a caution. Sometimes it seems, from the behavior in some establishments in Nice, tourists, especially non-Francophones, are viewed as being about as disposable as Kleenex.  I leave the broader implications of the simile to the reader.

The Promenade is seven kilometers long, well over four miles, and crowded every summer day, and even more so at night. All for the sheer pleasure of watching and communing with, though always at some distance, other creatures. That is unless you are the victim of a near miss by a rocketing and barely clad roller-blader. For all that, recall that when the British discovered and, inevitably, overran Nice (at least so it seemed to the neither fully-French-and-only-barely-Italian natives), they positioned the enclave as a winter resort. Nice, in other words, has proven itself the year round as a sanctuary for people-watching.

One of the great time-killers still, and more precisely, is woman-watching, and more particularly in summer when there are more women in the streets and they are bereft of layers of clothes.

The commonplace to the point of truism—and beyond to cliché—is that French women seem to know innately how to present themselves. It may be true. It is true, of course, but it is no more informative to observe and articulate the thought than it is to observe similarly that French restaurants with any number of Michelin stars (and many with none) know how to make a satisfying presentation of any part of the bill of fare. [American restaurants of a certain caliber imitate this tradition; they will always be followers, as the French precede them by decades, if not centuries.] And as any restaurateur, chef, or woman can tell you, presentation is the main part of the effort. We must work with the meat the lord gives us; how it looks after being prepared is another discipline in art.

The strongest evidence of the innate sensibility of French feminine esthetic is in the young women, who, of course, have the bodies one might expect would best express it. Rather they have the bodies that require the least nuance, artifice or attention. This merely saves them time, I imagine. It makes them absolutely no more and no less alluring than older women even as they enter adulthood, then a certain age, and then well into the late middle years. The inculcated sense of themselves that the culture breeds in French women renders them alluring well into what in other white-skinned countries would be a sloppy nonage. In France, it seems to me, seniors (despicable word) and the elderly (how did an adjective become a mass noun like “cattle?”) are largely undetectable as such.

To digress, I’ll say also: in this context—the hegemony of the white-skinned tribes­—Nice stands as a symbol of a state. It is technically still the Comté de Nice [we tend to forget in daily discourse that a “county,” a political division, derives from the differentiation of one tract, ruled by a count, from another, ruled perhaps by another count, or a duke, or an ancient invention of the chief ruling agent of federation, a king or other national head; thereby we perpetuate largely political distinctions of what we superciliously call “the dark ages”—some 1400 years ago; and we wonder why our politics don’t seem up to the times; I’ll mention further that the term from which “count” is derived, comes, is actually Roman, and so even older]. Nice has seen periodic changes of leadership, rulership, or political affiliation for centuries. Allied to the dukedom of Savoy, and later to the nation-state of Piedmont, and other times to other Italian nation-states. I don’t know if the urge to “present” herself derives from more northerly habits among the gentry, or if women just generally have this instinct.

Nowadays in Nice, the more well-to-do women do serve as a largely unconscious source of humor, at least to these easily amused eyes, and that’s despite the age of any of them. Anyone wise enough to visit Nice in the winter, of which company I count myself, sees a different city. No less the resort—Nice weather is always temperate, if only just so, at its worst. Snow is incredibly rare. The coldest daytime temperatures in winter are in the 50s (Fahrenheit).

Nevertheless, and especially, it seems, on sunny winter days the haute bourgeois sisterhood takes the air, but never without an ankle-length fur, and spike-heeled pumps. Outside of Gstaad, where else and for what reason would they get the chance?


Lunch.

By five minutes to noon tables full of Asians at the most bald-faced of tourist restaurants along the Cours Saleya have tucked into their mid-day meal—half-consumed. Even as the produce vendors of the daily marché make brisk final sales to the natives, so all of the fish portion is gone from the salades Niçoises of bus loads of citizens of Japan, gustily consumed while staff still set banks of surrounding tables with place mats, silver, and salt and pepper service. They have plenty of time to prepare for the noon rush, and can handle getting slammed by a mini-tidal wave of Japanese with a hunger for Italian canned tuna on a bed of mesclun.

God bless the Japanese. They’ll be finished and back to patinating the pavement or filing into their mammoth tour buses long before the city crews have begun to use high-pressure water hoses to clean the marketplace pavement after marché at 1pm. And the rest of us, enjoying a leisurely Provençal meal, will check our pants cuffs to see if we’re getting splashed. We never are.

So, as lunch hour begins, the produce market ends. Throughout the course of the Cours Saleya, lining both sides of the broad courtyard for a distance of perhaps 300 meters (three American football fields plus the distance from home plate to first base), jowl-by-jowl, are restaurants. They alternately offer much the same fare. It’s either seafood, or Italian food, or Italian seafood (to differentiate it from Provençal styles of cooking, which predominate, understandably, no matter what the ingredients).

The nearer the Opera House, at the western end of the Cours, the greater the chance that there is, in the style of clothing stores on New York’s lower east side, “pullers-in.” They carry a stack of cartes, in American, “menus,” somewhat redundantly, as the way is festooned with stanchions and tent cards displaying the bill of fare, and often, if not invariably, in six languages—and if so, it’s a good indicator not to take a table, not because the food is not good, but because it’s only not bad. The translations can be a good laugh, however, though they degrade your perception of the generally commendable food. You won’t likely ever be disappointed in a meal in such places, especially if you make no pretensions to having a fine palate, but you are guaranteed never to be impressed.

Variously, these sidewalk promoters are either the patrons, the owners or, at least, the bosses, invariably men, or they’re comely young women. I always presume the latter are related to the proprietors, nieces, daughters, granddaughters or cousins. I do know their smiles end at their teeth, and they seem, predominantly, to be ill at ease. The men wear impeccably clean shirts, blue or white, opened two or three buttons at the neck, black trousers, sincere hostly smiles, and they are sometimes festooned themselves with what appears to be at least half their net worth in gold, in the form of chains, and rings, and bracelets. What we call “bling.” The women often display, unself-consciously, décolletage. I have never really gotten beyond this to notice if there is a complement of metal adornments.

Another rule of thumb: the less bling, or the less visible cleavage, the better the experience. If the patron is wearing a suit, it’s a white cloth restaurant, and you won’t get away for less than 80 euros for lunch. Though you also will not be exposed to an attempt, however gentle or subtly seductive, to pull you in from the pavement.

The best of these restaurants is perhaps 100 feet from the end of the Cours, which ends at the base of the hill at whose top is Le Chateau, whose presence and grounds are a signature landmark not only of the Old Town, but of the whole city—antedating by some centuries Mr. Tobias Smollett. The restaurant, with no one outside to pull you in, is called Le Safari—the exotic name being, somehow, characteristic. It suggests you will have a different experience, and you do, not merely because of the quality of the food (though it is mainly the quality of the food) and the air of jocularity and camaraderie of the staff, mainly men, and, almost to a man, lifelong professionals. In over ten years of regular periodic visits, and many meals, I have seen few faces change. Perhaps it suggests that the hunt is over. Or, of course, it serves adequately merely as a hip name—nothing about the place suggests even remotely the dark continent, wild felines, elephants, giraffes, or swift-footed cousins to the deer. And particularly not on the menu, which is strictly Niçoise.

I am safe, I think, in my estimation of the place as the best, and not only because of a native presumption. The magazine Saveur thinks so also, having cited the restaurant several times, and naming its pizza as “the second best in the world.” I don’t know whose they consider the best, but I know the pizza at Le Safari, among its many Provençal specialties, is really very good, and I’m not afraid to dispute Saveur were they wrong. I offer no cavil over first and second place.

It also seems a matter of proof of the proposition that Le Safari shows no signs of any consciousness of this designation, though there are framed copies of accolades and encomiums they have received in print. There are also, even more numerous, works of art.

Le Safari is also invariably mentioned in the guides of any worth as one of the places worth a stop in Nice, which is a major restaurant city—as one would expect in a city of 400,000 or so, whose main commerce is tourism. Not a starred restaurant mind you. Not even a restaurant to take note of because of the inventiveness or finesse of the chef. It is merely a place that has very good cooks in the kitchen, very good service staff, and a reliable and invariable menu of Niçois and a smaller number of Provençal classics, wood-grilled fish, and pizza baked in a wood-fired oven (a pizza one of whose secrets is the use of a cheese called cantal, from the Auvergne, as opposed to mozzarella).

Not to expound a formal theory, but perhaps to draft a note or two towards such a thing, I think there are maybe three modes of judging what a restaurant is up to, in culinary terms. There are restaurants whose aim is to show distinction through innovation—invariably the chef has a reputation and it is a reputation for concocting new dishes, discovering new ways of combining familiar ingredients, or for merging the techniques and ingredients of cuisines otherwise foreign to one another—so-called fusion cuisines are the latest example of the latter. This is a style particularly prevalent in the United States, where we now see Asian tapas, and where we will no doubt someday see Swedish-Polynesian specialties on offer. More prosaically, perhaps, there are restaurants who offer exemplars (or such is the usual goal) of classic dishes whatever the cuisine—once again, it’s an American type, the steak house, that’s a prime example. Another is, of course, the classic French bistro, whose bill of fare was memorialized long since: beef bourguignon, coq au vin, etc.

Finally, there is the restaurant that cleaves to a cuisine, more in terms of technique than in terms of a fixed menu of classic dishes. Hence we have Mexican, or Japanese, or even French restaurants with a revolving bill of fare. No set list of dishes, but a carte that varies with the season or the source of supply.

In France you often see the phrase on the menu of more serious restaurants, “selon arrivage,” which means, essentially, according to what’s arrived—it could refer to what’s at the market, but often as not it means at the dock. Fish are the least predictable of stocks, and some fish, especially on the Mediterranean, and especially according to the season, are expensive not because they are rare, but because they are particularly elusive and fishermen bring in what they catch. The result in a restaurant is that you will be offered this fish or that, cooked in a manner determined as suitable by the chef or the cook (in concert with the patron) or cooked according to the manner dictated by the design of the kitchen. At Le Safari, which features signs that announce you are dealing with wood-fired grills, to complement those wood-fired ovens, what you get is grilled fish.

It’s only right, as the easiest way to cook a fish, or any piece of meat, is on a grill over an open flame. If you have ever grilled fish, and in particular the whole fish (merely gutted and scaled), you know this is a deceptively simple operation. And so, what is right, in this case, is not always great. At Le Safari, and not in any singular way as I speak of it at such length as an exemplum—as well as speaking of it as the best of breed of the kind of restaurants you find along the Cours Saleya—you get great fish, usually grilled, but often prepared well in other ways. For example the fritto misto (Italian for “mixed fried”), consisting of slices of squid, several shrimp, with heads and tails (and small enough to eat them whole) and a huge mound of what is unfortunately called in the ‘States, “white bait” (that is, the fry of ocean fish, also eaten whole, because the entire thing is no more than an inch and-a-half from head to tail), comprising a tiny masterpiece, and served in a manner that is just short of kitsch. It’s in a scalloped bowl fashioned of a deep-fried crêpe, and garnished with slivers of marinated hot pepper and garlic.

I’ve also had at Le Safari an excellent mille feuille de morue, characteristically Mediterranean. Mille feuille is a term usually reserved to pastry, as it refers to a kind of dough, called pâte feuilletée, wherein the dough is repeatedly folded over on itself and rolled flat again, creating many layers or “leaves” (feuille is a leaf, a mille is a thousand). It is also a generic culinary term, meaning any layered dish. As a dessert, mille feuille is specifically layers of flaky pastry and cream or custard.

Morue is French for cod. However, you will discover that cod is also cabillaud. The same fish. Except for reasons that in some ways take a book to explain the fresh caught fish is cabillaud, and generally it’s the version that’s dried, or dried and salted (like the staple of many Spanish, Portuguese and Italian dishes) and referred to by some version of the Spanish word “bacalao” that the French call morue. Another Provençal classic dish, brandade de morue (also served at Le Safari, but of course) is a divine melange of revived salt cod, garlic, olive oil, and milk, all of which is creamed together to the consistency of very finely mashed potatoes. Brandade de morue is spread on thin toast while still warm and is the food of the gods of the big waters.

Mille feuille de Morue is the same, but re-engineered, and built from many of the same ingredients, yet whole, without the milk, as a short stack of slices of potato interspersed with large flakes of the cod. Simple, toothsome, yet engrossing, and a lesson in the ways that a basic list of components can be combined, and recombined, to bespeak, as I say, an entire cuisine.

Le Safari, though it has its adherents and admirers (and more importantly for the patron, it usually fills up both for lunch and dinner, except in the winter months when, admittedly, sitting outdoors, even in Nice, is not always inviting, though it is entirely possible), and has received its share of favorable reviews, is not in the league of restaurants that garner stars from Michelin, toques from Gault-Millau, and possibly not even olive branches from Guide Gantié. There are several places in Nice that attract the attention of those who have appointed themselves guardians of the French culinary firmament and the constellations therein.

One place in particular is sui generis. Not touristic at all, indeed, it may be anti-touristic, it has an interesting history that is not only, to me, characteristically French for its detailed idiosyncrasies, but generically Niçois. It’s worth the telling.

The name of the place is La Merenda. Merenda is itself a nonce word, a Provençal term, as it is speculated by Jacques Gantié in his guide (elsewhere it is asserted with certitude to be Italian), for another native term: casse-croûte, which in an English-French dictionary means “snack.” You mainly see it on roadside signs, possibly hand-painted, near nondescript places that are often deceptively unnoticeable; you learn which ones to take note of. It’s usually not about snacks at all, as Americans understand them, but about going native to eat. In short, casse-croûte is a wholly informal way of saying, “good eats here.” The word literally means “broken crust” as in, I break bread in this joint with my nearest and dearest; my friends any day of the week, and my whole family in the shade of an oak or a plane tree or an elm (hard durable woods all of them, from long-lived trees giving plenty of shade) on a Sunday afternoon for the big meal of the day.

The reputation of La Merenda was established by the couple who founded it, M. & Mme. Jean and Christiane Giusti. He was a man obsessed with making perfectly a very short list of Niçois classic dishes, all of them concocted of the humblest ingredients: the freshest vegetables (but only certain ones, like squash, tomato, eggplant, onion—the staples of a Mediterranean diet), garlic, lots of garlic, and not just the fruit of the squash vine, but the flower—a bright yellow trumpet with petals of tenacious integrity that stands up to stuffing and frying, salt fish, which is called not morue (though brandade de morue is eminently Niçois), but stockfish—and that’s French, pronounced exactly as it’s spelled in English, and so forth, and I may or may not get to the “and so forth.” There are other dishes, and, true to form when that form is the preconceived notion we have of the French and their willingness to consume with gusto all parts of an animal, these dishes constitute for the American palate adventures in dining. These include the parts at the opposing ends of a beast—calf’s head cheese (not to be outdone in the United States, where this delicacy is shaped around the head of a hog), for which see any compendious cookbook, the feet of young sheep, as well as the lining of their stomachs (known more prosaically as tripe, and better known in Italian recipes as built around the tripes of the cow), though the feet come into play in a dish that finds its roots in Marseilles; in Nice they serve, obviously enough, “tripes à la Niçoise.” To make it succinct, we speak here of the cuisine (if you are still comfortable with this designation of close encounters with ingredients of the third kind) of poor people.

On the other hand, let me just say that the rule of thumb these days (six years into the third millennium) is that you should expect to spend 65 euros per person for a meal and wine at La Merenda. And remember, they don’t take checks or credit cards. The cooking had better be good.

When it came time for M. Giusti to retire he found the perfectly unlikely successor. Dominique LeStanc, as a very young man, had already scaled the Matterhorn of culinary challenges. He wore the toque of executive chef of the kitchen at the most revered of rooms in the most revered of Niçois old guard hotels—the Negresco, in all its fin de siècle splendor (and a landmark on the Promenade des Anglais for its instantly recognizable Moorish turret atop the corner entry). The Chantecler (literally “rooster,” which happens to be as well the avian symbol of France) was then a two-star Michelin restaurant (gaining as well, it almost goes without saying, three Gantié olive branches, and as many symbolic toques from Gault-Millau). No one, but no one, would say Chantecler was, and is, not a great restaurant or that LeStanc was not at the top of his particular game or would not stay there indefinitely, given his tender years—he was 36 in 1996 when La Merenda changed hands).

To make a long story short, he threw all this over for a tiny restaurant with barely 24 seats (more precisely stools, not chairs—you fit more people in that way) packed like grilled sardines on too small a plate, on a side street off a side street in the old town, at the gateway to the long stretch of tourist traps. He threw it over to offer, without many variants at his disposal, such refinements as pissaladiére, the Niçois pizza whose topping consists only of what can be best described as a marmalade of onions, cooked so slowly as not to color, and garnished with black olives. So pure is the LeStanc version of this ageless dish it dispenses with the ingredient that gave it its name. Pissala is Provençal (if it is not, in fact, Ligurian, or older) for fish, that is, more specifically, fish sauce, manufactured from fermented fish, anchovies usually. And the pissaladiére at La Merenda has none, no fish sauce, no anchovies—hence it is, in fact, a tourte de Menton. One could go through every dish ever served, through a rotating menu on which only a few of these dishes are mainstays, and describe an equal purity, or a level of fastidiousness and exactitude, not to mention art, in its preparation, as to produce, dish after dish and day after day, the ur specimen of such a dish.

These include head cheese in gribiche sauce, beignets de fleurs des courgettes, pâtes au pistou (or, quite simply, pasta in pesto sauce, except, of course, pistou is pesto on this side of the French/Italian frontier and so it consists solely of basil, olive oil (though the oil for La Merenda is brought in from Liguria, two hours away across that frontier) and garlic: no nuts and no cheese. Shall I continue? I’ll continue.

This concentration on poor people’s food (which happens, at its best, to cost what a corrupt lobbyist can afford to drop for lunch) derives from the characterization universally applied to the “native” cuisine of this modern city-state. All of Provence pretends it is a region of poor people and paysans, farmers or, as the word suggests, peasants (whereas it truly refers only to a native of the many pays that have always comprised the expansive collection of hundreds of them that we call France—pays is usually translated in French 101 as “country,” but it’s mainly one community, possibly a borough or commune, a town, a village or even a hamlet, culturally or geographically distinguished from any other, by language, custom, cuisine, dress—and so a paysan is more accurately a “homie”).

Unemployment is high in France (as it is in all the de facto socialist democracies of western Europe: specifically Germany, France, and Spain, among the most productive economically), and I am sure many people suffer some deprivation.

However, in Nice, for all the well-worn streets and the superficial dinginess that it actually shares with all but the most luxe of communities and towns that make up the Côte d’Azur—amusingly always understood as the playground of the wealthy, especially foreigners, if not in particular the celebrities, the players, and the hordes of essentially anonymous stinking rich—with all the great food, with the fur-clad gentry, the banks of hotels cheek-by-jowl, and the perpetual slow crawl of well-maintained vehicles along the Promenade des Anglais, no one ever appears particularly to be suffering.  But then, how can one suffer in a place where nothing ever really happens?

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