A foodie Christmas in Nice
The vibrant southern city of Nice is guaranteed to offer you a festive season to remember, as Rosa Jackson discovers
If the festive atmosphere of summer drew me to Nice, it’s the bright days of winter that keep me here. Never do I appreciate this city’s unique qualities more than during les fêtes, a time when modest local traditions meet the French penchant for luxury foods. If the abundance on display in Paris can sometimes seem over the top, Nice strikes a happy balance between foods that are accessible to the average budget – local citrus fruits, black pudding known as trulle studded with Swiss chard and rice, curds of fresh brousse cheese drizzled with chestnut honey – and occasional indulgences such pedigreed guinea hen or truffled brie.
From early December, I like to wander through the Old Town admiring the seasonal foods on display. Poultry complete with feathers dangles from hooks at the butcher shops, the biggest and busiest of which is Boucherie Saint-François (tel: (Fr) 4 93 85 80 88, www.francisviandes.com). Here you can find free-range turkey, goose or capon (plucked and trussed) at a reasonable price, though it’s best to order it a few days in advance. A little further on towards Place Garibaldi, the friendly Charcuterie Ghibaudo-Pottier (tel: (Fr) 4 89 74 41 11), sells salmon smoked in-house and foie gras terrine, as well as boudin blanc (veal-based white sausage) laced with truffle and the plump local perugine sausage, perfect for stewing with lentils.
Lou Froumai (tel: (Fr) 04 93 84 60 07), meaning ‘the cheese’ in the local Niçois language, is the place to find the ripest specimens for a feast. At this time of year, Mont Blanc from the Savoie region reaches its oozy peak, though I can’t resist the raw-milk brie sandwiched with a thick layer of mascarpone and black truffle. Locally, this is the season for ewe’s cheeses, which I buy direct from the producer at the Cours Saleya market on Saturdays.
For seafood, I head to Libération market with its cluster of stalls selling the local catch as well as fish and shellfish from the Atlantic. Fines de claire oysters from the Marennes Oléron are one of my favourite indulgences: the smaller the number on the label, the larger the oyster. Less pricey, but no less delicious, are mussels from the Mont Saint-Michel Bay, which can be simply cooked with dry white wine, shallots and parsley.
Libération is also the best place in which to stock up on fresh produce, as the prices are lower and the variety greater than at Cours Saleya. The mild local climate means that the stalls are never short of vegetables: I look for pointy-tipped romanesco broccoli, beetroot in shades of pink and orange, and broad beans that make an appearance just for Christmas before coming back in the spring. This is the peak season for citrus fruit, which I like to buy directly from small farmers to ensure that it has not been sprayed.
If bûche de Noël (Christmas log cake) is a less common sight here than in other parts of France, sweets are not neglected in the local Christmas meal, which ends with 13 desserts symbolising Christ and the apostles. Tourte de blettes (a pie filled with Swiss chard, raisins, pine nuts and rum), fougasse scented with orange-flower water, candied and dried fruits and pears poached in wine are traditional inclusions, but tiramisu and chocolate mousse also have their place these days.
Because my son and I celebrate Hanukkah as well as Christmas, I have ample opportunity to make the most of the foods available. For Hanukkah, recipes in which oil plays a crucial role, I love to use golden olive oil from Nice (look for the AOP label guaranteeing its origin), with its delicate notes of almond and artichoke. When making latkes, I mix different root vegetables with potato: look for the more unusual ones such as kohlrabi or Jerusalem artichoke at the organic stands.
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With so many foods to choose from, it’s fortunate that you can leave decision-making to the last minute: shops are open on Christmas Eve and there are even a few market stalls on Christmas Day. However simple or complex your feast, the mix of cultures and traditions in this Mediterranean port means that there is no wrong way to celebrate.
Read the second installment on Christmas in Nice HERE