The sun-soaked flavours of the south come together in Nîmes where, as Zoë McIntyre explains, the culinary heritage goes back to Roman times
A perfect circle of cloudless blue sky covers a ring of ancient stone. Sloping tiers of seats, capable of holding thousands of spectators, rest upon vast vaulted arcades. Down in the arena, I can almost hear the echoes of gladiatorial combat from ancient times. I am standing in the impressive amphitheatre of Nîmes; the best-preserved in Europe and one of the town’s many Roman artefacts. Colonised by the Emperor Augustus at the end of the first century BC, Nîmes thrived due to its prime position on the trade route between Rome and Spain, absorbing the cultures of Provence, Languedoc and the Mediterranean. Having worked up an appetite after a morning’s cultural exploration, I am eager to see how this has shaped the town’s culinary heritage.
The best place to begin is Les Halles, a vast indoor market hall with nearly 100 stalls that has been the foodie hub of Nîmes for more than a century. By the time I arrive, shoppers throng the market, laden with purchases of sun-swollen fruit, shining vegetables and aromatic herbs.
Exploring the well-ordered aisles, each of which is named after a different herb or spice, I stop at La Maison des Tapenades, an endearing stall with a colourful spread and lace-trimmed shelves. Here I find Nîmes’s most prized speciality: a creamy purée of salt cod called brandade de morue. Although it is sold in jars in épiceries around town, the vendor Lucienne assures me: “It’s only here in the market you’ll find it fresh.” With its subtle taste and smooth texture, this is a versatile blend used by locals in everything from stuffed vegetables to hearty gratins. Later, I invent my own formula; spread thick on crunchy tartines, topped with tomatoes and drizzled in more olive oil – the pinnacle of simple pleasures.
The olive oil and tomatoes can be found at nearby Maison Gaillard, where huge wooden barrels are brimming with pickled garlic, marinated cherry peppers and various types of black and green olives. I sample the picholine variety – intensely green, almond-shaped olives native to the Gard département and AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) recognised since 2006. Picholines are normally seen as tart-tasting cocktail olives, but eaten fresh they are full-bodied and flavoursome.
I arrive at Vergne Fromages just in time to buy the last remaining pélardon, a small, round rindless goat’s cheese made in the Cévennes mountains to the north-west of Nîmes. It works well combined with the cold cuts I pick up from Daniel Marcon, a charcuterie offering many types of pâté, poultry and cured meats, including pata negra – the Iberian ham very popular with the Nîmois.
My last marketplace must-buy is the petit pâté de Nîmes – a small, hard-dough pastry, usually filled with a mix of pork and veal (but sometimes duck or brandade). Nîmes takes these miniature pies particularly seriously, even hosting a competition to find the best makers. The most recent champion, Stéphane Meyer, runs Le Porc Épique, a sleek, modern stall tucked away at the back of Les Halles. “What’s the recipe for success?” I ask. “Quality meat, garlic, basil and butter, and a lot of savoir-faire,” he replies.
The streets of the pedestrianised écusson (the name given to the medieval centre) provide a string of culinary experiences. I cross Place de l’Horloge – a paved square scattered with cafés and potted palm trees in the shadow of an elegant clock tower – and join an expectant queue of locals at the famous bakery of Maison Villaret in Rue de la Madeleine.
My eyes feast on the long counter, crowded with tartes aux pommes, delicate millefeuilles, flaky pastries and artisan breads, before noticing an old portrait of a dignified-looking gentleman on the wall. “That’s Paul Villaret, whose father founded the bakery in 1775,” says Alain Brayde, the current owner. While no longer in the hands of the founding Villaret family, the bakery continues to be a family affair; Alain and his wife Claudine took over from Claudine’s father and now their children lend a hand too.
Villaret’s speciality is the croquant – a baton-shaped, tooth-crackingly hard almond biscuit with a secret recipe and a long history. “At a time when there was a shortage of small coins in France, Villaret came up with the croquants to give to customers as change,” Alain explains. “Little by little, they have become the symbol of the bakery.” They are one of Nîmes’s most prized tourist commodities, packaged in pretty souvenir boxes. I follow the locals and opt for the ‘décroquants’ – the broken biscuits sold loose by the kilo that make a perfect accompaniment to my afternoon coffee.
Specialist and independent stores line Rue de la Madeleine. Opposite Villaret, the caviste Nicolas stocks an extensive selection of wines from the AOC Costières de Nîmes, produced from the pebbly vineyards just south of the town that go back 2,000 years. As it turns out, my favourite tipple is the local gris – a pale, delicate wine similar to rosé that I find at La Cave d’Anaïs further down the street.
High-quality treats perfect for taking home can be found at Le Temps des Découvertes, a beautiful, old-fashioned épicerie with red-painted shelves stacked with jars and tins: honey from Martigues, fleur de sel from the Camargue, the famous brand of brandade made by Maison Raymond and salty anchoïde (anchovy paste).
Caffeine addicts may like to follow the aroma of roasting coffee down the quiet Rue Saint-Castor, where Cafés Nadal roasts its beans in a traditional drum at the back of the store. Set up in Nîmes in 1918, the shop is run by Jean-Pascal Fabre, a fourth-generation member of the Nadal family, along with his business partner Mathieu Maubon. As well as coffee, they sell teas and dark chocolate.
My last and perhaps most unusual find is L’Huilerie Cayzac, a cross between a grocery and apothecary. Huge sacks of dry beans, pulses and cereals lean against shelves loaded with tins of herbs, jars of spices and bags of loose tea, the counter decorated with liquorice and tubs of dried fruit. Its spirited owner, Danielle Cayzac, has run the store for 40 years and offers advice on her eclectic stock. I leave with tilleul de Carpentras – a fragrant linden leaf tea from Provence that she promised would help me to sleep.
Yet after a full day’s shopping, sleep is the last thing on my mind. I can’t wait to make full use of my wonderful selection of local fare to prepare a sumptuous supper fit for a king – or perhaps even a Roman emperor. I feast out on my apartment’s roof terrace, serenaded by cicada song and inspired by sweeping views over the rooftops of Nîmes.
LES BONNES ADRESSES
• Les Halles de Nîmes
Tel: (Fr) 4 66 21 52 49
Open Mon-Sat 7am-1pm, Sun 7am-1.30pm
Some stalls do not open on a Monday or Tuesday.
• Brandade de morue
La Maison des Tapenades
Stall 15, Allée de la Muscade
• Petit pâté de Nîmes
Le Porc Épique
Stall 33, Allée du Safran
Tel: (Fr) 6 18 41 74 02
Stall 37, Allée du Safran
Tel: (Fr) 4 66 67 48 88
Stall 28, Allée de la Ciboulette
Tel: (Fr) 4 66 67 05 22
• Olives and oil
Stall 13, Allée de la Coriandre
BISCUITS AND CAKES
• Maison Villaret
13 Rue de la Madeleine
Tel: (Fr) 9 62 10 81 21
• Cafés Nadal
7 Rue Saint-Castor
Tel: (Fr) 4 66 67 35 42
• La Cave d’Anaïs
28 Rue de la Madeleine
Tel: (Fr) 4 66 84 60 41
16 Rue de la Madeleine
Tel : (Fr) 4 66 67 10 54
• L’Huilerie Cayzac
10 Rue des Marchands
Tel : (Fr) 4 66 67 37 24
• Le Temps des Découvertes
28 Rue de la Madeleine
Tel: (Fr) 4 66 05 65 90
BRANDADE DE MORUE
450g salt cod
• 100g unsalted butter
• 2 garlic cloves, crushed
• Zest of a lemon
• 200ml whole milk
• 250g baking potatoes
• 75ml extra-virgin olive oil
• Bunch of chopped fresh parsley
• Salt and pepper
1. Soak the fish for at least eight hours or overnight in a bowl of cold water, changing the water several times.
2. Melt the butter in a pan and sweat the garlic for a minute or two. Add the drained fish and lemon zest, and pour in the milk. Bring to a simmer and poach gently for 10-15 minutes
before removing from the heat. Leave the fish in the pan.
3. Peel and chop the potatoes, and place in a pan of salted water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 25 minutes or until soft. Drain and leave to cool.
4. Drain the fish but keep the liquid. Discard the skin and bones, and break flesh into pieces.
5. Put the potatoes and fish into a food processor and purée until smooth, slowly adding the milk and olive oil.
6. Add the chopped parsley and season to taste. Serve with bread as a dip.
AU COEUR DE NÎMES
Anyone looking for a home-from-home rather than a plain holiday let while staying in Nîmes will find this one-bedroom, third-floor apartment fits the bill. As the name suggests, it could not be better positioned, being close to Les Halles market, the cathedral and Place aux Herbes.
The owners are Hong Kong-based British couple Sian and Phillip Griffiths, who recommended local places to visit, helped with transport and organised someone to welcome me. Their personal touches (particularly the welcome note and bottle of rosé) made a great impression.
The apartment has all-year appeal; in the colder months, the parquet floor, comfortable sofa and old oak beams combine to make a cosy retreat and in summer, the private roof terrace (pictured above) is ideal for alfresco dining, with commanding views over the terracotta-tiled roofs.
Although compact, the apartment is generously stocked, with a fast Wi-Fi connection and a selection of films and CDs for the flat-screen TV and music system. Cooking the delicious local produce that I had bought was made even more enjoyable by the well-equipped kitchen.
The bedroom, with its crisp cotton bed linen, comfortable double bed and en-suite bathroom stocked with L’Occitane products, further added to a pleasurable stay.
Au Coeur de Nîmes
2 Rue des Halles
Available to rent from €575 a week (Saturday to Saturday) through HomeAway (ref p1008396).
Tel: (UK) 208 827 1971