Few cities can claim such an unlikely heroine as Catherine Ségurane, who in 1543 is said to have repelled invading Turks with a laundry beater and ripped the flag out of their hands as they tried to stake their claim on Nice. Some say she then lowered her underpants to further frighten the invaders with her substantial derrière.
Ségurane's statue stands in a quiet Old Town street as a testament to her fearless character, a trait that lives on in this Mediterranean city. Part of the County of Savoy for centuries, which gave it ties to Piedmont and Sardinia, Nice became French only in 1860.
It has forged a unique identity that draws as much from nearby Italian regions as from southern France. Though the locals are famously protective of their traditions, they're also accustomed to foreigners and, in 10 years of living here, I have proudly come to call this city - and especially its cuisine - my own.
Most of my days begin at the Cours Saleya, where an exuberant food and flower market is held six days a week under the shade of linden trees. The sunny, mostly dry climate allows vendors to display an abundance of produce year-round. I seek out the farmers who sell only fruit and vegetables they have grown themselves: in summer, bunches of golden zucchini blossoms with bees still buzzing around their petals, vine-ripened tomatoes the size of two fists and juicy peaches. Reflecting the local cuisine, the market celebrates the freshest vegetables and fruit, though there's always an array of olives, herbs and spices, local cheese, fougasse, sausages, pâtés and hams, Mediterranean fish and candied fruit. Farmer Pierre Magnani is famous here for his heirloom vegetables, up to 150 tomato varieties in summer, ranging from the striped green zebra to the pineapple, whose flesh looks like a Tequila Sunrise.
As I choose eggplants and pale green trompette zucchini for ratatouille (a dish that originated in Nice and translates as "mishmash"), I'm likely to run into a handful of local chefs who make a habit of shopping at the market. Dominique Le Stanc, who gave up his prestigious job as chef of Le Negresco hotel in Nice to run the tiny Niçoise bistro La Merenda, pulls up on his bicycle with a wooden crate attached to the back. He chats with the vendors about what's freshest and best, perhaps strawberries from the nearby town of Saint-Pierre de Féric to marinate with rosé and orange zest for a simple dessert, and local golf ball-sized zucchini and onions for les petits farcis - little stuffed vegetables.
La Merenda is one of the few remaining representatives of old-school Niçoise cooking, with a repertoire of dishes beloved of anyone who has grown up in the area. Founded by the Greeks and Romans, Nice has deep roots in the Mediterranean, but the strongest influence on its cooking comes from nearby Liguria, which was at one time annexed to France and also belonged to the County of Savoy.
If Genoa can claim pesto as its own, Nice has its own version, pistou, made without the pine nuts. Probably the best version in town can be found at La Merenda, where Le Stanc incorporates Emmenthal and butter, just as home cooks might have done, to make the sauce rich and creamy.
Though the cuisine can sometimes seem Italian, Niçoise cooking has its own character, shaped by geography. Until Nice became a tourist destination in the 19th century, thanks to English and Russian aristocrats who came for the winter sun, most of the population lived in the mountains rather than near the coast. They relied on what was readily available - vegetables, the occasional chicken or rabbit, cheaper cuts of meat and the delicate local olive oil - to create modest, usually slow-cooked dishes hearty enough to satisfy a farmer's appetite.
Traditionally, labourers would start work early, while the air was still cool, and stop mid-morning for a substantial snack called la merenda (hence the name of Le Stanc's restaurant). This is still popular with workers, including market vendors; it might consist of a slice of pissaladière, socca (the chickpea-flour pancakes known as farinata in Liguria) or pan bagnat, a kind of salade Niçoise in a bun.
Fish, surprisingly, doesn't play a prominent role in Niçoise cooking. Though the low houses lining the Cours Saleya near the sea once housed fishermen, this broad bay has never attracted fish like the rockier parts of the coast west of Cannes or towards Italy. Most people didn't have easy access to the sea, so many local fish dishes are based on salt cod (called morue), which Nice obtained through trade with Scandinavia. Anchovies are also a staple, bringing saltiness to pissaladière (its name comes from pissala, a local condiment made from anchovy purée) and depth to salad dressings and stews.
Attached as the locals are to their traditions, many chefs have, in recent years, brought a personal touch to what was essentially peasant cuisine, either dressing it up or experimenting with different flavour combinations. Keisuke Matsushima runs a Michelin-starred eponymous restaurant in Nice, as well as a recently opened seafood restaurant, Poseidon. At his bistro, L'École de Nice, he serves updated local dishes in a setting decorated with the works of home-grown artists. His signature dish here is crisp-skinned roast cod with stockfish sauce, salted fish, olives and diced Perugina sausage, a local Italian-inspired specialty.
He also turns out modern dishes based on seasonal ingredients, such as a carpaccio of little tunny (like a small tuna) with slivered raw fennel and a lemon tapenade vinaigrette. For dessert there might be ginger panna cotta or tourte de blettes, an unusual local dessert of silverbeet, raisins, pine nuts and rum between two layers of flaky pastry.
Luc Salsedo is another chef who is breathing new life into Niçoise cuisine. At his eponymous restaurant beef carpaccio comes with pistou vinaigrette and crisp vegetables, while socca, typically a street food, appears as a wrapping for ratatouille. Trained by Alain Ducasse, Salsedo serves his refined fare in a friendly setting, halfway between a bistro and a more formal restaurant. With only three dishes to choose from per course, his menu changes regularly to reflect the season and to keep regulars returning.
In Nice Old Town, Bistrot d'Antoine is the restaurant for locals who recognise great value, with surprisingly sophisticated food for bistro prices. Nearly every day I see owner Armand Crespo at the Cours Saleya carefully selecting vegetables and fruit from farmers' stalls for dishes such as grilled lamb with seasonal vegetables, brandade with capsicum coulis and what might be the best salade Niçoise in town.
And just what makes a great salade Niçoise? Not potatoes and green beans, as commonly thought, but raw vegetables topped with anchovies, hard-boiled egg, tiny Niçoise olives and tuna. Among the vegetables might be small thinly sliced artichokes, broad beans, radishes, capsicum, spring onions, cucumber, celery and, most importantly, ripe tomatoes. Crespo strays from tradition only in using fresh tuna instead of tinned, which has always been more readily available.
The same ingredients inside a round bun drizzled with olive oil and red wine vinegar become pan bagnat. Originally an ingenious way of using stale bread (the name means "bathed bread"), pan bagnat is now sold in most bakeries and makes ideal picnic food. One of the best can be found at Kiosque Chez Tintin, a café at the top end of the Libération food market; I often stop here for a snack after filling my basket with the fresh produce that's available six days a week along Avenue Malaussena, just east of the train station. Less touristy than the Cours Saleya, Libération is where many discerning residents buy produce straight from the farm. There's also an unusually good selection of Mediterranean fish (look for the charismatic Jérôme at the fish stall inside the covered market), outstanding meat and top-quality cheese from nearby farms and all over France at Lou Froumaï, which also has a branch near Cours Saleya.
Cheese has never been a focal point of Niçoise cuisine, though fresh goat's and sheep's cheeses or perhaps an aged tomme from the mountains commonly appear on the table after the main course, instead of or before dessert. Outside Peymeinade, a town near Grasse, Georges Monterreau produces goat's cheeses with undertones of Mediterranean herbs, fresh grass and wild flowers that have caught the attention of Alain Ducasse. Monterreau fell in love with the profession at the age of 16, when he came from Portugal to work on a French farm. After the farmer was stung by a swarm of bees, Monterreau found himself in charge and, as thanks, he received a goat. "From then on I knew I had to stay and be a goat farmer," he tells me 30 years later. You can taste his crottins and ash-coated logs or pyramids at Ducasse's three-star restaurant the Louis XV in Monaco, where they take pride of place on the incredible cheese trolley. They're also available at Lou Froumaï; look for those labelled Peymeinade.
In the same street as my Old Town apartment, Le Bistro du Fromager proves that cheese does not have to be relegated to an in-between course. In the vaulted cellars of a 400-year-old building is an intimate restaurant serving classic preparations such as fondue and tartiflette (potatoes cooked with cheese until crisp and golden) or lighter creations such as a splendid herb soup topped with edible flowers and a spoonful of sheep's curd. Chef Hugo Loubert looks for inspiration to Alain Passard of the Paris institution L'Arpège, famed for his genius with vegetables. Many of Loubert's creations are similarly imaginative, though far more affordable. I have always put my trust in Loubert and his brother Grégoire to select an appropriate bottle from their collection of organic and natural wines, and every time they find just the right surprising match. Natural wines have a strong following in Nice, thanks in large part to the wine bar La Part des Anges; I often visit its sister restaurant, La Mise au Verre, for simple bistro dishes prepared with top-notch ingredients, such as bonito from a local fishing boat with seasonal vegetables.
New to the Old Town food scene is Hangoût, whose name is a play on the English words and goût, or taste. Run by a French-trained Japanese chef, this modern bistro hidden in an obscure back street (which is really saying something in the maze-like Old Town) serves precisely prepared food such as a green bean "Caesar" salad with a poached egg and parmesan tuile, or beautifully cooked pork with mustard sauce on a melting bed of shallots, both from the limited-choice lunch menu; dinner is a more ambitious proposition.
Around the corner, Carré Llorca is the latest project of chef Alain Llorca, a Michelin-starred chef who runs a restaurant in the town of La Colle sur Loup, near Saint-Paul de Vence. Here, he has teamed up with young owner Alexandre Carello and Spanish chef Gabriela Stockler-Martinez, who previously worked in Llorca's kitchen. The modern dining room attracts a mostly local crowd from the nearby courthouse and lawyers' offices. On the menu are Niçoise classics, but with a twist: pan bagnat is served almost in the style of a maki roll, with the tuna and vegetables inside a thin layer of bread soaked in tomato juice and olive oil, and lamb shoulder with Provençale herbs comes with a puréed gratin dauphinois and a jus made from pearl onions.
Besides having the city's highest concentration of restaurants, the Old Town also serves as an extension of the food market. The street signs, written in French and the local language, Nissart, reveal the city's long-standing culinary obsession: Butcher Street, Fish Market Street, Herb Market Square, Market Street. Of the handful of fresh pasta shops, my favourite is Maison Barale, which has been run by the same family since 1892. Besides the classic Niçoise ravioli, filled with daube and spinach, or the ricotta-spinach version, Barale uses unusual fillings such as preserved lemon and ginger, beetroot and tapenade. Sold alongside the ravioli are panisses, a kind of chickpea polenta cut into thick strips and fried, often standing in for chips.
Niçoise cooking would be inconceivable without olive oil, and of a few specialist shops in the Old Town the most personal is Oliviera, run by the ever-enthusiastic Nadim Beyrouti. Every autumn he tours Provence to select the oils he will sell in his shop the next year. Each tasting begins with Nice oil, with its delicate hints of artichoke and almond; so subtle is the taste that I even use it in my lemon tart. To complement his oils, Beyrouti serves a small selection of Mediterranean dishes, ranging from his signature aubergine Oliviera (puréed eggplant with goat's cheese, Greek yoghurt, lemon and garlic) to hearty cannelloni filled with daube and porcini mushrooms.
Nearby, one of the oldest restaurants in the neighbourhood, Chez Palmyre, is also one of the most popular. Run for decades by Palmyre Moni, who retired well into her eighties, it now has a young team at the helm who have refreshed the vintage décor and serve an incredible-value menu of classic bistro dishes, such as marinated herring, beef cheeks stewed in red wine and clafoutis.
Beyond the Old Town, a number of chefs are putting a modern spin on southern French cuisine.
At Le Séjour Café, decorated like a living room with shelves displaying books and photos, market-fresh ingredients are sourced for dishes such as pan-fried foie gras with honey-sweetened squash, or pollock with lemon polenta. Pastry Plaisirs looks like an unpretentious neighbourhood spot, but there's serious talent in the kitchen: Louis Dubois was pastry chef at Pierre Gagnaire's Sketch in London before opening this bistro and tearoom where the sophisticated desserts steal the show. Alongside reinvented millefeuilles and éclairs made with local fruits, Dubois also serves British-style cream tea.
The area around the Port is quickly becoming the city's on-trend food neighbourhood. In the newly pedestrianised Rue Bonaparte, just off the Italianate Place Garibaldi, Déli Bo feels like a slice of Paris with its luxe pastries and varied menu on which bagels, Chinese noodles and tropical chicken salad coexist with pissaladière and pan bagnat. A few blocks away, Rue Lascaris has become a hub for good food and design. First to open were Vinivore, by the same owners as La Part des Anges, and RosaLina Bar, a fashionable spot with an Italian-inspired menu of snacks and heartier dishes. More recently, Gusto continued the trend with its modern interior reminiscent of Scandinavia and a menu of simple but well-prepared dishes such as thick veal chops with homemade frites. If hipsters are not easy to find in Nice, it might be because most of them seem never to leave this street.
Making an international name for himself is young chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen, whose restaurant Jan is the most recent addition to the neighbourhood's food scene. A photographer, artist and food writer, van der Westhuizen has poured all of his talent into this chic restaurant with designer furniture and plates custom-made by a potter in a nearby village. Though tied to local ingredients and traditions, the cuisine shows plenty of international influence in dishes such as grilled squid and chorizo with a cauliflower and smoked haddock emulsion, beef with red wine sauce, grilled strawberries and zucchini, and chocolate pumpkin tart with hazelnut and rosemary ice-cream.
Just around the corner, there's likely to be a queue at Chez Pipo, whose wood-burning oven has turned out cartwheel-sized rounds of socca since 1923. Now run by young owners who have commercialised their products, Pipo has not changed its old-fashioned décor nor its recipe, which ensures that the socca comes out crisp and golden every time. Nice might be evolving, but some things are perfect just the way they've always been.