Friday, August 31, 2007


Alain Dutournier, chef at the very chic restaurant Le Carré des Feuillants in Paris, once said to me that he considers it uncivilized to drink without eating. I'm inclined to agree, even if it might sound a bit extreme. What could be more civilized, after all, than the Italian aperitivo with its array of tiny sandwiches and snacks?
The French sadly haven't adopted this generous approach and even on the Cours Saleya, with its year-round sunny terraces, I often have to content myself with a saucer of stale chips or a puny dish of olives. I've even been known to make a run to the local épicerie to buy my own peanuts or chips, which is not a very civilized thing to have to do.
What a shame, when rosé lends itself so well to the apéritif ritual. Sunny, crisp and never snobbish, rosé is my drink of choice all summer long. With a glass of rosé in front you, it's impossible to feel down because pink wine implies that the sun is shining and you're taking a moment to appreciate life, albeit in a less extravagant way than with a flute of champagne.
Some southerners believe that rosé tastes best when sipped near the sea - something about the way the salty air mingles with the aromas - and there may be some truth in that, but I like this low-profile Provençal wine so much that I'd like to see more people drinking it all over the world. Nothing tastes more natural than rosé with any of the Niçois dishes I love so much (what else could you possibly drink with salade niçoise?), but it also goes beautifully with Japanese, Thai or Indian food.
As I sip a glass of rosé while cooking - or should I say throwing together a salad, which is what I more often do in the summer here - there is nothing I like better than to whet my appetite with tapenade. Its name comes from tapeno, the Provençal word for capers, and anchovies have become just as essential an ingredient somewhere along the way. Of course I can buy good tapenade, particularly at the Cours Saleya market where some of the producers sell jars of this salty black paste made with their own olives, but making my own is a ridiculously easy pleasure.
The key, as you might have guessed, is to find a willing slave - er, partner - to help pit the olives. You can use the flat blade of a knife and squash each olive, or invest in an cute little olive pitter as I have. Use pitted olives from a can and you will regret it: tapenade can only be as good as its main ingredient.
Being in Nice I use the small fruit called caillette, otherwise known as the olive de nice. The true Niçois olive, which like many wines and a few foods has an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée to protect it from imitators, ranges in color from pale green to purply black and is cured in a salt brine for at least two to three months. Wrinkly black Nyons olives also make wonderful tapenade.
Jacqueline Bellino, who produces organic olive oil in the hills behind Nice and has won prizes for her tapenade, changed the way I made this condiment. "You should keep the capers and anchovies to a minimum," she says. Her rule is to restrict these two ingredients to no more than five per cent of the total weight, allowing the flavor of the olives to come through. Like Jacqueline, I now make a very restrained tapenade - but that doesn't stop me from throwing in extras such as walnuts, herbs or a little lemon juice.
Tapenade is probably best enjoyed on toasted slices of good baguette, but you can of course cook with it as well. On the rare occasions that students ask to prepare rabbit in my cooking classes, we stew it with tapenade, tomato, onions and herbs, and you can also toss tapenade with pasta, fresh chunks of tomato and basil. Red mullet with tapenade is another classic local dish. Don't forget that green olives also make beautiful tapenade - try adding almonds, which complement their lighter flavor.

Makes about 1 cup

I prefer not to give a quantity for the oil, as the amount needed will depend on the oiliness of the olives. The blacker the olive, the oilier it is likely to be.

9 oz black olives (250 g)
1 tsp capers
4 anchovy fillets packed in oil
Good quality olive oil
Lemon juice (optional)
Black pepper

Pit the olives by pressing them with the flat blade of a large knife or using an olive pitter. In a food processor, blend the olives, capers and anchovies, adding enough oil to create a smooth mixture. Add a little lemon juice if you wish and black pepper to taste.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Le Marche

While the streets of Nice fill with Parisians anxious for a whiff of basil and a therapeutic dose of sunlight, I head for parts of the world whose names meet with blank stares - last year the Lozère (France's least-populated region), this year Le Marche.
I'm not quite sure how the name of this Italian region became lodged in my brain, but I've always wondered why so little is written about an area that borders Tuscany, Umbria and Emilia Romagna. Its vast stretches of sandy beach influenced my decision - we were meeting my brother and his family, and the combination of sand and water is the most foolproof way to keep three children under the age of six happy and entertained. Curiously I had never heard much about the cuisine of Le Marche, but I could hardly imagine an Italian region where food is not an obsession.
It was an eight-hour drive from Nice to the village of Piandicastello in the northern part of Le Marche, with only about ten houses but an active social scene. Each night the locals would gather at a communal table overlooking the gentle hills in muted shades of green* for a kind of impromptu party, often retiring to one or the other's house to continue the festivities. Sam and his cousins roamed through the streets (all two of them) freely, bonding with the cats and dogs, and we had that reassuring - and all too rare - feeling that someone would always be looking out for them.
The nearest shops were a few miles away in Tavoleto, but Piandicastello did have its own restaurant, the Osteria di Mirecul. The children instantly took to this restaurant, not only because it had the best tagliatelle al ragù of any they sampled (and they sampled their fair share, since this is the staple dish for children in Le Marche), but for its resident goat, which often sat on the window ledge or ambled into the restaurant. When they got bored of the goat, there were plenty of cats and dogs, too. We adults liked it because no matter how much or how well we ate, we could never make the bill come to more than €10 a person. My favorite dish was a local take on tortelloni filled with beet, ricotta and parmesan and tossed with butter and poppy seeds, but we also had delicious roasted pork, lasagne and artichoke-filled pasta with mushroom sauce.
Fish is also abundant in Le Marche, but because most fish restaurants were near the sea and we were staying in a rather isolated hill town we didn't eat it as often as I would have liked. We did have a unique fish experience in the town of Fano, where a cooperative of fishermen runs the self-service restaurant Al Pesce Azzurro. The idea is to make local fish accessible to everyone, and for €9 each we had the famous meat-stuffed, breaded and deep-fried green olives of Le Marche, followed by tagliatelle with seafood and incredibly tender chunks of octopus stewed with peas, all served up on plastic plates. The restaurant must have seated at least 300 people and was full when we arrived at 1.30pm. On our last day we also headed down to the town of Gabicce Mare, which we had visited many times for its wonderfully organized beaches, for tagliatelle (again!) with prawns and buttery spaghetti alle vongole at the restaurant La Cambusa.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous dish of Le Marche was piadine, made with thin sheets of dough that are cooked on an iron pan and filled with various combinations of meat, cheese and vegetables. In Gabicce Mare, near the beach, was a fast food-style place where the piadine were made to order with fresh dough, proving once again how seriously the Italians take their snacks.
Another discovery was sorbetto, which is not sorbet, as the name might suggest, but granita made with cream that usually comes in two flavors: coffee or lemon. I became quite addicted to the sweet coffee version, which is sometimes served in a champagne glass with a straw. Desserts were not a big feature of Le Marche's cuisine but sorbetti often made the perfect ending to a filling meal.
We took the time to visit a couple of open-air markets, but the selection of produce was limited and we probably would have done better in a larger town such as Fano, whose market is renowned. The best deli I found was Degusteria Raffaello in the stunning town of Urbino, which stocks a lovely selection of wines from the region.
Summer is a time of festivals in this region and a highlight of our trip was the Sagra della pappardella al cinghiale in the town of Gemmano (12-15 August). The entire village filled with tables as an army of cooks served up plate after plate of broad hand-made noodles with chunky tomato-and-wild-boar sauce: yet another excuse to eat and talk, talk and eat. Once again, Italy has taught me how to make each meal an event - not that I needed much encouragement.

* Sorry about the lack of photos to illustrate this - my laptop broke down just after I had downloaded most of the photos from our trip. I am going through Mac laptops at an alarming rate.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Eating my words

I used to laugh at the way French people all take their holidays at the same time, like sheep.
Now all I have to say is: baaa. I've lived in France for so long - 12 years - that I can't imagine going through a month of August without getting away, even if I do live in the sunniest place in France (by far).
I'm off this weekend to Le Marche, Italy. I've been to Italy many times before but this will be my first time in this region south of Bologna and east of Tuscany. We'll be in the hills between the beaches of Rimini and the historic town of Urbino for the next two weeks. I'm looking forward to fresh pasta, pizza bianca and some of the best fish in the world (or so I hear). I will of course be writing about my trip, but probably not while I'm there, so for now I'll say arrivederci and à bientôt!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007


The inspiration for this slightly ambitious Saturday afternoon cooking project came from the lovely and talented Fanny, who I am hoping will soon be teaching pastry workshops with me in Nice (stay tuned on the Petits Farcis website). When I saw her version of a Jamie Oliver recipe for caramelle with ricotta, basil and black olives, I had the irresistible urge to dust off my pasta machine and invite a couple of friends over for dinner.
I intended to make her recipe, but as I began to knead the pasta dough I remembered a cooking class I had taken three years ago at the Agriturismo I Fontanini in Emilia Romagna, the region that brought us parmesan cheese, 25-year-old balsamic vinegar and Parma ham (need I say more?). In this exceptional class, four generations of women from the same family - counting the two-month-old baby, who had probably absorbed every movement in the womb - taught us to make tortelloni, which are a bit like tortellini only bigger and filled with ricotta and herbs or vegetables. I have never forgotten their delicate taste and texture, the pasta so thin you could see right through it.
The 80-year-old nonna had been making fresh pasta by hand every day of her life since childhood, and her skill and efficiency were more than a little intimidating. I came home with a long wooden rolling pin specially for pasta, which I'm deeply ashamed to say is still in its plastic packaging. I do use my hand-cranked pasta machine occasionally, but with Barale at the end of my street and the impressively stocked deli Exquis d'Italia five minutes away I had never reattempted the tortelloni recipe.
After all this time I wasn't sure if I remembered how to shape this pasta, and the Internet for once proved not much help - I couldn't find step-by-step directions for tortelloni. Luckily, I had taken some scribbled notes and it turned out that my hands had a better memory than my brain. Once I started to shape the pasta, it all happened naturally and before long I even found myself working at a good pace. Sam got involved in this project, and while I can't say that he was turning out tortellini with the skill of an Italian nonna (neither was I) he did have a lot of fun feeding the pasta through the machine and making his own shapes with the dough.

I made the basic filling from I Fontanini's recipe, adding only some parsley to the ricotta, parmesan, egg and seasonings, but you can also use a larger proportion of herbs or vegetables (say, onion, artichoke, zucchini or borage leaves) and reduce the amount of ricotta. You'll notice that the recipe is imprecise, which is the way it's supposed to be. The tortelloni are served with a simple sauce of melted butter and sage, rather than anything like tomato that might detract from their subtle flavor.
I have to admit that I used my pasta machine to roll the dough, but next time I am getting out that rolling pin - really!

I'm submitting this recipe to the weekly Presto Pasta Night roundup at Once Upon a Feast.

Tortelloni with cheese filling
from Agricurismo I Fontanini
Serves 4

Egg pasta:
200 g flour (7 1/2 oz)
2 eggs

500 g ricotta (1 lb 2 oz)
1 egg
100 g Parmesan (4 oz)
Flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
Grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper
Butter, sage and parmesan to serve

For the pasta, sift the flour onto a work surface and make a well in the center. Add the eggs and knead for about 15 minutes to create an elastic and smooth dough. (If you mix the dough in a food processor, use a little more flour for a firmer dough.) Let the dough rest for at least 30 mins.

Meanwhile, make the filling: Mince the parsley or other herbs or vegetables and put in a bowl with the ricotta, egg, parmesan, grated nutmeg and salt. Mix until smooth.

Flatten the dough with a rolling pin and roll into a paper-thin sheet, or roll as thinly as possible in your pasta machine. Cut it with a rotary cutter into 6 cm squares. (Note: keep the sheets of rolled pasta covered with a towel to prevent them from drying out.)

Put a little filling in the center of each square, then fold the dough over the filling to make a triangle and press along the edges to seal.

Bring the edges of the triangle together to complete the shape.

Cook the tortelloni in plenty of salted boiling water unti they float to the surface (a little longer if your pasta is not paper-thin), then drain carefully with the slotted spoon and pile in the warmed serving dish, alternating with the melted butter, parmesan and sage.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Perugina sausages

As I wander through the streets of the Old Town in Nice I try to imagine what they must have looked like 50, 100, 200 or 400 years ago (my building, a former monastery, dates from the early 1600s). The street names recall that these narrow lanes were once devoted to food: rue de la Poissonnerie (fish market street), rue de la Boucherie (butcher street), place de la Halle aux Herbes (herb market square). I can just picture the chaos of colors and sounds, the animals dangling from hooks and the fish still squirming in their baskets, like in the fish market on the Vieux Port in Marseille.
Traditional food shops are becoming increasingly scarce in the Old Town, and it was with a sinking feeling that I saw Boucherie Agu, a landmark butcher on the Cours Saleya, and Biscuiterie Toretti, a back street bakery that in the mornings only turned out the butteriest croissants and the best pissaladière from its wood fired oven, close for good within a few months of each other. Thankfully some wonderful food shops remain, among them Barale, a fresh pasta shop founded in 1892; Boucherie Viale, the smallest and friendliest butcher in the Old Town; Fenocchio, with its display of 96 ice cream flavors including tourte de blettes (a sweet Swiss chard tart); and Charcuterie Ghibaudo.

Dinna and Laurent, the young couple who run Charcuterie Ghibaudo, are the kind of people who give me hope for the future of the Old Town. Interestingly, they are not from here: Dinna, to my initial astonishment, is from Florida and Laurent is from northern France. They met in Florida, where Laurent was working as a chef, and moved to France to train at a charcuterie in suburb of Paris, then with another pork specialist in Savoie. When they found a narrow little boutique for rent in rue Pairolière that had been a charcuterie since 1870, they knew that they would settle in Nice.
For Laurent this was not a big leap - his family was in the business - but imagine the change for Dinna, who had been a beautician in Florida. She has adapted beautifully, with perfect French and a complexion to rival Marie Quatrehomme's. When customers accuse her of being an outsider (the Niçois are inclined to do that sort of thing), she retorts with the words, "I'm half Greek and half Italian, so my ancestors were probably here before yours." This is just the kind of feistiness that is required to run a business in Nice, though Dinna is also unfailingly cheerful and clearly loves her new life.
Even if Dinna and Laurent are relative newcomers to Nice, they have mastered all the local specialties: trulle (blood sausage with Swiss chard and rice), les petits farcis (stuffed vegetables) in summer, porchetta (pork stuffed with its meat, tripe and liver), and my all-time favorite sausage, the Perugina. It's safe to assume that these plump and meaty little sausage originally came from Perugia, one of many Italian traditions that took root in Nice. It can be eaten fresh, semi-dried or cured, and gets its zing from coarsely ground pepper. Laurent - who makes everything in the shop himself from whole pigs except the Parma ham and mortadella - flavors the Perugina with garlic or fennel, and I always choose fennel.

For the Niçois there is really only one way to cook Perugina sausages: with lentils. Yes, you can grill them or roast them in the oven (I've done this with strips of red pepper), but lentils are their most natural, and best, partner. I make this hearty dish no matter what the season, and feel justified in doing so since it is currently on the menu at La Merenda. Last time I was there for dinner, I sat next to a table of Italians who all ordered this dish - and they had been there for lunch the same day and ordered the same thing.
Last night's lentils with Perugina sausages were a simplified version of my usual recipe - I didn't have any celery to sauté with the carrots and onion, and my fridge was strangely bereft of flat parsley leaves for adding a splash of color at the end. I also like to add a couple of handfuls of slivered Swiss chard leaves a few minutes before the end of the cooking time. But there are times when you have to make do with what's in your fridge, especially when preparing peasant food. That said, it's important to use Puy lentils from the Auvergne or good quality green lentils, which hold their shape when cooked.
Sam, who has taken to assigning points for good parenting (did I mention that he is cheeky?), awarded me 97 points for this dish - and this is a boy who just a few months ago used to spit out lentils. Persistence really does pay off when it comes to kids and food.

Lentils with Perugina sausages
Serves 2-3

1 small red onion
1 medium carrot
1 tbsp olive oil
1 garlic clove
1 cup Puy lentils
3 cups water
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
6 Perugina sausages or your favorite Italian sausages
Salt and pepper, to taste
A handful of flat parsley leaves (if you have them!)
Your best olive oil, for drizzling

Dice the onion finely and thinly slice the carrot. Crush the garlic clove and remove the skin. Heat the olive oil in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot and crushed garlic and sauté over medium-low heat until they are soft and just starting to turn golden.

Add the lentils, water, thyme and bay leaf. Partially cover the saucepan and cook for 10 minutes at a gentle bubble. Add the sausages and seasonings to taste, partially cover and cook for another 10-15 mins. The stew is done when the liquid starts to thicken - if this doesn't happen after 25 mins, remove the lid and let it reduce slightly at a gentle boil. To serve, remove the thyme and bay leaf. Cut the sausages in half lengthwise or into slices and arrange over the lentils. Sprinkle with chopped flat-leaf parsley (I used finely diced red onion and red pepper, since I had no parsley) and drizzle with your best olive oil.