Thursday, August 2, 2007
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
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.