We went to Nice this Christmas.
The Christmas school holidays are too long! announced my teacher mother-in-law the other day. A workaholic, she couldn’t wait to get back to the classroom to whip panettone-puffed Sardinian teenagers back into shape. As for us, these ‘long’ holidays gave us a chance to have a little trip; the first holiday we’ve ever had together, and the first time little James Amedeo has seen foreign shores.
My older brother’s partner is half French, and her parents invited us over to celebrate with them, in glorious French style. On Christmas day there were oysters, foie gras and Côte de bœuf, on Christmas Eve more oysters, endless cheese and smoked salmon. My digestive system survived, just about intact, but as joyous and delicious as Christmas was, it was the days afterwards I was really looking forward to. Gigi’s parents had kindly leant us their crumbling apartment in old Nice for a few days before it was sold and the new owners moved in. Right in the centre of the labyrinth of winding alleys smattered with Socca bars, butchers and boutiques, facing an old clocktower where pigeons peered at us in all our shutter-less glory, it was light, airy, noisy, drafty, smelly, impractical and perfect. Full of flea-market finds from the ‘Puces’ of Nice harbour and five stories up a steep spiral staircase, we wallowed in the scent of frying onions from the restaurants below, woke to shouts of butchers, bakers and bin men going about their business in the wee hours and ate buttery pastries at a low wooden table looking out at the rooftops of the old city.
The sky was a pale ash as we ate our morning baguette and looked out at the view, the rooftops as pebble-grey and smudged as those in the Van Gogh painting I copied endlessly as a child, 'a view over the rooftops of Paris'. It would have all been perfect and romantic (except perhaps the onions) if it hadn’t been for the stairs. Five stories with a heavy pram and a heavier child (who wriggles like a fish with limbs) was no picnic, and put a severe limit on my pastry purchasing powers, as there are only so many pain-au-chocolat a woman can carry when she has her hands full of prams and protesting children.
We ate well, though mostly cooked at home because Nice is not a cheap place to stay, but the two times we did eat out (apart from pastries, of course, which are still wonderfully cheap) there were two dishes which stuck with me. There was of course the token Niçoise salad, though a blustery grey December seemed hardly the time for it, but more interestingly there were fried salt cod fritters, or beignet di baccala, and the ubiquitous Socca, which is Farinata made French.
Socca is the Nice version of Farinata; a simple chickpea and olive oil pancake which crops up in various places along the Italian coast and blends into Nice's cuisine. It is a street-food staple; delicious, simple, nutritious and cheap. As we wandered aimlessly through the narrow streets, inhaling alternately lavender, garlic, smoke and soap, we were frequently barged aside by a black cauldron on wheels; the mobile Socca oven, as it wheeled its way towards street stalls. Just below the flat, opposite the aforementioned onion-frying trattoria with red checked tablecloths, there was a take-away stall where you could see the wood fired ovens behind; copper trays of Socca blistering in the heat.
Socca should be cooked in a shallow tray, like a pizza pan, and is usually – like pizza – cooked in a wood-fired oven. The heat is important as the best sort of Socca is extra crisp on the outside.
I have a copper farinata pan which I used but you can use a pizza pan or heavy-based ovenproof frying pan if you like. Eat as a snack with a glass of cold wine, or a beer. I like to serve it instead of bread too, with good salads, minestra, braised meat, cheese or a ball of milky mozzarella. It is extremely good for you and doesn’t have the same bloating quality that bread can sometimes have. It is also much easier and quicker to make at home.
I made it in drizzly Sardinia, amongst a sea of damp laundry, and it took me back to that funny old flat and our first ever family holiday.
Makes 1 large pan of farinata (feeds about 6)
250g chickpea flour
750g warm water
Half a small cup of olive oil
A good pinch or two of salt
Chopped fresh rosemary
Cracked black pepper
Mix the water slowly into the chickpea flour until you have a smooth batter. Leave to rest overnight. The next day skim off some the scum and discard. Whisk in the oil and salt and preheat your (well-oiled) tray in an oven at maximum temperature (around 280). Pour in a thin layer of the batter and season well with extra salt and some of the rosemary and pepper if you like. Cool until golden and blistered,
Serve hot or cold.