2000s Archive

Once Upon a Market

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Behind Thérésa and her barrel, there are a few tables, which she somehow serves while handing out helpings of socca and pissaladière and tourte aux blettes and, of course, pan bagnat, to those who prefer eating on the stroll. Thérésa herself is a handsome middle-aged woman, brassy in the way women who preside over market stalls often are. She wears tight clothes and huge gold hoop earrings and is sometimes described as Felliniesque. She has become a sort of Nice icon—a symbol of the market and Old Nice and the deeply traditional Niçoise dishes. As soon as she found time to join us at one of the tables, she said that she is the third Thérésa, that her real name is Susy Achor, that she is half Jewish and half Spanish, and that her lengthiest commercial experience before she bought the operation from the second Thérésa, 12 years ago, was in the clothing business in Israel. “I make the best pan bagnat in Nice,” she said, in the same tone that a Louisiana chef had once told me that after I tasted his étouffée I’d throw rocks at other people’s étouffées, “and I’m not even Niçoise.”

Could she be right? If the world were consistent, you might expect the most photographed and colorful vendor in the Nice market to produce a pan bagnat that could impress only a tourist whose sandwich eating normally did not stray beyond his suburb’s fast-food double-lane. But the world is not consistent. Years ago, when I was looking into a shortage of Dungeness crabs in San Francisco, I’d been surprised to discover that the only people who were almost certain to have fresh crabs just trucked in from Eureka were those colorful and often photo­graphed characters manning the pots on Fisherman’s Wharf. Among the purveyors of pan bagnat in Nice—the bakeries and cafés and take-out places—Thérésa is one of the few I found who understands that the word overstuffed when applied to sandwiches is a compliment. She takes great care marinating the onions. She uses bread baked in a wood-burning oven. On my third or fourth visit to Chez Thérésa for a pan bagnat, I decided that even if what I was eating didn’t make me want to throw rocks at absolutely every other pan bagnat served in Nice—the one at what we’d started calling Bruno’s place or the one at a bar near the market, called Chez Antoine—it was as good as a pan bagnat gets. I would have cleaned my plate if I’d had a plate.

I had never thought of Swiss chard as a staple of Niçoise cuisine. Actually, I hadn’t done a lot of thinking about Swiss chard in any context. But as our team searched out Niçoise specialties, trying a plate of stuffed vegetables here and a zucchini tourte there and a grilled fresh anchovy somewhere else, Swiss chard seemed to pop up at odd times—during dessert, for instance, since tourte aux blettes is made not only in savory form but in a terrific sweet version that has pignons and honey. I often found myself muttering “Blette,” a word that can sound like an imitation of a small animal. “Blette, blette,” I’d say. “We are in the presence of blette.” The pâté maison at Restaurant des Arcades, in the pottery village of Biot, near Nice, had an unusual and satisfying taste. “Blette,” I said. “Blette, blette.” At a place called Chez Simon, on the outskirts of the city, we had a stupendous version of the traditional Niçoise ravioli, made with daube (stewed beef) and Swiss chard. I wanted to ask Alice whether Simon’s ravioli eaten with a side dish of its gnocchi (covered with the same sauce) would be considered a balanced meal, but all I could say was “Blette.” When we finished our first meal at a tiny restaurant near the Cours Saleya called La Merenda and immediately made reservations for our second meal, we asked the waiter to reserve us some stuffed sardines, which they’d been out of, because it didn’t take a genius to know what they’d be stuffed with.

La Merenda—an informal little place with no phone and no credit cards, but also no attitude—is run by Dominique Le Stanc, who used to be at Le Chantecler, the two-star restaurant at the Hôtel Negresco. At our first meal there, we’d had, among other things, a ratatouille that was so much better than any other ratatouille I’d ever eaten that it seemed to be a different dish, and a pistou soup that brought to mind the days when Lydie Marshall was still our neighbor in the Village and made us pistou every autumn as soon as the cranberry beans began appearing at the Union Square market. The stuffed sardines were everything we’d hoped for. “Blette! Blette! Blette!” I said, after I polished mine off. If France permitted those American-style city-limits signs rather than the uniform signs that mark the city limits of every village and city in the country, I thought, the one announcing Nice might say “Welcome to Nice—Swiss Chard Capital of the World.”

Unless it said “Socca Capital of The World.” On our last evening in Nice, after the rest of the team had left, Alice and I went to Chez Pipo, a sort of corner tavern near the port. Pipo’s food menu lists only four or five items. One was a delicious pissaladière with an almost sweet crust that made you think that some dear old granny nearby had been preparing a crust for apple pie, in the loving way she’d gone about it for 40 or 50 years, when someone rushed into her kitchen and snatched it away, muttering “Pipo needs this.” Another was the best socca we’d had in Nice. In Pipo’s hands, a pancake that is almost too thin to be measured somehow has a soft inside, a crisp bottom, and a top that is done to the point at which it almost blisters. “Socca Capital of The World” would be appropriate, but, then, Nice could also be Stuffed Sardine Capital or the Daube and Blette Ravioli Capital, not to speak of the Pan Bagnat Capital. It occurred to me that I had never had any of those dishes outside of Nice, and that I was probably adding to my Register of Frustration and Deprivation. Pouring another glass of rosé, I asked the waitress for another order of socca, just to cheer myself up.

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