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2000s Archive

Once Upon a Market

Originally Published February 2001
In the south of France, one man recaptures the glory of the perfect tuna sandwich.

In the scene that I’ve replayed in my mind for many years, I’m standing in a market in Nice. (Yes, I realize that in many of the scenes that I replay in my mind I am standing in a market somewhere; I have no control over that.) In this case, I’m in the produce and flower market that runs down the center of the Cours Saleya six days a week. The Cours Saleya is an elongated plaza that’s used as a sort of pedestrian boulevard in Old Nice, just inland from Nice’s world-famous beach–a wide strip of jagged stones that an American accustomed to the great sandy edges of Long Island or Southern California might at first mistake for an unpaved parking lot that happens to have an ocean next to it. In the scene it’s 1983. Our family is staying in a house in Tourrettes-sur-Loup, not far away; this is before our daughters made good on their implicit threat to grow up and lead lives of their own. Feeling a twinge of hunger late in the morning—being in a market, particularly a market anywhere near the Mediterranean, tends to do that to me—I step up to a serving window over a display case and ask for a pan bagnat.

The woman behind the case reaches in and withdraws a sandwich that’s on a large circular bun—a bun that looks large enough to accommodate the sort of outsize hamburger you might fashion for Popeye’s friend Wimpy. She removes the top of the bun, revealing a damp mélange of canned tuna and chopped onions and lettuce and tomatoes and olives and hard-boiled eggs. She pours on some olive oil, presumably to make up for whatever might have evaporated since she prepared the sandwich earlier that morning. She hands the finished product over the counter. I pay her and take the first bite before I’ve moved an inch. I turn to my wife, Alice. “If I could speak French, I would say, ‘Mon Dieu!’ ” I tell her. But even as I work my way through the huge sandwich, it begins to dawn on me that leaving the Nice area will mean giving up pan bagnat; I have never eaten one anywhere else. I can see myself adding it to the list of favorite dishes that never seem to appear outside their place of origin—the list I call the Register of Frustration and Deprivation.

I am momentarily saddened, but then it occurs to me that a pan bagnat is not something that requires rare ingredients or some special oven; we’re essentially talking here about a tuna-fish sandwich. How long could it be before the pan bagnat catches on in America? After all, it’s 1983; previously unknown Italian breads or previously unknown Chinese provincial cuisines sweep over Manhattan almost weekly. As I finish the last bite and begin to deal with the olive-oil stains on my shirt, I am buoyed by the thought that the sort of New York joints that once went from being totally squidless to being buried in fried calamari will soon pan bagnat as a familiar menu item. Having to go to Nice to get a pan bagnat will be told as a tale from the Model-T days of pre-globalized eating, when you had to go to Italy for sun-dried tomatoes and couldn’t find sourdough bread outside the confines of San Francisco.

Wrong. Last summer, I realized that I hadn’t had a pan bagnat in 17 years. I can’t imagine why sandwiches, which seem eminently transportable, are so often tethered to the place where they were created. I have never seen an Italian beef sandwich outside of Chicago or a beef-on-weck outside of Buffalo—although I was once told that homesick Buffalonians who have settled in the vicinity of Hollywood, Florida, hold a beef-on-weck banquet every winter to stave off melancholy. The tension of which sandwich to have on a short stopover in New Orleans—an oyster loaf at Casamento’s, a muffuletta at Central Grocery, a Ferdi’s Special at Mother’s, a shrimp po’ boy at Uglesich’s— is intensified by the certain knowledge that you’re not going to get the precise match for any of them outside of Louisiana. Several months ago, I was surprised to spot pan bagnat listed on the lunch menu of a pleasant-looking bistro not far from where I live, in Greenwich Village. Naturally, I stopped in. What I was given was a cooked patty on a square bun—what I would call a tuna burger. “I don’t crave a take on a pan bagnat,” I told Alice. “I don’t crave a statement on the pan bagnat theme. I crave a pan bagnat. We’d better go to Nice.”

"This is not exactly what I had in mind,” I said to Alice. I had taken a couple of bites from a pan bagnat and had yet to reach what I believe rocket scientists call the payload. The bread was dry, even after the last-minute spray of olive oil. I inspected the small mound of tuna and fixings that formed an island in the middle of the vast whiteness of the lower bun. I suppose you have to admire the enterprise of someone who, at the height of the tomato season in the south of France, manages to find the precise equivalent of those American supermarket tomatoes that have a six-month shelf life, but I was reminded of the phrase a serious eater I know in Paris had used to describe a run-of-the-mill pan bagnat: “yesterday’s salade niçoise on a bun.” This pan bagnat had been handed to me through a window over a display case—perhaps not precisely the same window as in 1983, but, still, a window on the Cours Saleya in Nice. It seemed to constitute disquieting evidence that some people I’d talked to before leaving New York were correct in saying that it’s becoming difficult to put your hands on a decent pan bagnat, even in the heart of Nice. I tried to remain calm.

I was helped in that endeavor by a large can of olive oil. It was on our table at a restaurant we stopped in for lunch just after I’d had the inferior pan bagnat as a sort of hors d’oeuvre. This was not the discreet little saucer of olive oil that a Tuscan trattoria in Houston or Minneapolis might bring to the table these days in case you want something to dip your bread in. This was a serious can of olive oil from a local maker—a beautiful cylinder in blue, with gold stars on it. It reminded me of the large pitcher of schmaltz—liquid chicken fat—that the Parkway, a Rumanian-Jewish restaurant on the Lower East Side, used to place on its tables for the convenience of customers who felt the need to improve on the chef’s excesses. It told me that I was in the olive-oil zone of influence. I was in a city that as late as 1860 had still been part of Italy. I was sitting a matter of yards from the Mediterranean. I was in a place whose specialties include some of my favorite foods—pissaladière and sardines and ratatouille. I had not yet even tasted what some people think is the truly great market dish of Nice—socca, a thin pancake, not much thicker than a crêpe, made of nothing but chickpea flour, water, olive oil, and salt and pepper. I felt optimistic that I would find a superior pan bagnat; even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t go hungry. I ordered some grilled sardines and pulled the olive-oil can toward me just in case they needed improving.

To help search out quality pan bagnat, I had assembled a small team that included Lydie Marshall, a noted cooking teacher who used to live in New York and now holds her classes in a château that she and her husband have restored in Nyons, a few hours northwest of Nice. Lydie had brought with her a sort of pan bagnat treasure map drawn by a friend of hers named Bruno, a landscape designer, and when we gathered the next morning to plan our first foray, she spread it out before us. It showed the shorefront promenade and inland boulevard that form the borders of Old Nice, and, between them, a rather detailed drawing of an intersection. Just which intersection, of the dozens of them in Old Nice, was not indicated.

“If this is Bruno’s idea of perspective, I’d like to see one of his gardens,” I said.

Lydie said Bruno was a brilliant designer and a serious eater.

As I was about to make another disparaging remark about Bruno, I suddenly recognized the intersection. I had been there on an early morning walk a couple of hours before; it was obviously the end of a one-block street called Miralheti that sticks down into Old Nice from the Boulevard Jean Jaurès. I remembered the tables and stools Bruno had drawn in the street, between a bar called René Socca and a place with two outdoor serving windows over display cases of Niçoise specialties. Fifteen minutes later, we were sitting at one of the tables with half a dozen empty plates in front of us, and I was saying that, upon some reconsideration, I had decided that Bruno was a man of considerable sagacity.

Yes, I’d just had the sort of pan bagnat I hadn’t eaten since 1983. But I’d also been wowed by the other Niçoise specialties. We’d had sardine beignets. We’d had pissaladière that had a fine crust and caramelized onions so deftly done that they would have probably tasted good on a crust of corrugated cardboard. We’d had at least two orders of socca, and only the certain knowledge that we were going to have to eat lunch in about an hour kept me from going to the window to get more. We’d also had a dish that consisted of fresh sardines split and then topped with a sort of paste made mostly of what the French call blette and we call Swiss chard. (What people in New Orleans do with oysters and spinach to create oysters Rockefeller is simply a tonier version of what people in Nice do with sardines and Swiss chard—a piece of evidence to support A.J. Liebling’s theory that New Orleans is essentially a Mediterranean city.) All in all, I was so impressed that I could hardly wait for lunch.

A Friend of Lydie’s who lives in Nice had arranged a lunchtime interview with Thérésa, a purveyor of socca and pan bagnat and other Niçoise specialties in the Cours Saleya market. In general, what would be the median strip if the Cours Saleya were a conventional boulevard is reserved for market stalls—except on Mondays, when it’s used for antiques stalls, and evenings, when it’s transformed into more table room for the restaurants and cafés that run along what would be the curbsides. But amid the stalls of vendors selling fruits and vegetables and olives and spices and Niçoise sweets, Thérésa stands behind what looks like one of those barrels that down-and-outers sometimes build a fire in to give themselves a little warmth on chilly nights. The barrel has a charcoal fire in it, used to keep the socca on top of it warm. Socca is made in a very shallow circular pan, about three times the diameter of an extra-large-family-size-pig-out-special pizza-a pan that fits precisely on Thérésa’s barrel. socca has been made in a wood-burning oven a couple of blocks from the market. It’s transported to the barrel on a specially designed cart that’s pulled on a motorbike by a man named Robert, who is, as far as I know, the only person on earth who can accurately describe his occupation as socca schlepper.

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.