“Bonjorn! Fa bèla pausa! Cossí va?” Every time I visit Nice, my first stop is at my favorite grocer in the old city. Only when I listen to his joyful greeting, pronounced in impeccable Provençal –an Italianate version of the Occitan dialect- do I realize I actually am at the French Riviera, this historic strip of land at the crossroads between France and Italy. For us Mediterranean people, these linguistic mix-ups are a reviving reminder of who we are: an offspring of new-world explorations, commercial flows and cultural exchanges counting thousands of years. Language is an emblematic witness of our common history… and so is food.
Wherever there is an important port –Marseille, Toulon, Genoa, Naples, Catania- there is a strong food culture; and their markets -multicultural meeting points- are the heartbeats of those cities. The Riviera is not an exception, counting some of the oldest food markets in Europe. In Nice, 19th-century travel guides describe Cours Saleya and Marché de la Liberation as export hubs of flowers and food. The antiquity-old harbor towns of Toulon and Antibes also boast historic food markets, the Cours Lafayette and Marché Provençal, respectively.
Numerous travelers drew a picture of the particular atmosphere reigning in these open-air markets of the Mediterranean. For centuries now, merchants and buyers offer a daily show of seduction, mistrust and ruthless negotiation. The morning air is filled with a half-hearted hubbub, expected to escalate around noon. In view of half-empty food stalls, customers are getting impatient; they dig their hands under layers of fruits or vegetable to find a hidden gem; they palpate, squeeze, even scratch the merchandise in their eagerness to get their money’s worth –in discounts they are even more eager to negotiate. Half-an-hour later, the tension- builds to a climax: Grocers release angry looks at the most indecisive customers; their patience is tested. Voices are piercing the ears between two ladies fighting over the last pack of avocados marked “half-off”. Seagulls try to creep under the counters letting out beggar cries; it will soon be lunch time for them too. At one o’clock, it is the final curtain: grocers start packing their stalls into big vans, while street cleaners sweep the waste away…until the next morning.
For Nina, the Marché della Buffa was her favorite playground. When she and her 14-years-old son, Romain, arrived in Nice, they carried only one suitcase with family silverware from motherland Russia for sale to get through the first months. But Nina was not the kind of person who gives in to poverty, rejection or scorn. She considered herself a Queen and had big dreams for her son: “You will become a great hero, a general, a Gabriele d’Annunzio, a French ambassador!” And she was right! Romain Gary (1914- 1980) fulfilled all his mother’s prophecies: he became an awarded novelist, a WWII aviator and a French consul. In the following extract, Gary -secretly proud despite his embarrassment- remembers Buffa food market: every morning, his mother played a preposterous act of snobbery -as if no piece or fruit or meat was good enough for her- to the greatest outrage of the Niçois merchants. Never mind! This was her payback for all the contempt she had to endure in her hometown.
Jules Romains (1885 – 1972) was another regular customer of the markets in Nice. Romains, whose literary work was nominated for the Nobel prize sixteen times (!), was a great fan of Nice and an even greater admirer of the city’s beautiful ladies. In his novel entitled “La douceur de la vie” (“The sweetness of life”), the writer takes us to a trip through the shady food stores where the reader can almost smell the humid wine cellars, touch the greasy barrels, stare at the reflections of beans through glass cylinders. As for the ladies, Romains’ notes come from the heart.
Nice was not the only town with popular markets: competition was coming from the historic harbor of Toulon. In a brief selection of travel notes below, Victor-Eugène Ardouin-Dumazet (1852 – 1940) describes the town’s food market – its scents, colors, textures and sounds – with an uplifting enthusiasm, for a good reason: it wasn’t everyday that a 19th-century traveler could find lychees from Japan in provincial France! Ardouin-Dumazet was the author of the awarded “Voyage en France” (“Trip in France”): an extended 70-volume travel essay depicting the evolution of the industrial, rural and touristic economies in France, at the turn of the 20th century.
Queen of the market
My mother got up at six every morning, smoked three or four cigarettes, drank a cup of tea, got dressed, took her cane and went to the Buffa market, where she was the undisputed queen. This market, which was much smaller than that of the Old Town, where the big hotels got their supplies, mainly served pensions in the neighbourhood of the Boulevard Gambetta. It was and still is today a place of varied accents, smells and colors, where superb curses flashed under the eyes of dead fish, rising into the air above the quarters of veal, the cutlets, the leeks; a place where -by some Mediterranean miracle- the sweet fragrance of mimosa and carnations managed always to rise triumphantly over a thousand far less appealing smells.
My mother would handle a slice of veal, ponder over the heart of a melon, reject with scorn a piece of beef -whose flabby sound when it was dropped on the marble slab seemed to express humility at being thus rejected- point her stick accusingly at some rusty leaf in a stall of salads, which the market gardener immediately protected with his body, with a desperate “don’t go pawning the stuff, now!”; sniff at a piece of brie, then dip her finger in the cream of a camembert and taste it – when applying her nose to a cheese, a filet or a fish she had a look of suspense which made the faces of the merchants turn white with exasperation – and, having at mast rejected once and for all the wretched merchandise, she would turn away with her head held high, while a medley of challenging insults, curses and outraged cries sounded in our ears the oldest choir in the Mediterranean.
One felt transported in a flash to some Eastern court of law, where my mother, all of a sudden, pardoned salads, joints and peas for their doubtful quality and exorbitant price, thus promoting them from the rank of shoddy merchandise to that of “first-rank cuisine française,” in the words of the above-mentioned prospectus.
For several months she would stop in front of M. Renucci’s stall, spend a long time handling his display of hams without ever buying any of them, in a spirit of deliberate provocation […] Then, while my mother brought her nose close to a piece of ham, with a grimace, first of incredulity, then of horror, and made it clear in expressive mimicry that an abominable stench had insulted her organ of smell…
…the butcher, with upcast eyes and hands clasped in prayer, would implore the Madonna to restrain him from committing murder, while my mother, pushing away the ham with a scornful and triumphant smile, would sail away to continue her reign elsewhere, in some kingdom of cheese or fruit, pursued by a storm of laughter, shaking fists, cries of “Santa Madonna!” and tragic oaths.
Whenever I go back to Nice, I pay a visit to the Buffa Market, and I spend long hours among the leeks, the asparagus, the melons, the cuts of beef, the fruit, the flowers and the fish. The noises, the voices, the gestures, the smells and scents have not changed. It needs only very little, almost nothing, for the illusion to be complete, and this I achieve by closing my eyes. Then I wander through the market for hours on end, and the carrots, the chicory and the endives do what they can for me.
Promise at dawn, New Directions, 2017.
A delicious garden
How unpredicted this city is (note: the city of Toulon), how full of contrasts! […] Certain streets, such as Rue d’Alger and Rue Hoche offer a great variety of shops; we can assume a rich population that loves the pomp. In the morning, Cours Lafayette, the widest of these streets, shaded by plane trees, is the most bustling part of this lively city.
The Cours has a market there where all the vegetables and fruits of the South […] pile up in superb stacks of color and fragrance. Oranges, lemons, lychees from Japan, grapes, and, in the spring, strawberries and cherries fill up the bags and baskets, all crammed between lettuce, artichokes, cardoons, and other greens. Piles of garlic and onion, bay leaves, loads of thyme and sage, melons, cucumbers, watermelons -of a pink flesh, sown with black seeds-, brightly colored tomatoes. Flower stands offer armfuls of roses, hyacinths, tulips, as well as tuberoses with the strongest of scents, anemones, mimosas: an adorable flora!
The market is extended on the sidewalks of the narrow streets to connect to the picturesque covered stands: there, one can find fishermen bringing baskets full of scorpion fish, sea bream, red mullet and eels; on the tables, large tunas with their armor of steel are cut up. […] There is an unstoppable noise of piercing gasps and joyful rumors in which you are happy to delve into.
Voyage en France, Berger-Levrault, 1898.
Scent of a woman
I relished the idea of making a love declaration to someone. I was looking for a human existence that would become responsible for all this beauty, all this happiness of living. […] And it even seemed to me […] that this existence will show up at the first bend of a path that I would take. She must!
I returned to Nice with the same exhilaration. I walked around the Saleya market. […]I crept into the Place de la Préfecture, a very crowded square with stalls and stockrooms, abundant in sunlight and shouts. […] I saw my favorite stores again in their morning glory. There were shops of wine and oil that looked very dark, since the little light that penetrated them fell upon brown and purple barrel planks, or, a greasy metal, here and there, anointed with old oil, incapable to create reflections. One could only make out the outline of huge barrels, which made me think that the wine is a gift of nature coming out of the rock, like spring water.
The grocery stores at the back […] were brighter because their soapstone was almost as white as alabaster and the cylinders containing beans or peas illuminated in their red, yellow, or green colors. Moreover, tins of sardines placed side by side, or one on top of the other, formed a pattern that was shining like a silver armor.
Women were rushing, ferreting about, chatting, waiting between doors and gateways. They were brunettes, willingly chubby, vibrant and possessed no vulgarity. Some of them were slim and fretful. When they drew near, it was easy to imagine the scent of their skin: spicy, a little oriental and rather exotic than unpleasant. […]
La douceur de la vie, Flammarion, 1958.
Nice for gourmet lovers
Enjoy delicious delicacies and colorful markets