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.
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