THE SO-CALLED Mediterranean Diet continues to thrive while others fail. It's a healthy, tasty style of eating associated with fresh salads, vegetables and fruit, loosely based on what people eat in lands where olive oil is used in cooking rather than butter and cream. It is a cuisine into which Colman Andrews, a leading American food writer, has done considerable research. And his new book, Flavors of the Riviera, focuses on the very heartland of this style of cooking. The people of the Riviera (both the French and the Italian) boast the greatest longevity in Europe, and some of the lowest levels of heart disease.
Flavors of the Riviera was highly acclaimed when it was published in the United States. Colman Andrews is executive editor of Saveur, the leading US food magazine, and a renowned author. His previous book Catalan Cuisine succeeded in its boast to uncover the "last great undiscovered cuisine of Europe". Paul Levy wrote: "Colman Andrews combines the gifts of scholar and journalist, and exercises these gifts with such a sense of humour that this book is really like no other."
The new book is no less scholarly. The thought occurs: has British food publishing, which has launched the careers of such great food writers as Elizabeth David, Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz, Jane Grigson and Claudia Roden, lost its way? If the author of a cookery book doesn't have a television series to publicise it, do they have a chance at all of getting published? Or if the book isn't accompanied by state-of- the-art studio photography?
Colman Andrews falls down on all fronts. He's never been seen on television in the UK, let alone cooking against the clock with a bag of groceries costing pounds 4.99 from the supermarket (though he'd probably be rather good). And the handful of pictures in his book are not so much soft focus as out-of-focus, snapped by himself or friends in markets or restaurants, though none the less agreeable for that.
Maybe these are reasons, though, for the lack of British publishing interest in Flavors of the Riviera. Or maybe the title is a turn-off. The very name Riviera has a specific ring to the British ear and it is not associated with gastronomy.
The Riviera is, for Britons, a stretch of the Mediterranean originally patronised by aristocrats, artists and writers, and today seen as a space given over to the exuberant excesses of the film, television, motor racing and sporting worlds. Any serious eating that takes place will be in the plush, ornate and moneyed hotels of this millionaires' playground, the Michelin three- starred Hotel Negresco, for example, which faces the palm-fringed Promenade des Anglais in Nice, or the Hotel de Paris which abuts the Casino in Monte Carlo.
What Andrews writes about is nothing of the sort. His terms of reference are, by complete contrast, the traditional cooking of lowly peasants who inhabited a 300-mile stretch of shoreline, east from Nice in France via Genoa and the Ligurian coast to La Spezia in Italy.
It has to be said that, although Colman Andrews recognises the significance of the Mediterranean Diet, he is no health food freak as his large appetite and ample frame will testify. His interest in the food of the area is purely academic. But he is happy to agree that the food of the Riviera is both tasty and healthy. "Its cooking is rich with light, healthful, delicious dishes capable of inducing gustatory pleasure and inspiring conviviality without raising anyone's cholesterol."
So why did he choose the Riviera as a subject - surely there wasn't much more to be said on the subject of either French or Italian cooking? On the contrary, he says. His publisher didn't agree, initially, and instead commissioned Andrews to pursue Spanish themes. Only when it became clear that a surfeit of books on Spanish food was emerging, did he license Andrews to follow his nose. And now, in the course of his adventures, digging deep into old texts, and even deeper into plates of the best food from the best restaurants of this unique coast, he has produced a work to surprise and delight both gourmet and food scholar.
Like an archaeologist, Andrews set out to uncover the secrets of la vraie salade nicoise and the true ratatouille, of which thousands of versions exist. These were the easy options. He also pursued more opaque areas of research, into numerous dishes based on air-dried stockfish, chestnut flour, chickpea flour and farro (the ancient wheat grain also known as spelt).
This week Colman Andrews gives some examples of the cooking of Nice. Much of the city's food originates from Genoa, which is the main port of neighbouring Liguria. But many of its dishes are uniquely local, such as pissaladiere, a heavenly golden onion tart. So are herb-stuffed veal "birds"; tripe dishes made with onions and tomatoes; and ravioli stuffed with Swiss chard (blette).
There are numerous stuffed vegetable dishes and vegetable fritters (beignets). The Nicois even claim as their own the famous Genoese pesto sauce - the pungent paste of basil, pecorino cheese, pine nuts and olive oil. Here it's known as pistou and stirred into their vegetable soup of the same name just before serving.
Above all, there are the two great standards of Nice: salade nicoise and ratatouille. Colman Andrews can't settle on a satisfactory derivation of the word ratatouille. (It could be from the French touiller, to stir. But the dish isn't stirred. Is it, then, named after a dish from Corfu called tourlu, which has the same ingredients?)
After consulting dozens of sources, Colman Andrews follows a version of the recipe published by Jacques Medecin, a former mayor of Nice, who compiled a book of 200 recipes based on his grandmother's cooking. (Not his only claim to fame, unfortunately. He was also found guilty of appropriating a portion of the city's funds.)
Ratatouille is often thought to be a rather simple vegetable stew. But to achieve the desired silky texture, each vegetable needs to be cooked separately before being married in the pot. Medecin wrote: "Contrary to what is generally believed, ratatouille is a dish requiring particularly long and difficult preparation."
Colman Andrews left no stone unturned in his search for authenticity, consulting not only the experts of the region but ancient texts in the libraries. This meant acquiring a smattering of Nissart (the dialect of Nice), a 12th century language derived from Latin. Tobias Smollett, the Scottish novelist, who lived in Nice with his wife from 1763-5, derided the dialect: "Almost every word can be found in the Italian, Spanish and French languages with a small change in the pronunciation. To express 'What a slop is here' they say 'Aco fa lac aqui' which is a sentence composed of two Italian words, one French and one Spanish."
But Colman Andrews loves this sort of thing. He was especially delighted when he discovered that the inhabitants of various towns are known by Nissart nicknames, according to what is perceived to be their favourite foodstuffs. The people of Aspremont are described as Mangia-chourrous (Broad bean-eaters). In Lantosque they are Cougourdies (Gourd-eaters). In Luceram, Pannissies (panisse being a local cake made of chickpea flour). Around Chateauneuf they are Limassies (Snailies). In Roquebillieres they are Meous (Honeys). In Contes, Magia- faiou (Bean-eaters). And the citizens of Nice, due to their high consumption of blette (Swiss chard), are known as Caga-blea, Chard-crappers.
The following recipes include a correct ratatouille; une vraie salade nicoise, which bears the stamp of approval of ex-mayor Jacques Medecin; and a delicious lemon tart from Monaco. And for those who wish to feel truly Nicois, trouchia, a famous local egg dish which just happens to contain Swiss chard.
LA (VRAIE) SALADE NICOISE
"What crimes have been committed in the name of this pure, fresh salad... !" cries Jacques Medecin. Andrews, not wishing to be accused of any crimes, goes for an adaptation of Medecin's recipe - adding a few explanations and recasting the list of ingredients slightly for consistency's sake.
10 medium firm tomatoes, quartered
12 anchovy fillets or 2 175g/6oz cans best-quality olive oil-packed canned tuna
225g/8oz shelled baby fava beans (about 450g/1lb unshelled) or 12 baby artichokes
1 garlic clove, cut in half lengthways
1 cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced
2 green peppers, seeds and ribs removed, very thinly sliced
6 small onions, very thinly sliced
3 hard-boiled eggs, quartered
100g/312oz Nicoise olives
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 basil leaves, finely chopped
salt, freshly ground black pepper
Place the tomatoes on a platter and lightly salt them. If using anchovies, cut each fillet into three or four pieces; if using tuna, shred it coarsely.
If using favas, blanch beans in boiling water for 30 seconds, then drain and rinse in cold water. Slip beans out of their skins by grasping each by its grooved end and squeezing gently so that it pops out. If using artichokes, cut stems off, pull off tough outer leaves, and trim a few more layers of leaves with a sharp knife. Scoop out chokes and cut artichokes into thin slices.
Rub the bottom and sides of a large salad bowl with garlic, then discard. Arrange anchovies or tuna, favas and/ or artichokes, cucumber, green pepper, onion, eggs, and olives in a bowl. Drain tomatoes, salt them again, and add.
Serves 6 (plus)
900g/2lb small aubergines, trimmed
900g/2lb trimmed courgettes
450g/1lb green peppers, cores, seeds, ribs removed
450g/1lb red peppers, cores, seeds and ribs removed
extra-virgin olive oil
8 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
20-25 basil leaves, roughly torn
leaves from 3 sprigs fresh thyme
1.4kg/3lb ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped
Slice aubergines and courgettes into rounds about 1cm (12in) thick, spread them out on paper towels and salt them lightly. Slice the bell peppers into 1cm (12in) rings, then cut the rings in half; set aside. Chop the onions into pieces approximately 2cm (1in) square.
Place four large skillets on the stove and pour several tablespoons of olive oil into each. Warm the oil over a medium-high flame for about a minute, then lightly fry the aubergine, courgettes, mixed green and red peppers, and onions, each in a different pan, in batches if necessary. When vegetables are cooked and lightly browned but not overdone, remove them from their pans and drain on paper towels. Reserve any oil remaining in the pans.
In a large stew pot, combine cooked vegetables, salt to taste, and cook, uncovered, over the lowest heat possible.
Meanwhile, pour oil from three of the vegetable pans into the remaining one, adding a bit more if necessary, and cook the garlic, herbs, and tomatoes, uncovered, over low heat for abut 20 minutes.
Stir tomato sauce gently into vegetables with a wooden spoon, then drain excess oil from ratatouille. Return to pot, adjust seasoning, and serve warm; set aside to serve at room temperature; or cool slightly and chill in the refrigerator for about three hours and serve cold.
SWISS CHARD FRITTATA
In the region of Nice, as in Provence and in Catalonia, writes Andrews, an omelette is a trout. In all three areas the same word is used for both the fish and the egg dish - trouchia (or trucchia), and truita, respectively. I've never heard a convincing explanation, but I suspect that it is another example of what might be called the Welsh rabbit phenomenon - the ironic naming of a dish for the thing it might substitute for. Thus, a Welshman who can't shoot, snare (or buy) a rabbit for dinner might have to settle for cheese on toast, and call it rabbit; and a fisherman who comes home with an empty creel might have eggs for supper. This recipe comes from Franck Cerutti, who serves squares of trouchia with excellent Nicoise olives as an hors d'oeuvre at his Don Camillo restaurant in Nice.
450g/1lb Swiss chard
12 onion, finely chopper
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
60g/2oz Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
6-8 basil leaves, cut in chiffonade
2-3 flat-leaf parsley springs, finely chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper
extra-virgin olive oil
sea salt crystals
Remove ribs from chard. Gently cut chard into a chiffonade. (Chopping it, says Cerutti, will release too much moisture.) In a large bowl, mix chard thoroughly with onion, cheese, eggs, basil and parsley, and season.
Lightly oil a 11cm by 22cm (5x10in) baking tin, then pack the mixture gently into it, smoothing the top with a spatula. Bake for half an hour in an oven preheated to 275F/140C/Gas 1, then remove from oven, drizzle a bit of oil down the sides of the pan (the trouchia should have come away from the sides slightly), and carefully reverse it onto a lightly oiled platter or small cutting board. Carefully slide upside-down trouchia back into baking dish, return to oven, and bake for 15 minutes longer.
To serve, allow to cool slightly, cut into squares, drizzle a bit more oil on top of each piece, and scatter a few crystals of salt over each.
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
10-12 large basil leaves
2 teaspoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Crush the garlic in a mortar, then add basil leaves and crush to a paste. Stir in cheese with a fork, then work in the oil, also with a fork. To serve, spoon into minestrone or other vegetable soup.
TARTE AU CITRON
The filling for this unusual tart comes from Jean and Daniele Lorenzi's Cuisine Monegasque/Cujina de Munegu. It is, they believe, a recipe from Monaco's now long since disappeared Jewish ghetto.
2 large eggs
115g/4oz, plus 1 teaspoon unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
90g-115g/3-4oz almonds, skins removed
juice of 8 large lemons
zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange
2 heaped tablespoons breadcrumbs
Preheat oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6.
Sift flour into a bowl. Beat eggs lightly in another bowl, then stir in flour with a fork. Stir in butter, continuing to mix with a fork until a crumbly mixture is formed. Turn dough on to a floured work surface and knead several times.
Lightly grease a 20cm (9in) pie tin with remaining butter, then press dough into the tin. Trim edges, then roll out leftover dough and cut it into several long, thin strips to garnish tart.
Crush almonds to a powder. Stir sugar into lemon juice, dissolving it well, then mix in the ground almonds and lemon and orange zest. Stir in breadcrumbs and mix thoroughly.
Line tart shell with wax paper and fill with dried beans or pie weight. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove wax paper, allow to cool, then pour in lemon juice mixture. Crisscross remaining dough pieces on top. Reduce heat to 325F/160C/Gas 6 and bake for 45 minutes.Reuse content