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My first husband’s idea of wit was to exclaim, whenever the opportunity presented itself (surprisingly, gratingly, often);  “Anchovies? Smelly little fish!”   The marriage didn’t last long, but if by some warped circumstance we had found ourselves strolling the markets of Vieux Nice last week, I should have been delighted to waterboard him with a vat of poutine in response.

baby anchovies for sale in Vieux Nice

Now, fresh poutine is not smelly but it is most certainly a preponderance of tiny little baby fish: the fry of sardines and, yes-you-guessed-it, anchovies; rather rare, rather restricted and rather delicious, netted strictly by licence, only along the Côte d’Azur between Antibes and Menton, and only for a month at the end of winter (February/March): very local, very special and altogether too good for no-good husbands.  Happily for the peace of the Vieille Ville, I was accompanied by the darling Mr T, whose adult approach to things piscine is a joy, an ichthyic ideal.

Jacques Médecin, controversial erstwhile mayor of Nice, was a passionate advocate of Niçoise cuisine and I quote here from his well-regarded cookbook, La bonne cuisine du Comté de Nice:

A la saison de février, lorsque brille, sur les étals, la nacre de poutine, les rues des villes – vieilles ou nouvelles – retentissent de l’appel des marchandes: “A la bella poutina!  A la bella poutina!”  qui inspira mon vieux camarade de classe Gilbert Becaud dans sa chanson sur les marchés de Provence.

Around February, as the pearly sheen of poutine gleams on the market stalls, town streets – old and new – ring with the call of the vendors: “A la bella poutina!  A la bella poutina!”, the inspiration for my former classmate Gilbert Becaud’s song,  The Markets of Provence [Gastroplod’s rough & ready translation]

and for your extreme pleasure, here’s Gilbert Becaud himself – listen out for him calling “A la bella poutina” at the very end and you will have a charming early-spring echo of  Place St-François in Vieux Nice.


click here for the lyrics (in French)

I took my first and as-yet-only taste of poutine at the Café des Fleurs on the Cours Saleya, in one of its traditional preparations in the form of an omelette.  No surprises here, it tasted just like an omelette with all the briny flavour and savour of very fresh anchovies and sardines, and I did enjoy the sparkle of their teeny-weeny little eyes glinting in the sunlight.
omelette made with seasonal baby fish; sardines, anchovies, in Vieux Nice

French Wiki reference: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poutine_(Nice)

* this poutine has nothing to do with that somewhat-stodgier Québecois fries-gravy-curds speciality also called poutine: although I used to enjoy that version now & then in Vancouver, I know which I’d prefer now…

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spinny

Am I nuts? This short clip was taken over a year ago, and in the depths of winter, yet it still reminds me of sunnier climes. I’m just getting excited about getting back to Vieux Nice: next trip I’ll try to snap some sultry summertime footage.

Might be an idea to turn down the sound thanks to the blustery Mistral…or Tramontana…not sure which wind was blowing at the time but either way it made a horrible noise!

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escalinada1

…and I loved it.  No, I wasn’t auditioning for a remake of Pink Flamingos, but as in the direct translation of the Nissard dialect’s Merda de Can and no, it’s not actually what it says on the tin, rather a gnocchi Nissarde made with swiss chard (blettes) and/or spinach, shaped to resemble its namesake; I doubt if the resemblance goes further than that.  This wryly-named Niçois speciality is one of my favourites I usually buy at a wonderful pasta and sauce shop, La Clé aux Pâtes in Vieux Nice, to cook at our flat around the corner or even freeze to take home in my luggage.  Other artisan pasta joints in the neighbourhood get more press coverage but in my experience their products don’t come close in quality to what is made on the premises here.  For a change though, today I enjoyed my traditional dish of canine poop with beef daube sauce at celebrated Old Town haunt of authentic Nissart cuisine L’Escalinada.

Merda de Can

How the young waiters manage their combination of cool insouciance, sharp wit, friendly yet professional service is beyond me but it’s very welcome when all too often any hint of an Anglo accent triggers the dreaded treatment touristique.

rabbit

The dish was delish, but I have to say Clé aux Pâtes does it more to my liking.  L’Escalinada’s chef produces a looser stool, metaphorically speaking, than does the genius on rue de la Boucherie, and I like my doggy do with a bit more bite.   T went for the sautéed rabbit which although on the dessicated side of succulent was saved by exquisite tagliatelle with pistou; both made on the spot, perfectly simple and simply perfect.

chickpeas
Couldn’t possibly find fault with our starter either – Ribambelle de l’Escalinada – a starry selection of niçoise nibbles for two to share: after a help-yourself bowl of chickpeas with raw onion and aïoli, our platter delivered sliced raw baby artichokes, stuffed vine leaves, beignets (fritters) of courgette and aubergine, roasted red pepper, marinated octopus and best of all, exquisitely teeny-tiny cuttlefish, freshly battered and deep-fried.  In contrast to its soggy-seeming appearance the beignet batter was light and crisp with a creamy interior, the recipe for which I am delighted to see featured in Nice Matin’s August 2008 review: must try and if it succeeds I’ll post with my recipe translation.

ribambelle

It has been raining buckets for the past week apparently but this afternoon we were treated to sunshine warm enough for basking outdoors on L’Escalinada’s jaunty terrace while sipping our pichet of Côtes de Provence rosé and watching the perennial people-parade along rue Pairolière: it’s so very nice to be back in Nice.

L’Escalinada, 22 rue Pairolière, Nice 06300
La Clé aux Pâtes, 8 bis rue de la Boucherie, Nice 06300

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… we walk into a Menorcan distillery: undaunted by our desultory lunch at Cafe Baixamar we stuck to our plan and headed west for the Xoriguer Gin distillery tasting showroom, not much further along the Mahon waterfront.  T had the purchase of a bottle of G in mind and I tagged along: gin gives me shivers and not in a good way, but to my surprise we found a veritable kaleidoscope of balearic liqueurs set out for sampling.


And yet, like the fabled Marie Celeste, the echoing hall seemed recently abandoned, for beside each tasting barrel sat sinksful of cast-off tasting thimbles and at two in the afternoon our minds boggled at how long they might have been lying there.

So, summoning the bravado of Goldilocks and accompanied by a piped medley of classic rock tunes we set about our solitary tasting of the colourful concoctions:


Phew, well someone had to do it: there were rose, peppermint, coffee, chocolate, chamomile, herb, orange and some kind of butterscotch flavours; plus gin of course.  In memory – as in throat – they coalesce into a sickly sweet melange; my glee was short-lived and after downing a couple all I really wanted to do was brush my teeth, but we soldiered on, doggedly determined to do justice to the full, bewildering range.

Our verdict? I wouldn’t like to say, but we left without buying any and drank an awful lot of water afterwards.   Yet with free entry and air conditioning, I can think of worse ways to idle an odd hour in Mahon, tummy lining and teeth notwithstanding.  Needless to say, gin still makes me queasy.

Gin Xoriguer distillery
Moll de Ponent 93
Maó
971 36 21 97
entry free; open most shop hours
website

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Mr T opted for sopa Menorquina as his set-menu starter at La Guitarra in Ciutadella de Menorca one rainy lunchtime and its simple, straightforward heartiness really hit the spot. Unlike Cafe Baléar, however, La Guitarra is one place I wouldn’t advise opting for the menu del dìa; for although the restaurant has a great reputation for local specialities its à la carte menu is very obviously the focus. One lives and learns all the same: its troglodytic charm would be a wonderful escape from the heat of Summer and descending from scorching street level into its stone-walled cellar-cool basement interior for a slap-up meal is what we’ll be doing next time, but in the interim I recreate this Balearic soup with fond remembrance of Menorca’s old capital in the Spring.

 

 

I wished I had ordered the sopa too as my garlic prawns were just that; peeled prawns with overcooked garlic and despite their toothsome texture, not much flavour in either.

We both ordered the sea bass a la plancha for mains and it was ok; fresh and decently cooked but decidedly dull!  The highlight of our lunch was so obviously the working man’s vegetable soup that it demonstrated how plain food doesn’t have to be plain.

This hearty soup could easily be made fit for a vegetarian – vegan even – by the substitution of the small amount of meat with extra olive oil, garlic and paprika.  On the other hand, if you’re a meat-eater but can’t get hold of sobrassada or chorizo, substitute pancetta or lardons and throw in extra pimentón (unsmoked, for a change) and garlic.

Sopa Menorquina

serves 4 as main course

2 TBS olive oil
5 cm or so sobrassada, cubed (or chorizo if unavailable)
1 large onion, chopped
2-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 green cabbage, separated into leaves and torn into strips (chop if you must)
1 large carrot, chopped
100g spinach or Swiss chard, torn or chopped
100g broad beans or peas or flageolets (any fresh or frozen green bean is good)
2 tomatoes, fresh or canned, diced
500 ml or so stock (if none fresh, make it with a bouillon cube)
1tsp pimentón (whichever style you prefer)
at least 4 slices of hearty peasant bread, toasted

sweating onions and garlic with sobrassada in olive oil

Chop or tear all the vegetables into pieces of approximately equal size.  Heat oil in an enamelled cast iron pot and sweat the onions with the sobrassada, garlic and pimentón on a medium-low flame.  Add the diced tomato and bring to a gentle simmer, then add the rest of the vegetables and cover with two cups of hot stock.  Simmer for 20 minutes.

throw in some extra pimenton to boost flavour

The correct way of serving this sopa is: for each person, place a slice of toasted bread in the bottom of a soup plate, ladle over the vegetables and their broth, place in a 150C oven for 10 mins and serve:

serve in wide shallow bowls drizzled with olive oil and country bread on the side

but unless it has just baked a loaf of bread, there’s no reasonable reason to whack on the oven specially, so I have been known to serve the soup straight from the pot: topped with a spoonful of homemade ricotta, a trail of olive oil and with slabs of toasted country bread on the side nobody minds one jot.

Incidentally, at La Guitarra we ordered a bottle of Blanc Pescador, assuming (rightly!) its name denoted an affinity with fish, but as my Spanish vocabulary was not up to anticipating its pétillant tingle – “vino de ajuga” translates to “needle wine” apparently – it came as a pleasantly prickly surprise, and with a much cleaner and clearer flavour than el crudo cava, an awful lot more dignity too.

La Guitarra
c/ Dolos baixos
Ciutadella de Menorca 07760
tel: 971 38 13 55

3-course menu del dia €12.50
Blanc Pescador €13.50

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interior of Cafe Baixamar, Mahon de MenorcaCall me weird but I just don’t like it when my waitress takes such obvious offence at any punters daring to invade her erstwhile empty restaurant.  I understand her feelings; years of food service taught me there’s nothing so intrusive as a damn customer when you’ve just gotten used to a bit of solitude.  But those same years – and basic economics – also taught me to stand up & snap out of it, smile brightly and serve politely: as they say, it’s not rocket science – the pay’s better.

Our handy AA Twinpack guide recommended this place for its atmosphere but I doubt it intended the ambiance generated by a blasé bint who was too patently, petulantly cool to be bloody bothered by bloody customers and at lunch-time, at that: 1.45pm, 1345 hours.

In what way was it our fault there was no chilled cava?  ¡¿¡¿No chilled cava!?!?  And was this girl cronies with the (frozen) calamari?  Planning a painting of the (tinned) pimentóns piquillos?  Dating the (possibly pre-packaged) tortilla española?  We felt obliged that despite her simmering resentment our waitress brought anything at all, for not one thing was removed on her return to bar stool, tabletop disappearing beneath debris the while. (more…)

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Thunderclap followed by dramatic downpour started our first full day with a bang and skewered all tanning plans – but what on earth to do in a vacation-villa ghetto with no sunshine?  There’s this:
Rainy day on holiday
or the teeming toddlers’ activity club (no pics natch) but I’m not short enough, so once the clouds had shed their motherload we plodded north to Ciutadella. The 2km walk was slower but more interesting than taking a bus as we got to smell the landscape and discovered this domestic scene.Domestic pigs in Menorca
That’s daddy pig in the foreground (¡cuales cojones!), separated from his wife, girlfriend and countless scurrying offspring (those little shapes in the background) by a sturdy wall.  Everything in the compound had acquired a uniform ruddiness from the red earth in which they snuffle so they’re hard to spot (no pun intended).
Ciutadella Town Hall atop harbour wall
Like a corny movie, sunshine broke through as we arrived at Ciutadella harbour and the unmistakably Spanish scent of seafood and garlic a-sizzle in olive oil wafted on the breeze.   Strolling by a strip of restaurants nestling along the foot of the old city wall we noticed a number were recommended by our excellent guide book but didn’t fancy their uniform demeanour, nor sitting in the shade for that matter.Cafe Balear, Ciutadella, Menorca after our lunch
Just the other side of the bridge we spot Café Balear – set apart and empty.  None too promising, when all the other places are populated, but a seat in the sun and good reviews sits us down.  And then the real holiday begins: our waiter recites the appetizing menu del dìa; we pick cigale carpaccio and cod alioli for T; pimentos relleños and hake for me, and what a treat they turn out to be:
Carpaccio de cigalo at Cafe Balear, Ciutadella, Menorca
pimentos rellenos de bacalao at Cafe Balear, Ciutadella, Menorca
Cod with alioli at Cafe Balear, Ciutadella, Menorca
hake with potatoes and piquillos at Cafe Balear, Ciutadella, Menorca
I let these pictures speak for themselves, only adding that everything was spankingly fresh and flavoursome (pimentos obviously stuffed in-house) and the presentation perfect for my tastes – burnishing the alioli was an aesthetic nicety which I shall try at home. Ok, so I envied T his tasty extras: migas-stuffed tomato and a wee filo parcel of spinach with pine nuts and raisins but was happy with my hake and well satisfied.table on the terrace at Cafe Balear, Ciutadella harbour, Menorca
A bottle of crisp house white (Penedès again), perfectly chilled with ice bucket, stand and napkin allowed us to take our time; as we progressed through our meal the place filled up – to bursting – and we felt pretty smug to be watching people queue for a table.
People queuing for lunch at Cafe Balear
Don’t often do dessert but I’m never churlish if it’s included in the price, so ever authenticity-oriented I opted for almond cake over apple pie and T mentioned

you’ve had one crème caramel you’ve had them all

as his excuse for trying the same. Good choice, Canadian…
almond cake dessert at Cafe Balear

Service was laudably professional, efficient and friendly despite the fact the place was packed.  Highly recommended, but do arrive early or book ahead.

Menu del dìa: €17 pp  bottle house white: €10

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