Just how hungry would you have to be to tackle breaded rams’ testicles? On a scale of one to ten, I mean? I’m pretty omnivorous, and have been eating my way round France for 20 years or more, but, on this one, I rate an eleven. Then I get called a sissy in Nice. Testicules de mouton panées (I give the French that you might recognise the dish on a menu) are hoovered up with gusto by locals.
And, no, I can’t tell you what they taste like.
After Paris, Nice is probably the most internationally-savvy city in France. You can eat pretty much anything here, from fusion to brasserie fare, from molecular to finest French, Italian and Mediterranean. Places serving most of these are mentioned below.
But the Côte-d’Azur in general, and Nice in particular, have their own dishes. These are the ones they ate before the planet beat a path to their seaside and which they are more than willing to share with all-comers – most often in bustling little family establishments in the old town.
You, like me, might tell them that they can keep their breaded sheep’s wotsits – but there are others which fully repay investigation.
First and foremost, of course, there’s salade niçoise which, for a salad, doesn’t half cause a lot of controversy. No-one, but no-one, ever agrees what should be in it. Anchovies or tuna? Anchovies and tuna? Green beans? Lettuce or not? Potatoes? On such decisions hang life-long feuds. (If you don’t believe me, bang “la vraie salade niçoise” into Google, and listen to them shout.)
Pan-bagnat is effectively salade niçoise in a round bun. It’s a useful light lunch and better still if it’s been made an hour before you eat it, so that all the various elements might mingle. Equip yourself with sufficient paper serviettes, for there's usually dribbling involved.
Other specialities to look out for:
• pissaladière: sounds awful, but is a pizza-style tart with onions, anchovies and olives and no tomato. Very more-ish.
• socca: chick-pea flour pancake, crunchy on top, soft inside and much better than you think, if well-peppered. Buy a hunk from the street seller as you tour the flower market on Cours Saleya.
• mesclun: salad mixture of young shoots like chicory, roquette, escarole and lettuce.
• stockfish: dried (not salted) cod usually prepared in a stew with olives and tomatoes.
• poutine: tiny fish fry served in salad, omelette or fritters. Probably pleases prime minister Vladimir no end that the dish, pronounced in French, sounds just like his name.
• tourte de blettes: Côte-d’Azur folk are very fond of Swiss chard – and here it’s served in pie form.
• beignets de fleurs de courgette: courgette (or squash) flowers stuffed and deep-fried.
• vins de Bellet: Nice’s house wines, produced on the hills directly behind the city. Perfect accompaniment for absolutely anything you might eat in the city.
* It's cheaper to eat well at midday than in the evening. Posh restaurants, stratospherically priced by night, generally have affordable menus at lunch-time.
* Nice is not Spain. Eating hours are more recognisably normal to English speakers: 12-12.30 to 2pm for lunch, 7-7.30 to 9.30-10pm for dinner. Certain brasseries and hipper establishments may serve (much) later.
* If you order water ("de l'eau, s'il vous plaît") they'll likely bring a bottle and charge you for it. If, like me, you truly resent paying for water, ask for a carafe ("une carafe / un pichet d'eau"). This will be tap water. Restaurants are obliged to provide it free.
* Cooking times for steaks are notoriously treacherous in France. What we think of as well-done, they consider burned beyond all hope of salvation. There is a reason for this. French beef cattle are, in general, slaughtered at a much later stage than cattle in the UK. So, grill steaks too long and they toughen to the consistency of a bowler hat. Be on your guard, though. As a result of all this, cooking gradations are one step lower than we'd expect in English.
So, if you like your steak well done, ask for it very well done ("très bien cuit" - tray bee-enn kwee). The waiter will tut-tut - no-one in France eats steaks thus - but, what the hell, it's your meal, not his. If you like it medium, ask for "bien cuit", medium rare to rare - "à point" (ah-pwen), really rare - "bleu" (bleuh) and really, really rare - still moo'ing and twitching bloodily - "saignant" (say-nion).
* "Service compris" (service included) on a menu doesn't get you out of paying a tip. It means, rather, that the waiters are getting paid. In the old days, up to the early 20th-century, French waiters received no salary. They relied for their livelihoods entirely on tips left by customers. This instilled admirable discipline, but was clearly a little too hazardous for modern tastes. So legislation demanded they be paid a wage. So restaurateurs stuck service compris on their menus to inform clients that they, the clients, were no longer repsonsible for the totality of the waiters' earnings. And there the phrase remains, generating misunderstanding to this day.
Thus, and as elsewhere in the world, you are encouraged to recognise good service with an additional gratuity. There is, though, no call to strive for US excesses. If the service has been good-through-outstanding, I leave 10-12%. Pretty reasonable attention rates whatever coinage I have about my person. If, by contrast, service has been off-hand or arrogant, I beat the waiting person about the head and take money from his or her pocket.