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Letters from the Riviera

Part 1: The Nice Market

By Winnie Yang

Staff Writer

The author realizes that some readers may find rhapsodizing about fruits and vegetables a bit much, but really, the perfect bulb of fennel deserves nothing less.

I raise a hand to shield my eyes from the dazzling sun as I step out from the dim, narrow, cobble-stoned alleys of Nice’s Vielle Ville (Old Town) to the wide berth of the Cours Saleya. Every day (except Monday), this avenue fills with stalls and vendors plying local produce and wares which, in January, in the CÔte d’Azur, means rows of beautiful apples like the delicately-hued pink lady, crisply sweet, with just a hint of acidity and perfect for eating out of hand, or a dull, gray-yellow-mottled variety of reinette, whose grainy flesh is more suitable for cooking.

Most of the patrons here are cooks from the many fine restaurants around town and older locals who have shopped for provisions here daily for decades. They are long accustomed to the extraordinary quality of the fruits and vegetables immaculately displayed here. We are not, and we stop at each stand with mouths agape, beckoning each other to hurry to the next booth and the next to witness the gastronomic and agricultural marvels on display.

We point excitedly at the dozen different types of potato available: only one basket holds the russets that dominate the American market back home, while nearly half here are reserved for a rainbow of heirloom potatoes and fingerlings, ranging in color from creamy-white to mauve to midnight blue, each with its own texture and flavor. Virtually the entire Allium genus lines the shelves above, in a host of colors and shapes, the likes of which I’ve never seen before (such as the banana shallot, or the pint-sized, bell-shaped grelot onion). And these are real, live baby carrots, dewy tops still attached (they were pulled just this morning), not a plastic bag full of whittled-down impostors.

In the adjacent tent the cheerful vendor (complete with handlebar mustache and hat askew, naturally) shows off a stack of cages full of plump hens and rabbits who seem quite happy to share the dinner table with the gorgeous endive across the way. Another holds a score of bins filled with cured olives, pickled vegetables, fresh and roasted nuts. There’s honey from the nearby hills of Provence, preserves from neighboring villages in the Alps, and olive oil that’s probably traveled five miles at most from grove to market. A table spills over with perfect specimens of cÈpes, black trumpet mushrooms, and chanterelles, a bit of damp, loamy earth still clinging to them.

The tomatoes are a testament to the wonders of this area’s growing capabilities (the south of France boasts two to three growing seasons a year): juicy, firm, and bright with tomato-yness, leagues beyond the insipid, imported mush we’ll have in the States well into May. Don’t get me wrong -- there’s still enough cabbage and root veg here to remind me that it’s winter yet, and I harbor fleeting fantasies of the first tender asparagus of spring and regret that I’ll miss the summer appearance of the celebrated charentais melons from the ProvenÇal village of Cavaillon.

I wish desperately I had a kitchen to return to this afternoon, so I could grab handfuls of these perfect leeks, these beautiful white beans in their violet-speckled pods, stuff my woven shopping tote just like the locals with artichokes and freshly-picked mesclun (a once humble mixture of greens first created by Franciscan monks north of the city proper which has now become a $12-a-pound staple of yuppie salads the world over). I am almost tempted by the fish purveyors, as I survey their stands, teeming with the entire contents of the Mediterranean: sea bass, monkfish, John Dory, mussels, rouget (red mullet), daurade (sea bream), baby octopus. I settle instead for breakfast, pointing to a tomato-basil-cheese fougasse (a crusty, ladder-shaped flavored bread) behind the glass at one stand and hungrily eyeing the hand-made sausages, cured meats, and piles of cheeses a few yards away. I pass a large, steaming paella pan and can’t resist the delicious aroma wafting from the yellowish crÊpe spread on its surface -- it’s socca, a savory chickpea pancake served with a dusting of freshly ground black pepper and a NiÇois specialty. And for dessert: a little eye candy.

Perhaps the most spectacular part of the daily commerce on the Cours Saleya is the famous flower market, and half of the plaza is devoted to blooms and their merchants. One can purchase a vividly-hued bunch of carnation buds, lilies, tulips, or roses for a pittance (though cuttings strewn with tiny, bright yellow puffs mimosas are a particular favorite) or gather camellias and cabbage roses. There are branches of citrus fruits tied with festive ribbons and potted kumquat trees ready to be taken home. The stunning arrangements lining the stands look good enough to eat (and many sport signs that warn, “Ne Touchez Pas!”). All these intense colors, worthy of a Fauvist, are brilliantly displayed in the candy stall: jewel-like confits of clementines, kiwi, ginger, peaches, and melon; hand-painted, life-like marzipan bananas, peppers, eggplants, frogs and lizards; and virtually incandescent glacÉed cherries, plums, and apricots.

For a taste of Nice, look for tins of Alziari extra virgin olive oil at Formaggio Kitchen (244 Huron Ave., Cambridge, and 268 Shawmut Ave., Boston). One of the most celebrated producers from the area, this family makes oil from the first pressing of the niÇoise olive. Its fruity smoothness is perfect drizzled on fougasse (or whatever crusty bread you have lying around), salads, and fish.

Socca is quite easy to make; for a recipe, write to Ms. Yang at <>.