To say that I grew up as an enthusiastic Francophile is a bit of an understatement. My father worked for a French company, and frequently went on business trips to Paris and Lyon. Furthermore, my family had origins in Alsace, the eastern-most part of France and a very important region in French history owing to the territorial tug-of-war that occurred between France and Germany between 1871 and 1945. I was thus exposed at an early age to French culture. I learned the language as a child, announced to my parents at the age of six that I would be a French citizen one day, and took to wearing a beret my father had brought back from his travels. Though I quickly abandoned the beret – ouf! – my love for France never wavered and I went on to become a French literature major in college. Above all, I dreamt of the day that I would be able to eat proper gâteaux and pâtisseries on French soil.
My first trip to France was as a child, and honestly I don’t remember much about the pastries I might have sampled. I made up for this fact on my second, much longer voyage, when I was 18 – the summer following my first year at Yale. Before arriving in France, I went on a multi-city tour of Europe, which included tasting delicate cakes at the legendary Gerbeaud in Budapest and trying decadent morsels at the Kaffeehaüser of Vienna, including the Hotel Sacher and its eponymous torte (As a side note, might I just say that I am not at all fan of the Sacher torte. I much prefer its sibling – the Hotel Imperial’s Imperial Torte with its luscious layers of marzipan and chocolate – to the dry Sachertorte and its miniscule layer of apricot jam. Yuck.).
Following this pan-European trip, I at last arrived in Nice, on the Riviera, for a stay of about five weeks. I had before me the occasion to actually live in Europe – especially my beloved France – I was thrilled.
Looking back, my summer in Nice was the first time that I was actually able to settle down, at least for a short while, in a foreign city. Rather than staying at hotels, I had a small dorm room, and food was not included in my program at the Conservatoire de Nice, so I was free to explore my gastronomic options. I had about a week to explore the city before the program was due to begin and I quickly headed to the nearest market, then located on the Place de la Libération. Having never really been to a proper market before, I was amazed at the variety of produce, meats, and cheeses, fascinated by the vendors shouting out their prices to passers-by, and bemused by the large quantities of hunch-backed old ladies filling their caddys – or granny carts – to the brim with provisions. Most importantly though, I went on a thorough investigation of the city’s bakeries and sweet shops.
There were two places that were to shape my dessert-tasting experiences, a fabulous ice cream shop located in the Vieux Nice, called Fenocchio, and an outsanding bakery named Multari, then located on the ave. Jean Médecin but since relocated. Fenocchio is one of the world’s truly notable makers of ice cream, and sells more than 94 flavors daily (including 59 flavors of ice cream and 35 of sorbet, according to their website). These flavors include some very unusual choices, including beer, avocado, olive, tomato basil, fraise tagada, Ferrero rocher, and pine nuts…. My favorite flavors erred on simple side, but after all one recognizes the quality of a chef by the simplest dishes. Fenocchio’s menthe au chocolat sorbet is simply one of the most refreshing things I have ever put in my oft-used mouth, as is their liltingly delicate fleur d’oranger, and their lip-smackingly juicy raspberry. My heart beats faster, just thinking about them as I write. While in Nice that summer and on many subsequent trips to that city (I returned the following year for a month, and for several years after that for at least a week) I went to Fenocchio every day. However, on my last trip to Nice, a chilly weekend in December, I discovered much to my dismay that Fenocchio was closed for the season. A tear came to my eye and a whimper to my lips as I cursed the heavens for my rotten luck.
Fortunately enough on that depressing December day, my other favorite place in Nice – and yet another object of my daily visits – was open: Multari. Multari is the grande dame of bakeries in Nice and while making a plethora of yummy goods daily, there are two regional pastry specialties that stand out: the tropézienne, originally from St. Tropez and found throughout the Côte d’Azur, and something only found in Nice, the tourte de blettes. I had previously tasted an ersatz version of the tropézienne at the rather mediocre Washington, D.C-area bakery chain La Madeleine, but I can still remember biting into that luscious dessert on my first day in Nice all those years ago. The tropézienne is a lovely concoction composed of a mouth-watering mound of crème patissière and buttercream sandwiched between two slabs of brioche and topped off with some large sugar crystals; when eating the pastry, I especially like to lap up the bits of cream that stick out from the two layers of brioche, mmmm. Here is a picture of a tropézienne, found here:
The tropézienne is pleasant to eat, but the other pastry I mentioned, the tourte de blettes, is far more interesting, for several reasons. First of all, it can only be found in Nice. Second, it is one of the few pastries made with vegetables. Third, it is one of my all-time favorite desserts (and the competition is pretty stiff, you might imagine).
So what is the tourte de blettes? It is a traditional niçois dessert, one of the 13 desserts of the Calèna or niçois Christmas, that is made of swiss chard, an obscure but tasty leafy green vegetable vaguely reminiscent of spinach. Other ingredients in the tourte include pine nuts, apples and raisins. Though it might not sound too appetizing to you, and indeed the pastry defies description, the tourte is phenomenal: a slighty crunchy, biscuity exterior covered with powdered sugar and a juicy, nutty, not-too-sweet interior. Try it, please, and bring some extra for me. Voilà a picture, found here:
So to make a long story short, by the time I headed back to America after that fateful summer in Nice, I was already a budding dessert aficionado. A year later, and after spending yet another summer in Nice, I moved to Paris for a one-year study abroad program, arranged by the Center for University Studies Abroad (CUPA). Once I arrived in Paris, I instantly knew that I was home. As Gertrude Stein famously quipped: “America is my country and Paris is my hometown.” Indeed, though I did return to America for several months after my study abroad experience to finish my studies at Yale, I have essentially lived in Europe since the sunny September 2003 day when I first landed in Paris. The memory of that day remains a powerful one: I arrived at 6AM, slightly bedraggled, at the 5th arrondissement apartment of urbane and decidedly gourmande writer and photographer Nadine Saunier, who would host me for six months before I moved to my own studio. As she opened the door to greet me, I had a glimpse at the dining table behind her: she had placed, waiting for me, a steaming bowl of hot chocolate and a pain au chocolat from the neighboring bakery on the corner of the rue Monge: simple and delicious. I am thankful to her for beginning my Parisian experience in the most perfect way imaginable.
Over the next year(s) spent in Paris, I went on to have far too many notable dessert experiences to speak about them in this article, and plan to discuss many in future posts. Stay Tuned!
And though work has since taken me to Brussels, my heart lives in Paris and forever will.