No one is sure where the South of France starts. Some people call Lyon the cultural boundary between the two zones. Some people say it is the hilly department of Ardèche with its million châtaignes (chestnut trees) and super-friendly folk. A friend told me that a simple reckoner is olive trees which require a certain Mediterranean climate to grow and thrive. Others ask to watch out for red-curved tiles on roofs. Or people drinking pastis (aniseed liqueur typical of Marseille) in bars, and playing pétanque on summer evenings.
I saw the South through a Niçois (demonym for inhabitants of Nice) family that has been cultivating vegetables on a hill slope overlooking the Mediterranean Sea for the last 20 years. Nice was, till about a 150 years ago a part of the former Italian province of Liguria, but for many high-flying travellers, the Promenade des Anglais is the place on the Côte d’Azur (the French Riviera) to be seen soaking up a sun tan. I offered my help in the fields, and in exchange they generously initiated me to the various facets of life on a farm in the South of France today. Through this volunteering holiday, I not only got a chance to dine on fresh Provencal vegetables harvested from their gardens, but also participated in the bustle of this vibrant corner of France.
Meet the family
Fifty four year-old Jean Louis Ruggeri and his 44 year-old partner, Joelle Zeraffa, are vegetarians. They might as well be, for they make a living out of quality seasonal vegetables, grown organically. Ruggeri’s parents came from Italy, and he tried his hands at a few businesses before realising there is no profession like owning your land and living on it. Zeraffa joined him at an early age and, together, they created a reputation for themselves as trustworthy local producers in the many farmers’ markets in the area.
When I visited their farm in spring, the spinach was already lushly packed in the beds, the red of the radishes stood out against the green crowns and the turf, the rocket was perfuming the whole greenhouse, the rows of garlic gave a faint whiff of the pod, and the courgettes were young and capped with beautiful yellow flowers. There were various types of lettuce, tomatoes that would appear in due course of time, potatoes that were yet to be planted, and bunches of lilas (lilac) flowers that they sold as bouquets. There were also a 19 year-old cat, a pet sow called Betty, two horses that happily grazed the whole day and a string of chicken which gave half a dozen delicious eggs every evening.
The first day, Ruggeri made his signature pizza and I was astounded as to the flavour packed in the sauce made out of their house tomatoes. Through the whole week that I spent there — whether it be the fresh bread that he sculpted on a large circular wooden board, or the stuffed courgette flowers that were baked in the oven on a bed of olive oil (see box) — I kept being treated to one tantalising meal after another.
Holding on to the reins
One balmy afternoon, Zeraffa had the idea of taking us on a ride. Out came the old Citroën 2CV. Popularly known as Deux Chevaux (literally the two horses), we set out in the freshly-washed blue veteran. An icon from the ’50s, this was once the Maruti 800 of France. Down we went to Nice, and the two-coloured ocean turquoise towards the coast and then a lingering blue-purple further off. We took the Promenade des Anglais enclosing the Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels) and the sun-bleached poshness of Nice reflected in the glass-windows of the high-street shops. With the Vieux Nice (the old city centre) to the left, we travelled towards the principality of Monaco past the placid white of the sail boats docked at the bay. Gone are the days when the fishermen would bring in all the fruits de mer (seafood) in one large net dropped off the coast to make a fabulous bouillabaisse (a seafood soup).
We made our way to the peninsula of St Jean Cap Ferrat. Probably one of the most luxurious properties in the whole of France, we walked on a stone-path overlooking the sea. Joelle pointed to the various Mediterranean villas of this country’s super rich and it was hard not to reflect on the disparity between these colourful facades and the talk of the crisis that would probably result in Monsieur Sarkozy losing his job this elections.
Tips from the masters
Saturday was the market day. We were all up at the farm at six in the morning, and descended in trailers with our horde of vegetables. With the dawn breaking past the curtain of rain, we parked ourselves at a stall at the famous Saleya market. Just an alley’s diversion from the promenade, this open-air market located in Vieux Nice is a sanctuary for all gourmands.
The chefs of Alain Ducasse’s famous Louis XV restaurant in Monaco were there, scouting for the best of early morning produce. Franck Cerruti, the maître of the restaurant, bought a whole tray of fresh herbs imported from Italy along with a score of courgette flowers. He was polite enough to say hello and rejected Ruggeri’s offer of help for carrying the groceries. They seemed to have developed a long working relationship over the years.
I drifted off into the quieter bylanes of Vieux Nice with the houses painted in the signature tones of ochre, burnt sienna and cadmium red. Clothes dried in the balconies and road signs were bilingual, the Italian past clearly palpable. I had a fougasse aux anchois (bread with a strong flavour of anchovies) from a bakery, and watched the drizzle dress the cobbled stones of the streets.
Never mind the sea, the mountains crowd to the north. Nice lies in the Alpes-Maritimes department of France that boasts of both snow-clad peaks and blue-water beaches. On a Sunday, we went for a hike to an abandoned village. We took the car up the valley carved by the river Vésubie and bought ourselves sandwiches at a little tuck shop in the village of St Martin de Vésubie.
The conglomeration of stone houses called Béasse was once a prosperous settlement. The inhabitants cultivated the nearby fields — crumbling fern-invaded walls still mark the boundaries — and water was plentiful. In the middle of the village was the two-storey structure of the École (school) with a Latin inscription at the door. The second World War brought a great change and the village was abandoned, never to be resettled in again.
The hike took an hour from the nearest motorable road near the hameau (a cluster smaller than a village) of Loda. The path was in a surprisingly good condition, and now and then wooden crosses installed in the 19th century bade us good luck. We saw goats grazing in the hollow-walled structures and the ringing of the bells on their neck broke the shrillness of the mid-afternoon. I climbed up the dilapidated wooden stairs of the school building and opened a door on the first floor. A radio played inside. Ruggeri would not believe me when I told him later.
He was busy in inhaling the scents of lavande, juniper and wild thyme permeating the valley and “this,” he said, “this, my friend, is the life I want to lead.
Cuisine Niçoise borrows heavily from the Ligurian region of Italy. As such, classics such as ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese are favourites. Socca is a crêpe made of chickpea flour (besan) and is usually had à la nature. Salade Niçoise is a worldwide café favourite, and may comprise lettuce, tomatoes, anchovies, boiled eggs, olives, and anything else handy according to season.
The Niçoises excel in utilising courgette flowers, not common anywhere else in France. They may be fried dipped in batter, or stuffed with meat or cheese.
Stuffed Courgette Flowers
Ingredients (serves 12):
24 courgette flowers
1 pod garlic
50 grams rice
100 grams parmesan cheese
Good quality olive oil
Salt & pepper (to taste)
1. Scoop out the interiors of the flowers. Take care not to destroy the petals.
2. Sauté onions along with chopped courgette in the oil. Boil rice for around 20 minutes, drain the water. Keep both aside.
3. In a salad bowl, mix the onion and the courgette mixture along with the rice, parmesan and beaten eggs. Season with salt and pepper according to taste, and add crushed garlic.
4. Hold the flowers in your left hand, and carefully insert the stuffing with a coffee spoon with the other. Once you feel you have enough inside, fold the petals on top of one another so that the rice and veggies mixture stays put.
5. Place the flowers one facing the other in a baking dish greased with the olive oil. Bake on a medium setting for around half
Translated and Adapted from ‘La Cuisine du Comte de Nice’ by Jacques Médicin (Julliard 1972)
www.wwoof.fr is a handy resource for contacts of farms all across France. There is a minimum inscription fees of €15 (Rs 1,042) which is valid for a year. You can pay online by your credit/debit card, or send a cheque.
Jean Louis will be happy to pick you up from the Nice railway station or airport, provided he is not too busy during the season. Call +33 493378233 or 623742820 to check availability.
Address: La Raïola, Chemin de Cremat,
Nice airport is one of the busiest in France, and luckily at a handy distance from the city centre. Coming by train, Nice is well-connected though it is not the quickest to get to from other French cities. Most interchanges happen at Marseille St Charles. Paris to Nice is around six hours and costs a minimum of €50 (Rs 3,473).