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Passions and Crimes of a Nicois Cook

The definitive book on Nicoise cooking is “La Cuisine du Comte de Nice” by Jacques Medecin (Julliard, 1972). This encyclopedic volume offers more than 300 recipes, many with brief but informative introductions, all bearing the same subtext, stated or otherwise: This is the way it’s done, period.

Medecin sets the tone in his introduction, invoking the spirit of his “sweet grandmother,” who left behind a book of centuries-old local recipes she had learned from one Tanta (Aunt) Mietta, a peasant on the hill of Gairaut in the arriere-pays or backcountry of Nice.

He is writing his book, Medecin continues, for several reasons, among them: because his generation seems to be the last repository of the region’s ancestral traditions; because “with the exception of two or three restaurants in Nice, one can no longer eat, outside the parlors of the Nicois, the authentic cuisine Nicoise .” And perhaps most of all, he writes, because “all over the world, horrified, I have seen the remains of other people’s meals being served under the name salade Nicoise .”

Throughout the book, Medecin is authoritative and imperious. Of the emblematic salade Nicoise , he exclaims, “What crimes have been committed in the name of this pure, fresh salad. . . !”

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He begins his chapter on pasta by stating boldly, “Contrary to an opinion generally prevalent, noodles were not invented by the Italians.”

In providing a recipe for lou pietch , the Nicois stuffed veal breast, he mentions two variations on the formula that “some people” use, then dismisses both methods by saying, “Neither, in my opinion, adds to the quality of the dish.”

He is even sometimes vaguely witty, in a curmudgeonly way: Writing of the dried herbes de Provence so popular on the far side of the Var (the river that traditionally divides Provence from Nice), he calls them “the aromatics which dreadful cooks without talent use to murder all flavors, including those of the herbs themselves.”

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Not everyone agrees with Medecin’s culinary pronouncements. A grocer in the city’s old town warned me once that there were two recipes for socca , the Nicois chickpea-flour crepe: the real one and Jacques Medecin’s (the difference had to do with the proportion of flour to water).

But he was a legend in Nice, and not just for his defense of local dishes. Medecin was a professional Nicois--so much so that he signed his name to the introduction to his cookbook as Giaume Medecin--its form in Nissart, the local dialect.

He was also the city’s mayor for 25 years and in that context had refused to let his city participate in nationwide celebrations of the bicentenary of the French Revolution in 1989, on the grounds that Nice wasn’t part of France when the revolution occurred.

Medecin’s father, Jean, was himself mayor of the city from 1928 to 1945 and again from 1947 to 1965 (with an enforced two-year break in between as his punishment for having voted for the Nazi-sponsored Vichy government early in the war years). Jacques succeeded him in 1965 and subsequently became president of the regional council for the departement of the Alpes-Maritimes as well. At one point, too, all nine deputies from the region to the National Assembly were Medecin loyalists. He was the most powerful man in southeastern France and one of the most influential provincial figures on the national scene.

It was something of a shock, then, to Nice and to the rest of France, when Medecin left the city on what was supposed to be an official visit to Japan in 1990 and turned up a few days later in self-imposed exile in Argentina, later moving on to the Co^te d’Azur-like beach resort of Punta del Este in Uruguay. The Nicois were devastated. How, they asked each other, could “Jacquou"--as he was affectionately known to locals--have deserted Nice? What forces of evil had hounded him out?

“He is my god,” one local restaurateur told reporters when the news hit. “I worship him. We owe him everything.”

What Medecin owed was several million dollars in back taxes. He was subsequently implicated in the misappropriation of tens of millions of francs meant for specific civic purposes and accused of taking kickbacks from large government-funded construction projects in the region. It was said that he had ties with organized crime.

There was even talk, never substantiated, of his involvement in the disappearance of a business rival on the Co^te d’Azur in 1977 and the death of a former associate in California in 1988--the latter a woman who went on French television to answer questions about her dealings with him in 1985 and who was founded drowned in her Jacuzzi in Palm Springs three years later, wearing curlers and jewelry.

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From Uruguay--where he claimed that royalties from his cookbook were his only source of income--Medecin claimed that he had fled because of political persecution: He was a supporter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, head of the extreme right-wing Front National party (which is particularly popular in Nice, where anti-immigrant feeling runs strong) and had made anti-Semitic remarks in public on more than one occasion, and he had few friends in the then-Socialist French government.

A court in Grenoble, apparently unimpressed by his contentions, found him guilty of fraud in 1992 and sentenced him to a year in prison in absentia and a 2.5-million-franc fine--and, surely more devastating to him, banned him from holding political office for the rest of his life.

In 1994, Uruguay extradited him to France, where he stood trial in person and was again convicted and sentenced to an additional two years in prison. Medecin’s transgressions, cracked the Parisian press, were presumably an example of “ salade Nicoise .”

*

In 1982, when Medecin was still in power, author Graham Greene--who then lived in Antibes, not far from Nice--wrote a pamphlet entitled “ J’Accuse : The Dark Side of Nice,” painting an unfavorable portrait of the city’s corruption and condemning Medecin’s supposed misdeeds. Greene later told Mary Blue (as she reports in her book “Co^te d’Azur: Inventing the French Riviera”) how the mayor responded to his attack: “Medecin sent me his cookbook with a dedicace saying I haven’t reached the depth of cuisine of Nice.”

One of the “deepest” of Nicois dishes, and one that Medecin introduces almost as polemically as he does salade Nicoise , is ratatouille.

“It is pointless,” he writes, “to state that ratatouille is one of the dishes of the Comte de Nice that is most known and perhaps most appreciated. But often, not knowing it well enough, we are content with a means of preparation or a quantity of ingredients not in accordance with the science transmitted to us by our ancestors.” Whew! He continues: “Contrary to what is generally believed, ratatouille is a dish particularly long and difficult to prepare.” He then proves it with his recipe, which follows. I have adjusted it only slightly (mostly in the order of the ingredients) for the American cook.

* Note: The French edition of “La Cuisine du Comte de Nice” is still in print. An English translation by Peter Graham, “Cuisine Nicoise: Recipes from a Mediterranean Kitchen,” was published by Penguin Books in 1983 but is now out of print and regrettably hard to find).

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RATATOUILLE

2 pounds Japanese eggplants

2 pounds zucchini

Flour

2 pounds green bell peppers

2 pounds onions

3 pounds ripe tomatoes

Extra-virgin olive oil

Salt

10 small cloves garlic, chopped fine

1 small bunch Italian parsley, chopped fine

20 leaves basil, roughly torn

3 springs fresh thyme

Trim eggplants and zucchini and slice into rounds about 1/2 inch thick. Place in two separate large dishes and dust lightly with flour.

Slice bell peppers and onions into 1/4-inch rings, then cut rings in half. Set aside. Dip tomatoes in boiling water and peel, then cut in half and squeeze out sides. Set aside.

Place 4 large skillets on stove and pour several tablespoons olive oil into each one. Warm oil over medium-high heat about 2 minutes. Lightly fry eggplant, zucchini, peppers and onions, each in different pan. Vegetables may also be cooked in batches in 1 pan, if necessary. When vegetables are cooked through and lightly browned but not overdone, remove from skillets with slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

Pour oil from 3 of skillets into remaining skillet, adding bit more if necessary. Add garlic, parsley, basil and thyme to oil. Crush tomatoes into pan with fingers. Cook tomato mixture, uncovered, over low heat until it takes on consistency of sauce, about 20 minutes.

Combine cooked vegetables in large stew pot, salt to taste, and simmer, uncovered, over lowest possible heat 20 minutes.

Using wooden spoon, stir tomato sauce gently into vegetables and heat through. Drain ratatouille in colander to remove excess oil. Return to pot, adjust seasoning and serve warm; or set aside to serve at room temperature; or cool slightly then chill in refrigerator 3 hours and serve cold.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

371 calories; 92 mg sodium; 0 mg cholesterol; 20 grams fat; 48 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams protein; 5.19 gram fiber.


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