As the train jostled back and forth, I couldn't help but feel a bit intimidated. Rough-and-tumble Marseille was behind me and ahead: Nice, the pearl of the French Riviera, the playground of the rich and famous.
Even just the string of words, The French Riviera, rolls off the tongue with such sumptuousness. I braced myself against the train-tremors, the anticipation of upturned noses, and whatever the French equivalent of an affected British accent is.
It's true, just two blocks from my Airbnb floated a one-hundred-million dollar super-yacht, but it was nothing more than an entertaining focal point against the open ocean and worn, yet ornate French facades. Anything but the European version of Beverly Hills, the city was dynamic and brimming with surprise. Utterly relaxed, but in a buzzing way; soft, with a touch of wildness; we'll call it bohemian elegance.
It's best explored on foot. Even if public transit is an option (the bus system in Nice is outstanding), I try not to use it on my first full day in a new city. Until walking the roads myself, the lay of the land escapes me, and the lay of the land is precisely what I'm searching for to quickly quell any feeling of "tourist." The plan was: make it from the Port to Vieux Nice, wander, stop at Chez Theresa for lunch, wander, stop for gelato, wander, find the outdoor food & flower market, wander, and eventually backtrack to the Port using my best intuition. My planned stops were delicious and memorable, but it was the wandering which made way for moments that simply can't be planned.
The awe of stumbling upon an outdoor vintage book market. The even greater awe of arbitrarily choosing a book to flip through—gently, the pages are like moth's wings—and realizing it's a cookbook. A man on the street playing trumpet for a woman in her 3rd floor apartment and trying to discern whether she was charmed or annoyed. A park filled with men boxing; that was a first. Exquisite church interiors, perfect respite from the August sun. The market I planned to visit but ended up walking into by chance. And suddenly, the ocean! The last thing I expected to see after winding through the old, labyrinthine streets. Ah, sweet, sweet ocean breeze. And sweet, sweet orientation.
If you take only one thing away from this, let it be: wander more. Especially around Vieux Nice. Even the expected might end up surprising you.
If you take two things away, let the other be: eat pissaladiere from Chez Theresa. You'll see it everywhere, and they're all satisfying, but at least once it should be from this charming, 3-person operation. I'd had pissaladiere in Paris and was fully expecting a thin, round, Margherita pizza-style crust with a layer of deeply caramelized onions, a scatter of chopped black olives, and one glistening anchovy thoughtfully placed on each slice. But in the recipe's hometown of Nice, the dough was thick, square, and rich like focaccia, the golden but not caramelized onions were piled high and topped with one whole olive for each slice. Most often, there was not an anchovy in sight. I took every opportunity to indulge. A perfect street-snack, one for later just in case, even as others ate apricots and figs on the beach, I had my pissaladiere.
Now, back in Le Poet, there's a tray in the kitchen. Fluffy focaccia-style bread, complicated slightly with a pre-ferment that's so worth the extra planning; golden but not quite caramelized onions with garlic, thyme, and anchovy melted—yes, they melt—in for an unmatched umami saltiness; topped with just enough black olives for each bite, and fresh thyme.
Pissaladiere (serves 6-8, or 1, if you're me)
For the Onions
5 yellow onions
1/4c neutral oil (canola, sunflower)
1 TBS butter
1 tsp dried thyme
1 clove garlic, minced
*Nope, no salt! The anchovy we're melting in with the onions and the olives we'll add later provide all the salt necessary.
1. Cut onions, top to bottom, into quarter inch slices. It's okay to cry.
2. Heat 1/4c oil on medium heat until glistening and loose. Add onions and 2 anchovies, stir to coat onions with oil. Cover and adjust heat to medium-low. Cook for 20 minutes.
3. Stir and cook uncovered for 30 minutes.
4. Add butter, garlic, and dried thyme. Stir and cook for 30-45 minutes or until onions are a deep golden color.
5. Can be stored in refrigerator.
For the Bread
8-12 hours early, start the poolish. The poolish is a pre-ferment, which has a big impact on both flavor and texture. Bread's that use a poolish are chewier, with a more open structure--think a really good baguette--and that's exactly what I was looking for as the base for my pissaladiere.
There's wiggle-room on the timing: I let it sit at room temperature for 6 hours and then popped it in the fridge overnight (10 hours). You want to catch the poolish at its highest point to capitalize on its leavening capabilities and guarantee that open, chewy texture, so if you notice it has started to sink from it's "high water mark," I'd still use it, but adjust your timing accordingly for the next batch.
1c AP flour
1/4 tsp yeast
1. Mix until combined and allow to sit at room temperature for 8-12 hours, until doubled and size and bubbly, or at room temperature for 6 hours, and then overnight in the fridge.
All your poolish
3 1/2c flour
2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp instant yeast
2c lukewarm water
4 TBS olive oil
1. If using a mixer: Add poolish, yeast, flour, salt, and water to bowl. Dough will be wet and sticky. Mix on low until combined, and then turn up to medium for 5-7 minutes until dough is smooth. Transfer to oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap or tea towel for 1-1.5 hours, or until doubled in size.
If mixing by hand: Add poolish, yeast, flour, salt, and water to bowl. Dough will be wet and sticky. Mix with a wooden spoon for 10-15 minutes, or until dough is smooth. Transfer to oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap or tea towel for 1-1.5 hours, or until doubled in size.
2. After dough has doubled, preheat oven to 400 degrees and prepare a 9x13" sheet tray or casserole dish with olive oil and parchment paper. Parchment paper highly recommended, this bread is sticky. Focaccia is typically baked on a sheet tray, which I don't have here, but I might actually prefer the glass casserole dish, as I could clearly see when the bottom was dry.
3. Use a fork to loosen the dough from the bowl, lift, and fold the dough over on itself. Make a quarter turn, repeat. Repeat 4-8 folds until dough is beginning to hold a shape. It's okay if it's not a firm ball.
4. Transfer dough to baking pan and cover with 2 TBS olive oil. Let sit for 20 minutes.
5. Stretch and press dough to fit baking pan. If it's resisting or springing back, allow to rest another 10 minutes.
6. Evenly coat top with remaining 2 TBS olive oil.
7. Bake for 20-25 minutes, rotating once. If it's browning too much on top, cover with foil.
8. Allow to cool.
Note: this would be a really great sandwich bread. If using for sandwiches, sprinkle 1 TBS kosher salt and 2 TBS chopped fresh rosemary to the top before baking.
1/2c Kalamata or wrinkled black olives, pitted and sliced
2 TBS fresh thyme, chopped
1. Spread onions evenly on cooled focaccia.
2. Sprinkle sliced olives evenly over onions.
3. Sprinkle thyme leaves evenly over top.
4. Enjoy cold, at room temperature, or warmed.