I first saw Niçoise tomatoes in an air-conditioned gourmet store in our home town of Bengaluru. They were swaddled in paper tissue and had a label that said they were “vine-ripened”. I felt like I’d discovered a rare postage stamp from an unknown country. I picked up a couple of these prohibitively expensive beauties, sniffed in their tart aroma, and made a mental note to google “Nice”.
A month later and thousands of kilometres away, here I am, in an old market fringed by the azure Mediterranean, staring at tomatoes again. From dwarf green variants to oversized and ridged red specimens, the food stands in the Cours Saleya market are exploding with the fruit. August is tomato season on the French Riviera and every dish is liberally sauced, every salad has an abundance of red, and every sandwich is generously filled with tomatoes. It is the star ingredient in several specialities of Cuisine Nissarde, as the fare of the French Riviera and Nice is known.
My husband and I feast on fresh seafood platters, luscious local fruit, cured meats, and all sorts of tomatoes. Even the simplest dishes are delicious. The coeur de boeuf (or bull’s heart; a variety of tomato) doused in virgin olive oil, with fresh mozzarella, cracked pepper and sea salt, is a lesson in simplicity. Then there is the Salad Niçoise, a French culinary icon and a personal favourite. Tuna, anchovies, sun-ripened tomatoes, black olives, artichokes, fava beans, and hard-boiled eggs come together in a symphony of flavours that is an ode to the sun and sea.
There is something about the tomatoes in these parts that complements the innate style of the breezy seaside town. I contemplate this association as I watch gorgeous women in designer hats walking down the seaside Promenade des Anglais with their little dogs. Sleek cars in shades of the tomato glide up to the porch of the dazzling Le Negresco hotel. In the distance, azure waters glitter invitingly. Part French, part Italian, and all Mediterranean, Nice’s beautiful people enjoy bohemia as much as manicured indulgence.
The backpacker and the luxury traveller jostle for space at the same cafés in vibrant Old Town. Art enthusiasts follow the Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall trails. Worshippers of haute couture pay their respects at designer boutiques, while the hipster lot trawl street stalls for quirky, vintage clothing. There are Michelin-star meals to be had, but there are also historic open-air markets like Cours Saleya, that are a treat for lovers of the tomato.
It has been some time since I returned from Nice. Memories of that vacation have since softened from the sharp clarity of a photograph to the fluid strokes of an impressionist painting. But I still remember the tomatoes, and a single moment that I chose to preserve by scribbling a line on a ticket stub.
“This is our first day at the beach,” the note says. “The wind is in my hair, the sun warms my face, my toes curl against the smooth pebbles under my feet. There is a fromage-and-heirloom-tomato platter balancing on my knees, a glass of bubbly within arm’s length. The man I love is sunning himself by my side. I think Nice is going to be quite lovely indeed.”
Appeared in the July 2014 issue as “Seeing Red”.
Diya Kohli is the former Senior Associate Editor at National Geograpic Traveller India. She loves the many stories of big old cities. For her, the best kind of travel experience involves long rambling walks through labyrinthine lanes with plenty of food stops along the way.