So far, of all the food writers I have found who have chosen to focus their attention on the Côte d’Azur, I would say that Jacques Médecin has been my most reliable for daily/weekly cooking inspiration and the most thorough, featuring an impressive total of 320 Niçois recipes in his one-off cookbook.
First published in 1972, his La Bonne Cuisine du Comté de Nice has been re-released regularly over the last forty-odd years and the latest English version, Cuisine Niçoise: Recipes from a Mediterranean Kitchen was available to buy from the end of April this year (I bought myself a copy last week!)
Readers of the blog will know that I have really been enjoying another cookbook in my Côte d’Azur cookbook series, Richard Olney’s Lulu’s Provencal Table, and it provides a useful contrast, with its very different feel and purpose, to Médecin’s. Olney is telling a story, introducing a family whose food is adapted to suit their terroir (over near Toulon) and their tastes. And, while Médecin similarly peppers his writing with anecdotes about his own life and history, he has his multi-generational Niçois roots to draw on, unlike American Olney, to create an encyclopedic collection of recipes from Nice, not only his interpretations of a select few family favourite dishes from the region.
Jacques Médecin is evidently on a mission to educate his readers – and I wouldn’t sit on a sun-drenched terrace or beach, reading Médecin’s book like a novel, as I would Olney’s – but it is rapidly becoming a well-thumbed reference book in my kitchen.
Before I get on to the look of the Médecin cookbooks, some background. The Comté de Nice, the province, was a pocket of land that covered the coast from Monaco to Antibes; French only since 1860, its Italian connections are obvious in the food, the language and the architecture of this furthest south-eastern corner of France. Arable farming land in this area is limited and its trading history is long established, making ingredients like potatoes, a rarity in authentic Niçois recipes, and Skandinavian-sourced salt cod, a ubiquitous local delicacy. The food culture is essentially frugal and rustic (in spite of the famous “King of Chefs, Chef of Kings”, Auguste Escoffier, being a born and bred Cote d’Azureen!). And the influx of wealthy migrants to Nice, in wave after wave over the last centuries, mean that this particular collection of recipes includes the quintessentially British Christmas Pudding and the Russian nobles’ favourite, the cheesecake. I was furnished with the bulk of this information by Peter Graham’s great introduction to the English edition, Cuisine Niçoise: Recipes from a Mediterranean Kitchen, a good read on its own.
On to the look and the style of the books. These are small hardback books and the English version is the smallest, lighter and thinner than its French counterpart. The French version is sturdier, more durable. But both are a size that fits snugly on any ordinary bookcase, alongside paperback novels. And the size suits the ethos of the book. There are no fancy photos or diagrams to ruin with sauce splatters. These are recipes for anyone to try, no special cookbook shelf or impressive kitchen required; a book that should get covered in kitchen splashes and spills, a book to keep propped up between salt grinders and olive oil bottles, a book to shove in a shopping bag and take to the Marché Provençal. An everyday cook’s book.
Here are page comparisons between the two versions:
The new edition of the English version is published by Grub Street, the same publishers who produce Elizabeth David’s classics (and Lulu’s Provencal Table), and the production style of this book is identical to my 2007 copy of David’s French Provincial Cooking, as you can see below.
As a brief aside, another link between these two food writers, Jacques Médecin and Elizabeth David, is Antibes. Médecin, as the mayor of Nice, was found guilty of corruption following the publication of a pamphlet titled J’Accuse, written by the Antibes resident and writer, Graham Greene. While Elizabeth David met Norman Douglas, the inspiration for her future career as an exponent of Mediterranean food culture, in Antibes in 1939 (more on that meeting here: Elizabeth David’s Six Months in the Old Town of Antibes). People living in Antibes changed the trajectories of Médecin’s and David’s lives, bringing one down low and the other up high. Irrelevant to the modern day merits of the cookbooks, but I like the Antibes connection nonetheless.
On to the functionality of both cookbooks, I cooked the Spaghetti au Pistou from Médecin’s French cookbook for this blog in April and, if you have the option of choosing between the French and English versions, I recommend you buy the French. For the practical reason – showing off some of my own Niçois-style frugality! – that the book will last longer. Its production is more suited to withstand the rigors of a busy, messy kitchen; the pages are tougher, the book is heavier, the layout is clearer. With the recipes being so simple, and clearly laid out, even if your French is quite basic, I think this will be the better book for you, as it won’t take an online translator more than a few seconds to translate each recipe. But the English version is a lovely little book and, by all means, go for that one if you want something neater and easier to read, a good shelf-mate for your Elizabeth David collected works!
To buy the French version in Antibes, go along to the Librairie Masséna at 8/10 Avenue Robert Soleau, where they have a copy on sale for 19.90 euros. And an English copy can be ordered from Antibes Books at 13 Rue Georges Clemenceau. Amazon also has both…
For more writing about Jacques Médecin and his cookbook, I found the following links interesting:
- Passions and Crimes of a Nicois Cook by Colman Andrews in the LA Times, from 1995.
- Jacques Medecin’s 1998 obituary in the UK’s The Independent
- Felicity Cloake’s How to make the perfect salade nicoise from The Guardian in 2012.
- And a “highly recommend” book review on The Food Tourist by Sue Dyson and Roger McShane which mentions the Patisserie-Boulangerie Veziano in the old town of Antibes!