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Hancock

Taste of the French Riviera

Hancock woman’s cookbook offers treasures from her food quest

  • Hillary Davis's new cookbook features the cuisine of the French Riviera.
  • A batch of pistachio Parmesan chickpea fries, based on a recipe from a book by the former mayor of Nice.
  • Hillary Davis, center, with chef Nicholas Rondelli, to her left, and friends at a dinner at Rondelli's restaurant, Le Bigaradier, in Bar-sur-Loup, France.
  • A sweet Swiss chard tart uses rum-soaked raisins along with apples and pears for an elegant dessert.

Hillary Davis had been a “foodie” for years when she moved to France in the early 1990s. But when she moved to the village of Bar-sur-loup, perched high in the hills above the city of Nice, she discovered a style of French cuisine that was totally new to her.

“I thought I knew a lot,” Davis says, recalling her gradual discovery of the unique cuisine Niçoise. “My husband and I were Francophiles. I’d vacationed every year in France. I’d studied the French cookbooks. Then I found this cuisine I’d never heard of. I was truly surprised.”

So Davis spent the next 11 years on a quest, gathering recipes and learning both the culinary and political history of the tiny section of France tucked along the Mediterranean near the Italian border. Now she’s gathered that information in a new cookbook, “Cuisine Niçoise: Sun-kissed Cooking from the French Riviera.”

Davis, who lives in Hancock, is a food journalist, cooking instructor and writer and creator of the popular food blog, Marché Dimanche, where she posts recipes and information about food frequently. She also writes a monthly food column for New Hampshire Magazine.

Davis grew up in New Jersey, studied economics at Columbia University in New York City and then earned a Master of Philosophy degree in international relations from Cambridge University in England. She lived abroad for many years, working from London and Paris, before the move to Bar-sur-loup, where she lived for 11 years. Meanwhile, her parents had moved to Hancock about 30 years ago. She came home regularly to visit them, and about 10 years ago she returned from France to live with her elderly mother.

“Cuisine Niçoise” is her first published cookbook, although she did write an earlier book about international finance that she says is probably now out of print.

Davis says the style of cooking found around Nice is of humble origin. It emphasizes vegetables and fish and uses olive oil rather than butter or cream. She became an expert at combing the local open-air markets of the city and searching for the traditional recipes of the region.

“I bought the only cookbook available at the time. It was written by Jacques Medicin, who had been the mayor of Nice,”she says. “I visited all the restaurants. I got to know the chefs and waiters. I’d ask questions and they’d tell me things like, ‘My grandmother’s made this forever. I’ll get you the recipe.’ It was like a historical quest.”

Davis tells the story of the cuisine throughout the cookbook, introducing each recipe with a relevant story, about how to harvest olives from the trees in her yard, tilling the garden, getting fresh produce from the local farmers. She shares recipes from the region’s chefs and from neighbors like Madame up the hill, who welcomed her to the new home with a rustic plum tart and later taught her how to make numerous Niçoise dishes.

She says the cooks of the region became accustomed over many years to using what they have available.

“It’s not an area with a lot of cheeses. Everybody has a backyard garden and fruit trees. You really use what’s fresh from your garden and from the fish market. They adore Swiss chard. It’s the main ingredient in several of the recipes. But if they don’t have it, they use what’s available.”

Davis says an attraction of the cuisine is that it is so healthy.

“I have a recipe for pistachio Parmesan fries, made from chickpea flour, which is really solid protein. They’re gluten free, a great food to feed your kids, a really healthy snack.”

The recipes in Davis’ book include a range of appetizers, soups and salads — including the traditional Salade Niçoise with hard boiled eggs and anchovies. There’s a section devoted to pastas, risottos and pizzas — a nod to the influence of nearby Italy — and a collection of vegetable recipes. Davis also provides a variety of easy weeknight recipes, such as Swiss chard omelette, grilled swordfish and a one-pan chicken dinner, as well as a selection of more elegant Sunday suppers. And she doesn’t skip desserts, offering a range of treats, many made with fresh fruits.

Davis, who is working on a second cookbook that will focus on French family favorites, says she wrote “Cuisine Niçoise” to call attention to the unique character of the region.

“The food of the French Riviera is a bit under the radar,” she says. “It’s good for you and it’s tasty. I really wanted to bring it to life.”

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