Cuisine Nissarde an Interview with Alex Benvenuto of Nice
Born in Nice, Alex Benvenuto has lived in this French Riviera city for most of his life and is passionate about the local culinary traditions – the Cuisine Nissarde. The Côte d’Azur native has a diverse resume of educational, work, and leisure pursuits. After graduating with a Doctorate in Economics and Psycho-sociology, he lectured at Université Nice Sophia Antipolis while working in the financial sector for a French bank. However, his other diversions include playing jazz, historical research, and writing. Mr Benvenuto is the author of 27 books and countless articles.
A Brief History of Nice
Located about 30 km from the Italian border, the City of Nice enjoys a privileged position on the sparkling Mediterranean Sea. The Phocaeans (Greek mariners) established a settlement in this location in about 350 BC. However, in the 1st century AD, the Romans further developed Nice, adding it to their land and sea trading network. The town’s history was turbulent; passing between Provence and Savoy counts until, in 1860, Nice officially became part of France under the Treaty of Turin.
Nice has a long tourism history. During the winter, the mild climate attracted wealthy northerners, many from England. The construction of the Promenade des Anglais (1821-24), along the Baie des Anges, predated the Belle Époque by only a few years. The period from about 1871-1914 marked a climax in the economic prosperity of Nice and the French Riviera, as the area became a coveted holiday destination for many wealthy winter visitors. These wealthy foreigners would gather on the Promenade and spend their time between prestigious social events and gaming houses.
What is Cuisine Nissarde?
Greatly influenced by the city’s proximity to Italy and the historically fluid French-Italian border, Nice’s cuisine draws a delicious path from its past and ready access to ingredients. Many traditional recipes from Nice use local ingredients, including Swiss chard, pumpkin, tomatoes, cabbage, seafood, cheeses, olives and much more.
Le Cercle de la Capelina d’Or, a dedicated group of culinary experts, established the “Cuisine Nissarde” label in 1995. Now, the Tourism Office manages the brand and maintains a list of restaurants and purveyors who uphold the standards and dedication to promoting the historical cuisine of Nice. Restaurateurs serving traditional dishes with local ingredients are awarded the label and allowed to display the Cuisine Nissarde icon. This distinction rewards chefs who use quality, seasonal ingredients in their traditional recipes.
Alex Benvenuto Culinary Champion
Alex Benvenuto was the oldest child in his family, and his parents felt that learning French was critical for his studies. He only began learning the Niçoise language in high school. As a result, today, Mr Benvenuto is not only a defender of the city’s culinary traditions but also of the interlinked culture and heritage.
Your paternal grandfather influenced your interest in cooking. What was his favourite Niçoise dish?
Tripe à la niçoise and beef daube were two dishes he often ate with friends in the Magnan and Madeleine neighbourhoods at the local bistros.
What is your favourite savoury dish?
La morue aux poireaux (cod with leeks) it’s a good link between the sea and the mountains.
How about a dessert recipe?
La tourte de blette (Swiss chard pie), of course. But also sweet panisses. And grapes picked from my garden. In the Nice language, la frucha (singular) means fruit and li frucha (plural) means dessert.
What recipe do you feel is emblematic of Nissarde cuisine?
Soupe au pistou enjoyed with friends. Pistou soup is a hearty broth with vegetables, pasta, and pistou (similar to Italian pesto but without parmesan).
How would you describe your book, the “Carnets de cuisine du Comté de Nice”?
The book is a way of transmitting an identity of the city and the local region. By identity, I mean what we have in common, our attachment to the sea and the mountains, a shared love of this mesclun mix of history, language and even cuisine!
The “Cuisine Nissarde” label was launched in 1995 by the Cercle de la Capelina d’Or members. Today, managed by the Tourist Office and a technical committee of which you are a member. Do you think this label encourages restaurants and chefs to perpetuate traditional recipes?
Yes, of course, to perpetuate and evolve by respecting the basic rules.
The application for recognition by UNESCO of the Cuisine Niçoise took place in 2019. Has there been an update on this process?
In 2019, we obtained the inscription of Nice’s cuisine as a national intangible cultural heritage, already a great recognition. Our ambition would now be to represent Mediterranean cuisine for France at UNESCO by linking it to the registration already obtained by many countries for the “Mediterranean diet.”
Carnets de cuisine du Comté de Nice
Published in May 2018, Carnets de cuisine du Comté de Nice is both a cookbook and a tribute to the essence of Cuisine Nissarde. Within the book’s 191 pages are many traditional sweet and savoury recipes. Intended for sharing with family and friends, these recipes reflect the evolution of the cultural heritage of the City of Nice. The Technical Committee of the Cuisine Nissarde label has tested the recipes within the book.