I’ve just had an email from my brother, who was talking about shale gas (his speciality) to an audience in Paris. He told me he’d thought of me and my sister Sarah when he saw Pepperidge Farm cookies in Monoprix, which is an upmarket supermarket chain here in France. I think of Pepperidge Farm cookies as the best in the Western world (possibly the Universe). The main ingredient that contributes to their bestness is nostalgia. The moment I even catch a glimpse of the crisp, clean packaging, I remember eating them with my mother, with mugs of coffee into which she poured cream instead of milk, a treat I continued to adore with her even after I started preferring my coffee black, no sugar, years ago.
By considering them the best, I’m being a bit of a hypocrite. I dislike it when people rabbit on about things being the best, as in “Oh. My. God. You’ve never had Juniors Cheesecake? It’s the best” and “I can’t believe it! You bought a Vaillant combi-boiler? But Glow-Worm boilers are the best!” It inevitably makes me feel that everyone studiously researches their cheesecakes and boilers (for example), thus being able to make informed decisions, which I, fool, am incapable of understanding.Here in Nice, the bestness of socca is one of the things people seem to get exercised about. Socca is made from a batter of chickpea flour, water and olive oil, poured into an enormous flat pan and cooked in a wood fire in a sort of pizza oven. The socca-maker scrapes it up with a spatula thingie that looks to me like a painter-and-decorator’s implement. You sprinkle on lots of pepper, et voilà. Joel and I really like Rene Socca in Vieux Nice because 1) I like it a bit soggy and 2) Joel says he’d run away with the socca-seller if he could, just to tease me. She’s not thin, hasn’t experienced much dental care, doesn’t appear to have a washing machine, must be too busy for showers, has stubby, grubby fingers, and smokes like a chimney outside the door on her breaks. At least, I assume he’s teasing me. Reason Number 3) is because the waiter at the café next door, where you can sit with your paper plate of peppery socca and have a drink, is relentlessly good-humoured and has a trendy little beard. But people STILL insist that other socca places are the best. That’s why this week I’ve been twice to Chez Pipo. Its outdoor tables are always crowded, including the one set up inside a photogenic old VW bus parked right outside. The socca is very thin and crisp, but so are the staff. Right around the corner is Socca d’Or, which is a bit more to my soggy taste, and I like the restaurant’s tininess. It’s so tiny that there are only eight or 10 seats, so you have to factor in the risk of disappointment. I wanted this week’s visitors (Casey! Gloria!) to have The Best, and, being easily swayed, we went for thin and crisp at Chez Pipo rather than a bit soggy and full of humanity at Rene Socca. Which would you prefer? It’s all relative, as they say. Joel told me I was becoming Nicoise yesterday, when I insisted we went back to the boulangerie near That Place (the studio) to buy our pan bagnats, the last ones we’re likely to have this season as a picnic lunch on the beach. The boulangerie bakes its own big, round, crunchy breads, the ‘pan’, which is then filled with tuna, olives, salads, tomatoes, hard-boiled egg and anchovies and LOADS of olive oil. I resisted saying they are the crunchy best, because there are hundreds of places you can buy them, and I’v only tasted a few. When Casey and I bought two at another place for our picnic lunch on the way to Monaco, I noticed the bread wasn’t as crunchy. However, they were dripping deliciously with oil, and the spot we found, in the shade of an Aleppo pine by the quiet shore in Cap d’Ail, was nearly perfect. They were the best we had that day, for sure. Kind of like Pepperidge Farm cookies might have many detractors, but they are the best I ever had with my mother when she was happy, making them the best ever. Ever.