On our first “date”, Joel and I went to see the movie Gandhi, with Ben Kingsley, which came out in 1982. It must have been later that year or in 1983 that I first visited Nice. His dad was still alive, Michele was still married to Daniel, my niece Manou was an adorable toddler, my mother-in-law Denise was younger than I am now. I guess they were trying not to impress me, exactly, but to make me happy – happy enough to stay with their son if that’s what he wanted. To that end, they did what would make them happy. They fed me. When I arrived, there was a big casserole cooling down on the balcony by the kitchen, a saucy-looking thing with birds’ feet sticking out of it. That was for the next day’s lunch. The arrival day’s lunch was horse-meat steak. Horse meat was much more popular then than now. You can still see a few old tiled horse-meat butcher shops with a horse’s head on the wall outside and “chevaline” marked in the wall, but they are just as likely to have been re-fashioned as vintage clothes stores. I ate everything with a polite smile, but felt mightily challenged.
The first time I ate sea urchins must also have been at my parents-in-laws’ dining table. I have a vivid picture of Denise with a pair of stout scissors in hand, wearing one yellow rubber glove to hold the sea urchin, sitting at the table snipping circles out of the spiny shells to expose the rust-coloured roe inside. Once we’d teaspooned the five strips of roe out onto buttered bread, we’d throw the shells into a plastic-lined box by her feet. They were always accompanied by icy white wine. Despite their prickly, glossy spines and the gelatinous black stuff surrounding the roe, I loved them. It’s hard to explain their taste – refreshing like the sea, but less salty and warmer.
During the winter, the restaurant serves Corsican oysters, which are a bit of a delicacy here, and very popular. Michele is a whizz at opening them. The oyster supplier called the other day to say he had some Mediterranean sea urchins from the Var, just a few miles down the coast. Rather than buy them for the customers, everyone immediately ordered a bunch for themselves. Mika counted them out when they arrived, and Joel carried our three dozen home carefully in a plastic-wrapped ice box, like special cargo. They aren’t rare, but I don’t think they’re often farmed industrially, so supplies are irregular and limited. You can only harvest them professionally from October to April, and they’re only very fat with delicious eggs at the very end of that season. Even at the Cafe De Turin, one of the best seafood restaurants in Nice, you never know if they’ll be around. We were there having coffee one morning when a delivery of oursins, sea urchins, arrived. The cry went up, “Les oursins sont arrivés!” – the sea urchins are here! There was a real buzz.
Japanese restaurants serve the roe as “uni”, and some restaurants serve it warmed up or in sauces, or as part of sauces, or all sorts of things. But I like it scooped straight out of the freshly cut shell with a teaspoon and dropped onto a thin slice of buttered baguette. Then we drop the empty shells into a box under the table, just like we’d be shown. We wouldn’t have it any other way.