If kale has taken over much of the western world, even popping up in the past few months at the Nice markets, it’s hard to imagine the locals ever giving up their Swiss chard, known in French as blettes. Requiring almost no care and only the small amount of water that falls from the sky here, this smooth-leafed relative of beetroot with white or rainbow-colored stems has been a staple of the local cuisine for centuries. Most common during the summer months is a thin-ribbed variety known as spinach chard, while in winter the farmers sell giant, deep green leaves with a thick stem that needs to be cooked separately.
More substantial than spinach, chard has made its way into dishes such as the green gnocchi known as merda di can (less romantically, “dog poop”), niçois ravioli (where it stretches out leftovers of the beef stew called daube), stuffed fresh sardines, and the pie called tourte de blettes. As any local will tell you, this comes in two versions, savory and sweet. The first includes bacon, parmesan, rice and egg, while the second combines the finely chopped greens with raisins, pine nuts and rum, with parmesan and apple or pear as optional ingredients. Bakeries sprinkle a thick layer of powdered sugar on the top crust of the sweet one to avoid confusion, as with their dark green fillings they otherwise look much the same.
Unusual as it might seem, this vegetable-based dessert is not such a rarity in a region where fruit is abundant in the summer but more scarce during the winter, apart from the citrus trees that dot the coast. Further up in the mountains, cooks made creative use of whatever they had available: a farmer once gave me a recipe for a dessert from her village made with dried fava beans and anise, making me promise not to tell it came from her. As food writer Camille Oger points out in her excellent blog post on tourte de blettes (in French), people here also have a taste for salty-sweet combinations, as in pissaladière, a tart of almost candied onions with salty anchovy. Like pissaladière, the double-crusted tourte de blettes was substantial enough to be carried into the fields for the merenda, or mid-morning snack. The pastry could be made with olive oil rather than butter, which became readily available only in the last century.
Since tourte de blettes is a bit of a production to make at home, most people buy it at the bakery or at one of the many street food stands that dot the Old Town and the Port area. Locals have strong feelings about who makes the best tourte de blettes, and while I find most of them enjoyable, I was curious to see how they would stand up to each other side-by-side. I chose eight examples from bakeries or street food stands that were either recommended by friends or personal favorites of the panel members. Two others I would have liked to include but couldn’t that day were Chez Pipo’s (best known for its socca, but also with an excellent tourte) and the one from the Old Town bakery La Fougasserie, which gets two thumbs-up from my tourte de blettes-loving son.
Our tasting panel included two native Niçoises: Karine, who works as my assistant and tour guide at Les Petits Farcis, and Sabine, a top-level tea expert and professionally trained taster. I also invited Mel, a British expat who writes a witty blog about Nice, and Laurie, an American who spends time in Nice every year. If some were more generous than others with their scores, we generally agreed on which we preferred, with two of the tourtes dominating the pack and one being almost simultaneously spat out by all of us.
We gave separate scores for the crust, filling, freshness and overall sensation, or deliciousness. In tourte de blettes, the difficulty seems to lie in not making it "too chardy" (a term coined by Mel) and achieving the right proportion of filling to crust: some were dramatically taller than others, with a generous layer of filling, while others seemed flat in comparison. Prices range from €2-€4, with the average being around €2.50; the €4 tourte was larger than the others, and the only triangular slice. Apart from me, no-one knew the origins of the tourtes.
La Boulangerie du Palais (14.8/20)
21 rue du Marché, Nice. No phone.
€2.50 a slice.
Just around the corner from Place du Palais in the Old Town, this bakery always has a queue out the door for its delicious breads and gargantuan cakes. The tourte de blettes sucrée is no exception: this was the most generously filled of those we tested. But size is not everything, and what we liked about this tourte was its lightness and the fruitiness that came from small chunks of pear. "A pleasure", wrote Mel, which summed up most of our feelings, although Karine gave this one a lower score for overall sensation, finding the flavor a little flat.
Socca du Cours (13.9/20)
In front of 1 Cours Saleya, at the top end of the food market. No phone.
€4 a slice
Former vegetable vendor Marie-Thérèse opened her street food stand on Cours Saleya only last year, but it has quickly established a reputation as being one of the best in town. She makes a round tourte de blettes that she cuts into generous wedges, which explains the higher price. Sabine and I rated this one highest, but it lost points with others who found the rum flavor overpowering.
Patisserie Serain-Cappa (12.2/20)
7 place Garibaldi, Nice. Tel: 04.93.62.30.83.
€3 a slice
I had high hopes for this one since it came from a chic pâtisserie rather than a bakery and was recommended by a Niçois friend who is a tourte de blettes connoisseur. Though its achieved a nice flavor balance, earning an overall score of 18/20 from Sabine, it lost some points for the texture of its chard, which was almost puréed.
Les Délices de Borriglione (12.2/20)
30 avenue Alfred Borriglione, Nice. Tel: 04.93.84.55.
€2.50 a slice
This bakery north of Libération market on avenue Borriglione is renowned for the quality of its breads and also its savory and sweet tarts. With less filling than other tourtes, it didn't offend anyone's sensibilities, but neither did it blow anyone's socks off.
L'Epi de Blé (11.2/20)
23 boulevard Joseph Garnier, Nice. Tel: 04.93.52.40.11.
€2.20 a slice
From a bakery in the Libération market area that does some great specialty breads, this tourte got two hearts from Karine, who rated it highest for its subtle, not-to-sweet flavor. I found the chard a little watery and both Mel and Laurie accused it of being "too Swiss chardy".
René Socca (9.8/20)
2 rue Miralheti, Nice. Tel: 04.93.95.85.87.
€2 a slice
This famed street food stand in the Old Town has a wood-fired oven, which promised to bring something special to its tourte. I liked the texture of the crust, though Laurie commented that it was thick in proportion to the filling. It lost points with everyone, though, for an unpleasant bitter almond flavor.
La Boulangerie du Port (9.6/20)
11 rue Fodéré, Nice. Tel: 04.93.89.71.28.
€2.30 a slice
One of the best bakeries in the Port area, La Boulangerie du Port failed to shine with its tourte. Though I liked the sweetness of the crust, Laurie found her sample soggy, and Mel described it as "regretful, Swiss chardy". Our biggest complaint was the pieces of stem in the filling, which made the chard flavor stronger and the tart less refined than others we tasted.
Boulangerie Veziano (3.2/20)
2 rue de la Pompe, Antibes (04.93.34.05.46)
€2 a slice
Run by the same family since 1924, Veziano is one of the few bakeries outside Nice to attempt the tourte de blettes. Though I had read a glowing review, our sample fell completely flat, with a taste that could only be described as "off". Perhaps it's a mistake to try to make tourte de blettes outside the former county of Nice.