Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter XVIII

Nice, September 2, 1764.

DEAR DOCTOR — I wrote in May to Mr. B— at Geneva, and gave him what information he desired to have, touching the conveniences of Nice. I shall now enter into the same detail, for the benefit of such of your friends or patients, as may have occasion to try this climate.

The journey from Calais to Nice, of four persons in a coach, or two post-chaises, with a servant on horseback, travelling post, may be performed with ease, for about one hundred and twenty pounds, including every expence. Either at Calais or at Paris, you will always find a travelling coach or berline, which you may buy for thirty or forty guineas, and this will serve very well to reconvey you to your own country.

In the town of Nice, you will find no ready-furnished lodgings for a whole family. Just without one of the gates, there are two houses to be let, ready-furnished, for about five loui’dores per month. As for the country houses in this neighbourhood, they are damp in winter, and generally without chimnies; and in summer they are rendered uninhabitable by the heat and the vermin. If you hire a tenement in Nice, you must take it for a year certain; and this will cost you about twenty pounds sterling. For this price, I have a ground floor paved with brick, consisting of a kitchen, two large halls, a couple of good rooms with chimnies, three large closets that serve for bed-chambers, and dressing-rooms, a butler’s room, and three apartments for servants, lumber or stores, to which we ascend by narrow wooden stairs. I have likewise two small gardens, well stocked with oranges, lemons, peaches, figs, grapes, corinths, sallad, and pot-herbs. It is supplied with a draw-well of good water, and there is another in the vestibule of the house, which is cool, large, and magnificent. You may hire furniture for such a tenement for about two guineas a month: but I chose rather to buy what was necessary; and this cost me about sixty pounds. I suppose it will fetch me about half the money when I leave the place. It is very difficult to find a tolerable cook at Nice. A common maid, who serves the people of the country, for three or four livres a month, will not live with an English family under eight or ten. They are all slovenly, slothful, and unconscionable cheats. The markets at Nice are tolerably well supplied. Their beef, which comes from Piedmont, is pretty good, and we have it all the year. In the winter we have likewise excellent pork, and delicate lamb; but the mutton is indifferent. Piedmont, also, affords us delicious capons, fed with maize; and this country produces excellent turkeys, but very few geese. Chickens and pullets are extremely meagre. I have tried to fatten them, without success. In summer they are subject to the pip, and die in great numbers. Autumn and winter are the seasons for game; hares, partridges, quails, wild-pigeons, woodcocks, snipes, thrushes, beccaficas, and ortolans. Wild-boar is sometimes found in the mountains: it has a delicious taste, not unlike that of the wild hog in Jamaica; and would make an excellent barbecue, about the beginning of winter, when it is in good case: but, when meagre, the head only is presented at tables. Pheasants are very scarce. As for the heath-game, I never saw but one cock, which my servant bought in the market, and brought home; but the commandant’s cook came into my kitchen, and carried it of, after it was half plucked, saying, his master had company to dinner. The hares are large, plump, and juicy. The partridges are generally of the red sort; large as pullets, and of a good flavour: there are also some grey partridges in the mountains; and another sort of a white colour, that weigh four or five pounds each. Beccaficas are smaller than sparrows, but very fat, and they are generally eaten half raw. The best way of dressing them is to stuff them into a roll, scooped of it’s crum; to baste them well with butter, and roast them, until they are brown and crisp. The ortolans are kept in cages, and crammed, until they die of fat, then eaten as dainties. The thrush is presented with the trail, because the bird feeds on olives. They may as well eat the trail of a sheep, because it feeds on the aromatic herbs of the mountain. In the summer, we have beef, veal, and mutton, chicken, and ducks; which last are very fat, and very flabby. All the meat is tough in this season, because the excessive heat, and great number of flies, will not admit of its being kept any time after it is killed. Butter and milk, though not very delicate, we have all the year. Our tea and fine sugar come from Marseilles, at a very reasonable price.

Nice is not without variety of fish; though they are not counted so good in their kinds as those of the ocean. Soals, and flat-fish in general, are scarce. Here are some mullets, both grey and red. We sometimes see the dory, which is called St Pierre; with rock-fish, bonita, and mackarel. The gurnard appears pretty often; and there is plenty of a kind of large whiting, which eats pretty well; but has not the delicacy of that which is caught on our coast. One of the best fish of this country, is called Le Loup, about two or three pounds in weight; white, firm, and well-flavoured. Another, no-way inferior to it, is the Moustel, about the same size; of a dark-grey colour, and short, blunt snout; growing thinner and flatter from the shoulders downwards, so as to resemble a soal at the tail. This cannot be the mustela of the antients, which is supposed to be the sea lamprey. Here too are found the vyvre, or, as we call it, weaver; remarkable for its long, sharp spines, so dangerous to the fingers of the fishermen. We have abundance of the saepia, or cuttle-fish, of which the people in this country make a delicate ragout; as also of the polype de mer, which is an ugly animal, with long feelers, like tails, which they often wind about the legs of the fishermen. They are stewed with onions, and eat something like cow-heel. The market sometimes affords the ecrivisse de mer, which is a lobster without claws, of a sweetish taste; and there are a few rock oysters, very small and very rank. Sometimes the fishermen find under water, pieces of a very hard cement, like plaister of Paris, which contain a kind of muscle, called la datte, from its resemblance to a date. These petrifactions are commonly of a triangular form and may weigh about twelve or fifteen pounds each and one of them may contain a dozen of these muscles which have nothing extraordinary in the taste or flavour, though extremely curious, as found alive and juicy, in the heart of a rock, almost as hard as marble, without any visible communication with the air or water. I take it for granted, however, that the inclosing cement is porous, and admits the finer parts of the surrounding fluid. In order to reach the muscles, this cement must be broke with large hammers; and it may be truly said, the kernal is not worth the trouble of cracking the shell. [These are found in great plenty at Ancona and other parts of the Adriatic, where they go by the name of Bollani, as we are informed by Keysler.] Among the fish of this country, there is a very ugly animal of the eel species, which might pass for a serpent: it is of a dusky, black colour, marked with spots of yellow, about eighteen inches, or two feet long. The Italians call it murena; but whether it is the fish which had the same name among the antient Romans, I cannot pretend to determine. The antient murena was counted a great delicacy, and was kept in ponds for extraordinary occasions. Julius Caesar borrowed six thousand for one entertainment: but I imagined this was the river lamprey. The murena of this country is in no esteem, and only eaten by the poor people.

Craw-fish and trout are rarely found in the rivers among the mountains. The sword-fish is much esteemed in Nice, and called l’empereur, about six or seven feet long: but I have never seen it. [Since I wrote the above letter, I have eaten several times of this fish, which is as white as the finest veal, and extremely delicate. The emperor associates with the tunny fish, and is always taken in their company.] They are very scarce; and when taken, are generally concealed, because the head belongs to the commandant, who has likewise the privilege of buying the best fish at a very low price. For which reason, the choice pieces are concealed by the fishermen, and sent privately to Piedmont or Genoa. But, the chief fisheries on this coast are of the sardines, anchovies, and tunny. These are taken in small quantities all the year; but spring and summer is the season when they mostly abound. In June and July, a fleet of about fifty fishing-boats puts to sea every evening about eight o’clock, and catches anchovies in immense quantities. One small boat sometimes takes in one night twenty-five rup, amounting to six hundred weight; but it must be observed, that the pound here, as well as in other parts of Italy, consists but of twelve ounces. Anchovies, besides their making a considerable article in the commerce of Nice, are a great resource in all families. The noblesse and burgeois sup on sallad and anchovies, which are eaten on all their meagre days. The fishermen and mariners all along this coast have scarce any other food but dry bread, with a few pickled anchovies; and when the fish is eaten, they rub their crusts with the brine. Nothing can be more delicious than fresh anchovies fried in oil: I prefer them to the smelts of the Thames. I need not mention, that the sardines and anchovies are caught in nets; salted, barrelled, and exported into all the different kingdoms and states of Europe. The sardines, however, are largest and fattest in the month of September. A company of adventurers have farmed the tunny-fishery of the king, for six years; a monopoly, for which they pay about three thousand pounds sterling. They are at a very considerable expence for nets, boats, and attendance. Their nets are disposed in a very curious manner across the small bay of St. Hospice, in this neighbourhood, where the fish chiefly resort. They are never removed, except in the winter, and when they want repair: but there are avenues for the fish to enter, and pass, from one inclosure to another. There is a man in a boat, who constantly keeps watch. When he perceives they are fairly entered, he has a method for shutting all the passes, and confining the fish to one apartment of the net, which is lifted up into the boat, until the prisoners are taken and secured. The tunny-fish generally runs from fifty to one hundred weight; but some of them are much larger. They are immediately gutted, boiled, and cut in slices. The guts and head afford oil: the slices are partly dried, to be eaten occasionally with oil and vinegar, or barrelled up in oil, to be exported. It is counted a delicacy in Italy and Piedmont, and tastes not unlike sturgeon. The famous pickle of the ancients, called garum, was made of the gills and blood of the tunny, or thynnus. There is a much more considerable fishery of it in Sardinia, where it is said to employ four hundred persons; but this belongs to the duc de St. Pierre. In the neighbourhood of Villa Franca, there are people always employed in fishing for coral and sponge, which grow adhering to the rocks under water. Their methods do not favour much of ingenuity. For the coral, they lower down a swab, composed of what is called spunyarn on board our ships of war, hanging in distinct threads, and sunk by means of a great weight, which, striking against the coral in its descent, disengages it from the rocks; and some of the pieces being intangled among the threads of the swab, are brought up with it above water. The sponge is got by means of a cross-stick, fitted with hooks, which being lowered down, fastens upon it, and tears it from the rocks. In some parts of the Adriatic and Archipelago, these substances are gathered by divers, who can remain five minutes below water. But I will not detain you one minute longer; though I must observe, that there is plenty of fine samphire growing along all these rocks, neglected and unknown. — Adieu.

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30