Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter XIX

Nice, October 10, 1764.

DEAR SIR — Before I tell you the price of provisions at Nice, it will be necessary to say something of the money. The gold coin of Sardinia consists of the doppia di savoia, value twenty-four livres Piedmontese, about the size of a loui’dore; and the mezzo doppia, or piece of twelve livres. In silver, there is the scudo of six livres, the mezzo scudo of three; and the quarto, or pezza di trenta soldi: but all these are very scarce. We seldom see any gold and silver coin, but the loui’dore, and the six, and three-livre Pieces of France; a sure sign that the French suffer by their contraband commerce with the Nissards. The coin chiefly used at market is a piece of copper silvered, that passes for seven sols and a half; another of the same sort, valued two sols and a half. They have on one side the impression of the king’s head; and on the other, the arms of Savoy, with a ducal crown, inscribed with his name and titles. There are of genuine copper, pieces of one sol, stamped on one side with a cross fleuree; and on the reverse, with the king’s cypher and crown, inscribed as the others: finally, there is another small copper piece, called piccalon, the sixth part of a sol, with a plain cross, and on the reverse, a slip-knot surmounted with a crown; the legend as above. The impression and legend on the gold and silver coins, are the same as those on the pieces of seven sols and a half. The livre of Piedmont consists of twenty sols, and is very near of the same value as an English shilling: ten sols, therefore, are equal to six-pence sterling. Butcher’s meat in general sells at Nice for three sols a pound; and veal is something dearer: but then there are but twelve ounces in the pound, which being allowed for, sixteen ounces, come for something less than twopence halfpenny English. Fish commonly sells for four sols the twelve ounces, or five for the English pound; and these five are equivalent to three-pence of our money: but sometimes we are obliged to pay five, and even six sols for the Piedmontese pound of fish. A turkey that would sell for five or six shillings at the London market, costs me but three at Nice. I can buy a good capon for thirty sols, or eighteen-pence; and the same price I pay for a brace of partridges, or a good hare. I can have a woodcock for twenty-four sols; but the pigeons are dearer than in London. Rabbits are very rare; and there is scarce a goose to be seen in the whole county of Nice. Wild-ducks and teal are sometimes to be had in the winter; and now I am speaking of sea-fowl, it may not be amiss to tell you what I know of the halcyon, or king’s-fisher. It is a bird, though very rare in this country about the size of a pigeon; the body brown, and the belly white: by a wonderful instinct it makes its nest upon the surface of the sea, and lays its eggs in the month of November, when the Mediterranean is always calm and smooth as a mill-pond. The people about here call them martinets, because they begin to hatch about Martinmass. Their nests are sometimes seen floating near the shore, and generally become the prize of the boys, who are very alert in catching them.

You know all sea-birds are allowed by the church of Rome to be eaten on meagre days, as a kind of fish; and the monks especially do not fail to make use of this permission. Sea turtle, or tortoises, are often found at sea by the mariners, in these latitudes: but they are not the green sort, so much in request among the aldermen of London. All the Mediterranean turtle are of the kind called loggerhead, which in the West-Indies are eaten by none but hungry seamen, negroes, and the lowest class of people. One of these, weighing about two hundred pounds, was lately brought on shore by the fishermen of Nice, who found it floating asleep on the surface of the sea. The whole town was alarmed at sight of such a monster, the nature of which they could not comprehend. However, the monks, called minims, of St. Francesco di Paolo, guided by a sure instinct, marked it as their prey, and surrounded it accordingly. The friars of other convents, not quite so hungry, crowding down to the beach, declared it should not be eaten; dropped some hints about the possibility of its being something praeternatural and diabolical, and even proposed exorcisms and aspersions with holy water. The populace were divided according to their attachment to this, or that convent: a mighty clamour arose; and the police, in order to remove the cause of their contention, ordered the tortoise to be recommitted to the waves; a sentence which the Franciscans saw executed, not without sighs and lamentation. The land-turtle, or terrapin, is much better known at Nice, as being a native of this country; yet the best are brought from the island of Sardinia. The soup or bouillon of this animal is always prescribed here as a great restorative to consumptive patients. The bread of Nice is very indifferent, and I am persuaded very unwholesome. The flour is generally musty, and not quite free of sand. This is either owing to the particles of the mill-stone rubbed off in grinding, or to what adheres to the corn itself, in being threshed upon the common ground; for there are no threshing-floors in this country. I shall now take notice of the vegetables of Nice. In the winter, we have green pease, asparagus, artichoaks, cauliflower, beans, French beans, celery, and endive; cabbage, coleworts, radishes, turnips, carrots, betteraves, sorrel lettuce, onions, garlic, and chalot. We have potatoes from the mountains, mushrooms, champignons, and truffles. Piedmont affords white truffles, counted the most delicious in the world: they sell for about three livres the pound. The fruits of this season are pickled olives, oranges, lemons, citrons, citronelles, dried figs, grapes, apples, pears, almonds, chestnuts, walnuts, filberts, medlars, pomegranates, and a fruit called azerolles, [The Italians call them Lazerruoli.] about the size of a nutmeg, of an oblong shape, red colour, and agreeable acid taste. I might likewise add the cherry of the Laurus cerasus, which is sold in the market; very beautiful to the eye, but insipid to the palate. In summer we have all those vegetables in perfection. There is also a kind of small courge, or gourd, of which the people of the country make a very savoury ragout, with the help of eggs, cheese, and fresh anchovies. Another is made of the badenjean, which the Spaniards call berengena: [This fruit is called Melanzana in Italy and is much esteemed by the Jews in Leghorn. Perhaps Melanzana is a corruption of Malamsana.] it is much eaten in Spain and the Levant, as well as by the Moors in Barbary. It is about the size and shape of a hen’s egg, inclosed in a cup like an acorn; when ripe, of a faint purple colour. It grows on a stalk about a foot high, with long spines or prickles. The people here have different ways of slicing and dressing it, by broiling, boiling, and stewing, with other ingredients: but it is at best an insipid dish. There are some caperbushes in this neighbourhood, which grow wild in holes of garden walls, and require no sort of cultivation: in one or two gardens, there are palm-trees; but the dates never ripen. In my register of the weather, I have marked the seasons of the principal fruits in this country. In May we have strawberries, which continue in season two or three months. These are of the wood kind; very grateful, and of a good flavour; but the scarlets and hautboys are not known at Nice. In the beginning of June, and even sooner, the cherries begin to be ripe. They are a kind of bleeding hearts; large, fleshy, and high flavoured, though rather too luscious. I have likewise seen a few of those we call Kentish cherries which are much more cool, acid, and agreeable, especially in this hot climate. The cherries are succeeded by the apricots and peaches, which are all standards, and of consequence better flavoured than what we call wall-fruit. The trees, as well as almonds, grow and bear without care and cultivation, and may be seen in the open fields about Nice. but without proper culture, the fruit degenerates. The best peaches I have seen at Nice are the amberges, of a yellow hue, and oblong shape, about the size of a small lemon. Their consistence is much more solid than that of our English peaches, and their taste more delicious. Several trees of this kind I have in my own garden. Here is likewise plenty of other sorts; but no nectarines. We have little choice of plumbs. Neither do I admire the pears or apples of this country: but the most agreeable apples I ever tasted, come from Final, and are called pomi carli. The greatest fault I find with most fruits in this climate, is, that they are too sweet and luscious, and want that agreeable acid which is so cooling and so grateful in a hot country. This, too, is the case with our grapes, of which there is great plenty and variety, plump and juicy, and large as plumbs. Nature, however, has not neglected to provide other agreeable vegetable juices to cool the human body. During the whole summer, we have plenty of musk melons. I can buy one as large as my head for the value of an English penny: but one of the best and largest, weighing ten or twelve pounds, I can have for twelve sols, or about eight-pence sterling. From Antibes and Sardinia, we have another fruit called a watermelon, which is well known in Jamaica, and some of our other colonies. Those from Antibes are about the size of an ordinary bomb-shell: but the Sardinian and Jamaica watermelons are four times as large. The skin is green, smooth, and thin. The inside is a purple pulp, studded with broad, flat, black seeds, and impregnated with a juice the most cool, delicate, and refreshing, that can well be conceived. One would imagine the pulp itself dissolved in the stomach; for you may eat of it until you are filled up to the tongue, without feeling the least inconvenience. It is so friendly to the constitution, that in ardent inflammatory fevers, it is drank as the best emulsion. At Genoa, Florence, and Rome, it is sold in the streets, ready cut in slices; and the porters, sweating under their burthens, buy, and eat them as they pass. A porter of London quenches his thirst with a draught of strong beer: a porter of Rome, or Naples, refreshes himself with a slice of water-melon, or a glass of iced-water. The one costs three half-pence; the last, half a farthing — which of them is most effectual? I am sure the men are equally pleased. It is commonly remarked, that beer strengthens as well as refreshes. But the porters of Constantinople, who never drink any thing stronger than water, and eat very little animal food, will lift and carry heavier burthens than any other porters in the known world. If we may believe the most respectable travellers, a Turk will carry a load of seven hundred weight, which is more (I believe) than any English porter ever attempted to carry any length of way.

Among the refreshments of these warm countries, I ought not to forget mentioning the sorbettes, which are sold in coffee-houses, and places of public resort. They are iced froth, made with juice of oranges, apricots, or peaches; very agreeable to the palate, and so extremely cold, that I was afraid to swallow them in this hot country, until I found from information and experience, that they may be taken in moderation, without any bad consequence.

Another considerable article in house-keeping is wine, which we have here good and reasonable. The wine of Tavelle in Languedoc is very near as good as Burgundy, and may be had at Nice, at the rate of six-pence a bottle. The sweet wine of St. Laurent, counted equal to that of Frontignan, costs about eight or nine-pence a quart: pretty good Malaga may be had for half the money. Those who make their own wine choose the grapes from different vineyards, and have them picked, pressed, and fermented at home.

That which is made by the peasants, both red and white, is generally genuine: but the wine-merchants of Nice brew and balderdash, and even mix it with pigeons dung and quick-lime. It cannot be supposed, that a stranger and sojourner should buy his own grapes, and make his own provision of wine: but he may buy it by recommendation from the peasants, for about eighteen or twenty livres the charge, consisting of eleven rup five pounds; in other words, of two hundred and eighty pounds of this country, so as to bring it for something less than three-pence a quart. The Nice wine, when mixed with water, makes an agreeable beverage. There is an inferior sort for servants drank by the common people, which in the cabaret does not cost above a penny a bottle. The people here are not so nice as the English, in the management of their wine. It is kept in flacons, or large flasks, without corks, having a little oil at top. It is not deemed the worse for having been opened a day or two before; and they expose it to the hot sun, and all kinds of weather, without hesitation. Certain it is, this treatment has little or no effect upon its taste, flavour, and transparency.

The brandy of Nice is very indifferent: and the liqueurs are so sweetened with coarse sugar, that they scarce retain the taste or flavour of any other ingredient.

The last article of domestic oeconomy which I shall mention is fuel, or wood for firing, which I buy for eleven sols (a little more than six-pence halfpenny) a quintal, consisting of one hundred and fifty pound Nice weight. The best, which is of oak, comes from Sardinia. The common sort is olive, which being cut with the sap in it, ought to be laid in during the summer; otherwise, it will make a very uncomfortable fire. In my kitchen and two chambers, I burned fifteen thousand weight of wood in four weeks, exclusive of charcoal for the kitchen stoves, and of pine-tops for lighting the fires. These last are as large as pineapples, which they greatly resemble in shape, and to which, indeed, they give their name; and being full of turpentine, make a wonderful blaze. For the same purpose, the people of these countries use the sarments, or cuttings of the vines, which they sell made up in small fascines. This great consumption of wood is owing to the large fires used in roasting pieces of beef, and joints, in the English manner. The roasts of this country seldom exceed two or three pounds of meat; and their other plats are made over stove holes. But it is now high time to conduct you from the kitchen, where you have been too long detained by — Your humble servant.

P.S. — I have mentioned the prices of almost all the articles in house-keeping, as they are paid by the English: but exclusive of butcher’s meat, I am certain the natives do not pay so much by thirty per cent. Their imposition on us, is not only a proof of their own villany and hatred, but a scandal on their government; which ought to interfere in favour of the subjects of a nation, to which they are so much bound in point of policy, as well as gratitude.

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