There are two things I tend to relate with the South of France: olives, and summer. I don't know about where you are, but where I am, this week has been positively August-like. No matter when the season officially starts, summer has arrived, and I begin to travel via daydream back to my favorite place in the world: Provence.
Though my mother was born there, I never traveled there until I was fifteen years old, when Maman took me on a trip that summer to Aix-en-Provence and Cannes. In France there is an expression: coup de foudre. Literally, a bolt of lightning, but figuratively, a love that hits you hard and suddenly. It was love at first sight, and at first taste.
In Aix-en-Provence there is a market, one that I have written about before, and my favorite part is the vats and vats of olives. Black olives, green, even red olives. Some soaking in garlic, others in lemon, others in herbes de Provence, still others in chilies and Moroccan spices. Maman and I would troll the marketplace, picking up little tubs of the juicy gems. We would then sit on our balcony in the late sun with nothing but the olives and baguette, and have dinner. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a short story: "There are all kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice." That may be true of people, but with food, I fall in love again and again. And I did every night I ate those olives in Provence.
In Nice, there is an olive culture (the olives are, after all, Niçoise). I even had black olive ice cream in Nice. But there is also a culture of frying, and beignets stuffed with zucchini and zucchini flowers are sold as street food. These are little olive beignets, dipped in a Perrier batter, with the little Niçoise olives left plain, and the large green olives stuffed with a creamy mixture of goat cheese, lemon, and thyme. They are precious, small, but delicious little treasures that sweep you away from the ordinary bowl of olives to somewhere in the southern French summer sunshine.
- Vegetable oil for frying
- 1/4 cup ricotta cheese, room temperature
- 2 ounces chèvre (fresh goat cheese), room temperature
- The leaves from 3 stems thyme
- Zest of 1/2 lemon
- 1 cup flour
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons Perrier or seltzer water
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 40 Nicoise olives, pitted
- 40 large green olives, pitted
- Fleur de sel and lemon wedges for serving
Fill a cast iron skillet at least 1 inch deep with vegetable oil. Heat over medium heat, and bring to 350°F.
Meanwhile, make the filling. Mix together the ricotta, chevre, thyme, and lemon zest. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
Make the batter, by whisking together the flour, Perrier, baking powder, and salt.
Dip the black olives in the batter, and fry in batches. They will be golden and puffed in 30 to 60 seconds.
Meanwhile, fit a baggie with a pastry tip, and fill with the ricotta mixture. Pipe the green olives with just a bit of the stuffing. Then, dip them in the batter as with the black olives, and fry 60 to 90 seconds.
Drain all the olives on paper towel, and sprinkle with fleur de sel or sea salt, and serve with lemon wedges for squeezing.