To me, ice cream and the sea go together like peanut butter and jelly. So it was no surprise to me that I found the best ice cream in France's sparkling seaside city of Nice.
The vibrant, generous girl behind the counter at Fenocchio in Le Vieux Nice (the Old Town) began telling me about the ice cream she sold. "Most people don’t have fun with ice cream; don't try new things," she said. What enthralled me most about Fenocchio was not some of the outlandish flavors freezing under the glass counter, like beer ice cream, but rather the extremely indigenous flavors to the South of France: rosemary, thyme, lavender, tomato-basil, vanilla and pink peppercorn, black olive, lemon verbena. They even had Calisson and Tourte de Blette; the first is a traditional almond-based cookie, the second a sweet cabbage tart topped with golden raisins and pine nuts.
The black olive ice cream was delicious. It reminded me of the olive oil gelato I’ve seen so often in the States lately, and had the taste contrast that makes salted caramel such a treat. I was shocked—and I was sold. Next I tried lavender—the ice cream lent a silkiness to the peppery, floral smokiness found in dried lavender blossoms. The verbena flavor reminded me of green tea ice cream, not only because verveine is such a common ingredient in French tisane, but because it also had that earthiness that cuts through the sweetness of the ice cream. And poppy was pink, pretty, and punchy—it would have been my favorite when I was a child. As it was, I walked away with a cone of my favorite flavor, one that I write about often and that I have happily found absolutely everywhere in the South of France: Fleur d’Oranger, or orange blossom.
The sorbets are no less impressive, mostly because—as the girl behind the counter told me—there is no compromise. All the fruits are sourced locally, and if they are not available and up to standard then a flavor goes unmade. "We are still waiting on watermelon," she told me. Sure enough, pasteque (watermelon) was not in the case, but we did try fig, and I have seen fig trees clinging to cliffs all over the region. Thyme was one of our favorites—fresh, clean, almost sparkling.
Of course, Fenocchio sells regular flavors as well, but when you’re confronted with tomato-basil, vanilla-pink peppercorn, and rosemary, it’s time to step out of your comfort zone, and, according to the salesgirl, have a little fun with ice cream.