Any Time is Socca Time

I have to tell you about one of my favorite things. Its name is Socca. It’s a very simple, very tasty, naturally gluten-free flatbread made from just chickpea flour, olive oil, water, and a few seasonings. It’s a popular street food in the south of France, particularly Nice, though its origins are just over the border in Italy where it’s called farinata.

Hmm. “Street food” and “France” don’t quite sound right together. It’s not like the French eat it out of hand while like, simultaneously walking or anything like that — non, non, they sit and eat it properly, off plates and all, and would never forgo pairing it with an apéritif of some sort, ideally a frosty glass of rosé. But I liken it to street food because sidewalk cafés in Nice often showcase the final product in plain view along the street, the better to tempt passersby. And the tables of these cafés spill onto the sidewalk, or the street itself, the better to sit and soak up the Mediterranean sun. And it’s definitely portable. You don’t need any cutlery to eat it, just some napkins.

Come to think of it, the term “street food” is best not taken too literally. When I was in Nice most recently, classmates and I bought some wedges from a café without even having to leave the sidewalk, and then ran off to catch a bus. We weren’t exactly arrested for eating while walking, but I recall a few sideways glances thrown our direction. And it did taste a bit dry and uncivilized without a sippy cup of rosé to go along with it.

Anyway. What’s truly strange is that I had never tasted the real deal — actual socca in Nice — until this particular trip a few months back. But I’d already been making it at home for years. When I mentioned this little tidbit at lunch one day in class, my professors didn’t believe me. Their first question was why: Why would someone not from Nice who’d never tasted socca in Nice ever think to make it at home? And secondly, how: Don’t you need a wood-fired oven?

Ah, those lucky French city folk. Of course it would never occur to them to make something at home when the real deal is just steps away. Must be nice.

So to the first question, why. When I came to this school in 2011, my professor at the time enthusiastically recommended trying the snack, and specifically from a café in Nice called Chez Pipo. I tried to go there several times, but always failed. Once I probably got lost; another time I showed up too early (it’s impossible to eat in France between the hours of 3pm and 6pm, fyi). On a final attempt, I came at the right hour but the place was packed with happy, beautiful people. A host told me they had just run out of socca but another batch would be ready in maybe 45 minutes. I often dine solo and don’t usually let that stop me, but on this particular occasion it would have been too weird sitting there, waiting, alone. I figured I would get another shot at it and resolved to come back with classmates, but just never did.

But I never forgot the professor’s description of this snack, so when I came across chickpea flour on the shelves of a Lubumbashi grocery store (a Lebanese shop where it’s sold under the name of “besan” or “gram flour,” which I had coincidentally just learned from a couple of Indian cookbooks), I grabbed it and started googling recipes. Found this one from David Lebovitz and was excited to learn it wasn’t complicated at all! I started making it as an appetizer for dinner parties as a total experiment. Once I made it for a friend who used to live in Eze, near Nice, and she gave me some pointers. The real deal is thicker and softer, she said. And she liked it with lemon juice and lots and lots of black pepper.

To the second question, how. Yes, a wood-fired oven is traditional and of course, super if you have one. But plenty of recipes exist for making socca in ordinary ovens. A trick I learned from home pizza-making is to turn the temperature up as high as it will go, and let the oven preheat for a long time. (Especially good if someone else is paying your electricity bills, I suppose.) Another trick is to preheat the pan itself. Stick that baby in the hot oven for several minutes before pouring in some olive oil, and then your batter.

So after four years of blindly making socca at home, probably at least a dozen times, I was pretty curious about tasting the real deal during my reunion trip. On our first day in Nice, Seb made a beeline for a place he’d read was the best in town. Guess what?

They were closed for winter, and not to reopen before my time in France was up!

Eventually we found some socca at another place. It was good — softer than mine, as my Eze friend had said. Kind of floppy. We asked the waiter for salt & pepper to go with it. He was appalled that he had forgotten, and impressed that we knew socca should never be eaten without it. When I asked for lemon juice, though, he nearly slapped my hand! Not so traditional, I guess.

I forgot to take my own photos while there, but our socca that day looked a lot like this one.

I tasted Niçoise socca once or twice more after Seb left. (Never did make it back to Chez Pipo, though.) Always good, but never like, bam, so much better than homemade! So that gave me hope. One weekend, while shopping in Cours Saleya with a friend from class, we stumbled across a shop specializing in all things socca. I could not resist buying a large, very heavy, traditional socca copper pan. Never mind that I brought a single carry-on bag for my entire two-month stay, which is already a little on the stuffed side! I will get this baby home somehow, even if I have to carry it on my head. And while I’m at it, a kilo of chickpea flour too, please. It’s surely a better quality than our local Lebanese shop, right? Oh, and a kilo of Italian polenta too, why not. Maybe one or two other little souvenirs. (Obviously I’d had a little too much rosé at lunch.)

My very first weekend home in the Congo, for my birthday dinner in fact, I busted out my new socca kit from France. (A few bulky winter items and old worn-out sneakers had stayed behind, making room for this more precious cargo in the carry-on.) I whipped up a batch for some first-time socca tasters, who quickly asked for more — as well as the recipe. I dare say that after my taste-testing, I like homemade socca even better than the street food in Nice.

As long as it’s eaten outdoors, under the sun, with some well-chilled rosé within arm’s reach.

The infamous pan, after a few turns in my oven. It’s 13 inches across and weighs over 3 pounds.

The socca pan vendor in Nice told me over and over again, “Never wash it!” But I can’t not wash it. Maybe one day it’ll be back to the old cake tin for me.

No ingredients listed here; instead it’s a rather humorous recipe for socca. As far as I can tell, it’s simply chickpea flour. But glad to have it as our Lebanese shop visits are extremely infrequent these days.

Here’s my recipe, with gratitude and heavy borrowings from here and here.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup chickpea flour
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • ½ Tbsp rosemary, or more to taste
  • ¼ tsp ground cumin, or more to taste
  • ¾ tsp kosher salt (less if using regular salt)
  • freshly ground black pepper & flaked sea salt

Method:

  1. Whisk together the flour & water énergiquement in a mixing bowl until smooth. (Energetically, because the flour clumps easily.)
  2. Whisk in the olive oil, and then the rosemary, cumin & kosher salt.
  3. Cover and let the batter sit at room temperature for at least 2 hours, if you can. (I’ve also made it without waiting, and didn’t notice a lot of difference!)
  4. Turn your oven to the highest possible setting. A lot of recipes call for the broiler, but I’ve found mine doesn’t cook through unless heat is coming from both top and bottom. Give it a good 30 minutes to preheat. We’re trying to substitute for a wood-fired oven here, so be patient.
  5. Choose your baking vessel; this may take some trial and error. Some recipes recommend a cast-iron skillet (I tried this and my batter stuck terribly, even with copious amounts of oil), or a pie tin. If you don’t have a real copper socca tin carried in your luggage from France, I recommend a nonstick cake pan. My 9-inch pan worked perfectly before I upgraded.
  6. Preheat your pan of choice in that hot oven (either empty or with some olive oil) for 10 minutes or so. Don’t forget oven mitts.
  7. If using a 9- or 10-inch pan, you’ll do this in two batches. Add olive oil abondamment to the hot pan — abundantly, as in more than you think reasonable — and then pour in half the batter, tilting to spread the batter evenly. Aim for a thin (2mm) layer.
  8. Bake or broil (again, trial and error; this will depend on your oven) until browned all over. You may even want to wait until you see some blackened spots. In my oven which never gets higher than 475 degrees Fahrenheit, my preferred texture takes about 15 minutes.
  9. Carefully remove the socca from the pan onto a cutting board (or a pizza peel if you’re feeling fancy), slice it up, and sprinkle with loads of freshly ground black pepper & salt — ideally big flakes of Maldon sea salt, since you’re already being fancy.

Lemon wedges (in Congo our lemons are green) optional.

Note: Chickpea flour may also be called garbanzo bean flour, besan or gram flour in Indian-style shops, or farine de pois chiche in French. They’re all simply ground-up chickpeas, as far as I know, and are naturally gluten-free.

Your only task now is to taste and decide if you like it floppy and crêpe-like, as it’s usually made in Nice, or thin and crispy. For me and pretty much everyone else who’s tasted it here, the blackened crispy bits are the best.

Bon appétit!

7 comments

    1. Good question. There is a definite chickpea flavor in both, for obvious reasons, and that flavor may be unusual to newbies — but I’d say no, to me they’re pretty different. Falafel is usually deep fried (though I’ve made them baked too, quite a bit healthier) and full of spices plus onion, garlic, egg, lemon that make that falafel flavor. The texture is so different, too.

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