When I recently toured Santo Sospir, the villa decorated by Cocteau, the guide pointed to a fougasse (a local bread) painted on the wall and said it was a reference by Cocteau to the hands painted by his friend, Picasso. I didn’t really understand the link because the bread looked nothing like a hand to me.
Turning a fougasse into a hand
Then I saw a short film that Cocteau made about Santo Sospir. In it, he took a fougasse and tore it up into the general form of a hand and called it Picasso’s hand. On one of the walls of Santo Sospir, we find a painting of a goat holding one of these breads torn in the same manner.
But I think Cocteau got his breads confused. My theory is that he must have heard the story about a local bread being associated with the hands of Picasso and mistakenly assumed it was the fougasse.
Fougasse – not a hand but delicious anyway
Fougasse, is still widely available in the area. It’s a thin bread with cut-outs and can be found in various shapes, none of them resembling a hand unless you creatively tear it up like Cocteau did.
In days gone by, it was used by the bakers to test the heat of their ovens before they baked their “real bread”. Then it would be eaten as a snack by the bakers or given out to customers in addition to a bread purchase. Today it has earned its own place on the bakery shelf. You can find plain fougasse, or it can be flavoured with olives, tomatoes, cheese, etc. There is also a sweet version, known as the fougassette which is flavoured with fruit.
“Hand of Nice” becomes a “Picasso”
So if the bread referred to as the “Picasso” or “Picasso’s hand” isn’t a fougasse, what is it? It’s another speciality bread from the Nice area which is made into the form of a four-fingered hand. It’s called the “main de Nice” or the “hand of Nice”.
This bread became associated with Picasso one morning in 1952 when the photographer, Robert Doisneau, arrived at Picasso’s home for a photo shoot. The artist was at his kitchen table just about to have breakfast and he invited Doisneau to join him. Picasso pointed to the bread on the table which was “the hand of Nice” and said the baker had called them “Picassos” because they had only four fingers. Doisneau saw the opportunity for a fun photo and placed two of them on the edge of the table so they looked like they were Picasso’s hands and took the photo.
The “hand of Nice”, or the “Picasso” if you prefer, is not easy to find today in Nice. I found only one boulangerie that still makes it: Boulangerie du Palais, 21 rue du Marché in the Old Town. According to them, the four fingers represent the four main valleys of the Alps Maritimes area: the Roya, the Tinée, the Vésubie, and the Var.
Their version is a little bit different than the one in the Picasso photo but they are still fun to pose with. Then after the photo session, they go nicely with a bit of cheese and a glass of wine.
2. Stills from a video by Cocteau about Santo Sospir. The quality is bad and it’s in French with Spanish subtitles, but if you want to see it, it’s here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVDI7SBv9RI
3. By Robert Doisneau