May is the time for making a meal of the Med. The Riviera’s ritziest restaurants come out of hibernation and serve concoctions as inspired as the arty settings in the hot, sweet south.
May is when the Mediterranean scene wakes up. The beau monde dons dinner jackets and descends on Cannes for the Film Festival. Woody Allen dusts down his old jokes: “Eternity is a long experience, especially towards the end.” The wrong film always wins but posing Cannes still looks the part. And the Med works its magic - even when the super-yachts exhaust their supplies of smoked salmon and starlets. After the motley crew decamps to Monaco for the Grand Prix, the Riviera is yours once more, from the art trails to the Michelin-starred restaurants. Life has moved on since Queen Victoria visited on the royal train, bringing down her own Irish stew to be sure of decent food in France.
The Cote d’Azur is full of Cezanne scenery and Picasso panoramas. But in Provence the food can be as painterly as the art, especially in the hands of master-chefs. Somewhat surreally, Cezanne’s peaches can look juicier than the real thing. But when the tastes of pistou, ratatouille and bouillabaisse trump the art, that’s when you really love the Cote d’Azur.
“Cannes is for living, Monte Carlo for gambling and Menton for dying”
“Cannes is for living, Monte Carlo for gambling and Menton for dying” was the Victorian mantra – and Cannes is still living it up. Boosted by a gleaming new Palais des Festivals, the city is promoting its cuisine as well as its cultural side. On both fronts, style tends to triumph over substance. Still, with its Art Deco dining room, La Palme d’Or’s movie star looks are matched by Michelin-starred Mediterranean cuisine. But once the season starts, fine dining loses out to the beachside bars. On La Croisette, Le Baoli Beach is made for posing but is forgiven when a summer fireworks display lights up the night sky. More welcoming are the brasseries in the steep and sinuous Old Town. L’Enoteca is typical, a cosy live jazz haunt for bistrot staples such as rabbit in red wine sauce.
All roads lead back to Cannes’ shimmering seafront but arty dining is better in the hills. From La Croisette, it is only a ten-minute drive to the heights of Le Cannet, where the artist Pierre Bonnard lived until his death in 1947. The Bonnard Museum and canal-side trail makes this a delightful escape for art-lovers. Set in a belle époque villa and gardens, the collection reveals Bonnard’s russet-tiled roofs and sleepy nudes – his seductive vision of the hot, sweet south.
After working up an appetite along the Bonnard trail, consider an arty lunch at Bruno Oger’s villa-restaurant nearby. When not masterminding film festival dinners, the Michelin-starred chef is devising curious new delights such as violet sorbet, made with Provencal flowers. Let the celebrated chef rustle up lobster ravioli (or frog cappuccino for the daring) while your eyes feast on the colour-saturated art, created by the chef’s wife. As an artist in her own right, Helene Oger is passionate about Bonnard. She might even sympathise with his prejudice against transporting the art to colder climes: “the blues only become greys.”
“Champagne, if you are seeking the truth, is better than a lie detector”
Art-lovers can follow in Picasso’s footsteps to the revamped Picasso Museum in time-warp Antibes, west of Cannes. Graham Greene loved the mellow mood of his adoptive home, “the only town on the Riviera to have so well preserved its soul." After exiling himself to Antibes in 1965, Greene lived on the Riviera for twenty five years, virtually the rest of his life. He relished the resort’s sweep of coastline and low-key lifestyle, a mood at odds with the manufactured glitz of Monaco.
Feel free to betray Picasso by following in Greene’s footsteps to Chez Félix, a modest portside haunt where the novelist would wash down his red mullet with a bottle of Pouilly. Picasso, like Monet, celebrated `the glaring, festive light’ of the South while Greene was drawn to a distinctly British penumbra, in life as in fiction. In truth, the French wine was more of a lure than the food, and Greene knew its power. As the former spy once admitted, “Champagne, if you are seeking the truth, is better than a lie detector.”
To cast Greene in the shade, continue round Cap d’Antibes to the legendary restaurant in the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc, resplendent after its ritzy revamp. Picasso was a regular and would turn up in scruffy shorts, espadrilles and a cap. Fortunately, the canny genius paid his dues by tossing off some wonderful sketches - which duly illustrated the menu. Espadrilles are banished when the movie crowd moves in during Cannes Film Festival. Indeed, the ban on flat shoes at this year’s festival led to the furore of `Heelgate’ and a half-hearted rebellion by female stars. The stilettoes were back in force for the festival’s Eden Roc charity auction: dinner with Leonardo DiCaprio on his yacht off St Tropez was trounced by an operatic evening with Andrea Bocelli. (The maestro fetched a million euro while the movie star only garnered €250,000). Music vanquishing movie stardom is a rarity on the Riviera.
“There are only two types of women, goddesses and doormats.” And Picasso loved both.
Picasso, a gutsy force of nature, would have been even better company, unless he considered his dining companion a doormat: “There are only two types of women, goddesses and doormats.” And he loved both. The greedy, world-weary, womanising genius felt at home in Mougins, near Cannes, but also in St Paul de Vence, high in the hills behind Nice. As penniless artists, Picasso and Matisse painted for their supper in La Colombe d’Or. Walk past the plane trees and pétanque players, just as Picasso did, on his way to a Provencal lunch in the inn. Slip through the discreet hole in the wall to espy works by Picasso and Matisse, a mural by Leger, and a pool presided over by a Calder mobile. Lunch is a celebration of the South of France, with an array of grilled peppers, artichoke hearts and squid. Then follows feasting on modern art at Fondation Maeght and a lost afternoon musing amid ramparts and alleyways.
St Paul basks in the attention, burnishing its bond with Chagall, who also painted in the village. The artiness lingers on, regardless of the crowds, the cobbled perfection and self-consciousness of it all. Even Berlusconi succumbed to St Paul’s charms, snapping up several bronze nudes from a gallery on Rue Grande. Presumably, the nudes were a poor substitute for a debauched “bunga bunga” party. Despite Berlusconi’s connoisseurship of the female form, the distinction between doormats and goddesses was probably not uppermost in his mind. The Riviera rises above it all. Chauvinists and charlatans, doormats and goddesses can all be sure of a warm welcome on the Riviera. And there’s definitely no need to bring your own Irish stew.
An East End food safari turns into a story of London immigration, a tale mostly told through street food. If this is `hanging out in the hood’, I’m all for it. Faux gangsterism aside, the journey from East End boozers to bagels and baltis is compelling food history.
This Champagne route from Reims to Chalons means conjuring up black magic with a red mullet so is not a classic wine and food tour. But as Champagne acts as a bizarre barometer of French health and happiness, these bubbles are always about far more than fizz.