Philippe and I went out for pizza the other night with a couple local friends. Walid had been raving for some time about Le Colombier, a restaurant on the beach in neighbouring Juan-les-Pins. Desert-island-meets-Côte d’Azur is the best way to describe the place. A scattering of tables perch on the sandy beach, close to the edge of the lapping Med, while other seats are partially sheltered by an artful, grassy overhang at the back.
The owner of Le Colombier is Walid’s childhood friend. He ordered for Walid on his first visit, late after a night out. Walid’s buddy brought him a piping hot disc of thin crust made from artisanal flour, smeared with fresh tomato sauce and topped with a special blend of cheeses and herbs. Next, his friend grabbed a large knob of black truffle in his palm and began scraping it with a sharp edge, again and again over the pizza, and then again, adding layers of the earthy delicacy to the late night snack.
It was the best pizza Walid had eaten in his life. Now he and his wife Nada were sharing Le Colombier with Philippe and me. Indeed, the owner swung by our table. He, like Walid, was in his 40s. Relaxed cargo shorts and tousled hair matched his tanned face and designer stubble. We should feel at home.
French menus, I find, are often like poetry. Even the humble pizza is somehow elevated à la française. Le Colombier’s menu contained the usual suspects – margarita, vegetarian and the like – but all seemed more gourmet simply because cheese had become fromage and red peppers were poivres rouges. But there were more exotic pizzas at Le Colombier, too, some that pole-vaulted over the standards like:
- Diamant Noir (Black Diamond): carpaccio de truffe, sauce tomate, mozzarella, crème de truffle, jambon Serrano – EUR 30,00
- Cardinal: homard (lobster), tomate, roquette, œufs de saumon (salmon caviar), beurre maître d’hôtel (fancy butter) – EUR 28,00
- La Ritz: Magret fumé (smoked duck), truffe, foie gras, tome de Savoie (fancy cheese), pignons (pine nuts), asperge verte (asparagus), champignons forestiers (fancy mushrooms), mâche (fancy lettuce), œuf de caille (quail egg) – EUR 40,00
Hungry? Impressed, perhaps, by the culinary creativity of French pizza? Or maybe you’re disgusted. In any case, make no mistake that these are personal pizzas – at $36 – $52 a crack. (The vegetarian is a touch more reasonable at $18.)
The most unusual concoction Walid, Nada, Philippe and I try is the namesake (and more reasonably priced) Colombier pizza: chèvre (goat’s cheese), tomate, mozzarella, miel (honey). It’s deliciously sweet and creamy – like a one-pot meal that includes dessert.
But if pizza’s not your bag, what about a burger? The beach restaurant also offers the Burger Rossini, which comes with foie gras poêlé, crème de truffle and frites de papates douces (sweet potato fries) for a sweet EUR 37,00 ($48).
The strangest bit about the whole evening, though, was the thought I had as we retraced our steps along Juan-les-Pins’ seaside promenade. I realized what a bizarre and incredible menu we’d just encountered. It had taken me that long.
France sort of does that to you, or at least the foodie you, with the beauty of its menus. Their poetry swoops you into the fantaisie of French food, and off you go, headlong, nostrils piqued and taste buds bristling, into the delicious creations of France’s famed terroir.
On top of that, the Côte d’Azur – this specific piece of the French terroir – has a way of lulling you into the idea that opulence is normal, or even expected. Where else would you find Wich (pronounced “wish”), a new shop that popped up along a busy Antibes traffic artery proposing le sandwich haute couture?
Love haute couture sandwiches and pizzas, or leave them, there’s a broad development of the French palate that takes root straight back to the baby food stocked on the shelves of French supermarkets. At six months a French baby tries semoule vanilla fleur d’oranger (a starch scented with vanilla and orange tree flower), mousseline ratatouille and petits légumes – colin (pureed vegetables and pollock fish). Eight months brings on mashed lamb (hold the mint sauce), while by 12 months the French baby marches straight into purées of riz – champignons – sole tropicale (rice, mushrooms and sole) and pommes vapeur – épinards – saumon (potatoes, spinach and salmon).
It’s hardly just local brands that promote culinary exploration. Among others, Nestle stocks the baby food shelves in France. In the US that brand is synonymous with chocolate. Instead Nestle promotes baby food in the US under the name Gerber, for whom pasta stars are far more fashionable than anything that swims in the sea.
The introduction of a French child to each new taste, to paraphrase Pamela Druckerman’s French Children Don’t Throw Food, is like the beginning of a life-long relationship. François, meet fennel. Fennel, this is François. That sort of thing. Whether they get on at the first encounter is a bit of a gamble, but they are reintroduced at regular intervals.
It carries on into the classroom. When my daughter Lolo briefly attended a pre-school in Cagnes-sur-Mer, the town next to Nice, lunch began – even for the two-year olds like her – with three, small leaves of lettuce. My daughter hardly made friends with lettuce when she was two, and I’m not sure the two players have properly shaken hands or air-kissed since.
The next year she moved to a maternelle in Juan-les-Pins. One Monday morning I checked the week’s menu, which was posted on a board in the school courtyard. It was hardly pizza and foot-long hotdogs. I remember seeing beignets de calamar (fried calamari) for lunch one day. Another day required my dictionary: sanglier. Wild boar. After a few months at this maternelle, I was constantly amazed at my three-and-a-half-year old’s vastly expanded palate come dinnertime. I bought into the French way whole-hog (whole-boar?) – until I entertained a second, opposing thought that, hey, the real reason Lolo was piling into garlicky, oniony Boursin cheese smeared on cucumber rounds was hardly that her taste buds were exponentially enhanced. By the time she got home from school, she was starving.
Having schooled in Toronto for the last three years, Lolo’s relationships with Boursin and beignets de calamar have gone cold. Kids are kids in Canada, and the lunchroom menus mostly comply. To quote seven-year-old Claire, Lolo’s Canadian friend who visited Antibes last month, when I offered her a new food for breakfast one morning: “I’ll eat it someday when I get older and my taste buds go away.” The disgusting food in question was a sweet pastry, a pain au raisin, fresh from our local boulangerie.
Claire and her Canadian family eventually left us for Paris, and among the first things Claire, her equally lively twin sister and six-year-old brother saw was someone eating an escargot. “Serious blog material,” their mother wrote to me.
What France does, it seems, no matter the roots of the person, is bring out an interest in food. Most often that interest involves a sense of passion, and usually that passion is a good one. I saw it perfectly in Brad, father of the six- and seven-year-old Canadians, as he stood in Antibes’ bustling Marché Provençal one morning, hunched over a rickety table that offered a couple dozen knobs of black earth, each the size of a child’s fist, for EUR 580 a kilogram. Brad was waving the aroma of the truffles upward toward his nostrils, his eyes closed in pleasure.
Philippe says I have to include this other example in this week’s blog, even if it happened to us last summer. There’s an upscale beach restaurant called La Tonnelle on Saint-Honorat, an island in the bay off Cannes. Here, along a peaceful, wooded shoreline, a greedy diner can order the langouste du vivier cuite à la plancha (a spiny lobster, plucked live from the restaurant’s own tank and grilled). Weighing in at a good three pounds each (I’m guessing, as I’ve witnessed two such orders), the diner – who is expected to tackle this beast alone – is further indulged by the resounding clang of the restaurant’s bell. The boxing match begins, Gourmand vs Langouste, or something like that.
What makes the situation even more bizarre is that the restaurant – indeed, the whole of Saint-Honorat – is run by a small band of Cistercian monks. Indeed, the order has been worshipping and tending vineyards on this serene island since the Middle Ages. Tolerating today’s influx of day trippers surely is made easier by the revenue they bring in. At EUR 175,00 a lobster, the monks, too, must be licking their chops.
One night this summer Philippe and I followed the passion of a three-starred Michelin, French chef. He’s the sort of chap you don’t mind following. Alain Ducasse had named his favourite boulangerie and restaurant in Antibes and this, of course, made the newspapers. The boulangerie was this one, just down the lane from the Marché Provençal. As for his top restaurant pick, my husband and I were slightly stunned that we didn’t know the place after all these years. But carved into the back streets of Antibes’ Old Town, straddling both sides of a narrow one-way passage, is Le Michelangelo Mamo.
The restaurant is, unsurprisingly by its name, Italian. It’s gorgeous inside, housing rustic stone, wooden beams and copper pots juxtaposed by candelabras, white tablecloths and upholstered chairs. Mamo was obviously the guy in red trousers with a mop of white hair, the one who remained highly visible at the steps of the restaurant, chatting with the parade of guests whose cars arrived single-file down the narrow road, each diner more glamourous than the next. The next minute Mamo was hopping across the street to clear a table or refresh its linen. The restaurant should be called Mamo’s Michelangelo.
Philippe and I skipped over the Mamo burger that came with fois gras and truffles. I guess it’s rude not to offer this taste combination in any upscale restaurant along the French Riviera. Our meal of pasta and fish went without any particular surprise or hitch – none of Brad Pitt, Clint Eastwood or Al Pacino walked in, though they all have before – until someone stopped by our table as we were about to leave.
It was Julian, the guy who rents us cars. He’s a charming 30-something, even if you’d hardly guess it by his baggy, off-the-bum jeans and his spectacular, shoulder-to-wrist tattoos laced with English phrases like “One Chance, One Life”.
Julian was hardly the guy I expected to see at Alain Ducasse’s favourite restaurant. He talked to us glowingly about the man Mamo, the succulence of the restaurant’s food, the perfection of its wines, Mamo’s new spot in New York. And, as he unwittingly socked it to us, Julian was shocked this was our first visit chez Mamo. Clearly, it was hardly his.
Christelle confirmed the trend unknowingly as she whisked Philippe and me home from the airport last week. Our favourite female taxi driver – who’s married to Eric, our favourite male one – loves Plage Keller, another upscale beach restaurant on the Cap d’Antibes. But, Christelle said, she and Eric must be careful about the timing of their visits. If they go at Sunday lunchtime, for example, it’s hardly a quiet meal. The couple can’t make it to their table without greeting most every diner in the restaurant.
Food, I think, must reach everyone who even dabbles in France. But with this sort of culinary passion churning through the veins of your typical Frenchman, there are inevitable cultural rifts with the rest of the world.
Jean-Francois, a chap originally from Provence who teaches me French in Toronto, often highlights these differences through language. The word “abattoir“ in the French language, for example, doesn’t have the same negative connotation as the Anglophone “slaughterhouse”. The French aren’t afraid to eat anything, he explained, so “abattoir” simply comes from the verb “abattre”, to cut down or bring down. A professed foodie himself, Jean-Francois also was quick to point out, and with particular glee, that the French have no word for “pet”. (They say un animal domestique or un animal de compagnie.)
Another difference is how we enjoy our food. An Anglophone’s inclination toward gourmandise might manifest itself in guilt or radical food preferences. This is particularly true among Anglophone women, and I admit to ranking among the brigade who asks for salad dressing on the side and omits all red meat. The French, on the other hand, tend to consume everything but in strict, seemingly innate moderation. And on the rare occasion that they go overboard, they make great use of the passive tense. If a plateful of delicious pastries seems to evaporate, they might say, “Elles se mangent tout seules!” They ate themselves!
So we live in hope with our seven-year old and her taste buds. We’re reasonably careful with her diet in Toronto, offering healthy foods within a more limited range. Pop and pre-fab cupcakes in fancy foil packaging never inhabit our shelves. Better if she doesn’t even recognize them.
But kids know things. The day after we arrived in France this summer, Lolo and I went grocery shopping. Her eyes bugged out over orange soda and Oasis, another sugar-injected fruit drink. She needed the brightly decorated, plastic bag full of MOOVs, individually wrapped, long-life brioches with pépites de chocolat. (These, where gorgeous boulangeries populate practically every street corner!) “It’s what we always have on play dates here,” she pleaded.
So. The people teaching my grade-schooler about junk food are the French themselves?
That said, it goes both ways. Last summer a bunch of French kids gathered around our fire pit and we introduced them to the Girl Scouts’ favourite: S’mores. I’d come as close as I could to creating the original with French products, settling on roasted pink marshmellows mushed between squares of dark chocolate and a couple, graham-cracker-like biscuits de thé. It was hardly health food, but s’mores à la française were delicious, and I figured they could be acceptable in the name of cultural expansion.
During the last school year the mother of Clotilde, Lolo’s French friend, emailed me. There was a cookbook project at school, and Clotilde wanted to include the recipe for s’mores. Could I please share it with her?
I explained my morphed recipe for the Girl Scouts’ finest, also sharing the play-on-words about always wanting “some-more”. What came back in published format was this:
Recette américaine des S’mores
(“j’en veux plus”) (which, if I may interject, is the literal translation of “I want some more”)
8 biscuits “petit-beurre”
4 carrés de chocolat au lait
4 grosses guimauves
Placez un carré de chocolat sur un biscuit.
Mettez une grosse guimauve sur le chocolat.
Placez un autre biscuit sur le dessus en pressant doucement.
Enveloppez le S’mores dans du papier d’aluminium.
Grillez sur le barbecue à temperature moyenne-élevée de 4 à 5 minutes.
The recipe hardly needs translating, except to say that the fourth step involves wrapping the uncooked s’mores in aluminium foil and, step five, grilling them on the barbeque at a medium-high temperature for somewhere between 4 and 5 minutes.
The founder of Girl Scouts would be giggling in her grave.
It was hardly pizza with foie gras or truffles, but Philippe had a different take. “Very upscale s’mores,” he said. “You don’t even have to get dirty. Only the French can do that.”