Still – it’s where I’ve been imbibing my meals in recent days and I do have some observations to offer…
Bread in France is a problem.
It’s rarely good, mostly ok and occasionally inedible.
It’s hard to find a boulangerie which makes the bread from scratch on site.
Industrial baguettes are winning the bread basket battle in most restaurants, and even if the bread is good, it’s likely to have been sliced a good half-hour before it’s brought to the table.
Milk is another problem.
For a country so proud of its dairy, it’s odd it is so hard to buy fresh milk in France.
The French are hugely attached to their unpasturised cheeses, yet most insist on drinking UHT milk which has been zapped until its taste has been obliterated.
Even at the Belles Rives, a four star-plus hotel perching at the edge of Cap d’Antibes, the (7 euro) “chocolat maison” was made with the longlife stuff.
With the demise of the cremeries, the only place to get fresh milk nowadays is the supermarket.
(I should add, however, that the wonderful Ceneri cheese shop in Cannes does actually stock raw, unpasturised milk.)
Another shocker on our visit was the mayonnaise.
At Jazz Plage in Juan les Pins there was good bread to go with our moules mariniere and chips, but the onions were most definitely not finely chopped, the frites were sad and saggy, and the mayo tasted of dusty vinegar and came from a packet.
Still, it’s not every day you can sit in blazing sunshine on the beach without your coat on in January.
Now, enough of the bah humbug, and onto the good stuff.
Three tried and tested places which rarely disappoint…
La Bastide de St Antoine in Grasse on Boxing Day: lobster in a mushroom broth, perfectly seared foie gras and truffled “ravioli” of Comte, stuffed with Cabecou et Gorgonzola were the highlights of what was an extraordinary, though admittedly crazily priced, lunch.
The chef at La Petite Maison in Nice turned out a perfect aioli, coaxing the best out of each ingredient. Cod, potato, cauliflower, broccoli and carrot were elevated to star status by way of a gentle steaming and judicious seasoning. Mustardy garlic mayonnaise completed the transformation of the simple components.
But best of all was New Year’s Eve in Vence at Christophe Dufau’s Les Bacchanales, a family favourite.
Homemade potato bread, zingy parsley pesto, foie gras poached in a liqorice broth, chocolate truffles with a cocoa bean lolly pop…this is food imbued with Dufau’s enthusiasm and lively personality.
Plus – and here’s the best bit – he LOVES using local and regional ingredients: The truffles come from the surrounding hills; fish is caught in nearby rivers or on the Cote d’Azur; his smoking goats cheese is made less than five miles away and he filters his own water.
Les Baccanales has been given a star by the Michelin, but this restaurant doesn’t feel like a member of the establishment.
Food is served by the kitchen staff, the sommelier will lean in for a kiss once you’ve been there a few times, there’s a communal-style summer lunch menu and Dufau still hasn’t figured out what to put in the back garden, months after his wild flowers died.
So if you’re in the south of France and want to get away from bad bread, UHT milk and overcooked seafood head to the hills of Vence.
Pay your respects to Matisse at his Chapelle du Rosaire (Dufau has a tiled mural tribute to the artist in his kitchen), then walk a couple of hundreds of yards down the road and settle into Les Baccanales for an enchanting couple of hours.