Food: Juicy fruits
After a stay in Provence, you'd crave darkly red, deeply ripe, late-summer tomatoes. Photograph by Jason Lowe
Saturday 12 September 1998
Interior decoration is by Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Mir and others. Exterior joys for the humble guest include a Calder mobile that lazily swivels and turns by the shallow end of the pool and a large Leger embedded in the stone wall of the most excruciatingly lovely garden terrace. To sit at a table here is simply the best it gets. Oh, and there is the sculpted giant thumb by Cesar close to the entrance. And I remember seeing a splendid Chagall by the bar, but I am sure it was not there the last time I looked. Every missing picture tells a story.
When the sun was shining, I'd eat my daily lunch at one of the garden tables that run along a length of cushioned stone bench; when it rained, I'd ask to sit facing a small, particularly exquisite Braque seascape in the big dining room. Here I would toy with numerous dishes from the legendary hors d'oeuvres, refreshed and delighted by the day's first cooling glass of rose and at peace with my extravagance. I would follow this with a grilled bass or royal bream and finish with raspberries and creme fraiche. It is not haute cuisine at La Colombe d'Or. The owners, the Roux family, might say, "This is the food we do - and have always done." And it has gently evolved since Paul and Baptistine Roux first opened their doors to guests in the 1930s.
So it was with pleasure - but no great surprise - that while lunching the following day at the restaurant La Meranda (in Vieux Nice, just around the corner from the far end of the Cours Saleya where the market is), who should we see enjoying a solitary lunch of a bowl of steaming stockfish but Francis Roux himself. It is his son Francois (third generation) and his son's wife who now seem to run the Colombe d'Or from day to day, but you will often see Papa playing petanque by the terrace of the Cafe de la Place.
But back to La Meranda. I had always known of this place, but never managed to get here before. People had assured me that if a bicycle was seen parked outside, the place was open for business - useful information when a restaurant has no telephone number. I would guess that there are a maximum of 12 small tables, all for two, all with stools - comfy stools, mind you, prettily cushioned. Mine kept my back and bottom cramp-free for a good two-and-a-half hours.
The only two other things in this tiny room are a single lavatory and a very small kitchen. There is a door to the former, but the latter is open to view simply because a wall would make it smaller. Red wine is stacked by the door in open cartons and water and white wine are stored in an upright fridge by the kitchen; this, together with a small counter, separates guests from feeling that they should, perhaps, help with the washing up. Staff? Four: one chef, his wife, their plongeur/commis and a waiter.
For 460 francs - about pounds 48, for two - we ate a sublime tomato tart, a plate of the crispest and lightest deep-fried courgette blossoms, a taste of stewed stockfish (a fabulously pungent mess of dried cod, similar to bacalao), a braised joint of richest oxtail with orange (naturally, deliciously, on the bone), a bowl of tripes a la Nicoise with steamed potatoes, a cherry clafoutis - complete with stones, as it should be - and a small disk of very white, very fresh goat's cheese, with herbs and olive oil. We drank a bottle of rose and half a bottle of chilled red. Call by when you are in Nice. As you might expect, credit cards are not accepted - or needed.
My friend and I pootled along the Cote d'Azur on the train. This admirable service chuffs along the coast, stopping regularly at stations large and small, recalling Britain's pre-Beeching days. It makes one want to spit.
The train calls at Villefranche but ignore this. Having dispatched the principality of Monaco as a glorified south-coast marina, we decided to have lunch in Golfe-Juan les Pins, several stops westward, at Tetou, on the beach. That's right on the beach.
Some say this pretty little blue-and-white restaurant was just a beach- shack when it first opened in the 1930s. Well, it's a bit smarter now, but still feels informal and, well ... just nice. The present Madame - a sprightly and beady woman of indeterminate age - is the daughter of the original "Tetou". The minute you are greeted by someone such as this in any French establishment - restaurant, hotel, cafe or bistro - you know all will be well. This is what a restaurant is meant to be - it's not about flouncing out on a restaurant like some kiddywink, taking your staff with you and your great big ego. Customers need looking after, you know. Customers are good news in restaurants. Customers matter.
We were lucky enough to sit beside the sliding glass doors, alternately gazing across the sand to the tumbling breakers and then to the menu. It is fish at Tetou - as if you didn't know. Real fish. Fish fish fish! Bass, red mullet, royal bream, John Dory and others, depending on what is good. Some of these are included in a magisterial bouillabaisse. The ongoing broth from this is also offered as a soupe de poissons in its own right. This is the colour of best rust. Bentley rust. Ferrari rust in this manor, possibly. It tastes of emptied fish. Their essence is contained within a blue-and-white bowl with curvy ladle, left at table alongside a bowl of rouille, a pile of croutes and you help yourself. Conversation stopped for a full 15 minutes.
Then there are the crayfish, les belles langoustes. And pounds 50 of belle langouste, I might add. Each. Well, the soup was only a tenner and was for two. Oooh, but what a lot we got. Three crayfish between two is some lunch, but we managed magnificently. You see, the creatures are sold by weight, were smaller than usual that day, so we got three between two. End of story. Don't mess with the system and ask for portions d'enfants, it won't wash with Madame. Just shut up and eat. About 40 minutes' silence this time.
We chose to have them poached. We felt pure. And there is nothing quite so pure as the sight of six gently steaming halves of pink-shelled crayfish, their whiter-than-white pearly flesh filling their carapaces, all juicy, sweet and tender. I enjoyed my ration with nothing more than a fine mayonnaise and some steamed potatoes. Helen liked hers with nothing more. We vowed to return for bouillabaisse the next day, but it didn't work out. We had found La Meranda instead. Tetou will be there for another visit.
My initial intention was to write about tomatoes, which are supposed to be quite good towards the end of our (hah!) summer. So here are two champion dishes: the tomato tart from La Meranda - or how I understood the basic premise to be - and the tomates a la provencale from Tetou. Yes, we had some of those, too. And we had raspberries and cream for afters. As you might not expect, credit cards are - terrifyingly - not accepted here either.
La Meranda's tomato tart, serves 6
The tart base might be good made with Italian focaccia dough, even though it may well have been a rich shortcrust, a pizza base or even brioche. I certainly remember it being light and bready.
For the dough
200g strong plain flour
15g fresh yeast dissolved in 4 tbsp of warm water
3 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp water
I tsp salt
1kg of large cherry, or miniature plum, tomatoes, good and ripe
2 tbsp olive oil - plus a little extra
a few sprigs of fresh thyme - or rosemary, but thyme is best
2 large cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
salt and pepper
Mix half of the flour with the yeast mixture and knead together until it comes together into a ball. Lightly grease the inside of a bowl with a smear of olive oil, put in the dough and cover with a damp tea-towel. Put to rise in a warm corner of the kitchen (or the airing cupboard) for 114 hours plus, or until it has roughly doubled in size.
Knock the dough back and add the rest of the flour, the oil, the water and the salt to the bowl. Mingle around with your fingers until loosely mixed together, then turn out on to a work surface. Pull all the dough together with your hands and knead well for several minutes until elastic, supple and a pleasure to feel in your fingers. Put it back into the bowl and leave to rise for a further 45 minutes to one hour.
Pre-heat the oven to 400F/200C/ gas mark 6. During the secondary rising, start to prepare the tomatoes. Remove any stalks, nip out the cores with a small, sharp knife and then make a tiny crisscross cut across their good ends. Now take a deep tart tin that roughly measures 23cm and spoon in the two tablespoons of olive oil. Scatter the thyme sprigs over this, and the sliced garlic. Sprinkle over a little salt and pepper and then pack in the tomatoes, crisscross-cut side down. They will all fit, don't worry; squash them in if need be, as they must be a tight fit. Lightly season once more and bake in the oven for 20 minutes. Remove and allow to cool a little.
Knock back the focaccia dough once more and roll out until it is slightly larger than the tart tin. Drape it over the tomatoes and tuck the overlap down into the sides of the tin. Prick the surface of the dough lightly with a fork and spoon over a little extra olive oil. Bake in the oven for 35-40 minutes, or until the crust is risen - a dull golden brown, feels hollow when you tap it with your fingers. Remove from the oven and leave to rest for 10 minutes. To serve, take a large plate and place it upside down over the tin. Now, with one deft movement, invert both, so that the tart slips out on to the plate. All the juices from the tomatoes will have soaked into the dough; the tomatoes will have settled neatly on the surface; nudge back any strays with a tidying finger.
Tetou's tomates a la Provencale, serves 6
The simple version here is one of the most intensely flavoured I have ever eaten. Try to find the best and ripest tomatoes you can.
15-18 medium-sized tomatoes, cored and cut in half
salt and pepper
150g fresh white breadcrumbs
3 tbsp chopped parsley
1 level tbsp herbes de Provence
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C/ gas mark 4. Pour 3-4 tablespoons of olive oil into a large oven-proof dish. Squash in all the tomatoes cut side up. Spoon on more oil to moisten, and season. Bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes, or until well softened and the juices are running well. Put breadcrumbs, parsley, herbs and garlic into a food processor with a little seasoning, and work together until well mixed and pale green. Cover the surface of the tomatoes with this and smooth over. Trickle with a little more oil. Return to the oven and bake for a further 40-50 minutes, or until the crumbs are golden brown and oily tomato juices are bubbling all around the edge. Serve without delay
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