Last April, Monsieur and I visited Rome and were completely robbed at one establishment where the €20.00 menu served the sort of lifeless food that I wouldn’t give to my dead grandmother. A man, claiming to be a patron of the restaurant, then started harassing me online, stating that I was mistaken about said establishment and should retract the review. I ignored him. Later, the same man, now purporting to be the restaurant owner, threatened me with legal action if I didn’t remove the blog post concerned. He kindly pointed out that I shouldn’t expect much for €20.00 a head (without drinks) anywhere in Europe. I beg to differ.
Living in London means that I’m well-accustomed to the price of everything, especially as my salary has been frozen for what seems like forever, whilst prices in England’s capital continue to rise. Anyone who knows me knows that I was born with The Thrifty Gene, meaning that I seek out a bargain wherever I can and that approach to life extends to food and all manner of things culinary.
Certainly, for birthdays and anniversaries and holidays and the like Monsieur and I like to spend a bit more than usual. However, we also watch both sides of every coin, as a rule, allowing us to afford those treats; the fact that they don’t fall on every single day of the calendar year means that we only appreciate them more. The rest of the time, we remain careful about how much we spend and where, and most of the time we have great success at getting the most out of a €20.00 per head meal. Brunching last summer in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, we did incredibly well out of an €18.00 set menu, which then set us up for the entire day. Bargain. Check out what was included:
- 1 hot drink – either tea or coffee or hot chocolate
- 1 fresh fruit juice – orange or grapefruit
- Fresh pastries – a selection
- Bread, butter and jams
- Pancakes with maple syrup
- Muesli, fromage blanc and fruit
So far, so good, right? Right.
But wait, Mesdames et Messieurs, there’s more.
Then you could order an egg – either boiled, fried, fried with bac0n, scrambled or scrambled with bacon.
And we’re not finished yet. Lastly, you could add your choice from the ‘French Touch’ menu, listing items that would cost you €6 to €8.00 if you ordered à la carte. Here’s the selection:
Plate of cooked meats OR foie gras terrine OR beef carpaccio OR chipolatas and what they call ‘sits frizzles’ (whatever that is) OR tart of the day OR plate of cheese OR smoked salmon.
Trust me, Saint-Rémy isn’t cheap but this brunch menu, available at weekends year-round and every day during July and August, provided excellent value. Who says you can’t eat well for €20.00 a head in Europe? Here are some photos of what we had:
Here we have the muesli with fromage blanc, topped with fresh fruit salad, a smart little tray of nutella, maple syrup and a honey (for the pancakes), a delicious mixed-fruit smoothie that magically appeared in addition to our hot drinks and juices, smoked salmon tartare topped with a delicious but superfluous mint chantilly and the classic boiled egg with soldiers.
Spot the difference? On this occasion, Monsieur chose the fried egg with bacon.
There was a generous basket of soft, warm pastries to share, with wonderful bread and breadsticks.
The coffee came in generous boules, the grapefruit juice tasted freshly-squeezed, and in case Nutella, syrup and honey didn’t provide enough choice with which to slather your morning pancakes and tartines, also provided were two jams and a marmalade in a trio of glass verrines.
Besides the excellent food that Monsieur and I had the pleasure to enjoy at le Grain de Sel, the staff were warm, the location central and the presentation of everything showed the seriousness with which food was treated by all who worked here. We returned three mornings in a row and highly recommend it to anyone having the fortune to visit Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
FYI – I just checked the prices on the Grain de Sel website and they haven’t risen a sou since last July. Bonus! See for yourself here - Le Grain de Sel.
Marseille: an ancient city renowned for many things, among which number its huge commercial port, a small crime problem, the legendary Château d’If and fine bouillabaisse. The city lent its name to the French national anthem, la Marseillaise, pastis was born here and Marcel Pagnol took childhood walks in the lush Parc Borély. I suggest that we add to this hall of fame the Hotel Pullman Marseille Palm Beach, where Monsieur and I splurged for a night of luxury during our South of France ‘vacances’ last year.
Even for we two inveterate travellers, it had been a long day. We’d driven up from the Camargues, lunched at a sleepy Martigues and screeched into the last boat trip of the day around the calanques near the pretty port of Cassis. The driving in the vicinity of such a natural wonder is reputed to be fraught with tempers frayed by battles fought over parking spaces; sadly, we’d found it to be exactly so, yet somehow managed to escape without a single dent in our fender. Leaving the beauty behind as we entered the messy sprawl of the outskirts of Marseille, we were intent on a night of calm and relaxation. Fortunately, once we found the Pullman Hotel, calm and relaxation is exactly what we enjoyed.
I say ‘once we found’ because the Pullman is James Bond-esque in the way that it hides behind a curve in the Corniche, sinking its storeys below the coastal thoroughfare so that it’s barely visible from the road. We, as many others must have done before us, drove straight on past the entrance before recognising our mistake and navigating a U turn – no mean feat in the early evening rush of traffic – to return to our abode for the night.
A porter swiftly separated luggage from vehicle as a valet disappeared with the car down a ramp into what could have been Hades for all we knew – via the entrance to what we deduced must be the subterranean car park - very 007 once again. Inside, a vast lobby was populated by three or four staff and one of those life-size sculptures of a cow wearing far splashier colours than might be expected in your average milking shed. Elsewhere, the furniture was über chic in the fashion of a deconstructed Mondrian (read: hard-cornered squares and rectangles in primary colours) but quite uncomfortable looking – the subliminal message being that this was not a place to get cosy, although the view across the bay was spectacular and it would be quite possible to spend a couple of hours sitting here watching ships and yachts navigating the busy bay.
Fortunately, our room had its own, private view out to sea, and a balcony from which to enjoy it at our leisure. It was a hot evening, hazy and vaguely rose-tinted. We watched stand-up paddlers taking advantage of the calm waters.
Looking to our right the Corniche snaked against the coast, a gigantic propeller blade rising in dark silhouette against the sunset; this was the 1971 oeuvre of Marseille’s sculptor son, César, honouring the repatriation of people from North Africa to France.
To wash off the day’s accumulation of salt and sweat, we took a dip in the Pullman’s pool, which looked like this:
It was big enough to accommodate pre-dinner swimmers of all ages, from pre-schooler to retiree, and the water was just the right type of cool.
Later, as Monsieur and I basked in the last of the day’s sun, we flicked through guides in an attempt to decide how and where to dine. In the end, room service won. We would sup in our bathrobes, with the unsurpassable vista visible from our balcony, gathering strength for the serious task of exploring Marseille the next day.
The doorbell rang and our evening meal arrived. Seconds later, Monsieur settled down with comfort food: a burger and plump, golden fries with a verrine of coleslaw in a nod to the possibility of fresh produce, even if it hadn’t been ordered in quantity tonight.
I stuck to lighter fare. The smoked salmon was delicious, served with mini-blinis, a dollop of taramasalata and another of soft, herbed cheese. The salad leaves were unusually unblemished, natural, sans vinaigrette.
Then I allowed myself a small plate of cheese.
A glass of crisp, chilled white wine completed the experience.
And so, when last in Marseille, Monsieur and I unabashedly enjoyed our room service supper in our own time, watching all manner of seafaring vessel criss-crossing the bay as the sun sank in the west. It was the epitome of a holiday dining experience: good, simple food, great view, the privacy of our own room and no glad rags required. Not to mention the double bill of Engrenages (Spiral) on TV. A perfect evening, indeed.
Monsieur and I were in Cannes for New Year but soon decided to leave the heaving Croisette for a little trip elsewhere. In our efforts to do just that we drove stop-start through the labyrinthine streets of France’s answer to Tinseltown trying to find a way out. This took a while but a U-turn and a few heart-stopping crossroads later, we finally found ourselves speeding along an autoroute to Grasse, the perfumery centre of France.
This was definitely a destination worthy of our time, although the approach is a little underwhelming. Lego-block apartment buildings climb in batches up the hillside to this famous town, portrayed in all the postcards as a charming olde worlde site filled with flowers and surrounded by fields of lavender. Obviously it would be too much to expect swaying fields of lavender in late December, finding instead at its centre a toboggan slide, caroussel and large, plastic nativity of neon plastic figures nestled in fake snow next to a marquee sporting a farm animal fair with all the braying and quacking that goes with that sort of thing.
A short walk later, the charm of the medieval hill-town became more apparent. There were perfume factories geared to the tourist that could entice a visit, a Longchamps shop filled with their signature bags at unusually competitive prices, narrow coffee bars squeezed like an after-thought between much wider buildings, the expected boutiques, gift shops and galleries, racks of perfumed soaps and a few exclusive-looking places at which to buy foie gras. There’s no doubt about it: Grasse may well be a perfumery town, but a good part of its economic health comes from the tourist. Even on a chilly winter’s day, there were quite a few of us about, snapping away at picturesque views that carry one’s eye as far as the sea.
Turning into an uphill alley, we passed under a frescoed scaffold hoarding between the two sides of the street, and there to my amusement stood an Indian restaurant next to a Vietnamese. Yes, we were ready for lunch but not quite in the mood for ethnic food that we can easily find in London. We walked on.
The sun was warm as we strolled into an airy square, with an oyster stall, florist stand and covered market selling everything from saucissons secs to fake pashminas. Next to the covered market was a restaurant called Café Arnaud, blessed with outdoor tables. As it was quite pleasant in the sun, we decided to take one. We chose, we ordered, we waited. And waited. And waited. And waved down the sole waitress in charge of all the outdoor tables. The waitress said she would chase up our first courses of salad. How long does it take to throw a salad together? 45 minutes apparently. Still, we were happy to be on holiday with Christmas behind us for another year, so waited patiently until, just as we had decided to go elsewhere, the salads arrived. Meanwhile, Mory Kante boomed out of the market marquee and the sun’s strength started to wane.
Monsieur tucked into a generous salade Niçoise, while I enjoyed a Périgourdine, trying to save the piece of foie gras from Monsieur’s fork until I could savour it last. The air was chill, now, and Monsieur’s hands went blue. I also felt the drop in temperature, but wrap myself in layers during winter, no matter how shiny the sun, so it didn’t bother me too much. I was just happy to be outside on a crisp January day.
At a long table next to us, an extended family lunched together, the children wriggling their way through polite eating until they finished and were released from the table, at which point they careened around the square, thoroughly enjoying being kids. In the covered market, people were selecting from fresh produce for their evening meal, as a gypsy-looking woman with a tumble of black hair and pale grey eyes sat down to eat with her husband and their newborn. The square was humming with interest and local life.
Waiting for the bill at The Slow Restaurant gave Monsieur a nasty cold, although we didn’t know it at the time. In the end, we had to venture inside to pay, otherwise we may still be sitting there, waiting, today. So that was Café Arnaud. If you’re ever in Grasse and decide to give it a try, the salade Perigourdine is delicious but I’d recommend you to take your seats inside.
Some of you have been asking me where this photo was taken. (In case it looks familiar, it’s the one at the top of my blog page). It was taken from a rest-stop between Nice and Monaco on New Year’s Eve last year. We’d been hugging the coast so we could gawp at the views like this and what finer day could we have wished for to bid farewell to 2007? The sea sparkled, the sky was cloudless blue and the earthy tones of the Mediterranean houses warmed the scene. All the colours seemed so intense that day.
The village in the picture is Villefranche-sur-Mer, which, at different times, has been home to various famed figures, such as Jean Cocteau, Isadora Duncan and The Rolling Stones. Monsieur and I gazed down from the top of the cliff, wondering how impossible the roads would be if we returned one summer with more time to mosey. Whenever I look at this picture, it makes me smile and remember the warmth of the sun – something not to be sniffed at in a Northern Hemisphere December. It really was quite the perfect day.
In January, when Monsieur and I were staying in Cannes, we decided to drive along part of the Route Napoleon. The day had started quite nicely, but by mid-afternoon, it was as if someone had turned off the light. The clouds rolled in off the sea but in spite of threatening major precipitation it didn’t rain on us.
We stopped along the vertiginous Route to take these pictures. It was chilly, Monsieur was struggling with a nasty cold, and looking down at the steep and rocky drop by the rest stop, I realised how important it is to only drive on this particular road with someone you really trust. It’d be all too easy to shove someone over the edge…