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.