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a very riviera christmas
by Keith Allan
We are in Mougins, in the district of Grasse, a little way inland from Cannes on the glorious French Riviera. It’s Christmas and the Riviera light is sharp and beautiful; it’s also sunny and quite warm. No wonder Picasso chose to live here in a farmhouse next to the 12th century Notre-Dame chapel. He had a separate studio (now the tourist office) and died here in 1973 aged 91. An oversize statue of his head sits at the entrance to this hilltop town and there is no escaping him as we walk round its classy shops, restaurants and galleries, many of which use his name to draw you in. But there are others to name-drop who rather fell for this place. Winston Churchill liked to paint here and Elizabeth Taylor came to party. Edith Piaf was a fan and so too was Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior and chef Alain Ducasse cooked here.
Another draw, which clings to the hillside just below the village, is a charming hotel called Le Mas Candille. My wife Lynne and I have chosen it for our Christmas getaway, on our own for once, not surrounded by family, no cooking, no shopping. Bliss. It’s a ten minute walk down the hill.
Yorkshire businessman Mark Silver bought it twenty years ago and it didn’t take his wife and two children long to fall for it too. From our room we take in the amazing views. Through giant pine trees we look out over the valley towards the town of Grasse, which we know quite well.
And in particular we love La Bastide Saint Antoine with chef patron Jacque Chibois. What a place he runs; he holds two Michelin Stars. On our first day we go there for a sensational lunch. Back at Le Mas Candille the well kept, terraced gardens take us to the spa and an outdoor swimming pool where we spend a couple of hours swimming and sun bathing.
We had half expected a little bit of an English influence to creep in to this French Christmas; a mince pie or two perhaps, or a plum pudding, but over a brief get together Silver tells us that they don’t want to go there. “We are in France,” he tells us, “and are determined not to fall into that trap.” HIs French chef, who holds a Michelin Star, probably wouldn’t like it either.
Christmas dinner is scheduled for Christmas eve and as we appear from our cosy room above reception a hint of wood smoke greets us, drifting up from the warming fire in the bar. Now where’s that big, blooming Christmas tree full of decorations? Stop it. We must think French remember. Everything seems quiet, a little deserted even, but over the next hour or so more guests start appearing which might mean a jovial get together, a chance to meet new faces. We say hello to everyone and we make eye contact but there seems a reluctance, a shyness even, to continue talking. Perhaps it’s our fault for not being more engaging but where’s the hotel manager to break the ice and make things a little more jolly?
So over a glass of champagne we bury ourselves in the menu. Six courses, all paired with wine, begins with crayfish jelly, caviar and cream of cauliflower. It’s followed by foie gras with lemon brioche and spiced mulled wine. Next come delicious scallops, perfectly cooked and caramelised with a sweet potato puree and a garlic broth sauce.
The main course is an eagerly awaited Bresse chicken, the leg cooked separately, and served with an albufera creamy sauce, globe artichoke and baby spinach. The chicken is tender and moist. Paired with a couple of glasses of Saint Joseph Clos de Cuminaille it’s a perfect combination. A cheese course follows with dried fruit and nuts and for pudding a chocolate yule log, accompanied by champagne.
We exchange Happy Christmases with our nearest tables; the dinner is a huge success. We love the Riviera in winter and during our stay make several trips by bus into nearby Cannes. The shops are busy and festive. We stroll along the Boulevard de la Croisette, past gardens and palm trees, and of course the lovely Mediterranean shoreline. Some people have braved a swim and others are lapping up the sunshine on the sandy beach. We also pass the long line of luxury hotels that overlook all this. One of them is the Martinez, where we have enjoyed staying over the years, and can’t resist a quick look to see what it’s recent makeover looks like. At the other end of the Croisette an outdoor antiques market catches our eye; a perfect opportunity to find a Christmas present for each other.
On Christmas morning we breakfast in bed and open our presents. I have a vintage, Louis Vuitton tie, my wife a sparkling teddy bear brooch, both of which were bought at the market. After a while we start thinking about lunch and head back to the town and take a chance that we might get in to the Michelin starred L’amandier de Mougins but, alas, they are fully booked. So instead we wander back towards the town square and attend the Christmas service in the little Notre-Dame church which Picasso knew so well. Service over we stroll a few more yards and get talking to a waiter darting between tables. He invites us to look at his menu, take a seat in the sunshine and enjoy a glass of wine. A friendly bistro on Christmas Day where it is warm enough to dine out is a novel experience and before we know it we have called him back to take an order.
Quite out of character we both fancy burgers with frites. Another British couple come sauntering past and stop to tell us how nice our food looks. “We’re loving it,” we tell them, “What a way to spend Christmas.” I think we’ll join you,” they say and sit down at the next table. It’s not long before our super efficient waiter has a bottle of wine uncorked and is pouring it into their glasses. “Merry Christmas,” we call. Now that’s more like it and who needs a turkey!