As the birthplace of superyacht charter, the French Riviera is blessed with some spectacular places to eat. The region is the perfect place for a gastronomic charter. The entire coastline is littered with world-famous destinations like Monaco, Cannes, St Tropez, Nice, Antibes and Eze. These are names that developed a mystique in the 50s and 60s. They continue to resonate with the promise of delectable sensory indulgence today. It should, therefore, come as little surprise that one of the region’s many fine-dining establishments, ‘Mirazur’ in Menton, has recently added the title of ‘World’s best restaurant’ to its three Michelin stars.
It is important to understand that food in this region is about more than just the transcendent art of high-end gastronomy. After all, as a historical place of aromatic lavender fields, lemon-scented villages, and pine-cloaked hills that plunge into clear Mediterranean waters; it’s also about the simpler things. It’s about tomatoes, garlic, saffron, peppers, anchovies and olives; atmospheric markets selling fresh produce, bright-eyed fish, artisan oils and great wine; rustic back street bistros serving authentic local dishes in elegant alfresco settings; and it’s about out-of-the way eateries amongst hillsides strewn with wild herbs. The natural riches of this region certainly give the ambitious chef everything he needs to excel. When visiting the French Riviera, there is more than just visiting Côte-d’Azur’s dazzling restaurants. The many fresh fruit and vegetable markets are just the tip of the iceberg on what makes this destination a gastronomic charter.
THE FOODS THAT DEFINE THE FRENCH RIVIERA
While Bouillabaisse, a traditional broth with fish, croutons and spicy ‘rouille’, is, of course, a major favourite throughout the French Riviera, it’s by no means the only local speciality to get excited about. A rich beef and red wine stew known as daube provençale has developed into something of a delicacy in Nice, while equally rustic and traditional dishes like Salad Niçoise and ratatouille also take on a magic of their own when enjoyed alfresco with a bottle of local wine in the very region that made them famous.
Other indulgent local treats include truffles, Fromage de chèvre (goat’s cheese) and pungent, aromatic aïoli, a garlic mayonnaise that makes a wonderful dip for the local shellfish. There are some exciting flatbreads here too – not least socca, a chickpea-base flatbread flavoured with herbs; and fougasse, an ancient flatbread fortified in this part of the world with olives, cheese, and anchovies, earning it a playful reputation as the ‘pizza of Provence’. And then, of course, there are the famous ‘Herbes de Provence’ – typically rosemary, thyme, marjoram and oregano – which flavour so many of the region’s classical dishes and which seem to add a warm Mediterranean perfume to the fabric of the place itself.
On the sweeter side of things, the French Riviera also boasts Tarte Tropézienne, a cream-filled brioche made famous by Brigitte Bardot in the 1950s, as well as a great range and variety of nougat and candied fruits. And while you’re wandering the backstreets of St Tropez or Cannes, in search of a good bistro, why not take a slow Mediterranean approach to your meal with some homemade tapenade, packed with local olives, capers, anchovies and garlic, alongside a glass or two of wine or even a classic provençal Pastis apéritif.
Don’t forget the markets
While the region’s top restaurants are often memorable destinations in their own right, a true gastronomic tour of the Côte d’Azur should also make time to embrace the local markets. They generally open at around 7am and close at around 1pm, so it often pays to arrive early and treat yourself to a leisurely breakfast. If you prefer to come later, then why not mimic the traders and retire to a bistro for a lengthy lunch once the stands have been packed away.
While there are plenty of regular markets throughout this region, marrying wonderful produce with uncontrived cultural authenticity, particular regional highlights include the covered market in Antibes’ Old Town at Cours Massena, which makes a fine place to browse local produce from smallholders as well as professional growers. In Cannes the near iconic ‘Marche Forville’ at the bottom of Le Suquet is also among the best of its kind in the Riviera. Selling everything from oils, breads, herbs and cheeses to meat, veg and flowers, it’s open six days a week throughout the year and is a great place to embrace the infectious appeal of France’s famed passion for food.
Nice is also a well-established hub for markets of every kind. The Cours Saleya Market is an especially atmospheric and inspiring place to be, full of beautiful produce and passionate artisans. However, its appeal is by no means a secret so if you want something that’s not so high on the visitor hitlist, the huge fish market at Liberation near the train station is a thrilling experience for lovers of fish and advocates of all things local.
If you can spare the time, serious gastronomes would also do well to take a small detour inland. There are some wonderful farmers’ markets further west in the pretty towns of Arles, Carpentras and L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue – but such is the commitment of this region both to homegrown produce and to the culture of local trade that, between Tuesday and Sunday throughout the year, you should always be able to find a market with the power to excite.