The words 'French Riviera' always conjure up, for me, images of sunny bays and mahogany Rivas bobbing on a blue Mediterranean Sea. It's the land of perpetual summer, a land where the light has captivated artists for centuries. Specifically the Riviera is that stretch of coast from Antibes to Italy, running through Cannes, Nice and Monaco.
I was there again on a gastronomic tour with a group of Irish gourmets, our five-day mission to discover new places to eat, new wines to drink and to boldly explore what Cannes and Nice had to offer.
We were staying in Cannes, and what you need to know about Cannes is that it makes its living rather in the same way that Blackpool does - it hosts conferences. You'll have heard of the Cannes Film Festival, but as soon as its two weeks are over, in comes the mobile phone world conference, and every fortnight after that there's another. Then there's Midem, which is the conference for the music business. As a result of all of this, there's a lot Irish people going to conferences there and enjoying second homes in the area.
Ever since the English started going in large numbers to this part of France in the 18th Century, the locals have become adept at separating tourists from their money. Some of world's most expensive taxi fares can be found in Nice and ten years ago we paid €45 for a burger in the Grand Hotel du Cap on Antibes. Unless you're careful, you can end up spending more than you expected to.
As you wander around the old towns of Cannes and Nice, don't be surprised if the architecture looks a little Italianate to you. Until the late 19th Century, this was Italy. As part of the deal-making after the unification of Italy, this piece of Savoy went to France and Victor Emmanuel of Savoy became king of the newly unified Italy.
In Nice all the street signs are in two languages, French and Nissarda, a Genovese dialect that was spoken in this part of Italy. Italy's great hero Garibaldi was born in Nice and he has a fine statue dedicated to him at the old port as well as the grand Piazza Garibaldi. You still hear a lot of Italian spoken in the streets, especially as you get closer to Italy.
If you like haute cuisine, that's easily found in Cannes. Its main drag along the sea front is called La Croisette and there are fine hotels here for the deep of pocket, like the Carlton or the Martinez that houses the two-star Palme d'Or, which I reviewed a few years ago. But what I wanted to find this time was not haute cuisine, but rather what the French call cuisine grand-mère, or cooking like granny used to.
I suppose that's shorthand for using ingredients that haven't been processed, and cooking everything fresh and from scratch. And what joy it was to discover that perhaps 100 metres from our hotel was La Brouette de Grand-Mère, which translates as granny's wheelbarrow. Not only near, but proud to cook like granny did.
It's nicely placed on the corner of two largely pedestrianised streets, with plenty of outdoor tables for the inveterate smokers that still inhabit France.
We had our table inside and settled in for our four-course €42 menu, which included a half bottle of wine per person, a glass of fizz on arrival and vodka with the gravadlax.
It began with a tasty saucisson (salami) which came on a board with a knife so you could slice your own and to accompany that home-made terrines - one between every four of us - and plenty of really fresh and crusty baguettes. Be warned, it's very easy to eat too much of this and then you'll be unable to get through course number four.
Next we got a plate of home-made gravadlax, made with sea trout and served with a dill-infused olive oil and a shot of chilled vodka alongside. Like the first course this was simple, but perfectly executed - pretty much exactly what I'd call cuisine grand-mère.
There were beef and lamb choices for the main course, but the rabbit in mustard sauce was completely irresistible to me. It was, as I thought it might be, really good and was served with Dauphinoise potatoes. The mustard sauce was the sort that has you reaching for the bread so you can mop up the very last of it, leaving the plate completely clean.
Desserts included chocolate mousse, panna cotta and îles flottantes, a dessert I haven't seen since its moment of high fashion back in the 1980s. As a counterpoint to some of the more pretentious eateries in Cannes, this is one I'm happy to recommend to you.
A visit to Nice to see the flower market and the book market on a Saturday gave me the chance to suggest to the galloping gourmets that they might like to try my favourite restaurant in Nice, Bistrot d'Antoine, a really fine restaurant serving excellent food at reasonable prices.
With no booking, there wasn't a table for us, but one of the chefs suggested we try Bar des Oiseaux, the newest venture of Armand and Sylvie, the owners of Bistrot d'Antoine.
It seems that they've divided the work, so Sylvie now runs the Bistrot and Armand is in the Bar des Oiseaux. Sure enough, he was there when we arrived and he wouldn't bring us a menu. "I'll choose for you. Sit back, relax, and let me feed you." These are magic words to me, so that's what we did.
And feed us he did. Scallops atop a salad of mango and fennel, ravioli filled with leeks and clams, gnocchi and then lamb with girolles. The ravioli dish was sensational, I'll remember that for a long time.
So next time I'm in Nice, you can expect a full review.
9/10 value for money