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Byline by M.J.Akbar: A Provence Diary
Do good food and good news taste better when touched by enchanting style and environment? Such questions of high philosophy seem inevitable after a few days in the south of France alias Provence. We are tucked into the first slope above the Mediterranean. Sunset is ahead, the sea behind, and the breeze pampers us from all directions. We overlook the serene village of Valbonne which despite its anonymity boasts of a one-star Michelin restaurant. The village has a modern town hall, ancient streets, a large pharmacy, a modest parking lot and an internet cafe that opens 15 minutes late but is managed with visible sincerity by a young man in constant need of conversation. A swerve of the road later is Mougins, where the chef Alain Llorca offers a 3-star Michelin meal and where Picasso came to die. The chateau which was his last home sits quietly with its memories. Inevitably the locals say that the unique natural light of these mountains drew the painter like a magnet, and to see the spreading blush above the kohl-black mountains long after sunset is to understand why "silhouette" is a French word.
Michelin’s stars are more respected by the discerning than its tyres although the tyres pay for the dilettantes who wander incognito through France checking the quality of levels of the nation’s highest art form, gastronomy. Fewer are aware of what the stars indicate. A restaurant can get only three at best. One star means excellent food. Two indicate that the restaurant is worth a detour. Three stars insist that the restaurant is worth a journey.
In front of us rise the Alps, the highest peaks still glittering with the glowing white glamour of winter. Behind us is the pearl necklace of fairytale beach-towns from St. Tropez to Monaco through Cannes, Antibes and Nice. The chances of seeing a pram are much higher in the touristy afternoons of St. Tropez than a bikini. The place is much too expensive for the young and the beach too public for the rich and famous who remain rich because of their accountants and famous because they stay at home unless summoned by the camera. There is a traffic jam of boats on the shore and villas on the shoreline. Boat to bungalow is via a Bentley. Nudists have their privilege of their own offshore island where you cannot wear clothes even when strolling with a trolley through the foodstore. There is no equality like nudity, which is one more reason for the rich to leave such options alone. And voyeurs must find such freedom simply too boring.
Cannes pouts and waits for its suitors. They come in all shapes, from all directions, enjoy a flirt and return home. Nothing more is expected, nothing more is delivered. Cannes is a strip of four parallel curvaceous lines between sea and mountain: beach, promenade, shops and exit route. The beach is the altar where the sun god is worshipped. Celebrities receive their homage on the promenade with its majestic hotels, paparazzi and throngs of hangers-on. The pantheon of the gods of fashion dwells on the shopping street, the Rue de Antibes. Common sense presides over the exit highway: there is only so much that you can take. The sea is saucer-calm all along the coast but water incidental to its joys. The true deity is the sun, demanding its daily sacrifice of skin and burn from men and women who flock in from the cold, wet, grey, dismal, depressing, dull, driven, regions of north Europe. The coast sparkles with dream towns till Monaco where it swerves south into the upper thigh of Italy, as beautiful a resting place for a tired head as any in the world.
If music is the food of love for Shakespeare then food is the music of love in Provence. To eat such food in a hurry would be a high crime. To expect such food elsewhere would be a misdemeanour. To return to our opening query: is pleasure enhanced by environment? Yes. It’s like love. Looks are not essential; but they always help. Taste buds need nature’s embrace to flower.
Eze is a 12th century village atop an ageless hill perpendicular to the Cote d’ Azur, towering above a sea of shifting colours. Walk the last stretch through dainty shops selling Provence jams and pottery, swing through the high gates and climb the final steps to reach the perch of the golden goat at the pinnacle. This is the Chevre d’Or, the restaurant at the heart of the four-Michelin, 33-suite chateau-hotel. (Hotels can rise above three stars.) The fuss of the waiters at the bar is the first indication that this is going to be an agreeable afternoon. The prices along the wine list suggest otherwise. The problem is quickly sorted out by the maitre d’ who offers an excellent Provencal chilled white and hints, through various facial contortions, but without saying a word, that all sensible guests prefer the local fare. We leave food to his safe hands and are offered the set menu. We are led, for reasons that we cannot fully comprehend but do not want to explore, to the best table with magnificent sea views. The food comes at the pace of a leisurely, sunlit summer afternoon, starting with a palate-searching aperitif that is off the menu. We meander through soup, shellfish, starters, fish, vegetables, meat, port, cheeses, two kinds of dessert, sorbet and coffee. When we rise after three hours we are consumed by the experience.
Note for tourists from our subcontinent heading towards Provence this summer: A brasserie in France is a kind of restaurant and not a kind of brassiere.
What else could disturb a night’s sleep other than politics?
If all politics, as famously said and often repeated in this column, is local, and all coverage is international then surely all results are comparative. The Conservatives managed to get only about as many seats as the much-derided Michael Foot won against Mrs Margaret Thatcher and have broad smiles. Labour has won an unprecedented third term under Tony Blair and is looking as glum as a Frenchman denied his holiday. Joy and sorrow are defined by the distance you have travelled from expectations, and by that yardstick Labour has won but Tony Blair has lost. He was defeated by Iraq. The British electorate might have forgiven him for a war they never wanted but they refused to forgive him for telling lies to justify the war. The percentage of the vote Labour polled, 36, was the lowest ever for a party that went on to form a government. The Tory vote did not rise by much, only .5%. But tactical spread of discontent ensured that their benefits were higher in seats. Tony Blair looked glum and Cherie could not conceal a twitch. Bliar cost Blair his credibility. Humpty Dumpty has had a great fall.
Of all the voters who switched Blair could not have cursed anyone more than the 413 whose decision gave a certain George Galloway victory in the Muslim-heavy East London constituency of Bethnal Green. Galloway is a Scotsman who was thrown out of Labour for his strong, almost virulent opposition to Blair’s war. He has been at various times accused of every sin from smoking big cigars to wearing well tailored suits to adultery to friendship with Saddam Hussein. As he told BBC (questioners cannot stop hectoring him) he had met Saddam only twice in ten years — the same number of times as Donald Rumsfeld, so what was this friendship all about? Galloway challenged Labour in one of its safest seats: safe not only because of popular support but also because of the control over the local government machinery that the party exercises in the boroughs. Galloway yet got 15,801 votes against Labour’s 14,978. They were separated by 823 votes, so a switch of 413 votes would have ensured that the man who will make Blair’s life miserable would not have reached Parliament. More important, Galloway returns to the limelight. He gave a taste of things to come from the limelight that he loves in his acceptance speech, beamed by BBC at four in the morning: "Mr Blair, this is for Iraq... All the people you have killed and all the lies you have told have come back to haunt you."
Tony Blair has the false strut of a lame duck. Gordon Brown has the smile of a successor. As the French commentator put it, Blair won but it was a short victory. You can’t do a long haul from a short victory.