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The natural beauty of St Tropez on the French Riviera has long attracted the international jet set. Now, in Arnaud Donckele, the town has found a chef who wants to make local produce the principal attraction.
Shortly before midday, I headed to the pass at La Vague d’Or restaurant, which gained its third Michelin star last year. Donckele was standing there as he prepared a large tray of purple artichokes and a small punnet of the thinnest haricots verts. We shook hands and, for the next 30 minutes, Donckele treated me to his thoughts on Provençal cooking, amassed over nine years in the kitchen of this restaurant within the Résidence de la Pinède, an opulent hotel on what is known as Bouillabaisse beach.
In Donckele’s view, there are three distinct styles of Provençal cooking. The first is found around Nice and is the closest to Italian cooking. Then there is the style seen in the Var, the département in which St Tropez is located.
And finally there is the food found around Marseille, which is different again. Donckele, 37, has obviously done a lot of research on this topic since leaving his native Normandy. En route he cooked at Lasserre in Paris and under Franck Cerutti at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant, the Louis XV, in Monaco.
Donckele’s goal is to be 100 per cent local, using only the ingredients of the Var. He honed this strategy two years ago when he decided to introduce a second menu alongside his long à la carte one. He called it Fugue en Provence. I had assumed this was a musical reference but Donckele patiently explained that this was not the case at all. “Fugue, in this French sense, means ‘having nothing to do with’ or ‘a flight from’,” he said. “So this is my way of creating a different menu each day that has only one dish in common with my à la carte menu. All the other five dishes we create every morning when we collate everything that our suppliers have just brought in. On my way in this morning I picked these artichokes and haricots and both will be a part of tonight’s fugue menu.”
This approach, however well intentioned, is not without its risks. But, while it misses the odd beat, it does lead to a menu that hits some very high notes as well as introducing curious eaters to some extremely unusual ingredients.
This process began for us in the bar where, over our aperitif, we were presented with a series of amuse-bouches, one of which was a tray containing four murex. These knobbly sea snails, once revered for the dye they excrete, also make good eating. Their meat is cooked like that of land snails, although, in this instance, with plenty of fennel. A long spike on one side makes them easy to transport to the mouth.
The highlights of our meal were unquestionably the first two of three fish dishes, not just in terms of content but also presentation. The initial plate was a large, thick piece of extremely heavy marble on which were served two rounds of grilled liche and tolino, both members of the tuna family. Alongside were triangles of orange and red tomato, prepared as a confit to accentuate the flavour, and guacamole, over which was poured a rich, creamy, unlikely but highly successful sauce that combined bonito, dried tuna, Lambrusco and marjoram.
This was followed by Donckele’s version of red mullet, an ingredient he refers to as “the woodcock of the sea” because the livers of both can be so enjoyable. Seven red mullet weighing between 120g-150g (apparently the most suitable weight for this dish) had been brought in that morning by a fisherman. Two of these were now served covered with a thin layer of crisp potato and on top of a lively mixture of liver and the meat of an araignée de mer, a local crab. A gleaming shell contained diced, perfectly cooked vegetables whose flavours were highlighted by a mandarin sorbet.
A technical fault came in the next course where a combination of langoustes and clams was overpowered by an overdose of verveine in the sauce. But a final, local combination of a best end and shoulder of Sisteron lamb with an earthy bottle of 2004 Domaine des Annibals Syrah from Brignoles was far more successful.
At €250 this menu is expensive but it unquestionably offers a heartfelt taste of the Var.
La Vague d’Or
Résidence de la Pinède, Plage de la Bouillabaisse, Saint Tropez, France, +00 33 4 94 55 91 00; residencepinede.com
Photograph: Christophe Duranti