The Colombe d’Or is a love-it or hate-it sort of place. If you hate it – and some do – it is because it is a celebrity-ridden, vulgar sort of joint with overpriced, ordinary food in an overpopulated, touristy village in a much over-visited corner of the south of France. However, if you love it, you don’t care about any of these things because a lunch there is a kind of privilege that has to be experienced at least once.
A lot of people visit the hotel without ever seeing what it is most famous for: the art from the likes of Matisse, Braque and Léger that is dotted around the place or the large Calder mobile by the swimming pool. This bounty is said to have been given by the artists as payment in lieu for meals and sojourns in the hotel.
Even the disparagers have to concede that the hotel’s splendid terrace is a good spot to dine – “un endroit fleuri et ombrageux”, as Michelin would have it, although I doubt if its reviewers would have much more to say on the subject of La Colombe d’Or. The food is unpretentious in the extreme and, in choosing a main course, it is probably prudent to stick to a simple grilled fish, which will not disappoint. To start, of course, you must have the hors d’oeuvres.
I daresay old Colombe hands eschew the hors d’oeuvres, a bit like habitués of La Tour d’Argent would never have the duck. They are not cheap and one can only eat – and I speak with some expertise on this point – a fraction of them.
The service starts slowly with a lady of mature years who brings a few saucissons sec to the table and cuts them into thick slices. Besides the saucissons, a magnificent basket of raw vegetables – artichokes, radishes, cucumbers, carrots and celery – is presented before the hors d’oeuvres proper appear in profusion. Among their number are sardines en escabèche, chickpeas, celeriac remoulade, black pudding, rice, couscous, potato salad, lentils, artichoke hearts, aubergines and squid. It is a banquet.
I tried to copy the idea some years ago when revamping a restaurant we had purchased. It didn’t work: the restaurant was too small and the customers just didn’t get it. Ten years later, I tried again at Le Café Anglais with a list of 15 hors d’oeuvres before the starters proper. This time it caught on. My thanks to La Colombe are long overdue.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
More columns at www.ft.com/leigh
The aubergines must be very firm and fresh: the viola type is ideal. This is not fast food, since it takes over a week to make, but is a handy thing to have around since it keeps for weeks if not months.
2 heaped tbsp coarse salt
4 tbsp red wine vinegar
4 cloves garlic
1 red chilli
2 tbsp chopped fennel tops
Extra virgin olive oil
● Peel the aubergines completely and cut lengthways into slices half a centimetre thick. Slice again into strips roughly two centimetres wide and as long as a little finger. Place in a colander and sprinkle with the salt. Mix well, cover with a damp cloth and leave for a day.
● Gently squeeze out the moisture from the aubergines with your hands and put in a bowl. Pour over the vinegar and leave for two hours.
● Take a glass preserving jar, a stone crock or a tall straight-sided earthenware dish. Slice the garlic quite finely. Split the chilli, wash out the seeds under the cold tap and then slice it very finely. Drain the aubergines. Place a layer in the bottom of the jar, sprinkle with the chilli, garlic and fennel. Add a dribble of olive oil. Proceed with layer after layer in the same fashion until the aubergines are finished. Press down the surface gently and cover with olive oil. Leave uncovered for a couple of hours before topping up with olive oil. Cover and refrigerate for a week before using to the best effect.
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