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The natural beauty of St Tropez on the French Riviera has long attracted the international jetsetters. Now in Arnaud Donckele it has a chef who wants to make its local produce the principal attraction.
I was escorted to meet Donckele by Thierry Di Tullio, the general manager of La Vague d'Or restaurant in St Tropez that gained its third Michelin star last year.
Tullio was standing by the entrance to the kitchen. He took a step back to let a waitress with an empty tray pass and to respond to my question about his name. 'I'm Italian, from Bologna, from a family of ice-cream makers.'
This comment explained one thing I had noted over dinner the evening before while watching Tullio in action. He had used his hands a great deal to express his obvious enthusiasm for Donckele's cooking, a trait I always associate with Italians. I had also been impressed by the fact that Tullio had taken the trouble to mention the name of the waitress, Céline, who would be looking after us in the restaurant.
Tullio then led me to the pass, where, just before midday, Donckele was standing 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 the last nine years in the kitchen of this restaurant within the Résidence de la Pinède, an opulent, privately owned, 39-bedroom hotel on what is known as Bouillabaisse beach.
In his 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 that of the Var, the department in which St Tropez is located. And finally there is the food of the area around Marseille that is different again. Donckele, 37, has obviously done a lot of research into this topic since leaving his native Normandy and cooking en route at Lasserre in Paris and under Franck Cerutti at Alain Ducasse's restaurant, the Louis XV, in Monaco.
Donckele's goal, to use only the ingredients of the Var, to be 100% local, took a strategic turn two years ago when he decided to introduce a second menu alongside his long à la carte menu and to call this a 'Fugue en Provence'. I had assumed that 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". 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 high risk, as Donckele admitted. But it does lead to a menu that can hit some very high notes with the odd missed beat as well as introducing curious eaters to some highly 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 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 two highlights of our meal were unquestionably the first two of three fish dishes, not just in terms of content but also of presentation.
The initial 'plate' was a large, thick piece of light green, extremely heavy marble on which were two rounds of grilled liche and tolino, both members of the tuna family, served next to one another. Alongside were triangles of orange and red tomato that had been confited to accentuate their flavour, and guacamole, over which was poured a rich, creamy, unlikely but highly successful sauce that combined bonito, dried tuna, Lambrusco wine 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 liver of both can be enjoyed. Seven red mullet weighing between 120-150 grams, 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 scale of crisp potato and on top of a lively mixture of its 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, which was for once not otiose.
The technical fault came in the next course, where a combination of langoustes and clams was overpowered by an overdose of verveine in the sauce. 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 euros this menu is expensive but unquestionably offers a heartfelt taste of the Var.
La Vague d'Or
Résidence de la Pinède, Plage de la Bouillabaisse, BP 105 83990 Saint-Tropez, France; tel +33 (0)4 94 55 91 00
The photo is taken from the hotel's website.