So the longest day has now passed. It’s always seemed strange to me that people talk about summer starting on June 21st when from that day onward the days are shortening, first slowly then accelerating through autumn and into winter. It’s true that the big summer heat has yet to arrive but I can’t shake off the feeling that the longest days should also be the hottest.
My younger brother Malcolm has just retired and has embarked on some unusual adventures. The chosen retirement activity for him and his wife is to sail their catamaran round the British Isles, or most of it at least. They set off from London in mid-April and at the time I’m writing this have just sailed through the Caledonian Canal from east to west and are somewhere in the vicinity of Fort William. For anyone interested they keep a highly informative blog, with pictures and some video (must be a family trait) at
I only mention this because it’s such a contrast to life down here on or near the Riviera. In Scotland, sunny days are precious things, to be enjoyed to the full, while here they’re like buses in a city; if you miss one there’ll be another one coming along soon.
Nonetheless, the last day of spring had a sting in its tail. We spent an enjoyable evening at the house of Liz Morgan, formerly a BBC actress and now a published writer, who had kindly loaned her garden in Vence for a Summer Solstice party organised by the International Club. The evening was balmy and mild, but as we returned along the Corniche we were treated to an impressive lightning display out over the Mediterranean, and by the time we arrived home at about 2am a gusty breeze was whipping up. Up on the roof terrace I tied up some of the plants but was too tired to take the warnings seriously and was woken at first light by the sound of someone apparently dragging rusty armour back and forth above my head. On going out to investigate I discovered our umbrella had broken free in the night and fairly comprehensively smashed itself to bits. One of the cords that should have prevented it from suffering wind damage had snapped and the rest was fairly inevitable as one strut after another failed. Oh well, it was into its third season and had only been cheap to start with. And at least the plants survived unharmed. Later that day, down in the piazza by the poubelles lay another wrecked umbrella; someone else evidently didn’t expect anything but perfect weather on the Riviera in late June.
Fête de la Musique
The following evening, the first day of summer, was dominated by the Fête de la Musique, that French creation that has been gradually spreading to its neighbours. We particularly wanted to go and see the Alain Caruba Jazz Trio, who were playing an early evening gig in Villefranche. On the way back home we drove through Monaco and Menton; in various places bands were setting up or already playing but it was noticeably quieter than last year, no doubt owing to the recession, a corresponding shortage of summer visitors and less spare cash to be spent.
A couple of weeks ago we went with some friends for a lunchtime meal at an out-of-the-way restaurant in Collabassa, a tiny village perched on a mountain ridge above Airole. For anyone whose geography is shaky, Airole is on the road leading north from Ventimiglia, which then leaves Italy and passes through the remote corner of France containing Breil-sur-Roya and Tende before diving through the Tende tunnel back into Italy, Limone and down to Cuneo. Towns along this route see a huge amount of through traffic, both French and Italian hurrying between the Riviera and Turin. Most of it never stops; a bit of a shame because there are some delightful sights to be seen along the way.
Collabassa isn’t the kind of place you’d find by accident, but that doesn’t stop it having a gem of a restaurant, the Osteria La Pousa, owned by an agreeable Italian and his Catalan wife. The combination results in a delightful fusion of Ligurian and Catalan cooking, with heavy emphasis on seafood. You may not know that away from the coast seafood is virtually unknown in Ligurian cooking because of the difficulty in days gone by with transport into the mountains. (The Ligurian speciality is rabbit.) So a mountain restaurant not only offering seafood but doing it well is something of a rarity.
We sat out on a shaded terrace overlooking the Bevera valley with the mountain border with France as a backdrop. No menu was offered but we were treated to a succession of mouth-watering dishes including such delights as Pattanegra ham. If you didn’t know, that’s a Spanish speciality – pigs fed solely on acorns, hence black feet (Pattanegra in Catalan). I love Parma ham but this put it to shame. The main course was a paella, the likes of which I’ve not had since holidays in the Canary Isles, and the meal was accompanied by a selection of wines from the Langhe, that region of Piedmont from which comes Barolo, Nebbiolo and Dolcetto.
The owner of La Pousa has an artist friend who has been given pretty much a free hand to decorate the interior as he pleases. Maybe not to everyone’s taste and certainly not unobtrusive, but undeniably fascinating.
For anyone interested, the proprietor of La Pousa speaks both Italian and French (and no doubt Spanish too, if that helps). The restaurant is open every day except Monday and the telephone number is +39 0184 200025.