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Mougins & Gastronomy, a great story

Author: Bernard Deloupy – 2014 Excerpt from the book “Le Produit à l’Honneur” (Products in the spotlight) by Denis Fétisson, Chef of La Place de Mougins.

Simply climbing up to this little mediaeval town, perched on its hilltop, means brushing up close with the heritage of gourmet humanity.

Contemplating the grandiose panorama stretching from the Bay of Cannes to the foothills around Grasse makes it easier to understand why this exceptional site has been so attractive since the Iron Age, almost twenty-five centuries ago. The safety of a strategic promontory surrounded by fertile land, with its brazen sunshine, a river and a profusion of springs flowing from the neighbouring Pre-Alps: all this was enough for the birth of this village, now considered one of the most beautiful in France.

A Ligurian tribe settled there until Greeks planted vineyards and olive trees. Subsequently, Romans founded a supply station along Via Julia Augusta linking Italy and Spain. In the late Middle Ages, under the reign of “Good King” René, Count of Provence, an exemption charter accepted by the Abbot of Lérins, seignior of the place, granted the people of Mougins the privilege of having justice rendered locally. Attracted by this protection, strong arms flocked there, while stockbreeding and farming prospered, and oil mills flourished along the banks of the Siagne River. Strolling through the village coiled around its church tower, you can already imagine yourself in one of the many surrounding meadows, with their olive trees whose shade is ideal for napping amid flowers, and watching goats browsing on thyme and savory.

Then, once past the remains of its 15th-century fortifications, machicolated defensive gates, ramparts and campaniles, you are invited to enter the land of gourmandise. Along the narrow tortuous streets, with with their stone walls and paving, the aroma exhaling from kitchens recount the culinary traditions of a generous land: stewed hare flavoured with tarragon from the local hills and accompanied by polenta (maize meal imported by workers from the Italian Piedmont; the traditional pignate (Provençal terracotta cooking pot) for simmering suckling lamb with rosemary; skewered thrush shared with friends at the end of the season; sprigs of fennel in pissala (anchovy paste); wild asparagus for a family dish to be savoured after a Sunday outing... In the evening chill, on a shaded little square with the murmur of a mossy fountain, while sipping limonade (traditional lemon soda) with mint, you can evoke the exploits of Célestin Véran, owner of Le Grand Couloir, formerly an oil mill, who was trained in Toulon and won the prestigious Équipages de la Flotte cooking contest in 1912. As a fisherman after World War I, he converted his boat into a sea taxi for rich English visitors. At the crack of dawn, he picked up tourists, collected sea urchins and took them fishing to catch the ingredients for Bouillabaisse which he prepared and served in his cabin (cabanon) on the Isle of Sainte-Marguerite.

This genuine feast was much appreciated by crowned heads —including the Duke of Windsor who became his friend— who insisted on partaking of it during their winter stays on the Riviera. Hence the nickname “Royal Tambouil” the villagers affectionately gave him. Yet another source of pride was native son Lisnard, a cook on board the Royal Louis, Ship of the Line for French King Louis XVI, believed to have invented mayonnaise to accompany the Admiral’s meals. Others remember, with knowing looks, Fernand Bain’s famous aioli and, with deference, the High and Mighty who, in the 1930s, honoured the table at the Golf Country Club Cannes-Mougins founded at the instigation of Prince Pierre of Monaco, Baron de Rothschild and Lord Derby. There is nostalgic mention of the feasts at the Vaste Horizon, where Pablo Picasso and his friends spent their holidays from 1936 to 1940 and where Louison Bobet and his cycling team set up their training camp. And there was the restaurant opened after World War II by Girard, who studied with Escoffier, renamed La Musarde after the restrictions ended, and run by Béatrix Durand.

Those who “went up to Mougins” to flee the bustle of the Cannes Film Festival. King Leopold of Belgium, King Farouk, the Aga Khan, Paul Éluard, Maurice Chevalier were regular patrons. La Pax, the first hotel-restaurant in the village whose Chef was Meilleur Ouvrier de France, is always mentioned with emotion. Many remember mouthwatering poached game, hunted with ferrets and served by Madame Suche to her guests at Le Saint-Basile; farm cuisine at Château de la Peyrière, taken over by Monsieur Josse, an innkeeper from Cap d’Antibes; tasty dishes prepared by Denise Donot at Le Rendez-Vous de Mougins, a former Hôtel de France.

There were also Nicolas Polverino and Georgette who founded a restaurant at Maison Pellegrin on Place -Lamy, where Mémé Jeanne concocted the most delectable recipes from Mougins. Meals cooked at Quartier Saint-Martin by Mestre Agard, a great friend of his neighbour, Charles Aznavour’s father. The opening by André Surmain, flamboyant Chef of Le Lutèce in New York, of Le Relais in the centre of town, then Le Feu Follet where his daughter and son-in-law followed in his footsteps, specializing in Provençal cuisine. Another source of pride is Le Moulin de Mougins taken over by Roger Vergé and his wife Denise in 1969. Three Michelin stars would reward the Chef’s talent less than five years later. The school of “Cuisine of the Sun” set up in his second restaurant, L’Amandier de Mougins, has trained many famous Chefs and contributes to the village’s global repute. So much so that Le Moulin hosts, every year during the Cannes Film Festival, the greatest celebrities in show business, at the dinner for amfAR (Foundation for AIDS Research) founded by Elizabeth Taylor. With over thirty restaurants and cooking schools, the commune has made a name for itself over the years as the Capital of Gastronomy and the Art of Living.

There was a time when it was the most star-studded village in France, with no less than seven Michelin stars in 1992! In the past ten years, Les Étoiles de Mougins, the prestigious International Festival of Gastronomy, has put the commune on the map as a must for gourmets on the Côte d’Azur. After wending our way between old bread ovens, oil presses, flour mills and wine cellars, our steps take us to Place du Commandant-Lamy, across from the Mairie (Town Hall) where La Place de Mougins restaurant –formerly Le Feu Follet– perpetuates the village’s culinary traditions while revisiting them. But, here, it is more a matter of artistic emotion than nostalgia for a defunct past. The fine cream-coloured house with lavender shutters sets the tone for casual elegance.

Once you have crossed the threshold, warm hues, sober materials, clean lines and soft colours reflect timeless modernity. On the walls, paintings and lithographs recall that Mougins has always had close ties with the Muses thanks to its exceptional setting and the artists who chose to live here. In 1924, Francis Picabia stopped here, communicated his enthusiasm to his friends and attracted the greatest of them, including Pablo Picasso, then unknown, who stayed at Hôtel Vaste Horizon in 1936. One night, overcome by creative fever, he entirely painted his room, enraging the hotelkeeper who forced him to repaint the walls in white... The artist bore no grudge and settled permanently in the village where he spent the last fifteen years of his life. Mougins’s culinary reputation did have some influence on this choice. Cocteau, Fernand Léger, Man Ray, Christia Dior, Yves Saint-Laurent stayed there in his wake. Artists’ studios and art galleries maintain the legend of constantly renewed inspiration.