ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

B-V on (whistle-stop) Tour

Question: How many of you have eaten or drank in four different countries in the same day? Possibly not many.

I have, obviously, or I wouldn't be asking. I don’t think I’d managed more than two in a day until last week, and certainly didn’t intend to achieve this unlikely feat. It just sorta happened.

And here’s how:

With a few days to kill and an impulsive desire to visit a part of the world I hadn’t hitherto seen, I booked us a last-minute trip to the Cote d’Azur. Just one night, but two long days – plenty of time to explore the region and enjoy some top-notch food.

Up at the crack

We had to rise at 5 AM to get to Heathrow for our flight to Nice, and given the ungodly hour and anticipation of the culinary delights ahead, not to mention my current health concerns, I forwent my usual Full English Airport Breakfast in favour of something lighter: a decent enough cheddar, ham and tomato toastie at the Harlequin pub, along with a pint of their easy-drinking house ale (brewed by Wells and Young's, quite possibly a rebadged Wells' Eagle - it is 3.6%.) 

As British airport ‘pubs’ go, it’s not at all bad, and comparatively fair value to boot. A better option than Wetherspoons if you’re flying from Terminal One, certainly and a pint and a toasted sandwich was just enough to keep me going for a while.

As it turned out, this was just as well as we then sat listlessly on a stationary plane for a couple of hours due to French Air Traffic Controllers being on strike and not clearing us for take-off until they’d been given an extra 30 Francs and an extended Gauloises break every hour or something.

By the time the plane eventually arrived late into Nice, having flown mostly over efficient German airspace to avoid upsetting les Union de l’Aviation, I’d gotten hungry again and eaten the in-flight BMI ‘hot wrap’ which, though very bland, was proof than airline food isn’t generally as execrable as it once was.

The best cheese ever

Having spent the afternoon exploring Nice and riding the big Ferris wheel (which afforded great views of the Cote d’Azur and the Mardi Gras ‘Carnaval’) we strolled, hungry, down la Place Masséna where the renowned restaurants and bistros are to be found. (Actually, there are probably even better places that people with local insider knowledge know about and don’t speak of, but this is where the good restaurants for monolingual English food tourists are!)

Nice Nice food
I hadn’t been to the South of France before, and we wanted to try something local – The Bistrot le Mirador looked authentic and offered both a genuine Salade Niçoise (for Mrs B-V) and a Nice-style Daube de Bouef with polenta fries.

Tuna is just about the only fish I really can’t stand, so the Salad wasn’t for me, though I have to admit, the rest of it, with the anchovies and hard-boiled egg and olives etc. looked really good, even if everything had picked up a manky tunasome taste.

But the tender, flavoursome beef stew was divine, with a strong Italian influence. Not unlike a really good, vinous Osso Bucco, but sans bone.

This being France, it seemed wrong to just get up and go after that, so we stuck around for a crepe, flambéed at the table with a generous drenching of Grand Marnier. Yes, it was good.

But the best was yet to come as we finished with a couple of cheeses. The Camembert was good – creamy and robust and a perfect accompaniment to the fresh bread, but it could do nothing to prevent being upstaged by the Roquefort which will go down as one of the greatest morsels of food ever to dance upon my tastebuds.

The Mirador isn’t cheap (expect to pay €30-40 a head) but then this is the Cote d’Azur, and the quality is excellent while maintaining an humble, hearty quality.

We retired to our hotel bed full and happy that night.

Day 2

‘Haaang on – that’s only two countries!’ you might possibly be saying, accusingly.

Yes, well, it was the following day that we ate and drank in four different lands, thank you very much.

The plan was always to visit Ventimiglia (in Italy) and the tiny state of Monaco before our late flight back from Nice, and after picking some some Palmier (Pig’s Ear croissants) for breakfast, we wrestled with the French ticket machine and eventually boarded a train across the border.

The train journey along the Mediterranean coast is very scenic indeed with sweeping mountains jutting out into the sea, and palm trees everywhere you look.

The idea was to arrive on the other side of the Italian border for a nice lunch, but our plan was thrown into disarray when we arrived in Ventimiglia as all the returning trains for the day had been cancelled – apart from the one we’d just arrived on which was heading back just 15 minutes later.

Whatever the reason - maybe the SNCF train drivers belong to the same union as the air traffic controllers?!? – we had to think on our feet, and the only sensible course of action was to grab a couple of slices of pizza from the station café and get back on board.

In Britain, food from a railway station outlet is likely to be an indifferent ‘Upper Crust’ or ‘Pumpkin’ sandwich, but in Italy it means huge slices of proper, thin, stonebaked pizza for just three euros apiece.

With the time against us we didn’t realise other toppings were available, but even the basic Margherita, eaten from a box waiting for the train to head back towards Nice was really, err, nice!

The railway line from Ventimiglia to Nice passes through Monaco, and it was there we embarked for the third country of the day.

Call me stupid, but I kind of assumed that being on the coast would mean that it was flat. Instead, the place is a multi-layered labyrinth and with street exits from Monte Carlo station on at least four different levels, it’s highly confusing.

The roads are equally spaghetti-like, with a  vast network of tunnels weaving through the mountain side, and even the coastal roads aren’t always at the same level as the sea.

Beer Time!

But, importantly, exploring the three-dimensional Principality allowed us to work up an appetite for some beer and an early dinner and we had no trouble finding the Brasserie de Monaco – the only brewpub on the Cote d’Azur.

In an area not known for beer, it wasn’t going to challenge the brewpubs of the USA or the pubs of England, but as an eating and drinking experience it certainly holds it’s own and at around €50 for a meal for two with a couple of beers, it’s not bad for one of the priciest regions on the planet.

Beer and Burger
The flagship Herculis burger is very much in the continental style, with a soft, pate-like texture and a hint of fois grois in the mix, which is no bad thing at all. They ask how I liked it cooked, which is always a plus point, and while their ‘rare’ was a little closer to medium than I’d have liked, I could probably have asked for ‘bleu’. 

It came with a mountain of fries which I couldn’t manage and went well with both their brown ale (dark, nutty, hint of dried fruit) and their wheat beer (very fresh and zesty).

Despite a couple of very foodie days, I still couldn’t resist trying an authentic dessert – namely the tarte tatine. Appley, buttery, caramelly… I formally retract anything negative I’ve ever said about the French. Or, indeed, the Monégasque, though I’m not sure I’ve actually ever said anything bad about them.

The brewpub is modern, chic and comfortable and it was heart-wrenching to leave it behind to head back to the airport, but these things must all come to an end sometime.

Incidentally, I can thoroughly recommend going away for just one night. Because the slowest part of any holiday experience is always the first couple of days, you get a lot more for your money. Seven one-night holidays will feel like way more than one seven-night holiday.

And the fourth country? Well, on the way back, we stopped off in Hounslow to go to the oldest extant Wetherspoons pub I hadn’t previously visited.

It was nearly midnight but we were in the area anyway and it seemed like a good opportunity, and I was ready for a pint of the spicy, piney Twickenham 'Winter Cheer' to prepare me for the long tube and night-bus journey back home.

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