The world’s best ice cream and the sweetest lemons: around Menton with Chef Mauro Colagreco

 

It is surely a good thing that borders in Europe are purely titular. In the two days that we spent at Chef Mauro Colagreco’s restaurant Mirazur, we crossed the invisible line separating France and Italy probably about eight times. And once again, while bypassing the border post, I thought it would be nice to recall where my passport lay.

Mirazur Restaurant, opened eleven years ago by a native-born Argentinian, is located on the French side of the border, on the outskirts of Menton. Geography strongly defined Mauro’s personal gastronomic style, which helped his establishment receive two Michelin stars, to be in the top ten of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants and repeatedly recognized by reputable restaurant guides.

“My cuisine isn’t exactly French, Italian or Argentinian,” Mauro Colagreco says as we’re driving in his car on the way to the market in Ventimiglia, “I use classic French techniques that I learned when I was working with Alain Passard and Alain Ducasse. We either grow the vegetables, fruits, and herbs for the restaurant ourselves, or we get them from Italy. I like French cheese and olive oil. I usually buy fish and seafood from the local fishermen. But the calamari we serve in our Bagna Cauda sauce is ordered from Bordighera. They are exceptional there, and complement this dish nicely. As for the meat, I prefer preparing it using the recipe from my country, Argentina. And that’s how I achieve my own Mauro-style.”

At the market in the little Italian border town, the stalls are piled with hauls of aromatic greens and rich herbs gathered in the early morning, fragrant and shining seasonal vegetables, huge Parmesan heads, bottles of olive oil and thick balsamic vinegar. Here, sellers take Mauro in as one of their own, patting him on the shoulder, telling him their latest news, and personally selecting the best products for him.

Mirazur Restaurant is a glass “birdhouse”, stuck to the mountain overhanging the sea. Here, an azure sea, a palisade of yachting masts docked in the port, the terracotta-sandy Menton, the bay and Cape Martin create a magnificent panorama.

Lunch is served starting at 12.15. There is still some time to spare, and Mauro invites us to a walk around the garden. The beds are lined up with a greenery of thyme, parsley and sage, from which a garnish bouquet is collected.

The tender petals of the eye-catching yellow, blue and scarlet flowers are used to decorate the dishes. The famous local lemons hang from the trees in the garden. Giant palms tremble with fan-like leaves. Some black fruit, which turns out to be avocado, litters the ground. The avocados this year are so plentiful that some of them just remain undisturbed under the trees.

For dinner, the chef suggests trying a surprise menu. “Dishes at our restaurant can change almost every day,” explains Mauro. “It all depends on what kind of fish the fishermen caught today, what interesting things we found at the market, or what vegetables are ripe in the garden.”

Of course, Colagreco does not reveal everything. Apart from displaying the dedicated work and mastery of the art of cooking, each plate also carries an irrepressible fantasy and a look into the personal history of the chef. Having decided, for example, that the sweetness of a pear makes it very suitable for matching it with freshly-tasting oysters, he serves this clam with various fruit textures like sauce, jelly and tapioca with pear taste.

Pumpkin puree is supplemented by three kinds of caviar – lobster, sea urchin and bottarga. Shrimp comes with raspberries, green walnuts and cream made from yuzu. He tinkers it over the pigeon to achieve a gentle but rich texture of meat. As for the bread, Mauro bakes it using his grandmother’s recipe and serves it with an extraordinarily fragrant olive oil.

Before I leave, Mauro generously shares his favorite addresses. “Visit Selvadolce Farm, which is next to Bordighera. They make truly unique wine. And what a view of the sea you get from their vineyard! Do you like ice cream? I adore it! You can try out the most delicious ice cream close-by, at Le Paradis des Glaces. The best in the world! If you just want to lie on the beach, I advise you to try Balzi Rossi. That’s where my wife, our little son, and I like to spend our day off when the restaurant is closed. For dinner, travel to Italy, and visit the family tavern La Vecchia Ostaia, where they prepare the best ravioli in the world, especially delicious are those with sage.”

Even among the resorts of the Côte d’Azur, where it’s not just a life, but a full-on dolce vita, it is difficult to find one as relaxed as Menton. Despite a clear plan, including a visit to the Jean Cocteau Museum and the Val Rahmeh Botanical Garden, the time I have is enough only for aimless walks along the waterfront and sitting on the beach and in street cafes.

In the Old Town, despite it being simply a labyrinth of narrow staircases leading to the top of a hill, you can roam as much as you like, and still not get lost. Climbing up, you will certainly get to the Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel, the square in front of it is decorated with a pattern of black and white sea pebbles. And moving down, sooner or later, you will find yourself on the waterfront.

Most of the doors and windows here are tightly closed, and the clothes lined up to dry are the only evidence that life exists behind them. And behind those wide open there is almost certainly an art gallery, a delicatessen shop or a shop with a standard set of lemon souvenirs.

In the corner house under the signboard ‘Huilerie St Michel’, Mauro, this time pictured on an advertising poster, again meets us. Here, they are selling the same olive oil that they bring at Mirazur along with the bread baked according to the grandmother’s recipe.

The company, which has been making high-quality olive oil for more than a hundred years now, has invited such famous chefs as Joël Garo, Alain Passard and Mauro Colagreco to cooperate. In 2009, it brought a completely new product to the market – perfumed oil with the aroma of Menton lemons, mandarins and yuzu. It took a year and a half to perfect all the subtleties. The final taste turned out to be unique, and the technology used is the most traditional.

The olives used for this oil are harvested here, and then first-cold-pressed oil is made from them. Afterwards, it is poured over fruit or other ingredients, and then kept under pressure for at least two months, to maximally extract all the essential oils from the raw material. This is the so-called infusion method, which allows you to enrich the taste of oil with flavors of citrus, Provencal herbs, garlic and ginger. And here it is, the best souvenir: a bottle smelling of Menton lemons – the very trophy thanks to which my kitchen in Moscow will long be laced with the aromas of the sea and Menton gardens.

 

Теxt: Alla Khrabrykh

Published on: January 24, 2018