Piotr almost chokes on his coulibiac de saumon. “French cuisine, no, no, no,” he says with evident exasperation. We had done no more than compliment our host on serving such a classic French dish. Piotr proceeds to explain at some length that we (and a good percentage of the French public) labour under the extraordinary misconception that the salmon dish on the table is a traditional staple of French cuisine.
“Escoffier takes the credit for what is in essence a taste of Russia,” says Piotr with almost missionary zeal. When Auguste Escoffier was a lad, long before he became a celebrated chef, he was apprenticed for a spell to his uncle François, who ran the Restaurant Français in Nice. From 1859, the young Escoffier worked for six years with his uncle, learning the ins and outs of the restaurant trade. The brigade de cuisine at the Restaurant Français included a Russian cook who saw to it that the officers of the Russian fleet, which regularly berthed in nearby Villefranche, had some familiar dishes when they made a lunchtime or evening excursion into Nice. Thus it was at the Restaurant Français that the young Escoffier first encountered Russian kulebiak, the distinctive fish pie which, much later in life, the successful chef popularised as coulibiac de saumon.
The flexibility of the Russian chef at that Nice restaurant, and others in the brigade de cuisine who learnt from him, ensured the enduring popularity of the Restaurant Français with visiting Russians right up to the day when it eventually closed its doors — just before the First World War.
After lunch Piotr escorts us on an excursion along the coast to Villefranche-sur-Mer, where we stroll along the footpath around the pine-clad coast of Cap Ferrat. It is called the Sentier des Douaniers, a reminder that this trail was created not so much for recreation as to protect the state’s coffers. The douaniers (customs officials) patrolled this path in their efforts to prevent smuggling. Friedrich Nietzsche used it towards a more philosophical end.
During the last century, Jean Cocteau, Evelyn Waugh and Somerset Maugham all did the rounds of Cap Ferrat, looking out over the bay once so favoured by the Russian fleet. Nowadays it is Russian voices you will hear on the path around Cap Ferrat and the talk is more likely to be of business and finance than literature and art.
“Don’t assume they are all crooks,” says Piotr of his compatriots who keep their yachts in the bay at Villefranche. “There’s a lot of absolutely legitimate Russian wealth on the Riviera,” he adds, echoing Somerset Maugham’s observation some 70 years ago that “the Riviera isn’t only a sunny place for shady people.”