For a food lover, there are few stops along France’s Mediterranean coast that are as appealing as the medieval town of Antibes. We had the pleasure of visiting in the company of Maxime Bilet, who served as guest chef on Windstar’s “Hidden Harbors of the Côte d’Azur” cruise.
When Windstar Cruises’ Wind Surf anchored offshore of Antibe’s Port Vauban, between Nice and Cannes, we shuttled to a quay surrounded by a fleet of indescribably luxurious private yachts. Then, accompanied by Bilet and a dozen or so other passengers, we proceeded to Le Marché Provencal.
Born in France, raised in London and New York, Bilet is a chef without a restaurant. Nevertheless, at the age of 35, he is internationally recognized as one of the most intriguing voices for the food industry in the 21st century.
Until recently the director of culinary arts and sciences at The Cooking Lab in suburban Seattle, Bilet is revolutionizing the modern concept of cooking, both in restaurants and at home. The encyclopedic, five-volume “Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking,” which he co-authored, was honored as book of the year in 2012 by the James Beard Foundation.
Specifically, Bilet has discovered that every food has an ideal temperature and time at which it is best cooked. He recommends that salmon be cooked at 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) for 20 minutes. Medium-rare red meat calls for 57 C (134 F) for 40 minutes. Vegetables are ideally cooked between 80 and 88 C (176 and 191 F).
“For every ingredient you can think of, I’ve tasted thousands at every temperature possible,” Bilet said. His cooking method uses sealed plastic bags and water displacement — which he demonstrated later in the cruise — to maintain a constant, exact temperature.
A sea of shoppers
Bilet led us through the narrow streets of Antibes’ Old Town to the Provençal market in Cours Masséna, past the Chapelle du Saint-Esprit and Château Grimaldi (now a museum featuring the art of Pablo Picasso). We found the merchants in a crowded and bustling open-air pavilion.
Vendors of fruits and vegetables, cheeses and breads, meat and seafood, flowers and nuts, herbs and spices sold their goods from a row of stalls that extended from the Rue des Arceaux to Rue Laporte. The aroma of warm baguettes mingled with the smell of Roquefort cheese, sardines and pungent curries. The strawberries were enticingly sweet, the heirloom tomatoes oversized and velvety to the touch.
Bilet wove through the sea of shoppers as gracefully as he negotiated prices with the merchants. He clearly enjoyed the process, discussing the merits of different lettuces, comparing the texture and fragrance of sheep’s cheeses, offering opinions on the flavors of giant white eggplants, red capsicums and green almonds.
Wine, of course, was also on the shopping list. We settled upon a selection of dry Provençal rosés, then retired to a seawall, on the Avenue de Verdun, to picnic on some of the bounty — those foods not already designated for Bilet’s onboard cooking demonstrations or special dinners.
Games and sculpture
As we dined, we watched as local youths honed their skills in pétanque on a broad esplanade. Very similar to Italian bocce, this game was played in nearly every town on our French itinerary, although the competitors (like those of British lawn bowling) were usually retired men. In most countries, I suspect, the young people would have been playing soccer.
Beyond the esplanade and past the myriad masts of the Vieux (Old) Port, a curious statue rises at the end of a staunch bastion that divides the harbors from sandy La Gravette beach. An ancient Roman temple once stood where Jaume Plensa’s 26-foot “Le Nomade” (2007) now crouches facing seaward. The sculpture has a hollow, cast-iron skin built entirely of individual letters — because, as Plensa explained, “Letters have a potential for construction. They enable us to construct thought.”
Antibes, whose central location and sheltered harbor have attracted the rich and famous of the world for more than a century, also has several museums. Besides the Musée Picasso, for instance, the Musée Archeologic has exhibits of ancient Roman, Greek and Etruscan shipwreck artifacts, found offshore near here.
Had we not planned an early departure, I don’t know that I could have resisted the temptation to duck into the Absinthe Bar, hidden in a cellar a few steps from the market. I’m told you can easily be seduced by its questionable charms, as were Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec. Beware if posters of the Green Fairy seem to come alive.