September 2008

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Le vieux port

Docking at le vieux port in St.-Tropez is pure drama. As we near, we see we have an audience—a handful of people, most eating ice cream, standing around in front of the Hotel Sube as we inch Unplugged back, squeezing in between some Russian’s megayacht and a vessel named, appropriately enough, No Escape. The hookers on the Russian yacht hold glasses of champagne and look sullenly at us. As if annoyed that we are their new neighbors. The crew on No Escape, dressed sharply in navy shorts and crisp white shirts, is more concerned than annoyed; they line up vigilantly along the starboard side of their boat, dangling giant fenders in front of them, worried we’ll scrape their side. But Unplugged’s captain is a pro at this; he has maybe six inches to spare on either side and never wavers as he maneuvers slowly backward, like an elephant being loaded onto a circus train.


Watching Unplugged dock at St.-Tropez

Watching Unplugged dock at St.-Tropez

Now there are 20 or 30 voyeurs watching us from the dock, as well as most of the diners in front of the Hotel Sube. Are they there just to watch the boat come in or are they curious as to who owns Unplugged? Probably the latter. So  Hardy cranks up a little Eric Clapton music topside as we make our entrance along the old port.

The whole process takes a good 30 minutes or so. And then the crowd, which has swelled to maybe 50 people, cranes their heads to see who it is that walks off the boat. Disappointed, no doubt, that we are not rock stars, they shrug and quickly disperse. Off to watch another docking yacht. This one even bigger and grander than Unplugged. 

Doing the ‘dad’ dance

Here’s the standard soirée stroll in Monte Carlo: You start with a cocktail and maybe a little steak tartare with matchstick fries at Le Café de Paris, amble up Princesse Grace to Moods for some live music, and end up at Jimmy’z as much for its decadence as for its dance music (okay, maybe more so for the decadence; as a young thing at Café de Paris told me, “There’s not room on the dance floor to do anything but the ‘dad’ dance, which is just as well since most of the guys there are middle-aged perma tanned men with anorexic chicks on their arms—oops! Sorry!”)

She was sorry because we were the middle-aged perma tanned dads she was dissing (although my perma tan isn’t in the same league as Hardy’s) and, unfortunately, we didn’t have any skinny babes on our arms. Still, her point was well taken. So we decided to skip Jimmy’z and spend the evening at Moods, sort of the Blue Note jazz club of Monte Carlo, a place where aficionados like Bill Wyman might stop in late in the evening to hook up with Louis Bertignac on “Hey Joe.”

They get some interesting bands here. Next month John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers will be there. That would be interesting to see. What we got was a hip 9-man French group, called La Tribu, fronted by vocalist Didier Bozzi, whose motto is “Always keeping the funk alive.” Imagine a white man’s P-Funk or Parliament and you’ve got it. We walked in just as Bozzi and the boyz were launching into a James Brown tribute (This is a man’s world/This is a man’s world/But it wouldn’t be nothin’ without a woman or a girl). 

Bozzi wasn’t kidding. Up at the bar, which is a level above the main floor, there were only a couple of women. One was this androgynous French woman with short hair and a muscular body. Like Bozzi, she was keeping the funk alive, groovin’ like a tambourine-playing member of Sly and the Family Stone. When the band got into a Wilson Pickett number she couldn’t stand it anymore and grabbed a guy and pulled him onto the small dance space in front of the bar. They were pretty hot, the guy lifting her up by her waist, like a ballet dancer, and slowly sliding her down the front of his body in a very erotic move. Good stuff. But after a couple of numbers, the couple had had enough and they moved on. Probably to Jimmy’z. And when she left, the vibe at Moods left with her. As the godfather of soul said, it’s a man’s world—but it don’t mean nothin’ without a woman or a girl. 

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Cafe de Paris and the golddigers

One by one, like players in an Oceans Eleven film, our little ensemble arrived in Nice yesterday afternoon. Smaller from Dubai, Nicholls from Kuala Lumpur, Fletcher from Newport Beach, Roberts from Boston, and the London Rat Pack—St. John, Ian, Austin and, of course, Hardy, our host. A glass of champagne aboard Hardy’s 110-foot sailing yacht, Unplugged, and a short cruise to La Porte de Monaco where we tied up for the night at the gas dock, a rather unusual development necessitated by the great number of megayachts in town for Monaco Classic Week and the Regates Royales in Canne.

Champagne aboard the Unplugged in Monaco

Champagne aboard the Unplugged in Monaco

I don’t know what the deal is but it’s almost impossible to get a taxi from the harbor to Monte Carlo. Even worse is trying to get one going back, particularly late at night. A few years ago when we were here we stood in a drizzling rain at two in the morning along Av. Princesse Grace looking like a sorry bunch of hookers after a fruitless evening at Jimmy’z.

We didn’t even mess with trying to find a taxi in the harbor this year. Instead, Hardy flagged down a hotel van that was just pulling out of the parking garage of the Riviera Marriott and offered the guy a wad of euros to take us to the Café de Paris on the plaza next to the casino. 

This is a wicked scene—drunk tourists, super-rich Russians, young Italian playboys, and more than a few well-dressed gold diggers (Cutie da bomb/Met her at a beauty salon/With a baby Louis Vuitton/Under her underarm). You just pull up a wicker chair and watch the show go on in front of you—a half-naked girl sitting on the hood of a Ferrari, holding a bottle of Veuve; young things from Eastern Europe in barely-there skirts, primping like models along the promenade, just waiting for some grotesquely rich Russian (preferably one named Roman) to suggest a late-night trip out to their yacht; transvestites in full-length furs.

The Café de Paris is like an outdoor cabaret. Where the floor show never ends. So we sat there, elbow-to-elbow with some shit-faced-lederhosen-wearing Germans on one side of us and two silk-suited gay Italians on the other, drinking a beer. One beer. A beer that cost 15 euros each or about $22. And it wasn’t even cold.

Now I ain’t saying the Café de Paris is a golddigger. But she ain’t messin’ with no broke….

Well, you know what I mean.

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Bernard Adam wants to know if I’m going to be on Île de Ré on the 27th of this month and I tell him, No, I’m leaving at the end of the week.

Ah, too bad, too bad, he says, pouring me a glass of the local white wine, called Le Royal. He says that on the 27th, the islanders celebrate the Fête des Vendanges which begins with a procession carrying a statue of St. Vincent from the church in Le Bois Plage and ends with lots of eating and drinking of the new wine.

“On this island, we love St. Vincent,” he says. “He saved us.” Bernard explains how, for hundreds of years, they have been making wine on the island. And then the phylloxera came and just about wiped out the vino business.

“So we prayed to St. Vincent, the patron saint of vintners and wine growers, and the phyloxera was gone the next year. Now we thank him with a fête on his feast day.”


photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

  I think this is a wonderful story. But it’s also a crock. First of all, the phylloxera did indeed wipe out the vines on Île de Ré  as well as most of France between 1860 and 1900, but St. Vincent wasn’t the savior of island wine growers. That would be J.E. Planchon who figured out that if you grafted French vines onto disease-resistant U.S. root stock, you could control the problem. Unfortunately, they didn’t make Professor Planchon a saint (though he did get a statue which stands just outside the Montpellier train station).

But here’s the really interesting thing: There are two (at least) St. Vincents. One was born in Huesca, Sapin in the third century and he is, indeed, the patron saint of vintners and wine growers. However, his feast day is Jan. 22. The more familiar saint is St. Vincent de Paul, who was born in France, died in Paris and whose feast day is, indeed, Sept. 27. Except he has nothing to do with grapes or wine (though he is the patron saint of charitable societies). So somewhere along the line, the wine growers of Île de Ré blended a 3rd century Spanish saint with a 17th century French one and came up with the Fête des Vendanges—sort of a Catholic meritage. Which makes perfect sense when you realize that Le Royal, after all, is a blend of sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and colombard. It seems that everything on this islands, including saints, is a blend of things. 

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Duck liver with cognac

I asked Francois Bernard, who works for a company that makes Île de Ré cognac, what the story was with Pineau des Charentes, a rather hideous local aperitif made from a blend of unfermented grape must and cognac. He gave me that little French shrug, which means either how should I know or why do you ask such a stupid question, depending on who’s doing the shrugging, and said it happened back in the 16th century when Henry IV was on the throne.

“A winemaker accidentally poured grape must into a barrel of eau de vie,” he said. “A few years later, when the barrel was uncorked, the winemaker was surprised to find this wonderful new drink and we’ve been making it ever since.”


photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

I’m not buying it. I mean, were Oreos invented when a baker accidentally stacked a chocolate wafer on top of a spoonful of vanilla frosting? Did we get Rice Krispies when W.K. Kellogg accidentally shot rice out of a canon in the 1920s? Maybe. But you’re missing my point. Which is that just about every odd food or drink you can think of was “accidentally” invented when someone mixed something with something else. But I don’t think this was an accident.

Think about it. Can you really imagine a winemaker accidentally pouring grape must into a barrel full of cognac? No way.

Anyway, every French person who vacations on Île de Ré drinks Pineau while they’re here, usually on the rocks but sometimes in a cocktail mixed with a little lemon juice. Francois says he keeps a bottle in the freezer and it gets so cold that it’s like syrup. I tried it and it tasted like all cognac cocktails to me. Yucky.

All the little wine shops on the island make a big deal out of carrying Pineau des Charentes. And I imagine every one buys a bottle to take home. And then it sits there, in their liquor cabinet, getting dusty. Some liquors—ouzo, pisco, mescal—don’t travel well. Unless you’re Anthony Bourdain. Who, they say, is a junkie for duck liver and strange liquor. I’d love to see what’s in his liquor cabinet. 

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