Two weeks spent variously floating prone on my back in the Mediterranean, being splendidly cultural and hunting down Provençal recipes have left me tanned, educated, full of the sort of vitamins you only find in absurdly ripe fruit and vegetables, and with a groaning liver. I blame the foie gras and the local rosé wine.
The house we rented (pictured above) was glorious – a heap of palatial decay whose kitchen bristled with good equipment, including a chinois sieve, a mandoline, oyster knives, griddle pans and some of the sharpest knives it’s ever been my pleasure to handle. I do not, however, recommend its horse-hair mattresses, which made sleeping feel a lot like vigorous exercise on sacks full of prickly potatoes.
Hyères itself is a town surrounded by small growers with a daily market and a huge number of small grocers and little independent foodshops. If you visit, walk up to the Place Massillon in the old town and explore the labyrinth of small streets around it. You’ll find little shops selling nothing but dozens of different kinds of goat’s cheese, artisanal bakeries (in season, you can buy lavender bread), greengrocers which only sell local produce and some fantastic ethnic grocers, including a shop devoted to Arabic spices and a really excellent Vietnamese traiteur. Rotisseries punctuate the streets, but you’re not limited to chickens; quails and pork knuckles were on offer too.
If you visit the town, you’ll find plenty of good restaurants. Les Jardins de Bacchus on Av. Gambetta is a modern gastronomic restaurant, where courses were punctuated with Blumenthal-ish little jokes like a capuccino made from langoustines and foie gras. Service was excellent, and the food very good indeed. For a more casual meal, we really liked Le Jardin (19 Av. Joseph-Clotis), where Provençal food is served on a garden patio from noon until midnight. Try the crudites, which are served with a fierce anchoide and a home-made tapenade. Saigon-Hyeres is a beautifully decorated Vietnamese/Thai restaurant on Rue Crivelli, where the Thai fondue was fragrant and delicious – order plenty, though, as the portions are quite small.
My personal favourite was the Bistrot de Marius, a restaurant in Place Massillon specialising in the local fish and seasonal vegetables. (Bistrot de Marius has no website, but you’ll find other reviews of it online.) You can eat on the square in the shadow of the Knights Templar tower, and the food is extremely well-priced, thoughtfully prepared and absolutely delicious. Their soupe de poissons was the best I had on the holiday (and I sampled many), with a dense, heady aroma, served with a glossy, garlic-y rouille. Try the moules au gratin; mussels prepared in the same way you’d eat snails in Burgundy. A hundred times nicer than snails, and the butter was a joy to mop up with your bread. Red mullet was rolled with a fatty ham and pan fried. Iles flottantes were airy, their crème Anglaise dotted with vanilla – and to cap it all, the after-dinner coffee was some of the best I’ve had. Do drop in if you’re in town.