A couple of years ago over a long and languorous lunch at Le Café Anglais, with chef-patron (and FT food guru) Rowley Leigh, I was lamenting the fact that while the cuisine of Provence is justifiably celebrated its best wines are regrettably overlooked. Rowley is a man of action who requires little encouragement and before I knew it ‘Le Grand Aïoli’ had been born. Rowley had devised a Provençal feast with aim of pairing some of the region’s top wines with classic Mediterranean dishes. The inaugural Grand Aïoli, in June 2010, was a hedonistic affair with a mouth-watering menu encompassing olives, sardines, seabass and beef brisket accompanied by lashings of Cassis and a budget-busting Domaine de Trévallon. All those who attended seemed to enjoy themselves enormously – there certainly weren’t any complaints – so, I guess, it was inevitable that sooner or later we would do it all over again.
The second (and, having since reviewed the margins, almost certainly final) Grand Aïoli took place last Thursday at Le Café Anglais and, I have to say, Rowley surpassed his previous efforts. Word was definitely out in London’s foodie fraternity that good things were afoot as seasoned truffle-hounds like Fergus Henderson, Bill Knot, Matthew Fort, Jeremy Lee and Tom Parker-Bowles could be seen priming their palates with a blameless, coral-pink Coteaux d’Aix: Domaine Oullières 2010 at the bar before we were under starters’ orders.
Glistening bowls of pungent, fresh Aïoli appeared as diners were seated and plates of salt cod, prawns, radishes, sweetbreads and artichokes soon followed. With this magnificent medley we served an organic Bandol Blanc: Mas de la Rouvière 2010, which is made from pure Clairette and has inimitable wild herb scents and flavours which married marvellously with the garlic-infused mayonnaise.
Next up came a Bourride of hake, Gurnard, monkish and John Dory that Rowley served in bowls en place and soon solicited sighs of gastronomic contentment. This piscine tour de force was accompanied by a rare Bellet Blanc 2010 from Domaine de la Source. Made from 100% Rolle this sapid, savoury, straw-coloured, niçeois white did nothing to assist an already straining budget but it did take the food and wine matching to new heights and amply illustrated that you get what you pay for.
A brace of bountiful reds was then brought into play to do justice to a stupendous ‘Grillade des Mariniers du Rhône’. The crowd-pleasing Côtes du Luberon 2009 from the ever-reliable Château la Canorgue stood up well to the culinary alchemy of very slowly-cooked skirt beef with onions and seasoning but the vinous high point was probably the celebrated (and horriblement cher) Château Simone from Palette. This majestic, antediluvian, anachronism is made from a blend of 17 different grape varieties including such rarities as Branforcas, Manosquin and Castels. It has the cassis, cedar and sandalwood characteristics of a venerable old Claret but a wild, untamed touch of the garrigues in the background too – no wonder Winston Churchill was a fan.
We rounded proceedings off with a divine apricot and almond tart alongside the peerless, orange blossom-scented Muscat de Beaumes de Venise 2007 from Domaine de Durban. Although the west London skies were overcast you could feel the warming sun of the Côte d’Azur in the dining room of Le Café Anglais. Who knows? If we can find a generous benefactor we may even do it again next year...