Holding a giant wooden spoon Nicole Bineau stirs huge copper pots full of simmering, boiling fruit in the back of a shop that welcomes the curious cook. A passionate jam maker, Nicole works in the kitchen at the back of her family shop Maison Herbin, in the southern French town of Menton. She works behind a glass screen, often watched by visiting tourists such as the bunch from Japan and northern England whose visit coincided with mine. They, like me, were in Menton for the annual Fête du Citron, a two week festival celebrating the famed knobbly, fragrant giant lemons grown around the town.
As the coastal train winds its way along the Cote de Azur towards the Italian border at Ventimiglia, it briefly pauses at Menton. This Italianate town clings to the rocks and spills out towards the Mediterranean Sea and the Cote d’Azur. It boasts a spectacular micro-climate ideally suited to growing the Menton Lemon, a sweetish, fruit perfect for a gentle addition to such dishes as meringue, lemon tart or candied peel. Indeed, such is its culinary importance, the Menton lemon has been designated with the European Union’s Protected Geographical Indication label.
While local production has fallen off in recent times, there are local ‘Mentonaise’ cooks and chefs insisting on using this variety in their cooking. People such as Luisa Delpiano Inversi from Pasta Piemonte uses the fruit in her amazing, zinging ravioli made with ricotta and Maison Herbin’s Nicole who has run her jam shop for the past 25 years.
On a side street in a largely pedestrianised area of the old town pass through the wooden doors into Maision Herbin and you walk into a sweet smelling bubble of preserve making. All jams are hand-stirred in giant copper jam pans before being hand-bottled by Nicole and her team of four, although she does draft in help during busy times.
You can enter the shop from either end. The main entrance takes you into the retail area, while entering through the back door leads you past the kitchen, an alchemists dream of huge pans bubbling with citrus peel, water, sugar and a maker’s secret ingredients. The shop itself is filled with shelves holding dozens of varieties of jams, marmalades and preserves, mustards and oil using fruits and ingredients as varied apricot; rose and violet petals to figs, citrus fruits and chestnuts. “Our most popular product is of course Citron de Menton, followed by bitter orange and increasingly by floral flavours such as rose, violet and lavender,” says Nicole. “The English particularly like the rose flavoured jams and marmalades”.
So,if you find yourself on that train trundling along the Cote de Azur make sure to step off at Menton, check your map and seek out Maison Herbin, and Pasta Piedmonte!