A Modernist Villa on the French Riviera

Nestled between Monaco and the French-Italian border, Roquebrune Cap Martin is where the steep Alpes Maritimes tumble right into the Mediterranean Sea.

Perched on three “shelves,” the town includes turquoise sea coves on the cape, staircases running in all directions, and a hilltop medieval village featuring one of Europe’s oldest olive trees. But all these features were secondary during my visit a couple of years back: I’d chosen the destination for the architectural gems that sit right along the coast.

Several historic structures are grouped together on a 2970 square meter (32,000 square foot) site known as Cap Moderne. The architect Le Corbusier built his Cabanon or vacation cabin here, along with a tiny office, a Camping Unit for visitors, and even a small restaurant, known as the Etoile de Mer, or Starfish.

Hi! I’m Allison, and I’m an Edutainer working in French food, culture, history, and art. If you’re a gastro-curious traveler or learner, I’m here to show you the A to Z of French food and culture!

Total artist

I love “Le Corbu” as he’s known in France, but for me, the real star of the site is the modernist Villa E-1027. Irish designer Eileen Gray designed the holiday home for herself and her companion and colleague Jean Badovici, and it’s built right into the restanques, or land terraces, that are so typical of the area’s topography

Along the same lines as Art Nouveau artists before her, Eileen Gray was a “total artist,” practicing painting, cabinet making, furniture and interior design, architecture, and photography. In fact, just this summer, I was racking my brain with a friend who designs interiors for movie sets: we were trying to think of a current designer who creates “total works” or œuvres totales: Clémentine suggested Philippe Stark.

Clever hidden or pivoting drawers

Like Starck, Gray’s design trajectory evolved throughout her whole lifetime. After a stint creating lacquered pieces, Gray moved to Paris to set up shop in 1902 and turned to designing other types of furnishings. The first time I saw her creations was at the Villa Noailles, where Gray’s ability to design “ingenious fixed and mobile furniture” was evident, as it is in the Villa E-1047.

One of her most iconic pieces, the E-1027 adjustable-height table (photo, at right), served several functions: it could “be used ‘over her knees’ while sitting, or as an occasional side or bedside table.” Multi-functional furniture, according to Gray, saved space. Clever hidden or pivoting drawers and built-in armoires where guests would arrange their belongings while on vacation in the villa allowed everyone to feel “free and independent” in a small house, their personal affairs stored away from plain sight.

Online real estate voyeurism

But what about the villa itself? Built between 1926 and 1929, Villa E-1027 is a shining example of Gray’s œuvre totale, and was designed in the cruise-ship style or style paquebot, popular in the 1930s, especially among fellow architect Robert Mallet-Stevens. (Doesn’t this house remind you a little of a boat?) The house featured not only her signature dual-position furnishings, but also a solarium, or sunning area, and lots of cleverly designed openings, like windows that open in an accordion style.

The holiday home is what Badovici termed “living architecture” – which in this case I interpret to mean “architecture I’d like to live in.” When visiting historic homes, I can let my imagination run wild: at Villa E-1027, I pictured myself swinging in the hammock overlooking the azure waters of the Mediterranean, or eating outdoors on the lower garden terrace in the evening.

In fact, most of my historic home visits are really just a live version of online real estate voyeurism, which I practice often on weekends by browsing the French web site de Particulier à Particulier. My fantasy at Villa E-1047 involved grilling Mediterranean grouper or sardines under the shade of the citrus trees in the villa’s outdoor kitchen. Then I’d serve platters of all that fresh fresh fish on one of Eileen Gray’s elongated tables. And as a first course, along with plenty of rosé, I’d serve Ice-cold Avocado, Crab, and Cilantro Cocktail, according to the recipe below!

Ice-cold Avocado, Crab, and Cilantro Cocktail

The day after our visit to the Villa E-1047, my man and I decided to hike the Cap Martin, along the Promenade Le Corbusier, which winds its way around the cape past little turquoise swimming coves and rocky outcroppings – overlooking Monaco or Menton, depending on which side you’re walking. We swam with masks, ogling fish, and then hiked in the sun, with only waves and the incessant chirping of cicada as the lovely soundtrack to our walk.

By the time we rounded the cape, and saw Menton in the distance, we were parched and hungry. Just in time, we spotted this place, funnily enough, built in the 1930’s cruise-ship style!

So we stopped for a bite, and I sampled the restaurant’s Ice-cold Avocado, Crab, and Cilantro Cocktail. It was probably made with Mediterranean green crab, or crabe vert, but at home, I used rock crab (known as tourteau here in France) because it’s easier to find in Paris.

So we stopped for a bite, and I sampled the restaurant’s Ice-cold Avocado, Crab, and Cilantro Cocktail. It was probably made with Mediterranean green crab, or crabe vert, but back at home, I used rock crab (known as tourteau here in France) because it’s easier to find in Paris.

One thing that isn’t easy to find in Paris is already-picked crab meat. On the East Coast, where I come from, fresh-picked pasteurized crabmeat is always stocked in the cooler of any decent fish shop – boy, do I miss fresh Maryland-style crab cakes!

So if you’re making this in Paris, you can find fresh-picked crabmeat at Petrossian, but don’t expect all that work to come cheap! Otherwise, buy a demi-tourteau, or half rock crab, at your local fish shop, and ask your fishmonger to show you how to pick it, or read this article – the technique will also work for the tourteau.

ingredients:

  • 1 pound ripe avocados (450 g), or about 2 or 3 avocados, depending on variety
  • ½ green apple (about 100 g), or 1 scant cup green apple slices
  • 4 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 1¼ cups (300 ml) vegetable stock (or ½ high-quality vegetable bouillon cube – I like Rapunzel brand – dissolved in 1¼ cups hot water)
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt, or more to taste
  • 1 small handful fresh cilantro
  • 4-5 ounces (115-140 g) fresh-picked lump, backfin, or claw crab meat (pasteurized is fine)
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • freshly ground pepper

how to make it:

1. Cut the avocadoes in half and remove the pit. Scoop all the flesh into the bowl of a blender or food processor. 

2. Cut one end off the apple half, and place it in a bowl, cut side down, with 1 teaspoon lemon juice – you’ll use this to make little matchsticks for the decor. Peel and seed the rest of the apple, and add it to the avocado.

3. Blend or process the avocado and apple, then add 2 teaspoons lemon juice, vegetable stock, and salt. Carefully blend or process again. Cool completely, and refrigerate for 1 hour. (Any longer than that, and the avocado will begin to turn brown and a little bitter.

4. When you’re ready to serve, reserve 4 pretty cilantro leaves, and finely chop the rest. In a medium bowl, mix together with a fork the chopped cilantro, crab meat, olive oil, the remaining 1 teaspoon lemon juice, and salt and pepper.

5. Gently pour or spoon the avocado puree into 4 cocktail glasses, and then very gently spoon about ¼ cup of crab on top of each portion. Finely slice the piece of apple you reserved in the lemon juice to make 8-12 matchsticks (or cut them in the shape of your choice). Place them on top of the crab, and decorate with the cilantro leaves. Bon app’!

serves 4 as a first course in cocktail glasses; avocado purée makes about 2½ cups (650 g)