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Peter James: A trip to Courchevel, my new Roy Grace novel and Polpo in Brighton

PUBLISHED: 10:35 14 June 2016 | UPDATED: 10:35 14 June 2016

Peter James at Cap Horn restaurant

Peter James at Cap Horn restaurant

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Bestselling crime writer Peter James talks us through his gastronomic adventures and keeps us abreast of everything relating to his fictional detective, Roy Grace

So many times, too late, we think of the perfect put-down long after the moment has past. For poor Oscar Wilde – who actually had a Sussex connection, writing The Importance Of Being Earnest on holiday in Worthing – in his famous exchange with the painter Whistler, it was a double whammy. After Whistler had made a particularly witty comment, Wilde replied, “I wish I’d said that!” To which came back the stinging riposte, “You will, Oscar, you will.”

We’ve just returned from Courchevel in the French Alps, checking locations and facts for the opening chapters of my new Roy Grace novel, Love You Dead, which take place in this resort in winter. Without saying too much, an Alpine death on skis might be involved...Being there reminded me of the best put-down I’ve ever heard. Many years ago I was on a skiing holiday in the neighbouring resort of Meribel, with several friends and their young children. The Duke and Duchess of Kent were also skiing there. The area has long been popular with the British royals – the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge flew into Courchevel’s terrifying looking mountain-top airport while we were there a few weeks ago. Our group had stopped at restaurant for lunch on the slopes and saw the Kents, with their three children, were also there. A short while later the Kents’ children and half a dozen of our friends’ children started having a snowball fight. It looked like they were having fun until a friend’s seven-year-old son came up to our table looking very miffed, and pointed at one of the royal children: “Mummy,” he said, “That boy says his auntie’s the Queen, and if we throw any more snowballs at him, he will have us put in the Tower!”

Courchevel for a time became so popular with Russians it was nicknamed Courchelvelski. Highly international, it remains my favourite European resort for the sheer size of its ski areas, and the quality of its hotels and restaurants. The Chabichou, where Walt Klein and Jodie Foster stay in my book and where we stayed, is family-owned, very luxurious with a glorious spa and two good restaurants, as well as a cigar room like a true gentleman’s club. For a long and seriously boozy lunch, Cap Horn is my favourite mountain restaurant. It’s in a stunning setting, with fresh oysters and lobsters on the menu – at fabulous prices, of course – wine served in magnums, music that gets progressively wilder, and valet parking for your skis. Decadence rarely gets more divine... Other favourites of ours there are the Soucoupe, perfect for snowy days, with its log fire and apples flambéed in Calvados, and tiny, unshowy, but superb Azimut.

Closer to home Lara and I recently tried another of my long-favourite haunts, the Ivy, which has had a major makeover. I was initially wary, having been told that a lot of pink was involved, but it was superb – the whole place has a much warmer feel than before, the food and service are as impeccable as ever – we’re going back soon.

Now down to Sussex: a lot of people had been raving to me about Polpo, in New Road, just along from the Theatre Royal Brighton. This Polpo is one of numerous off-shoots of the original London Beak Street restaurant. I’m a big fan of Venetian cuisine, but I’m less of a fan of off-shoot restaurants which so often have an impersonal feel about them. I want to eat in places like Brighton’s English’s, where there is a proprietor with a passion always present and staff infected with his passion. Off-shoots remind me of that saying about Marlene Dietrich’s understudy: “Marlene Dietrich’s understudy has everything that Marlene Dietrich has, except that thing that Marlene Dietrich has.” I had the good fortune to see her one-woman show at the Theatre Royal. My mother took me when I was 14, telling me she was a legend and I would never see the likes of her again. I sat in my seat utterly entranced. Marlene was well into her sixties but had the skin and the energy of someone a third her age. She exuded a mesmerising, infectious warmth. I think every male in the audience left the theatre that night hopelessly in love with her.

I took writer Imogen Lycett Green to Brighton’s Polpo for lunch. Granddaughter of one of my favourite poets, Sir John Betjeman, Imogen runs the annual Betjeman Poetry Prize, which does an amazing job of encouraging youngsters to write poetry. Encouraged to order several small plates to share, we had a delicious pizette – a miniature thin pizza, whipped smoked mackerel with pickled beetroot, a zucchini, Parmesan and basil salad and a duck ragu. But the music was too loud and despite being full the place had a strangely empty feeling. Perhaps because Marlene wasn't there.

Peter James’ next Roy Grace novel, Love You Dead, published on 19 May. The paperback of his ghost story, The House On Cold Hill, is out on 16 June. His first non-fiction book, co-written with Graham Bartlett, former Commander of Brighton and Hove Police, Death Comes Knocking – Policing Roy Grace’s Brighton, is out on 14 July. The fee for this month’s column will be given to the South Mid Sussex Community First Responders.

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