He’s neither a chemist nor an alchemist – “I’m a barman”, says Emanuele Balestra, 37, without hesitation. He is Manager of the Bar Le Fouquet’s Cannes at Le Majestic. But his cocktails are the result of a long and adventurous journey that started many years ago in Italy, later passing through the gardens of Morocco. Born in Lombardy, Balestra brings flavours and aromas picked, grabbed or gleaned from the kitchen garden together to achieve brilliance in a glass. Seasons, scents, acidity levels, changing moods, herbs and flowers – they are all part of his creative universe. But what is he really thinking about? Extracting the essence. Just like a painter creating his colours, Balestra has his own palette of flavours in the form of extracts that follow the seasons.
For him, making a cocktail is a process that starts way ahead – a long period of preparation that involves separating out elements of taste and flavour. “Bringing them together requires intuition and creativity – you need a kind of laboratory.” A laboratory. So there we have it. Emanuele Balestra has his own special place under the eaves of the Hôtel Barrière Le Majestic: this is where he sorts, observes and inhales the scent of the herbs and flowers picked that same day. He loves this out-of the-way space, he says, “I can learn and pass on what I know”. He goes on to say: “I feel right at home here with the preserved antique tapestries that say so much about the Hotel’s history. It feels great working just beneath my tranquil roof garden.” The Hôtel Barrière Le Majestic has two kitchen – or herb – gardens. One alongside the terrace opposite La Croisette and the other one “on top of the roof”. Emanuele Balestra goes there every day to find inspiration for his creations.
Dehydrating, infusing, flavouring….changing plants into jellies, ice cubes, syrups and bitters. Marjoram, lemon balm, angelica, rhubarb, verbena, sage, Roman chamomile, Jamaican thyme, rose geranium…. Are we talking about a herbarium? No, just Emanuele Balestra’s daily companions. Back from the roof garden, he talks about “the salty sea breeze that wafts over the lemon balm up there”, helping with pollination and “softly embracing” the four hives “that offer their bounty of honey”.
Far from the familiar old “quickly shaken” or “quickly stirred”, a Balestra cocktail is the product of long, watchful patience. Take the one made with orange flower or fennel for example. Balestra the maestro adds flavours drop by drop with infinite wisdom, adding exuberance in moderation.
Before he even picks up a spoon, shaker, tall glass or flute, he takes his favourite implement – a pair of scissors, which he uses in the rooftop garden. Delicately selecting his ingredients – herbs, leaves –he extracts astonishingly nuanced flavours. Emanuele Balestra is a passionate man of few words who loves to share some of his secrets. The Sakychamp, for example (inspired by an association of flavours from Japan): Sake Bijofu Junmai (4cl) shaken with fresh marjoram and topped up with champagne (11cl). Or maybe spherical ice cubes with verbena “still at the project stage”.