France and my father

My father loved good food. To him it was simply one of the greatest pleasures in life and from my early years he shared it lovingly with me.

I must have been about 14 when we stopped for lunch at a restaurant somewhere in Provence, just the two of us, and he ordered what he considered to be a perfect meal. “The essential thing,” he explained, “is not just the cooking. It is the food itself, the ingredients.” First, a perfectly ripe Charentais melon, followed by coquelet aux fines herbes with a plate of haricots verts on the side, a selection of cheeses and, finally, a luscious peach. Sitting in the sun, the look and perfume of each course, the ripeness and quality of the produce; these impressions form my earliest memory of a happy and delicious meal.

We moved to France that summer, living part of the year in Paris and part in the south. As is the French custom, we often ate out for Sunday lunch. Our two regular haunts were rather unusual. Both Chez Nana, in the Rue de la Grande Chaumière in Paris’s sixth arrondissement, and Chez Pépère in the suburb of Neuilly had been post offices during the Nazi occupation of Paris, serving as hiding places for the Free French.

Nana was a tiny, tough woman from Brittany with sparse hair and a rasping voice. Her son, the somewhat beleaguered Raymond, cooked good, honest, country food under his mother’s watchful eye.

Pépère was a native of an unnamed Parisian banlieue, rather louche and with a lascivious look. He knew my father well and we were treated royally, often called on to co-operate in card tricks done over the telephone, as it was a favourite haunt of the Magic Circle. Here I ate my first frogs’ legs, my first snails swimming in butter and garlic and had my first taste of the unique chemistry of eating and excitement.

There was a certain eccentricity about my father. He was brought up on the Continent, spoke and felt more French than English and, on his visits to England, liked to seek out the most British of food. As a teenager I was mortified when he ordered crapeau dans le trou, as if “toad in the hole” wasn’t odd enough, and when he referred to potted shrimps as “shrotted pimps”. The strangest meal we shared was at the Hungry Horse in Fulham Road, where he found he could order Yorkshire pudding done differently for all three courses.

Food was his language and landscape, and the success of a holiday was measured by how we ate. This approach could backfire. One summer in Portugal, when he had enough salt fish cod, we found ourselves cutting the holiday short and fleeing north to Biarritz. He had a horror of raw or runny eggs which made the Tunisian bric, a triangular turnover made of a deep-fried filo pastry containing a soft egg, we encountered in the city immediately suspect.

There were many Russian restaurants in Paris and my father’s favourite was much frequented by exiles. One evening as I was enjoying my borscht and piroshkis, he asked me to go with him to meet an elderly gentleman sitting opposite. I was just to shake his hand and return to my seat. Mystified, I went with him and was introduced to Le Prince Youssoupoff. I shook his hand, said “Enchantée” and departed. My father spoke to him for a few minutes and then rejoined me. “I wanted you to be able to say that you have shaken the hand of the man who killed Rasputin,” he said.

Each year we drove down to the south of France via Vonnas, near Macon. We stayed with Madame Blanc, a celebrated cook who had a restaurant with rooms in Vonnas called Chez La Mère Blanc. The accommodation was simple but food was memorable. A typical meal might be frog’s legs followed by volaille à la crème (a sweet Bresse chicken cooked in butter and cream), crêpes Vonnassiennes (potato pancakes), the finest green beans and wonderful cheese.

Many years later, after my father had died, my husband took me back there for a surprise weekend visit. It was now a three-star restaurant run by Madame Blanc’s son Georges. The surprise, however, turned out to be more of a shock. Full of foreign foodies clutching large menus, with rooms full of antique furniture and even a helipad at the back, the place had changed completely. The tables were laid with fine linen and huge, modern dress plates, and we ate a different kind of food altogether. My husband said later he could hear my heart break.

Coming out of the restaurant, I noticed three ladies sitting facing the switchboard, the broad back in the middle oddly familiar. I went up and tapped her on the shoulder. “Are you Madame Blanc?” I asked. “Non”, came the answer. “That is Madame Blanc”, and she pointed to Georges’ young wife. “But you are Madame Blanc” – I was sure now. “Non”, she said, more emphatically.

My husband hustled me out, fearful of a scene. Undeterred, I went back in and said boldly, “I know absolument that you are Madame Blanc.” She looked at me and asked who I was. “I am the daughter of Monsieur Boler,” I replied. Her arms flew open and tears flowed as she embraced me, while everyone stood round amazed. She asked if we were staying for dinner and declared that she would cook for us.

That evening we were treated to dinner for two cooked by an old lady who was light years away from the restaurant’s sophisticated clientele. She led a procession of waiters to our table for every course (frogs’ legs, chicken and crêpes). My heart recovered, my husband beamed and all was more than well. Above all, I knew how pleased my father would have been. He could have had no more fitting accolade.

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