I listed for Catriona the reasons why I did not want to go out to dinner that evening at the posh new restaurant in the village.
The Hammers were on telly that evening and we had a fire lit. Plus, I was only just back from the hospital at Marseille where another half pint of turps was tipped into the tube in my neck, which would easily do for my supper. Also I wanted to lie down.
Also that day the Omicron variant, in its speed and spread across France, was doing a fair impression of Rommel. Why should I with my double-asterisked low white blood cell count take an unnecessary risk of catching the highly infectious version of Covid by eating poncy food in a small dining room with a lot of strangers? Yes, I was vaccinated, and everyone would have to show their Covid pass before going inside the restaurant, but that didn’t mean nobody would have it or that I couldn’t catch it. Not according to the Mail Online.
Catriona’s annihilating counter-argument was that Michael, who had booked a table for three, would be disappointed. So I put on my coat and dropped two sachets of anti-diarrhoea powder in the poacher’s pocket.
There wasn’t a top-drawer eatery in this touristy village until an entrepreneur bought the foreign correspondent’s house last summer and turned it into a restaurant. Michael, who is the strictest and most knowledgable judge of food and service imaginable, deems the place excellent. I’ve been before. Normally I am paralysed by posh restaurants, but seated at one of the widely spaced tables in the garden last September I felt unalarmed to an almost alarming degree. Elite pilot fish Sir Tony Blair’s flowing grey mullet has been spotted here already.
On the 18th-century doorstep our Covid passes were studied by the light of a torch delicately handled by a six-foot woman. While glad that I had turned up, Michael said he was bitterly disappointed that I wasn’t wearing my wig. Between Christmas and New Year I’ve been wearing a flamboyant progressive rock star wig to cover my baldness. The French male, fascinated by the androgynous shiny blond plume, has tended to stick his face in mine and ask the same question: ‘À voile ou à vapeur?’ Which is a very useful French colloquial sexual metaphor meaning ‘sail or steam?’
I told Michael that I was disappointed in myself. Not resuming my Rod Stewart wig immediately after chemotherapy was indeed a missed opportunity.
We were 15 diners at four tables in the foreign correspondent’s not large former telly room. The linen tablecloth was scattered with shiny good luck charms, the water tumblers were stainless steel. The chef came out of his lab probably wondering what he was doing cooking for hicks like this and inclined the head.
The starter was finely chopped celeriac with chanterelles in bacon stock and decorated with spinach leaves. To drink Michael chose first a local white, which, after twiddling it interrogatively in his mouth, he praised as being ‘straight’. For his main course he had the sea bass, which he thought a bit dry, owing, in his opinion, to its having been left in the warming oven for a minute or two too long.
Me and Catriona had the shredded beef and single kidney in a thin circular suet jacket, which I praised as being almost, but not quite as good as the Fray Bentos version that you get in a circular tin in Morrisons. Michael, also a fan of the Fray Bentos range, identified the meat cut as shoulder of ox and he couldn’t have agreed more. Also on my plate were two sprouts that had lost their sturdiness and some fried spuds. To go with this Michael chose a La Calisse 2014 red, to which he gave the highest accolade of ‘très animal’. The young wine waiter couldn’t or wouldn’t say whether he went by sail or steam.
Catriona here became afflicted by a violent and prolonged attack of the hiccups. Then she became fixated by another female diner’s face. She had never seen such a lined face before in her life. Had Michael ever seen such a lined face? Gentleman Michael refused to commit himself on the subject. Catriona turned to me, at this point nearly a corpse and certainly no gentleman but hitherto a man of rich experience who once followed the tinkling of the camel bell. Had I ever seen such a lined face? Why yes, I said. My aunt in Portugal. Suddenly exhausted, Catriona lay back as horizontally as her dining chair would allow.
The bill — two courses and two bottles of wine — was €225. Michael paid. After a fag on the porch we staggered away into the darkness, Michael touchingly exultant that here at long last was a decent restaurant within easy walking distance.