[Paul Stuart is a food writer with writer’s block, trying to complete his book, The Philosophy of Food. Seeking inspiration, he leaves Edinburgh and travels to France with his cousin Chloe…]
Paul let himself out of the house. The sky was clear and the early June sun had already floated well over the line of trees to the east. The air, which was still, had about it a promise of impending languor: it was going to be a warm day. Scotland, as usual, had been bracing; May had been a disappointment, as it often was, and temperatures had rarely reached the point at which sweaters and jackets could be put away. Scotland’s problem was the sea: it was never far away, however far you retreated inland. France was different. Here you were part of a continent, with the warmth that could settle on a continent.
He looked about him, savouring the feeling of being on the point of exploring a whole new place. Then, following the driveway, he continued to the short stretch of road leading directly into the village. He did not have far to walk – about fifty yards further on he reached the village outskirts, marked by a collection of small houses, each surrounded by a patch of garden. There were a few rickety and unprepossessing outhouses – garages and sheds – and behind them a stagnant pond, thick with reeds. There was a general air of neglect to this part of the village; the houses were clearly lived in – there were cars parked beside them – but none of the doors or window frames looked as if they had been painted for years. Here and there an effort had been made in the garden – a row of beans, a line of cabbages, a display of flowers did its best – but for the most part nature seemed to have been left to its own devices.
In the village itself, the buildings appeared in better shape. There were several well-kept villas – maisons de notaire, like the one that Chloe had rented – and the public buildings – the mairie, the school, and the church – appeared to be well looked after. A tricolour adorned the mairie, beneath it the symbols of the Republic in stone. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité were inscribed under a figure of Marianne, France’s guardian. Wearing her Phrygian cap, she stood defiant and confident in her republican values. He looked up at the stone motto, and wondered how anybody could reject any of them. And yet all three of them, it seemed to him, were, in one place or another, under siege. France, at least, professed their value, just as it tried to keep alive culinary authenticity. The pleasures of the table were sacred in France, where people were deadly serious about their food. He stopped himself. Should one be serious about culinary traditions, about recipes, about gourmet matters, in a world where for many the main issue with food was simply getting enough to survive? Should he be ashamed of devoting his time to something as mundane as how we prepared food? His book would have to confront these fundamental issues of want and satiety; one could not write a book on the philosophy of food without considering a number of uncomfortable truths. And yet, the facts of scarcity should not inhibit all pleasure in taste: the simplest dish, the most basic bowl of rice or potatoes, could be dressed up, could be made more palatable by the use of everyday flavourings, by giving the dish a name. There was nothing wrong with that, and the French, as a nation, understood it. He looked again at Marianne, so self-assured, so protective; no, culinary matters were not beneath her notice – she might be as sympathetic to la cuisine as to la raison.
The bakery was just off the main square, tucked away in a narrow lane, too thin to admit cars. The window-front bore the name of the business in fin-de-siècle script, Boulangerie Alphonse André. Dimly, through the semi-opaque glass, he spotted the form of M. André within, moving behind his counter, outlined by a light shining from further inside the shop. As Paul pushed open the door, he saw that several customers were already there, early birds like him.
André was serving a middle-aged man, wrapping loaves in thin tissue paper, while a woman at the other end of the shop was selecting bread rolls with a set of tongs. Paul’s arrival brought the conversation between the man and the baker to an end, eliciting a polite greeting from the baker and a nod from the man. The woman looked over her shoulder in frank appraisal – strangers in the village were a rarity and curiosity was justified.
Paul pointed to a tray of croissants behind the counter and asked for four. As the baker put them into a bag, he enquired after Chloe. “Your friend, monsieur – I take it she is well?”
The woman at the back of the shop waited. Paul understood the baker’s strategy.
“My cousin,” Paul said. “My father’s cousin, actually. Yes, she is very well.” It was no surprise to him that they should know who he was; a small village, anywhere, is no place for secrets. People wanted to know – and usually did what was necessary to find out.
“You’re very welcome here,” said the baker. “We hope you like our village.”
The man he had been serving had not yet left the bakery. Now he joined in. “Town,” he corrected.
“Village,” said the baker emphatically. “We’re very small, but then, who would live in Paris these days?”
“Not me,” said the man.
Now the woman spoke. “Paris!” she said, her voice full of disgust.
Paul smiled tactfully. “Big cities,” he said. “They’re not for everyone.”
“Yet that’s where everyone wants to live,” said the baker. “Talk to the young people. Talk to them. It’s all Paris, Paris, Paris.”
“You’re right, Alphonse,” said the man. “Not me, though.” “They wouldn’t have you, Henri,” said the woman.
Henri laughed. “Nor you, Diane.”
“We have everything we need,” said the baker, dusting the flour off his hands. “A mairie – you will have seen it, I imagine – and a very good school, even if it’s very small. And we even have a restaurant. Have you been there yet?”
“I’ve just arrived,” said Paul. “Yesterday.” “Ah yes,” said the baker. “Your cousin, Madame … Madame …”
“Yes, Madame Chloe said you would not be coming until a bit later.”
The woman at the back now moved up to the counter, placing her bag of rolls on top of it.
“Not everyone likes our restaurant, M. André. I don’t think we should boast about it.”
The baker smiled. “No, you’re right. You know what they say about it? They say it’s …”
“The second worst restaurant in France,” supplied the man. “How about that?” He laughed.
“The second worst … some would say the worst. Not me, of course, but others would.”
“They do their best,” said the woman. “And if it weren’t for Annabelle and Thérèse it wouldn’t survive.”
The baker looked at Paul. “You’ve met the twins?” he asked. “Your landlords?”
Paul looked blank, and the baker explained. The twins, he said, were the two women who owned the house that Chloe was renting. They had a good bit of property in the vicinity, and this included the restaurant. They had never run it themselves, but had left that up to a man called Claude Renard. They had a soft spot for Claude, who had worked for their parents, and because of this had never been required to pay rent for the premises.
“Even so,” said the baker, “he can’t make a go of it. The problem is …”
The woman supplied the rest. “The problem is that he can’t cook. He just can’t.”
“I’m afraid that’s true,” said the baker. “He is no cook, monsieur – and that’s putting it charitably.” He shook his head sadly. “Poor Claude.”
Paul listened sympathetically. “That’s a pity,” he said at last. “A restaurant always helps a town, doesn’t it? It brings visitors, business …”
“Not this one,” said the baker.
Paul was interested to find out why it was called the second worst restaurant in France.
“Where is the worst one, then?”
“They say it’s in Marseille,” said the man.
“No,” the woman disagreed. “It’s in Nantes. That’s what people say, anyway.”
The baker pointed out that the place in Marseille probably deserved the title because of the mortality rate amongst those who ate there. “They lost two diners in one night a few years ago,” he said. “Food poisoning. The police were involved.”
“That’s not good,” said Paul.
“No,” said the baker. “The chef went to prison, I believe.” “And worked in the prison kitchens, no doubt,” said the man, with a chuckle.
The baker grinned. “Possibly.”
This banter came to an end when the door was pushed open and a noticeably pregnant woman came in. She was tall, her long blonde hair straggly and unkempt. She looked in her late twenties or thereabouts, thought Paul, and had a soft Madonna-like face, rather at odds with the rest of her appearance. Her clothing was garish – the sort sold on the bargain rail in supermarkets.
Paul felt the temperature drop. The amiable discussion silenced, the man who had been standing near the door nodded briefly before slipping out. The woman, fishing in her purse, extracted a banknote and proffered it quickly. The baker glanced at the new arrival and then turned in a businesslike manner to the counting out of the woman’s change.
The woman muttered something under her breath. It was not intended to be heard, but Paul picked it up. He gave a start. Harlot.
Nobody else heard. Paul looked at the woman, who met his gaze defiantly before she moved towards the door.
Paul was not quite sure what he had witnessed, but it was something significant. He was sure of that.
They walked to the restaurant. The evening sky, at that point in the summer, had not yet darkened and was filled with a soft blue light that would in half an hour or so shade into the velvet of night. The village might have been quiet, but was filled instead with activity. A man worked in his vegetable garden, sucking on a cigarette as he did so, the smoke rising in a tiny, brief cloud above his head; a woman tended a vine on a slice of communal land beside the mairie; the bakery van reversed and M. André emerged, to unload a hefty sack of flour from the back.
“I don’t know what to expect,” said Paul. “Do you?”
Chloe shook her head. “I suppose when we go to restaurants we usually go on a recommendation. A review, perhaps. As long as it’s good. Would you ever go to a place that you were told is simply bad?”
Paul replied that he would not. “Reviews never say Dreadful place – do go.”
Chloe was firm. “This won’t be dreadful.” “The conversation in the boulangerie?”
“These small places are full of waspishness,” Chloe answered. “Envy stalks. It always does in a village. There’s envy everywhere you look.”
They had reached the restaurant, a small, self-contained building at the far end of the village. It was typical of so many rural French restaurants, with its air of quiet assurance, a sense of being what it was and nothing more. It was built of the honey-coloured stone common to the area and had a creeper, slightly undisciplined, growing up the front wall. There were window boxes, the paint peeling, spouting red and orange nasturtiums; shutters, painted light green, were fixed back against the stonework; a large board sign advertising the name of the restaurant, La Table de St Vincent, filled the space between the two windows of the building’s second floor. The day’s prix fixe menu, written in coloured chalk on a small blackboard, was displayed beside the door.
The restaurant’s dining room was larger than might be imagined from the outside. A dozen tables, covered with faded blue gingham cloths, occupied most of the floor space, although there was still room for a large sideboard on which stood a line of bottles of wine, like soldiers on parade. The prints on the walls, in thin oak frames, were Vuillard and Bonnard interiors: a young girl arranging flowers, a domestic scene of two women sewing, a stout, black-suited French paterfamilias presiding over a meal.
“Nothing wrong with all of this,” whispered Chloe appreciatively.
There were several diners already there, and they could hear more arriving in the small car park at the side of the building – the crunch of car tyres on the gravel, followed by the slamming of doors. They had been wise to book, as the tables were filling up.
The chef greeted them. This was Claude, a man in his late forties, thought Paul. He was well built, with that solidity that stopped just short of fat, and he had tattoos on both exposed forearms: a rose on one and on the other what looked like a masonic symbol. He was wearing a white neckerchief, tied loosely, which lent a slightly raffish air to his appearance.
“The ladies told me about you,” he said, wiping a hand on his apron before extending it first to Chloe, and then to Paul. “My name is Claude. I’m the chef and patron. Everything, in fact. You’re very welcome.”
He led them to their table. They had obviously been given the best one in the house – right up against the front window. As they sat down, Claude asked them whether they would like an aperitif while they perused the menu. “We go for a limited menu,” he said. “Being short-staffed, we find that’s best.”
“It certainly is,” said Chloe. “Those places that offer forty or fifty choices – how do they manage it?”
She had said the right thing. Claude raised his eyes. “Exactly. They can’t. Better to have a small choice – one of three dishes per course perhaps, because then you know it’ll be properly prepared.”
He turned to Paul. “Monsieur, I hear that you write books about food?”
Paul made a self-effacing gesture. “I try. But I am not much of a cook myself.”
Claude nodded. “And you’re writing about our cuisine here – in this part of France?”
“Not really,” said Paul. “I’m working on a book on the philosophy of food. It’s more theoretical.”
“But he does write about actual dishes,” offered Chloe. “His last book was called The Tuscan Table.” She paused. “And don’t listen to him when he says he isn’t a good cook. He’s one of the best.”
Claude seemed impressed. But then a shadow passed over his face. “You’re not a critic, are you? You don’t review?”
Paul was quick to reassure him that he did nothing like that. “Don’t worry – I’m not going to write anything about you.”
Claude took this in. “We had a reviewer in once,” he said. “A very arrogant man. He wrote a review for one of the local papers. It was very unfair.”
“They can be,” said Chloe, exchanging glances with Paul. “I think that reviews of restaurants should be written by chefs, not by journalists. The same goes for the stage. Actors and directors are the most suitable people for that, because they know how difficult it is to stage anything. Armchair experts may have no idea of how to do the very thing they’re criticising.”
“You’re so right,” said Claude, looking appreciatively at Chloe. “But now you must excuse me. There’s a party of people outside and I must show them to their table. Audette will come and take your aperitif order shortly.” He handed them each a menu and went off to settle his new guests.
“Charming fellow,” said Paul sotto voce.
“My thoughts exactly,” agreed Chloe. “People are so unkind, aren’t they? He’s obviously very proud of this place, and why not? This is what France is all about – small, real establishments. Local food. Local ambience. Not great, characterless barns serving standardised fare.”
They looked at the menu.
“It’s pretty short,” said Paul.
“No bad thing,” Chloe countered. “And what more could one want: starter – Moules marinières – well, I’m fine with that. Soup – onion soup, if you want it. I love that – always have. And then a choice from three entrees. Nothing wrong with Gratin de pommes de terre aux anchois. I love anchovies – and pommes de terre, too, of course. Navarin printanier which is … well, what is it, Paul?”
“A lamb stew with spring vegetables. And it’s summer, isn’t it?”
“Don’t be so pedantic. Spring and summer are states of mind.”
Paul laughed. “They’re seasons, actually.”
“Well, I’m sure it will be delicious, even if the chronology is a little bit dodgy. And look, Boeuf bourguignon. No cause for complaint there.”
Paul agreed that Boeuf bourguignon was usually delicious. “And then,” continued Chloe, looking down the menu,
“Quatre fromages – four cheeses. That’s generous. You must admit that. Sometimes you only get two. Four here. Four. Followed by a custard tart. Custard! I adore custard, Paul – I adore it. I’m sure you do, too. You like custard, don’t you?”
“If it’s made well,” muttered Paul. “It has a rather school- lunch feel to it, though. It has the wrong associations for me.”
“Perhaps, but perfectly adequate.”
“I’m not saying it isn’t,” said Paul. He felt that Chloe was trying to make him look churlish. But she, in his view, was being gushingly enthusiastic. This restaurant, in spite of its bad advance publicity, was probably perfectly acceptable – a comfortable, rather run-of-the-mill country restaurant – but not much more than that. Chloe seemed keen to dictate his opinions, and he resented being told what to think. “But it’s a bit pedestrian, isn’t it? Moules marinières are okay but not … how shall I put it? Not very imaginative. There are so many other things you can do with mussels.”
Chloe seemed surprised. “Really? I don’t think I’ve ever done anything other than Moules marinières. That’s how people eat mussels, surely.”
Paul explained. “Actually, there are hundreds of ways of doing them. The French are very inventive when it comes to mussels.” He reeled off a short list. “Moules à la moutarde de Meaux, Tian de moules aux épinards, Moules farcies … I could go on.”
“Gracious,” Chloe exclaimed. “That’s me put in my place.” Paul softened. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to …”
“No, you shouldn’t apologise – I should. I can’t help myself. I go on. I know I do. Here’s me sounding off about mussels when I know so little, and you know so much. You know everything, it seems, that there is to be known about mussels.”
He felt regret. This extraordinary woman, with her enthusiasms and tangential observations, was fundamentally good-natured. There was no call for him to seek to put her down. And she was lonely, he sensed; she was lonely and her loneliness made her gush.
“You don’t go on, as you put it, Chloe. I like listening to you. I like what you say.”
She looked at him gratefully. “Do you? I don’t overdo it?” “Not in the slightest. I may not agree with everything you say, but …”
“…mais ni moi non plus, but I don’t either,” she interjected. They both laughed. And then Audette appeared through the swing door that led to the kitchen. She was carrying a tray, moving slowly in her advanced state of pregnancy. She glanced over at their table, and nodded in acknowledgement of the smile Chloe gave her. “I’ll be with you,” she said. “One moment.”
Now she stood beside their table. “Claude said you wanted a drink?”
“Could we order wine now?” asked Paul. He looked across the table at Chloe. ‘Would that suit you? Rather than something else?”
“We’ll go straight to wine,” said Chloe, giving Audette a barely concealed look of appraisal.
Audette took a folded piece of paper from the pocket of the apron she was wearing. “This is the list,” she said. “But some of those are finished. Numbers two, three, five, six, seven and nine are finished.”
She handed the list to Paul, who looked at it. He frowned. “Since there are only ten, that means there are only one, four, eight and ten.”
“That looks like it,” said Audette, as if the whole matter had nothing to do with her.
“Of which only one – number one – is white, and the rest are red,” continued Paul.
“Could be,” said Audette, placing her left hand on the protruding bulge of her stomach.
“When’s the great day?” enquired Chloe.
“Three days ago,” replied Audette. “But I knew he was going to be late – I always knew it. I don’t want it to be too late. I had a friend who let it run for two weeks and it was awful, just awful.” Paul gave an involuntary shudder. He looked away. Chloe, though, looked sympathetic. “How dreadful,” she said.
“There was blood everywhere, she said,” Audette continued. “All over the hospital bed. Blood. I can’t take blood – I just can’t. I don’t like the smell of it. Some people say they can’t smell it, you know, but I think it has got a smell. Definitely. It’s a sort of metallic smell, I’ve always thought.”
Paul tapped the list. “What shall we have? Are you going to choose mussels?”
Chloe nodded. “Yes. Definitely.”
Paul pointed to a selection on the list. “Then we’d better have number one,” he said to Chloe.
“It’s a Chablis. We could have that and then choose a half carafe of the house red.”
“You can’t go wrong with Chablis,” Chloe said.
Paul said nothing. You could go wrong with Chablis, he thought, and if anybody could do it, he imagined that the second worst restaurant in France might do just that.
Audette pencilled a note in her book. “Number one. Good. Then?” She suddenly gripped her stomach. “Oh. He kicks. How he kicks.”
“Oh,” said Chloe.
“It’s getting really sore. He wants to come.”
Chloe raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps you should sit down.” “It’s worse when I sit down,” said Audette. “Being pregnant can give you haemorrhoids, you know.” Chloe gasped. “You poor thing …”
Audette spoke loudly enough to be heard at neighbouring tables. The restaurant suddenly became silent, apart from the sound of cutlery on plates.
“You ever had them?” Audette continued.
Paul took control. “I’m going to start with mussels,” he said. He looked across the table at Chloe. “And you, Chloe? Mussels?”
Chloe looked at the menu. “Yes, I shall have mussels too.” “Good,” said Audette. “Local. Very good.”
Paul gave a start. “The mussels? Local?”
“From over there,” said Audette, waving vaguely in the direction of the window.
“Mussels come from the sea,” said Paul. “We’re pretty far inland here, aren’t we?”
Audette shrugged. “And then?”
Paul waited for Chloe. “Navarin printanier for me,” she said. He followed suit. “Likewise. And then, custard tart.”
“And for me,” said Chloe.
Audette made another note in her book, and then sighed before moving away, ponderously, towards the kitchen door.
“Well!” whispered Chloe. “Yes,” said Paul.
“Have you ever been talked to quite like that by somebody serving you in a restaurant?”
Paul shook his head. “No,” he replied.
“Mind you,” said Chloe, reflectively, “there are few conversational restraints these days. Anything goes, doesn’t it?”
“People are frank,” Paul said.
Chloe’s eyes lit up. “Perhaps everyone should wear a button on their lapel,” she suggested. “The equivalent of those warnings they slap on films. Contains explicit language. Some violence and nudity. That sort of thing – but for people. That way you’d know what sort of person you’re about to talk to.”
Paul laughed. “Chloe, you’re ridiculous.”
“So, our friend Audette would wear something that said May speak about intimate personal problems.”
Audette was in the kitchen for no more than a couple of minutes before she reappeared, now bearing a bottle of wine.
“May serve Chablis warm,” whispered Paul. “Another possible warning.”
Chloe glanced at Audette, approaching heavily across the room. “Poor woman,” she said under her breath. “People shouldn’t have to work when they’re that uncomfortable.”
Audette reached the table. The trip from the kitchen appeared to have exhausted her. “Is this what you asked for?” she said, showing Paul the label on the bottle.
“It looks like it,” said Paul. “I’ll taste it first.”
Audette frowned. “You buy it the moment I take the cork out,” she warned. “Those are the rules. You can’t change your mind.”
Paul raised an eyebrow. “But all I want to do is see that it’s not corked.”
“It has a cork,” said Audette. There was a strong note of resentment in her voice. “All wine has corks.”
Paul shook his head. “Well, not all, you know. And corked is a way of saying rotten. I want to check it’s not rotten.”
Grudgingly, Audette applied a corkscrew and then poured a small amount of wine into a glass, offering it to Paul. He raised the glass and sipped. He frowned.
“Not quite as chilled as one might like,” he said.
Audette said nothing, but glowered at him, as if challenging him to reject the offering.
“I suppose so,” said Paul.
Audette poured a full glass for both of them – full almost to the brim.
“Goodness,” said Chloe. “I shall have to be careful not to spill.”
Paul raised his over-full glass to Chloe, carefully, but still transferring a small amount to the front of his shirt. “This is definitely an unusual restaurant,” he said. “But to your health, Chloe, and thank you for inviting me to France.”
She raised her glass in response, and despite her steady hand the warm Chablis dribbled over the tablecloth. “We must give it a chance,” she said. “I’ve taken to the twins and I want to like their restaurant.”
Paul understood. He, too, had taken to Annabelle and Thérèse, and hoped that after an unpromising start with Audette things would get better. You did not judge a restaurant solely on the conduct of a single member of staff, nor on her over-filling of a glass, her ignorance of the fact that mussels came from the sea, nor her inappropriate talk of intimate complaints. These were superficial matters – what really counted was the food, and they had yet to try that.
Their wait for the mussels was a long one, but they entertained themselves by talking about Paul’s book and the doings of the Italian Futurists.
“Italy is such a marvellous country,” Chloe pronounced, “and we all love it dearly. Romantic poets went there to die, which was just the right thing to do.”
“To die? The right thing?”
“Yes. If you’re a poet, Paul, you shouldn’t hang around too long. Best to write a bit of poetry and then expire while still young and romantic. Look at Keats – he was twenty-five. Shelley was twenty-nine. And there was Rupert Brooke, too – such a romantic figure, who chose a wonderful place to die. The island of Skyros, where you can be buried under an olive tree. An olive tree, Paul!”
“Stands the church clock at ten to three? And is there honey still for tea?”
“Well,” Chloe said, “Brooke expresses it all, doesn’t he? He expresses England so very succinctly.” She paused. “Those lines almost make me cry, Paul.”
He was surprised. “Why?”
“Because of what has been lost, perhaps. The gentleness. The quiet. Honey for tea. That sort of thing. As you know, Paul, I’m half English and half Scottish. Well, with a bit of Irish thrown in there somewhere. But the English bit, which comes from my mother, responds to all that – to English understatement, to English reticence. To a cricket match, where nothing happens for hours. To people drinking tea together politely and not saying a word. To Morris dancing even – have you seen much Morris dancing, Paul?”
Paul said that he had been in Oxford once on May Day and seen the Morris dancers in their white outfits, bells at the knees, dancing their strange stick dances.
“It’s extremely affecting,” said Chloe. “Pagan, really – that comes through very strongly. All that business about the Green Man and the renewal of spring. And the sight of men dancing together – that always moves me, Paul, because it makes the men look gentle, which is what men can be if encouraged. If only men would dance together more, rather than snarl at one another, as they’re slightly inclined to do.” She paused. “But let’s not discuss England, or Scotland even. We’re not there at the moment, and you’re busy writing about Italian Futurists and their odd ideas about food. Let’s talk more about the Italians and why they’re such wonderful people and make such magnificent friends.”
The conversation about Italy continued until the mussels arrived – carried, with further effort, and grimaces, by Audette.
“Two mussels?” she announced as she reached their table.
‘Two mussels would be too few,” said Paul, with a smile. Audette looked at him. “What?”
“I was just joking,” said Paul. “You see, two mussels would be no more than an amuse-bouche – and a small amuse-bouche at that.”
Audette shrugged. “Two mussels,” she repeated. “Here.” Two bowls were placed before them and Audette retired to the kitchen. A wisp of steam and mussel rose from each plate. Paul sniffed at the air. “I love these things,” he said, dipping his spoon into the thin sauce in which the mussels were half sub- merged. Using a fork, he prised flesh from one of the shells and popped it into his mouth.
“I’m thinking Proustian thoughts,” said Chloe, as she took her first mouthful. “The coast of Britanny, and I was thirteen, and there was a boy staying in the same hotel, and he was a year or two older than me and the kitchen at the hotel served mussels every night. The boy had freckles and he used to look at me from the table he occupied with his parents near the window, and I used to look back at him. And we never spoke for the entire ten days we were there – not once. And I was achingly – achingly – in love with him.”
Paul was frowning. He used his fork to spear another mussel. This one he raised to his nose and sniffed at.
“I’m not sure they’re all that fresh,” he said.
“They’re all right,” said Chloe. “Mussels always taste a bit shellfishy. They’re fine.”
Paul ate a few more. “They’re marginal, I’d say. You have to watch these things. We’re a long way from the sea here. Have they been properly refrigerated? That sort of thing.”
Chloe put down her spoon. “Do you want to send them back? You might say, ‘These mussels are corked.’ That would give them something to think about.”
Paul shook his head. “I said: they’re marginal. I’ll eat them.”
“Good,” said Chloe. “Because I’m rather enjoying mine.”
This is an extract from The Second Worst Restaurant in France which will be published by Pantheon in July, 2019.