Crumble aux Pommes
Here are the first draft opening chapters of my latest book. I’d be very grateful for any feedback! P 🙂
Crumble aux Pommes
We Bought a Restaurant in France
If you can’t stand the heat
This isn’t a heat wave, it’s a heat tsunami. The thermometer is pushing forty-five degrees, and the tiny windowless kitchen feels like a sweat room. Our ancient fridge, wheezing like an asthmatic jogger, struggles against the rising temperature. Above me, an industrial extractor roars and judders, sucking up the steam from half a dozen saucepans bubbling on the piano. Despite the noisy fan, an aromatic cloud smelling of sautéed onions, garlic and hot olive oil, has replaced any trace of fresh air in the cramped room. A nervous shudder runs up my spine and meets a trickle of sweat running down it. I wonder how long I can last in a kitchen with no windows.
With a mental to-do list as long as my arm, I still have to blanch chips, spin salad leaves, chill desserts, purée potatoes and see to another dozen-or-so essential jobs, all before lunchtime. I’ve been working since seven o’clock in the morning and haven’t had a cup of tea since nine. Parched and flustered, hot and anxious, I need some cold liquid refreshment. So, standing on tiptoe, I peek through the porthole in the swing door that leads to the dining room.
I can just see my husband, Patrick, stooping over one of the tables, looking pretty flustered too. With the cordless phone sandwiched between his ear and his right shoulder, a mop in one hand and a fistful of wine glasses in the other, he appears to be taking a reservation, cleaning the floor and laying tables all at the same time. From behind he resembles a slender Quasimodo moonlighting as a waiter. As a six-footer, a good head and shoulders taller than me, I’ve always thought of him as a big bloke. But since buying this place he’s lost a lot of weight and is beginning to look at bit, well, Basil Fawltyish. Not yet a brilliantined stick insect, but getting there.
‘You okay?’ I call through the porthole.
He spins round and the phone falls onto the table, knocking over a vase of flowers and drenching the red-chequered tablecloth. He dabs frantically at the spilled water with a napkin, then picks up the phone. ‘Shit,’ he mutters, ‘they hung up.’
I push open the swing door. ‘Anything interesting?’
‘Reservation, I think. Two people, twelve-thirty. Didn’t quite catch the name – sounded like sir-something.’
‘You mean, like a knight?’
He looks up from the phone’s screen, frowning. ‘No, not a bloody peer of the realm, love. A Frenchwoman called Sirjay or Sirshay…’
Again I ask: ‘Are you okay?’
‘Mmm?’ he says distractedly, looking back at the screen.
‘Get me a bottle of Perrier will you,’ I say, returning to the sauna.
A few seconds later a bottle of fizzy water arrives through the hatchway linking the kitchen and the adjacent wash-up. ‘Thanks!’ I shout.
‘I’m going to get the bread,’ he calls from the dining room. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll lock the door!’
I hear the door slam and the key turn in the lock with a reassuring clack. Somewhere on the other side of that door is Givry-sur-Sienne – a busy town full of hungry French people. For now the door will stay locked, but the morning has slipped away, it’s nearly noon, and I am nowhere near ready. How many of the town’s thirteen-hundred residents will we serve on this, our first day? I have no idea. I’m new to this.
Okay, so after more than twenty years in the catering industry, I know how to run a kitchen. I can fillet a flounder, dress a crab, chine a chop and spatchcock a quail as well as any chef. I can run a stock check, balance a cash register and fill-out a VAT return without turning a hair. I can hire, fire, cajole and stroke the inflated egos of any number of under-motivated staff, and still have time to mop the toilets when the cleaners don’t show up. I’ve been doing it since I was sixteen for God’s sake!
But this is different. I’ve never owned my own restaurant before. I’ve never run a kitchen without staff and, more to the point, I’ve never worked in France. Just learning the language is proving to be a challenge, to say the least. I failed French at school, couldn’t get past the first page of Let’s Parler Français! and have rarely discussed anything more sophisticated than the weather with our non-English-speaking neighbours. Of course, I adore our adopted country. We fell in love with France during a fortnight’s inter-railing in the mid ‘80s and have enjoyed many family holidays since. French food, French wine, and the country’s je ne sais quoi have lost none of their charm – but this is something else. This is terrifying. A month or two ago we bought a restaurant in the middle of rural Normandy, and now it’s time to stop pretending to be restaurateurs and open our doors. After several weeks’ planning, decorating and cleaning, culminating in a fairly cack-handed test run, we’re finally about to open for real. Any minute now.
Patrick, carrying a three-pound loaf, bursts through the swing door just as twelve deep, foreboding chimes ring out from the church tower. Despite the spluttering fridge and the extractor’s deafening motor, the sound of each clang penetrates the steamy air, relaying its message loud and clear. It’s midday, and we are supposed to be open for business.
Someone is banging on the front door.
‘I’d better unlock,’ Patrick says, looking as terrified as I feel.
‘Don’t let them in! We’re not ready!’
‘Love,’ he says, exiting the kitchen. ‘It’s twelve noon, and this is a restaurant. I have to let them in.’
I listen as Patrick unlocks the door, then hear a confident female voice warble ‘Bonjour!’ Again, I strain to look through my little spy hole in the kitchen door. A well-dressed woman in her early forties is shaking hands daintily with my husband. Her shoulder-length blonde hair, gamine figure and lively blue eyes have clearly caught Patrick’s attention. For an instant I hate her.
Giving the woman a big smile, he welcomes our visitor using his best, far-from-perfect French.
‘Er, bonjour, madame. Vous êtes bienvenue.’
‘Ah, but you are English!’ She turns towards the kitchen and spots my face, framed in the porthole. ‘And this is your wife, non?’
I duck down and take a deep breath, grab a tea towel to dry my hands, smooth my unruly hair, then push the door open gingerly.
‘Bonjour,’ I say, stepping into the dining room. ‘Je m’appelle Nicky.’
‘And I am Marie,’ the woman says, approaching me with her hand outstretched. We shake hands, and she begins to explain the reason for her visit.
‘I am the wife of the deputy mayor. We have the pharmacie next door. Do you know it?’
I nod. I’d bought some paracetamols there to cure a mild hangover the morning after our ‘test run’ night.
‘Bien! My husband is still on holiday at the seaside, so I was told to come and ask you.’
As well as being blessed with a deep, sensual voice, she drops her aitches, and the way she says ‘this’ sounds like ‘zeece’. But her English is streets ahead of my French, and I understand her perfectly. I have no idea, however, what the hell she’s talking about.
‘That’s great,’ says Patrick. ‘How can we help you…Marie?’
‘A table, please. For twenty-four – no, twenty-five including monsieur le maire. It is for his team plus the judges.’
Is there a court case going on, I wonder?
‘Yes, the judges of the concours aux moutons…the sheep competition.’
Patrick, with a look of mild panic on his face, scans the tables of two, four and six that he’s just laid. ‘What time?’ he asks.
‘Midi et demi,’ she says. ‘Or twelve forty-five at the latest, d’accord?’
‘D’accord,’ Patrick replies throwing me a glance of shocked concern.
‘Okay,’ I find myself saying.
‘Good, good!’ Marie says, turning to leave. She makes her way to the door, adding, ‘And they will only have one hour to eat – the concours starts at two o’clock!’
The door slams shut. We look at each other. Patrick needs to work out how to rearrange the tables to accommodate this new reservation. I need to come up with a simple menu I can serve to two dozen local bureaucrats, sheep fanciers, and the town’s mayor. I look at the chalk board on the wall and read the elaborate menu we intended to serve today.
‘Rub it all out,’ I order, slipping naturally into catering manager mode.
Patrick cleans the blackboard with the damp napkin and fishes out a piece of chalk from his back pocket. ‘Fire away,’ he says.
‘Okay, how about this: terrine maison or goat’s cheese salad to start, steak frites or fish and chips for the main course, and crème brûlée or apple crumble for dessert.’
‘Sounds good to me,’ he says, scribbling away on the board.
‘Good. Then you can rearrange the dining room so the mayor’s people can sit together, and don’t forget a table for two for Monsieur and Madame Thingummy.’
‘How do you translate “apple crumble”?’ he asks, engrossed in his writing.
My French may be terrible, but I’ve read a lot of recipe books.
‘Crumble aux pommes,’ I say.
A French love affair
Let’s go back a bit. Nicky’s starting the story in the heat and fury of our first day and making herself out to be a kitchen diva. Yes, I know she is one, but we should say something about how we got here. How two thirty-something ex-pats came to own a restaurant in France.
So, here’s a bit of background. We first discovered France as teenagers – in fact Nicky and I had both just turned eighteen. Backpacking by train from Manchester, we crossed the Channel on the hovercraft from Dover to Boulogne, and then spent a couple of weeks touring the country – Paris first, then the Côte d’Azur, across the Languedoc, along the Atlantic coast, and back home again. We fell in love with France and its golden sunflower fields, vast vineyards and craggy mountain tops. The warm south, the Mediterranean Sea, the chirping cicadas, the vine-shaded terraces… sunny France had an unbelievably exotic allure for two kids from rainy England. The sky was bluer, the seaside resorts were smarter, the people were chicer, and the booze was cheaper. Oh, and the food was incredible! We discovered soupe de poisson and moules marinières in Boulogne, ate escargots and coq au vin in Paris, slurped bouillabaisse in Saint-Raphael. We stuffed ourselves with cassoulet in Carcassonne and, at a seafood restaurant in La Rochelle, ordered a plateau de fruits de mer – a huge ice-filled tray of crab, salty oysters twitching in their half-shells, raw clams, periwinkles and other creeping shellfish. Even the whelks were delicious – a far cry from the rubbery, vinegar-soaked molluscs available back home. And the wine? My God, it was good. We drank quite a lot – crisp, citrusy whites, fruity burgundies, robust clarets – and by the end of our fortnight on the continent we thought we were connoisseurs. What an anticlimax to return home to bad weather, stodgy British food and wine that came out of screw-top bottles! It was 1986 and we’d fallen in love – with France, with food and with each other.
Sometimes I think that these three love affairs influenced most of what happened over the next three decades.
At first we trod a fairly conventional path for a couple of ambitious twenty-something yuppies. I graduated from university in ’89 and worked for a tech company at Lloyd’s of London. Nicky’s career took her from Assistant Manager at a hotel in Surrey to Catering Manager of the Guildhall Crown Court in Parliament Square – now the Supreme Court. We lived for a few years in South-East London, but after the third murder in the neighbourhood we decided to move out to the country and become commuters. A gift from my grandmother paid for the deposit on our first house – a tiny sixteenth-century cottage in the historic North Essex village of Thaxted. A year later we were married, and thoughts turned to starting a family. Sam was born in June ’94 and Rosie in June ’95. We enjoyed quite a few holidays in France, and on one trip we spotted a stone farmhouse with ten acres of land for sale in Normandy. With Nicky’s sister and brother-in-law we bought the house as a shared holiday home. By then we’d moved again to a new house on the Essex-Suffolk border and were looking forward to raising the children in the peaceful English countryside.
Then two events at the beginning of the new millennium changed everything and set our lives on a different course. I’d moved companies a couple of times, and by 2002 I was working for the international software company, Oracle. In the space of a year, we experienced a couple of setbacks that, although not catastrophic, had a big influence on our future: the village where we lived suffered a major flood, and I was made redundant.
First came the flood. Overnight, the babbling brook that bordered our property, thirty-or-so feet from the house, had transformed into a river a hundred yards wide. The entire ground floor of our new home was flooded with a foul-smelling mixture of silty river water and raw sewage. During the clean-up operation that followed, organised and paid for by the insurance company, we escaped to our French maison secondaire. When we returned from this impromptu holiday we decided to move again. Living in a flood zone was not part of the plan, but the estate agents confirmed what we already suspected – the house would not be easy to sell.
A few months later I got the push from Oracle, we dropped the asking price of the house, and started making plans to move to France. With a great sense of relief, we found a buyer and the sale went through at the end of the spring term. We had just enough time to pack up, throw a party for our friends and neighbours, say our goodbyes and sail off to a new life.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. There was a houseful of furniture, a Labrador, a cat, two chickens and a chestnut mare to deal with, not to mention our two children. We had only a vague idea of how we were going to make a living in France, and had barely considered the possible problems of moving permanently to a house we owned only half of.
Our chickens were given up for adoption. The horse, at great expense, was to be transported by a professional company. The rest would be coming with us.
With no firm plans for our financial and domestic future, we packed our stuff into a horsebox and a rented pantechnicon, wedged the dog, the cat and the kids into the back of our Land Rover and set off for Portsmouth.
Suddenly we were unconventional.
Our first year in France was full of the usual ups and downs experienced by British newcomers. Thankfully, the kids integrated remarkably well into the French school system and learned to speak the language with nonchalant ease. Yes, we found French bureaucracy vexatious, the language barrier daunting and the complete lack of customer service unfathomable. We had problems with sceptic tanks and electrical wiring. We had minor land and boundary disputes (although not all our trees were cut down). We bought a trio of young hens that grew up to be cockerels, and a fox ate our ducks. Ours was a typical ‘Brits abroad’ story. But on the whole, it seemed that we were suited to French life, and we set about planning for the long term. Our initial idea had been to start a bed and breakfast. But, after attending a training course run by the Chamber of Agriculture and Gîtes de France (one day per week for nine weeks, no less!) we changed our minds. Converting our rambling farm into a guesthouse, it appeared, was never going to earn us a living wage. Unsurprisingly there weren’t many job opportunities for non-French-speaking catering managers or software executives, so we were left with only two options: go back to England or buy a business. We chose the latter.
Almost exactly one year to the day since arriving in France, we were business owners. The purchase of the Restaurant du Délice had gone surprisingly smoothly. The vendors had accepted our audacious offer without quibbling. Our bank manager at Crédit Agricole was happy to give us a business account with a credit facility. The man at the regional Health and Safety department seemed disinterested when I asked if we required an inspection of any kind. And if we needed a licence to trade, none was ever requested. It was all fairly straightforward. Even the accountant seemed nice.
Well, the accountant was nice, but in the years that followed we would pay for it all. The business had been hugely overvalued; the bank charges and interest rates were inflated; the health inspectors turned up out of the blue two years later; the taxes and contributions we were obliged to pay were way higher than anticipated; and the accountant’s fees amounted to nearly ten percent of our annual profits. But he was very, very nice.
These things, however, didn’t overly concern us on that hot August Thursday in the heat wave of 2003. On that day we were battling for one objective: to serve our customers their lunch without making them wait too long, pissing them off or poisoning them. Amazingly we succeeded – just.
What a curtain raiser
Patrick bursts through the swing door with our first ever order. ‘Okay, you ready for this?’ he says, tearing the top page from his order pad. I’m far from ready, but – what the hell? – we have to start somewhere.
‘What have you got?’ I ask, anticipating an order of mostly pâté and steak frites.
He sticks the paper slip to a pin board made of wine corks fixed to the wall beside the door. ‘Twenty-four fish and chips and one steak, rare.’
‘Do tell me you’re joking,’ I say.
‘Sorry, love. The mayor chose fish and chips and the others all followed suit – apart from one chap who couldn’t bring himself to eat British food.’
‘Pat, it’s going to take me half an hour to fry that many fish. What are they having for starters?’
‘Er, fifteen salads, ten terrines.’
‘Right, put a slice of goat’s cheese on each of those croutons over there and toast ‘em with the blow torch, okay?’
‘Nick, I’ve got twenty-five thirsty customers waiting for their aperitifs – I can’t help you now!’
With that he disappears through the swing door leaving me staring at a pile of raw cod filets and my ten-litre deep-fat fryer. I force back the tears that are pricking at my eyes, and begin plating-up the salads. Just when I think things have got as bad as they can get, they start getting worse. Patrick comes back in with the next order, I knock a plate of toasts off the counter onto the floor, and the power goes off.
And then the owner of the building arrives.
Madame Dupré – a statuesque blonde in her late-fifties – has let herself in by the back door. Without having to look up, I sense her presence looming above me as I kneel there on the tiles picking up croutons and cursing.
‘Oh, Nicky!’ she says, her voice echoing round the now silent kitchen. ‘Laisse-moi le faire!’
I’m more than happy to let her help, and together we scoop up the remaining bits of broken pottery and toast crumbs. By the time we’ve dumped the lot, toasts and all, in the bin, the power comes back on and Patrick’s face appears in the spy hole. Apparently, he tells us, the power cut was due to an overloaded circuit, and I’ll have to take it easy with the fryer. Now it’ll take a miracle to serve the mayor’s table before the start of the sheep competition.
I look at our landlady. In my awful French I ask her if she can help me plate-up seventeen salads and ten terrines.
‘Pas de problème!’ she replies, rolling up her sleeves to reveal a pair of mighty forearms. Oh well, I think to myself, a commis chef is just what I need right now – even a sturdy, fifty-something grandmother like Colette Dupré. She certainly seems to know what she’s doing. While plating-up the starters, she explains how she often helped out in the kitchen for our predecessor, her daughter.
In no time at all the appetizers are ready to go, and Patrick and Colette take them out three at a time to the mayor’s table. While the fish is frying, I start to prep my next order – two salads and two rare steaks for an elderly couple called Monsieur and Madame Sorget. Colette tells me they eat lunch at the Délice every Thursday and they’ve been coming for as long as she can remember. Okay, I think, it’s good to have regular clients.
For the first time today I allow myself to feel like I’m on top of things, and when the starter plates come back to the wash-up, I’ve fried a good half of the cod. I’m dying to know what monsieur le maire and his team thought of the food. Colette says they’ve cleaned their plates – a good sign.
By the end of our first day we’ve served thirty-odd customers and managed to feed the mayor and his sheep men in good time for the concours. Colette turns out okay – in the kitchen, the dining room and the wash-up – and, although exhausted, we ask her to join us for a drink. Once the dishes are washed and the tables cleaned, the three of us sit down at the table in the window (to be referred to from now on as Monsieur and Madame Sorget’s table) and toast our success with a cold beer.
I cool my sweaty hands and burning forehead on a demi of Kronenbourg and gaze through the open French windows at the town. The church clock is chiming five. A farmer, pulling a reluctant sheep on a length of rope, walks across the road towards us and disappears into the bar next door, along with the sheep. The sun shines down on the pale stone facades and black-tiled roofs of the townhouses that form the market square. In front of the mairie flags are fluttering atop three white poles: the French tricolore, the Union Jack, and the twelve-starred emblem of the European Union. There isn’t a cloud in the sky. We’ve served a dining room full of happy customers and, apparently, gained our first member of staff. I’m flabbergasted that our clients appreciate such British staples as cod and chips and apple crumble. Can we hope to be accepted by the people of this charming little town?
Patrick looks at me. ‘Cheers, chef,’ he says.
‘Santé!’ Colette warbles.
We bring our glasses together, then each take a long swig of cool, refreshing beer. God, it tastes good.
‘To the Délice!’ I say, raising my glass once more.
‘Au Délice!’ Colette and Patrick respond.
It looks like we’re in business.
After the beers, Colette says au revoir, kisses us both twice, and leaves by the back door carrying a bag of leftovers for her chickens.
‘So, we’ve got ourselves a waitress, then,’ Patrick says.
‘Never mind a waitress,’ I say. ‘Kitchen porter and commis chef more like.’
‘Well, she can help us both, right?’
‘I suppose so,’ I say, wondering if we can afford a full-time member of staff. ‘We can’t pay her in leftovers, though.’
‘No, but it won’t cost that much to employ her, right?’ Patrick replies.
But, oh yes, it will.