Monsieur Pamplemousse on the Spot

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Monsieur Pamplemousse on the Spot

Michael Bond

‘Pardon,
Monsieur
.'

Monsieur Pamplemousse jumped as a figure in evening dress suddenly materialised at his right elbow. Hastily sliding a large paperback edition of the collected works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle beneath the folds of a snow-white tablecloth draped over his lap, he pulled himself together and in a split second made the mental leap from the austerity of number 221B Baker Street, London, Angleterre, to the unquestionably less than harsh reality of his opulent surroundings in the dining-room of Les Cinq Parfaits, Haute Savoie, France.

Inclining his head to acknowledge but not necessarily welcome the waiter's presence, he diverted his attention with some reluctance from the adventures of Sherlock Holmes to focus on a single cream-coloured card listing the various delights of the
menu
gastronomique.
He was all too aware as he scanned the menu that his every movement was being followed by a third pair of eyes on the other side of a large picture-window to his right and he shifted his chair in an anti-clockwise direction to avoid their unblinking gaze.

Almost immediately, following a barely perceptible signal from the maître d'hôtel, a bevy of under-waiters descended on his table, rearranged the cutlery symmetrically in front of him, rotated the plate so that the Parfait motif was in line, adjusted the vase of flowers slightly, and then drew a dark-green velvet curtain a few inches to its left, blotting out as they did so part of Lac Léman, the misty foothills of the mountains beyond, and an unseemly intruder in the foreground.

Almost as quickly as it had arrived the entourage again melted discreetly into the background, but not before a large, wet, freshly vaselined nose reappeared on the other side of the window and pressed itself firmly against a fresh area of glass.

Monsieur Pamplemousse gave a sigh. Pommes Frites was being more than a little difficult that evening. He
shuddered
to think what the outside of the window would be like when it caught the rays of the morning sun.

‘Pardon,
Monsieur
.' The maître d'hôtel leaned across. ‘May I point out a slight change in the menu? The
Soufflé
Surprise
is off.'

‘The
Soufflé
Surprise
is off?' Monsieur Pamplemousse repeated the words slowly, as if he could hardly believe his ears. ‘But that is not possible.'

To say that he had ploughed his way through six or seven previous courses with but one end in view, that of tasting the creation for which, above all, Les Cinq Parfaits was famous, would have been a gross misstatement of the facts; an unforgivable calumny. Every course had been sheer perfection; not just a plateau, but one of a series of individual peaks, each a thing of beauty in its own right, offering both satisfaction and a tantalising foretaste of other delights to come. If he stopped right where he was he could hardly complain. It had been a memorable meal. All the same, to take the mountaineering analogy still further, there was only one Everest. To have travelled so far and yet not to have scaled the highest point of all, that which was embodied in the
Soufflé
Surprise,
would be a great
disappointment
.

He was tempted to ask why, if it was off, was he being shown the menu where the two words
Soufflé
and
Surprise
were printed very clearly between
fromage
and
café
. It was rubbing salt into the wound.

He glanced around the crowded restaurant. ‘There will be many sorrowful faces in Les Cinq Parfaits tonight.'

‘
Oui,
Monsieur
.' The waiter clearly shared his unhappiness.

‘What have you instead?'

Looking, if possible, even more ill at ease, the waiter waved towards a large trolley heading in their direction.

‘We have our collection of home-made sorbets.
Monsieur
may have a
panaché
– a selection if he so wishes.'

‘But I have already eaten a sorbet,' said Monsieur Pamplemousse testily. ‘I had one between the
Omble
and the
Quenelles
de
veau
.'

And very nice it had been too – a
Granité
au
vin
de
Saint
Emilion,
made with something rather better than a
vin
ordinaire
if he was any judge, a
Grand
Cru
Classé
to which orange and lemon had been added, the whole garnished with a fresh, white peach inlaid with mint leaves. A palate-cleanser of the very first order. He had awarded it full marks on the pad concealed beneath a fold in his right trouser leg.

‘
Fruits
de
saison
? We have wild
framboises
… gathered on the mountainside just before nightfall by girls from the village. They are still warm from their aprons …'

‘
Fruits
de
saison
?' Without raising his voice Monsieur Pamplemousse managed to imbue the words with exactly the right amount of scorn.

‘A
crème
caramel,
Monsieur
?' There was the barest hint of desperation in the waiter's voice. ‘Made with eggs from our own chickens, fed from the day they were born on nothing but …'

‘A
crème
caramel
?'
Aware that he was beginning to sound like an ageing actor milking every line which came his way, Monsieur Pamplemousse decided to try another tack. ‘Have you nothing which includes the word
pâtisserie
?'

Even as he posed the question he knew what the answer would be. It explained the absence of many of the
customary
tit-bits earlier in the meal. An absence which he had noted with a certain amount of relief at the time, fearing the outcome of any battle involving mind over matter.

The waiter leaned over his table in order to remove an imaginary bread crumb. ‘I regret,
Monsieur,
the
pâtisserie
is not of a standard this evening that we in Les Cinq Parfaits would feel able to serve to our customers.' He lowered his voice still further. ‘As for the
Soufflé
Surprise
… pouf!' A low whistling sound somehow reminiscent of a hot-air balloon collapsing ignominiously escaped his lips. He
looked for a moment as if he were about to say something else and then decided against it, aware that he might already have spoken out of turn and betrayed a position of trust.

Monsieur Pamplemousse decided not to press the man any further. Ordering the
framboises
he sat back in order to consider the matter. Clearly all was not well in the kitchens of Les Cinq Parfaits, and if all was not well then it put him in something of a quandary.

His presence there was only semi-official, a kind of treat on the part of his employers, the publishers of
Le
Guide.
It had been arranged by a grateful Director following the success of a mission on his behalf in the Loire valley. Nevertheless, implicit in the visit was an appraisal of the restaurant, an extra opinion concerning a matter which had been exercising the minds of his superiors for some
considerable
time. Work was never far away when food was on the table.

Just as
Le
Guide
was by general consent the doyen of the French gastronomic guides, so Les Cinq Parfaits was
considered
the greatest of all French restaurants, which in most people's eyes meant the best in all the world.

Set like a jewel in the hills east of Evian and overlooking the lake, its walls were lined with photographs of the high and mighty, the rich and famous, who in their time had made the pilgrimage to its ever open doors. Presidents came and went, royalty rose and fell, but Les Cinq Parfaits seemed set to remain where it was for ever.

In an area devoted to those whose waistlines were sadly in need of reduction, or were beyond redemption, where consequently cuisine was, generally speaking,
basse
rather than
haute,
Les Cinq Parfaits had proved the exception to the rule and had thrived.

For many years possessor of three stars in Michelin, maximum toques in Gault Millau, and one of less than a dozen restaurants in France to enjoy the supreme accolade of three Stock Pots in
Le
Guide
, it was an open secret that it was only a matter of time before one of the three rival guides broke ranks and awarded Les Cinq Parfaits an extra distinction of some kind.

Therein lay the rub. Such a break with tradition, were it to backfire, would lay whoever was responsible open to all manner of criticism. On the other hand, to delay, to be second, would be to risk the accusation of being a follower rather than a leader. It was a knotty problem and no mistake.

If three Stock Pots represented perfection, then a fourth would need to stand for something even more absolute. On the showing that evening, one of the cinq Parfaits, either Monsieur Albert, the father, or one of his four sons, Alain, Edouard, Gilbert or Jean-Claude, was failing to live up to the family name.

Monsieur Pamplemousse glanced around the room. Like all restaurants of its class, staff seemed to outnumber the diners. His notes and reference cards upstairs would give him the exact answer, but he judged the capacity to be about sixty
couverts
. All the tables were full, many of them would have been booked weeks if not months ahead; the clientèle was international. Waiters switched from speaking French to German to English and back again with practised ease.

The ceremony of the lifting of the silver salvers was in full swing. No dish arrived in the dining-room uncovered. No matter how many guests were seated round a table, for the waiter to ask who had ordered what was regarded as a cardinal sin, and the lifting of all the covers in unison was a theatrical gesture which never failed to draw the
gastronomical
equivalent of a round of applause.

At the next table a waiter who had just finished translating the entire menu into perfect German was now performing the same feat in English for another family. From the snatches of conversation he'd overheard when they arrived he gathered the daughter was at a local finishing school. Clearly her parents were not getting value for money.

Beyond them, at a smaller table, a young girl was sitting alone. From her blonde hair and the colour of her skin, and the fact that she seemed to be on nodding terms with the family at the next table, he guessed she must be English too. Probably at the same finishing school as their
daughter. She couldn't have been more than eighteen or nineteen.

He wondered what she was doing there. She seemed oddly out of place and ill at ease, rather as if she was waiting for someone who she knew was going to let her down. Irrationally he found himself wanting to go across and ask if he could help in any way, but he resisted for fear his action might be misinterpreted, as it certainly would be by the other diners, if not by the girl herself. People always thought the worst. Once or twice she looked up quickly and caught him watching her, then just as quickly she looked down again, colouring in a becoming manner.

Holmes would have known all about her by now. He would have built up a complete picture in his mind, picking up some detail to do with the way she wore her belt or the cut and style of her dress.

‘Borrowed for the evening, my dear Watson. And in a hurry too. You can tell by the way it doesn't quite match her nail-varnish.'

With difficulty he disengaged himself from the scene in order to return to his book. Reading it was really a labour of love; a holiday task he had set himself – a chance to improve his English while at the same time meeting up again with one of his favourite characters.

The stories were as unlike his own experiences in the Paris Sûreté as it was possible to imagine, and yet there was a certain fascination about them that he found irresistible. The particular story he was reading –
The
Hound
of
the
Baskervilles
– was a case in point. He had barely reached the second page when Holmes, from a brief examination of a man's walking-stick, had deduced that the owner was a country doctor who had trained at a large London hospital, left when he was little more than a senior student, was still under thirty years of age, amiable, absent-minded, and the possessor of a favourite dog, larger than a terrier and smaller than a mastiff.

Rereading the passage reminded Monsieur
Pamplemousse
of Pommes Frites. He looked round, but the face was no longer pressed against the window. It didn't need the intellectual powers of a Sherlock Holmes to tell him
that his own particular Watson had gone off in a huff, and even though Pommes Frites' exclusion from the meal had not been of his choosing he felt a sudden pricking of his conscience.

The discovery when they arrived at Les Cinq Parfaits that dogs were
interdits
had been a bitter disappointment. The ban had been imposed after a visiting captain of industry had been set upon one evening by a Dobermann Pinscher belonging to a disgruntled shareholder. It was understandable up to a point, but it was like forbidding visitors to the Eiffel Tower because someone had once been caught trying to place a bomb underneath it; hard to accept and impossible to explain to a creature whose powers of reasoning didn't follow such convoluted paths.

Not that the four-legged visitors to Les Cinq Parfaits did badly for themselves. The kennel area behind the main building was a model of its kind, the service was impeccable, with staffing levels scarcely less than in the restaurant itself. The straw was changed twice daily and there was a choice of food which was served from china plates bearing the hotel crest. Had there been paw-operated bell-pushes Monsieur Pamplemousse wouldn't have been surprised. At fifty francs a day, full pension,
service
compris,
it was incredibly good value.

All the same, it wasn't like sharing a table, and in the event Pommes Frites had taken the whole thing rather badly, just as Monsieur Pamplemousse had feared.

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