M. Pamplemousse and the Final Rendering
by Michael Bond
Monsieur Pamplemousse rose to his feet. “In the beginning,” he said, “was the Word. And the Word I have in mind is ‘tomorrow.’ So, Messieurs . . .” Raising his glass he paused for a moment to glance down at the floor where Pommes Frites lay sleeping. “. . . and temporarily absent friends, I give you a toast . . . Here’s to the first of the month!”
There was a shuffling of chairs and cries of “à demain!” echoed round the room.
“Have a nice day!” added an ironic voice from the opposite side of the table. It sounded like Guilot.
“I prefer the term bon promenade,” said Monsieur Pamplemousse. “‘Have a nice day’ always strikes me as a token gesture, seldom said with real feeling, in much the same way as the American use of the word ‘enjoy’ is no substitute for our own bon appétit. Although at least it’s better than saying nothing at all.”
Glancing round the restaurant, he lowered his voice. “More often than not les Anglais don’t bother with either. Something inside them rebels against using the word ‘enjoy.’ They take their pleasures sadly.
“But what can you expect of a nation who, until recently, served their pommes frites wrapped in old newspapers. They maintained that the combination of printers ink and hot fat imparted a particular flavour to the contents, especially when given a liberal sprinkling of acetic acid. I’m sure they were right.”
The others fell silent as they tried to picture this. For some of those present it clearly confirmed their worst suspicions. “Did they buy them in . . . les journaux?” asked Guilot.
Monsieur Pamplemousse shook his head. “Specialist restaurateurs relied on their customers to provide the wrapping once they had finished with it. Some preferred a journal called The News of the World which dealt almost exclusively with the seamier side of life; they said it added a certain piquancy to the taste. Others favoured more upmarket publications. Although, having said that, it was mostly the tabloids. Readers of The Times seldom patronize such establishments.” Having satisfactorily nudged the conversation in the required direction, he pressed his mental “Save as . . .” key and entered the words pommes frites.
The occasion was the annual get-together of the full-time Inspectors working for Le Guide, France’s oldest and most respected gastronomic bible. It was held every year on the last day of March, following publication on the third Tuesday of that month. The beginning of April would see them all setting forth in different directions, once again eating their way across the length and breadth of France. To the uninitiated it sounded a heaven-sent job. Some people even expressed surprise that they were paid to do it-completely ignoring the endless hours spent driving from point “a” to point “b” and on to point “c,” living out of suitcases, filling in report forms, being away from home for weeks at a time . . . all of which could play havoc with the digestive system and occasionally with marriages, too.
Monsieur Pamplemousse glanced round the table at his colleagues. Loudier, out of respect for his advancing years, wouldn’t be straying far from the Paris basin this year. Glandier from the Savoy-who’d entertained them earlier with his conjuring tricks-was heading South. Bernard, the inveterate rose grower with a background in the wine trade, had been taking last minute orders prior to leaving for the Rhône valley. Truffert, ex-merchant navy, was off to Picardy. At least he wouldn’t be far from the sea . . . Guilot had been allocated the Pyrénées, which might do his weight good.
They were a mixed bunch and no mistake, drawn together by a love of food and a restless disposition. He drew comfort from being with them, and from the presence of Pommes Frites, too. It gave him a warm feeling to know that his faithful hound was asleep at his feet.
Apart from the Director’s staff party held every summer at his country residence in Normandy (a bit of a free for all-coincidentally marking the start of the flat racing season in nearby Deauville), this was one of the few occasions when they were able to meet up together as a body and swap yarns. Each year they picked a different venue, and this time it had been Truffert’s turn to choose. Being the most widely traveled among them, he had opted for a restaurant called The Golden Duck, on the northern slopes of Montmartre in the eighteenth arrondissement of Paris.
It hadn’t entirely suited Monsieur Pamplemousse’s plans, but he could hardly complain since it meant that he and Pommes Frites could walk home afterwards.
It was a little bit of China and no mistake-the framed Willow Pattern paintings on the walls, the fretted wooden partitions, the wrapped chopsticks at every place setting. They had been given a large round table with a rotating lazy Susan section in the middle, which was ideal under the circumstances, because Truffert had given the owner carte blanche over the choice of dishes.
Hors d’oeuvres consisting of crab soup, sesame prawn toast, and spring rolls had been followed by sea-spiced prawns with oyster sauce and water chestnuts. Then came a whole steamed sea-bass wrapped in lotus leaves, followed by aromatic crispy duck with pancakes, shredded cucumber, spring onions, plum sauce, and Yangchow fried rice. In between courses various soups had arrived to act as lubricants. Then came a memorable, exactly as instructed, highly flavoured sweet and sour pork with stir-fried vegetables-bamboo, courgettes, red peppers, and cashew nuts. To end with there had been a small mountain of freshly sliced oranges, and, for those with room, pears in honey. Wine had flowed alongside innumerable pots of tea and, as always, the conversation had ranged far and wide.
Inevitably though, in the end the talk had turned to the fact that the simplest of dishes-a boiled egg, a perfectly cooked steak, a tarte aux pommes, or (as Monsieur Pamplemousse wisely remarked), the ubiquitous pommes frites-were the hardest of all to cook to perfection.
The latter had sparked off further discussion. Names of various off-the-beaten-track establishments were bandied about, revealing in the process some closely guarded secrets, for not all such places found their way into the pages of Le Guide, but were simply passed around amongst the staff for fear of them becoming too popular. Many cooking methods were discussed including the superiority of one type of potato over another, to blanch or not to blanch, and, above all, the best type of oil or fat to use and the need to have a cooking medium which would reach boiling point at the highest possible temperature.
It was hard to say who first suggested the idea. It might even have been Monsieur Pamplemousse himself, but suddenly everyone was feeling hungry again and halfway through the meal the cry went up for some pommes frites.
“You’ll be lucky,” said Duval. “Have you ever seen a potato in a Chinese restaurant?”
“Want to bet,” said Truffert, rising to the challenge. “You won’t catch The Golden Duck turning down business. Just you wait.” He signaled the waitress over.
“Un moment. Please to wait. Difficult things take time. Impossible take little longer,” came the answer in a mixture of halting French and English. Sure enough, moments later a figure clutching a shopping bag emerged from the kitchen area and disappeared through the front door.
“Where do you think he’s going to get any potatoes at this time of night?” asked someone.
“Ask no questions,” said Truffert, “get told no lies.”
“World get smaller all time,” said Glandier. “Even share same jokes.”
And as the laughter died down that meant another toast. This time to the perfect pommes frites.
Suddenly aware that his name was on everyone’s lips, Pommes Frites opened one eye, slowly rose to his feet, then made his way majestically round the table wagging his tail appreciatively as he received a quick pat in turn from all those present. He made it fourteen in all, exactly the same number as there had been at the start of the evening.
Having assured himself that all was well with the world and that his services weren’t required, he heaved a deep sigh and curled up under the table again. He wasn’t very keen on Chinese food, and something told him he was in for a late night.
“Earlier on, you spoke in the past tense about les Anglais and what they call their ‘chips,'” said Glandier. “Does that mean the practice of wrapping them in old journals has ceased?”
“It was eventually stamped on by the EEC on the grounds of being unhygienic,” said Monsieur Pamplemousse. “They brought in a regulation. Much as they did when they banned them from using more than fifty per cent bread in their pork sausages.”
“And they obey these regulations?” someone else asked in amazement. “Even though it undermines the very foundations of their way of life?”
Monsieur Pamplemousse nodded. “The English are a strange race. Give them a football match and they start behaving like animals even before they reach the stadium, yet when it comes to rules and regulations they follow the letter of the law without question. I remember when I was there they even queued for the autobus.”
A murmur ran round the table. Everyone agreed that such things couldn’t happen in France, where it was an accepted fact that rules were made to be broken, and it was a case of devil take the hindmost when it came to getting on a bus.
“It’s all to do with what is considered Politiquement Correct,” said Truffert gloomily. “It’ll be escargots next, you mark my words. Animal rights will be poking their noses in. They’re already having trouble with foie gras down in Gascony. Who knows where it will all end?”
Monsieur Pamplemousse glanced at his watch, saw there was only a half an hour to go before midnight, and decided to steer the conversation back on course. Once the others got their teeth into the rights and wrongs of P.C., there was no knowing when they would get back to the subject at hand.
“Talking of pommes frites,” he said, “reminds me of something very curious that happened to me soon after I joined Le Guide.
“It all began with a telephone call early one morning. I remember groping for the box of indigestion tablets which normally rests against the display window of my bedside radio. As I removed them, the large fluorescent green blob they were meant to shield swam into focus and slowly registered the numerals 05.35.
“Wondering who it could possibly be at that hour, I picked up the receiver and heard a familiar voice: ‘Pamplemousse . . . are you there? What’s keeping you?’ It was the boss.”
Like an actor donning a pair of old shoes in order to acquire the comfort and security of past performances, Monsieur Pamplemousse slid smoothly into his Monsieur Leclercq mode. Even his bearing seemed to change into that of the Director’s as his voice assumed mellifluous tones. Honed to perfection over the years, it captured every nuance of the Director’s speech, and although the others round the table had heard it all before, they settled back to enjoy it anew. Some toyed with their chopsticks, others reached for the wine, and-having replenished their glasses-closed their eyes, allowing themselves to be transported back in time.
“Alongside me, Doucette stirred in her sleep. Pulling the eiderdown over my head, I moved away from her. ‘You realise what time it is, Monsieur?’ I said.
“Knowing that Monsieur Leclercq was not long back from one of his periodic visits to the United States of America, it struck me that his body clock might need adjusting. The thought received an immediate dash of ice-cold water.
“‘Of course I know what time it is, Pamplemousse,’ came the reply. ‘It is 05.36. I have hardly slept a wink all night. And why does your voice sound muffled?’
“‘It is Doucette. She . . .
“‘Oh! Pardonnez-moi, Aristide. Would you rather I rang back?’
“‘Non, Monsieur . . .’
“‘Good! Please convey my apologies to Madame Pamplemousse.’
“Allowing a fraction of a second less than what might have been thought of as a decent interval under the circumstances, Monsieur Leclercq carried on from where he had left off.
“As it turned out, it was to be the very first occasion on which he would draw on my experience with the Paris Sûreté, and also the first time I would be given the opportunity to see Pommes Frites at work again following our enforced joint early retirement. So I listened patiently to what he had to say.
“‘Late one evening, Pamplemousse, just over ten days ago, the telephone rang and the caller uttered just one word: “Eureka!”‘
“I removed the receiver from my ear and contemplated it sleepily for a moment or two. ‘Don’t tell me, Monsieur. Let me guess. It was long distance from Syracuse; possibly a descendant of Archimedes himself, anxious to spread the news of his latest discovery?’
“The sarcasm was wasted.
“There was a snort. ‘Spare me your negative overreactions, Pamplemousse,’ said the Director-a phrase he must have brought back with him from America. ‘You will be telling me next the name Mortimer K. Leibenstrauss means nothing to you. You are, of course, familiar with his works?’
“I had to confess my ignorance,” said Monsieur Pamplemousse, for the benefit of his audience. “A fact which went down like the proverbial lead balloon. For a moment or two I thought my job was hanging on the line.” He glanced around the table and saw a sea of blank faces.
“I am glad I am not alone,” he said simply.
“‘You disappoint me, Pamplemousse,’ said the Director. ‘In his time Mortimer K. Leibenstrauss was one of the foremost gastronomic writers in the world. His column was syndicated all across the United States of America. He was elected “Foodie of the Year” three times running. He is also credited with the saying, “It is possible to have a bad meal in a good restaurant, but it is impossible to have a good meal in a bad restaurant,” although others have since laid claim to it.
“‘Along with the American wine guru, Robert Parker, he was largely instrumental in popularizing the 0-100 system of marking as distinct from the English scale of 0-10 and our own of 0-20 (soundly based, of course, on that used for the baccalauréat).
“‘Nowadays, I fear that, owing to the current American obsession with calories, his pronouncements are more read than acted upon. Readers drool over his prose, but on the whole they prefer wheat bagels purchased from their local supermarkets to spending hours in their own kitchens following his recipe for making cholesterol-rich cream doughnuts.
“‘In recent years Leibenstrauss has led the life of a semi-recluse, sallying forth from his New York apartment only when in search of culinary perfection. Last year, par exemple, following a visit to France, his award for the best baguette in the world went to Gosselin in the rue Saint Honoré, and he bestowed the title “best chocolatier” on Bernard Dufoux in Lyon.’
“I glanced at my bedside clock. It now said 05.40.
“‘Why are you telling me all this, Monsieur?’ I asked.
“‘Because, Pamplemousse, when I met with Mortimer a few weeks ago he had both metaphorically and in practice turned his magnifying glass on the humble pommes frites. He talked of little else. Plates of stale, half-eaten French fries lay everywhere. His apartment was piled so high with books and papers on the subject you could hardly see the trees in Central Park for the pommes de terre. Learned tomes on the Solanum tuberosum rubbed spines with scientific treatises comparing the relative boiling points of various cooking media. Gourmet magazines in many languages, their pages open at sections studying the methods of chefs the world over, vied for space with lavishly illustrated cookery books destined for the coffee tables of the world . . .
“‘I tell you, Pamplemousse, Mortimer was right when he said that there are as many different ways of preparing pommes frites as there are chefs in the whole of France.
“‘Then, ten days ago, I received the first of two messages from him saying that he had arrived in France, and was en route by train to Flanders, hot on the trail of his Holy Grail.
“‘I asked him if he knew exactly where he was heading, but instead of replying directly he came out with one of those succinct expressions in the vernacular so beloved of our American friends, “You bet your arse!”‘
“As you all know this is not an expression that would normally fall lightly from Monsieur Leclercq’s lips and I winced on his behalf. However, he continued.
“‘He was speaking from a mobile telephone and at the moment critique we lost contact-perhaps because the train entered a tunnel.
“‘Having promised earlier to let me know if he was successful in his quest, he didn’t contact me again until some three hours later when he uttered that one cry of “Eureka!” It was followed by a sound not unlike that made by a child sucking up the remains of a milkshake through a straw-a kind of bubbling noise. Then there was a click and the line went dead.
“‘That was ten days ago and I have heard nothing since. I am beginning to fear the worst.’
“‘But . . .?’ I began.
“‘There is no but about it, Pamplemousse,’ said the Director. ‘I want you to find him. You and Pommes Frites must drop everything and pool your resources. I am relying on you both. But you will have to move quickly. I fear there is no time to be lost. Every moment is precious.’
“‘But surely, Monsieur. Is it not a matter for the police? A word in the right ear . . .’
“‘No, Pamplemousse, it is not a matter for the police. You of all people should know better than that. My experience with the forces of law and order is such that I think they are the last people one should involve. Inter-brigade rivalry will rear its ugly head. In all likelihood the problem will end up in the pending tray of some rural gendarmerie where they feel they have better things to do. Shoulders will be shrugged as they study identikit pictures . . .’
“‘Speaking of which, Monsieur, do you have a photograph of this Monsieur Leibenstrauss? I’m afraid I have no idea what he looks like.’
“‘You will have no trouble in recognising him, Pamplemousse. He is one of those individuals who stand out in a crowd. Living alone as he does, he has become completely selfish, not to say devious. He plays his cards close to his chest. And, since practically all his money goes on pleasures of the flesh, he “weighs in,” as our American friends would say, at around 2000 lbs. That is over 400 kilos in real weight.’
“I couldn’t help reflecting that apart from being married, the Director might have been talking about himself.” A chuckle went round the table.
“‘On the other hand,’ continued Monsieur Leclercq, ‘if my fears are groundless, if Mortimer has, in fact, stumbled on the perfect pommes frites and for some reason is lying low . . . perhaps writing up his notes in some secluded hotel room . . . then the last thing he needs is publicity. The news will be all over France. Michelin will be on to it!’
“‘Only in the fullness of time, Monsieur. You know how slowly they move. It will take them at least three years . . .’
“‘Even so, we need to act quickly. Michelin is not the only pebble on the culinary beach. It will be a considerable plume in our chapeau if we are the first in France to share in Mortimer’s discovery. I have been thinking of adding a “Best of . . .” section to Le Guide.
“‘No, Aristide, I have lain awake all night thinking about it and there is but one solution. You and Pommes Frites must set off for Flanders as soon as possible.'”
Monsieur Pamplemousse paused to take a sip of wine. “There it was-the true reason. The Director didn’t want the police involved for fear of any of our rivals getting in first.”
Glandier whistled. “It must have been like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
“Or in a field of poppies . . .” said Truffert.
“An impossible task,” added Loudier.
“Not necessarily,” said Monsieur Pamplemousse. “At least with a haystack the implication is that the search has been narrowed down to one, and with the latter, to a single field.”
“All the same, Flanders is a large area. I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“The beginning is always as good a place as any,” said Monsieur Pamplemousse. “In much the same way as, when looking for a fault, an electrician of the old school repeats to himself the phrase ‘assuming all external connections are correct,’ so a good detective always starts at square one. Remember, all roads lead eventually to Paris, and conversely, if you travel from Paris to Flanders by train the number of stopping places is limited, particularly if your ultimate destination is a main line station, as I imagined our man’s might have been. According to Monsieur Leclercq, he seldom drove anywhere himself because he had difficulty getting behind a steering wheel and even more difficulty extricating himself once he was there.
As things turned out, luck was with me. Mortimer K. Leibenstrauss must have thought he was on to something big because he took the 08.00 Concorde AF1 flight from New York, arriving in Paris at 17.45. One of the stewardesses remembered a large passenger. ‘A regular Monsieur Bibendum’ was her description. He stayed in her mind because the flight was by no means full and, much to the relief of the passenger sitting next to him, he asked to be moved to a pair of vacant seats so that he would have more room.
“He ate and drank well and slept a little, but when he woke became agitated as the plane was a few minutes late and he had a train connection to make at the Charles de Gaulle airport-rail terminal-the 18.38 train to Lille. He was travelling with hand baggage only, so he still had plenty of time, but the flight attendant made sure that he was the first off, much to the annoyance of some V.I.P.’s who had gone to great pains to make seat reservations near the exit.
“Having established the train he had caught, it became a case of narrowing down the options. The 18.38 is a Train à Grande Vitesse express and goes to Lille via Arras and Douai, reaching Lille at 19.55.”
“He was practically in Belgium,” said Bernard. “They’re big on pommes frites. Moules with pommes frites is their national dish.”
“True,” said Monsieur Pamplemousse. “But as his next call to the Director was made at around 22.00-which was when he uttered the one word ‘Eureka!’-the chances were that he wasn’t in Belgium. He wouldn’t have had time. Anyway, I was drawn to the thought of him staying in that part of France. If you recall, it is where Auguste Parmentier-the man who did more than any other person to popularise the potato-was born. In Montdidier they used to celebrate his birthdate every year by distributing free pommes frites. They may still do so for all I know.
“Then one thought led to another and I had a brainwave. Running through the names of the stopping places out loud, I remembered something the Director had said. When the first call came through and he had asked Monsieur Leibenstrauss if he was on to something, he got what he thought was a succinct reply: ‘You bet your arse!’ But suppose it hadn’t been that at all. Suppose it had been: ‘You bet! Arras!’?
“Suddenly it was time to do some legwork. Playing a hunch, Pommes Frites and I took the first available train to Arras.
“The rest of that first day was a blank. No one I asked recognised the description of Leibenstrauss, and I began to wonder if we were on the wrong track after all. Then, on the evening of the second day I struck lucky again. I found a taxi driver outside the gare who remembered picking up a passenger just off the train from Paris-un grand bouboule, a real fatso. ‘Poof! I felt for my springs, Monsieur. He seemed excited. Despite the cold weather he was perspiring freely.
“‘He was what he called “travelling light”-but that was about the only light thing about him. He wanted to go to a place called . . .’ The driver mentioned a name that didn’t mean anything to me, but it turned out to be about fifteen kilometres to the north of Arras.
“Yes, he could take me, but there was nothing much open in the area. Not at that time of night. If I wanted somewhere to stay he could give me the names of a dozen better places in the city. But if that’s what I really wanted . . .
“So off we went. By that time it was dark and I had no idea where we were heading.
“Once clear of Arras we went through flat country typical of Picardy and the area around the Somme; small villages punctuating long straight roads lined with poplar trees planted by generations to provide shelter for their soldiers; lines of solid grey stone houses occasionally replacing the trees, with no shops to speak of-only an occasional bar with a few tables and chairs outside during the summer months and almost always deserted at other times of the year. The taxi driver was right. There was nothing to commend the area at all, and once again I began to wonder if we were on a wild goose chase.
“Then we surmounted a small hill-more a rise in the ground level really-the kind of vantage point that tens of thousands, millions perhaps, died attempting to capture during the First World War. Suddenly we entered a small village where the air felt unnaturally cold. There was an atmosphere of sadness, as though life there had stopped at some point and never picked up again. The driver turned up the heat and even Pommes Frites seemed affected; his hackles rose and as he gazed out of the window he let out a howl.
“We pulled up outside a building at the far end of the village. There was no sign outside to show that it was a restaurant. The driver gave me his card. If I wanted to be picked up later that evening he’d be happy to oblige. Just ring the number.
“Inside, the restaurant was tiny, barely room for twenty places at the most. I was the first to arrive and at first I thought the owner was going to refuse entry, but I slipped him a hundred francs and made some excuse about having travelled a long way, hoping he hadn’t seen that we’d arrived by taxi. He had the nerve to pocket the note, then look me straight in the eye and repeat that the restaurant was complet-that others would be arriving shortly. I must admit I saw red at that point and I threw the book at him. I didn’t spend all those years in the Sûreté for nothing.
“It went home. With a great deal of ill grace I was given a place in the ‘no-smoking’ area-a tiny table between the door to the toilet on one side and the door leading to the kitchen on the other. I must admit that suited me as it meant I could keep an eye on things, although Pommes Frites didn’t look best pleased. There wasn’t room to swing a cat under the table, let alone a bloodhound.
“It was a cold night, so I had a glass of some kind of Chinese rice liqueur while I waited. It came out of a plain bottle and it tasted like firewater. I decided not to have a second in case the owner had doctored it out of spite. I wouldn’t have put it past him. There was no sign of a menu, so I decided to sit it out.
“Anyway, it gave me a chance to get the feel of the place and to study the patron. There was something familiar about him, but it was awhile before the penny dropped . . . He was the spitting image of Peter Lorre.”
“The film star?” broke in Loudier. “The one who was in all those old Mr. Moto films? Short, dark . . . oriental looking . . . a bit sinister?”
“The very same.”
“So he wasn’t a local?”
Monsieur Pamplemousse shook his head. “I doubt if he was born this side of Hong Kong. He wore an amulet on a chain round his neck and he had a droopy moustache-a Viva Zapata type only much longer. It was like something from the past. Take off his old white jacket and put him in a gold robe with his arms folded and he could have been Dr. Fu Manchu incarnate. It would have seemed out of place anywhere in France, but on a cold, dark night in Flanders it was positively bizarre.”
“They get everywhere,” said Guilot. “Last year I came across a Chinese take-away in the hills north of Menton. Doing a roaring trade.”
“There are more Chinese restaurants in Paris than there are Italian,” agreed Truffert. “Even Michelin has started dishing out rosettes.”
“Anyway,” continued Monsieur Pamplemousse, “after the first drink he disappeared into the kitchen, so I studied the decor instead. Minimalist wasn’t the word for it. A few old puppets-the kind you find in souvenir shops all over Arras. The tables were bare. They didn’t even run to paper cloths. There was no menu.
“An old crone came in and looked at me. Then she caught Pommes Frites eyeing her from under the table and she went away again.
“Eventually I heard the sound of several cars drawing up outside, as though they had been travelling in convoy. Doors slammed and a group of a dozen men filed in. They were a mixed bunch, youngish but well-heeled. They had driven down from Paris on the A1 autoroute and clearly shared a common interest, as though members of a club. I can’t say they were overjoyed to see me. Very much the reverse.
“They pulled several tables together and settled themselves in the opposite corner of the room as far away from me as possible. For a while they talked in whispers. Then the owner produced some cider drawn from the wood and as tongues began to loosen, so the voices grew louder until it seemed as though they had almost forgotten our presence.
“It seemed they were a group of gastronomic ‘free thinkers’ who met at regular intervals. From the odd snippets I overheard-technical terms bandied about-it struck me they could have been members of the medical profession, but I may have been wrong.
“The talk was mostly of past meals. They were into exotic foods. There was general agreement that fried water beetles tasted like gorganzola cheese; dried termites clearly hadn’t met with universal approval. There was one particularly memorable meal which had consisted of Pig’s lung soup, followed by uteris sausages . . .”
“Do you mind?” said Glandier. “You’re putting me off my spring rolls!”
“Small, handwritten menus arrived for everyone but me,” said Monsieur Pamplemousse, ignoring the interruption. “They were treated with great reverence. I managed to catch a glimpse of the heading on the top of one-Les Confrérie des Douze Gastronomes Exotiques, which figured.
“There was an air of mounting excitement, but after all the talk of exotic things, the first course was something of a disappointment-steak, served with a fresh green salad. There was no sign of any frites and once again I began to wonder if I was on a wild goose chase.
“My own steak arrived after the others had been served and I could tell they were waiting for my reaction.”
“Which was?” It was Glandier again who chimed in.
“Just as it is an established fact that the terroir of the land affects the taste of wine, so with food products, taste has a great deal to do with what the particular product has been fed on. That and the kind of life it has led-the way it has been treated. The delicate pink of Loire salmon owes everything to the crustacea it feeds on during its long journey to the Arctic and back. Lamb raised in the salt meadows near Le Mont-St. Michel in Normandy is like no other. Ham from the Ardennes, marbled and rich, was at its best when it came from pigs roaming wild and living on a diet of acorns, chestnuts, and fruits of the forest.
“All I can say is that the steak I ate that evening was like no other meat I have ever eaten before. If pressed I would guess that it was pork rather than beef; pork that had spent much of its time marinating in the good things of life.
“Pommes Frites wouldn’t touch it. In fact as I ate he kept giving me uneasy looks, watching my every mouthful, as though he was trying to tell me something.
“Then, just as the first of the party finished his steak so his frites arrived. They were classic Pont-Neuf-one centimetre square and six to eight centimetres long.
“Each time the old crone came through from the kitchen, the door narrowly missed the back of my chair, and once it jammed open and I caught a glimpse of the patron at his stove. Interestingly, he wasn’t double-frying. He was using the Robuchon quick single-fry method . . .”
“You mean starting off cold, with the potatoes lying in the pan alongside the fat, then turning up the heat so that as the temperature rises they begin to cook?”
“Exactement. He was taking immense pains. The whole thing was like a laboratory operation. He used a series of high sided pans-woks, I suppose you would call them-so that each batch was enough for an individual serving and received exactly the same treatment. From the way he was spooning fat from a large plastic container-almost as though it were liquid gold-I would guess there was very little of it left.”
“The Chinese tend to use a minimum of fat,” said Truffert. “They are very health conscious.”
“As I say, it was carefully measured as though it were the most precious thing in the world. To avoid breaking it down, sea salt wasn’t sprinkled on the frites until after they had been removed from the pan and drained on paper. I was the last to be served and I could feel the others passing envious glances in my direction, for by then they had all finished theirs.
“Afterwards there was a lengthy discussion, carried on in undertones. It was almost like a religious experience.”
“I would be hard put to name the variety of potato used,” said Monsieur Pamplemousse. “Although from the texture I would say probably Charlotte de Bretagne.”
“But how did they taste?” chorused the others impatiently.
Monsieur Pamplemousse fell silent as he sought for words to describe his experience. “They were golden brown. Once again I can only describe them as being like liquid gold. They had a crispness that comes from using animal fat, and a lightness which goes with cooking them in small batches. There was a hint of rosemary, which had probably been used to stop the cooking medium from going rancid. They were served with Dijon mustard.”
“What did Pommes Frites make of them?” came a voice from the other end of the table. Monsieur Pamplemousse hesitated. “That was the odd thing. As you know, he is something of an expert. It is how he first came by his name. It was something of a joke at the time. It may have been the mustard, but he wouldn’t go near them.
“Something of his unease began to communicate itself to me. Considerably outnumbered as I was, it wouldn’t be going too far to say that, but for him, I might not be sitting here tonight. I heard a noise that sounded like the owner locking the front door and at the same time I sensed a change in the atmosphere. Luckily I had my mobile with me. First of all I rang the number the taxi driver had given me and ordered him to pick me up. Then I made a fake call, saying in a loud voice that we were about to leave and wouldn’t be very long.
“On the way back to Arras I asked the driver if he had taken his fat passenger back to la gare. The answer was in the negative. He’d sat around waiting for a call. Then in the end he’d given it up as a bad job and went to bed. Anyway, the last train back to Paris is at 21.28., some half an hour before the Director had last had word.”
“If Monsieur Leibenstrauss hadn’t caught that train, what then?” asked Guilot.
“Perhaps he was given a lift back by someone?” suggested Duval. “Or maybe he found a hotel to stay in.”
“My feeling,” said Monsieur Pamplemousse, “is that he never went anywhere.”
The others fell silent as they let their imaginations run free.
“You mean he was rendered down for his fat and you helped eat what was left?” It was Glandier, going straight to the point as usual, speaking everyone else’s thoughts.
Monsieur Pamplemousse combined a shrug with a classic comme ci, comme ça motion of his right hand. “Your guess is as good as mine. If I did, it certainly wasn’t intentional.”
At that moment a silver-domed dish arrived at their table and was reverently placed across two plate warmers. The removal of the dome revealed a plate of pommes frites. If they had been cued in they couldn’t have arrived at a more apposite moment. They looked spectacularly good. The waitress allowed herself a moment of pleasure. The Golden Duck had never seen its like before, and probably never would again.
“I bet the Director was upset when he heard,” said Allard, as soon as she was out of earshot.
“Not as much as Monsieur Leibenstrauss must have been,” said Monsieur Pamplemousse drily, awarding himself a generous helping from the dish. “Pommes frites anyone?”
There were no takers.
“I suppose,” said Bernard, to no one in particular, “working in the Paris Sûreté for any length of time must blunt your sensibilities.”
“You were right about the pork,” said Truffert. “Someone once told me that human flesh tastes much like that American processed ham that comes in a tin.”
“I read the other day that they want to market cannibal chutney in Fiji,” said Allard, trying to strike a cheerful note. “But the tourist office there thought it might give them a bad name.”
Once again Monsieur Pamplemousse ignored the interruption. “Monsieur Leibenstrauss’ search for the perfect pommes frites had clearly become an obsession,” he continued, “just as it had with the Confrérie des Douze Gastronomes Exotiques. It was perhaps inevitable that in time the two should come together, and it is equally possible that when they did, the writing was on the wall. Having sampled cannibalism once, and in so doing discovered the perfect cooking medium, they probably found it all too easy to rationalize, and the proprietor looked the sort of person who would do anything for money.
“One look at Leibenstrauss, his size and the fact that in all probability he would give away their secret-probably set the wheels in motion for a second time. Who knows what went on that night behind closed shutters?”
“A few days later, when I returned to the restaurant, the windows were boarded up. I suspect something about me may have said ‘police’ to the owner when I first went in, or maybe it was Pommes Frites-or even the two of us together.
“In an outhouse at the back I found traces of certain activities more applicable to the trade of master butcher, or laundress, than to the chef of a small restaurant-a large old-fashioned chopping table and alongside that an industrial-size mincing machine and a copper boiler of the kind my mother used to use on wash days.
“As for Mortimer K. Leibenstrauss, he has never been seen or heard of since.”
“Hoist on his own petard,” broke in Allard.
“Or cooked in his own fat?” suggested Glandier.
“So the owner could still be plying his trade elsewhere?”
Monsieur Pamplemousse nodded. Then, while the others sat quietly digesting the notion, he took one of the frites, surreptitiously amalgamated it with a Sichuan peppercorn he had discarded earlier in the meal because of its heat, then passed the result under the table.
He felt a tug. It was followed almost immediately by a loud splutter, then a mournful howl-outshining by many decibels the baying sound Pommes Frites had perfected for a performance he had once given as the Hound of the Baskervilles in a Christmas show at the Quai des Orfèvres, which at the time had brought the house down. It sent shivers through the assembled diners. A moment later, jowls still quivering with shock, Pommes Frites emerged from beneath the folds of the tablecloth and gazed reproachfully at his master through bloodshot eyes.
Monsieur Pamplemousse gave him a pat, trying to temper his action with heartfelt apologies and reassurances that it would never happen again, then glanced at his watch. It showed a few minutes after midnight. The timing was admirable.
“You are looking thoughtful, Aristide,” said Bernard. “Not going already?”
“Doucette will be getting restive. She isn’t one for staying up late.”
Monsieur Pamplemousse looked round the assembly. “As I said earlier, in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was ‘tomorrow.’ Now it is today. Good luck to you all, and if in your travels you chance upon the perfect pommes frites, double lock your bedroom door when you retire to your room for the night.”
“Thanks a heap!” said Truffert. “You know where I’m off to tomorrow . . .”
“I imagine Picardy will be the safest place in France,” said Monsieur Pamplemousse, rising to his feet. “If our man has gone to ground anywhere it will be in a big city like Paris where he can get lost in the crowd. In a small village everyone is aware of everyone else’s every movements.”
Excusing himself, he headed for the corridor to retrieve his coat but as soon as he had turned the corner, changed direction and made for the kitchen where the chef was waiting for him.
Monsieur Pamplemousse gave him the thumbs up sign. “Everything has gone according to plan.” He reached into the pocket of his overcoat and withdrew a manila envelope. “You will find all you need in here-moustache, glue, an amulet to wear round your neck . . . Bonne chance. Now don’t forget-it is important you ask them how they enjoyed the sweet and sour pork and if the pommes frites were to their liking. I suggest you could try rubbing your hands together with invisible soap while you wish them ‘bon promenade’ and to ‘have a nice day.'”
“Oui, Monsieur Glapefruit. Then, like you tell me, I say in loud voice, ‘Les poissons de Avril’!”
“Parfait!” said Monsieur Pamplemousse. “It is what our Anglo-Saxon friends call April Fool’s Day. After that, I suggest that, as with a Chinese cracker, once you have lit the fuse you should retire immediately.
And now, if I may, I will use your back door so that we can be on our way. It was a lovely meal and I thank you, but I have a feeling Pommes Frites can’t wait to get back home to his water bowl.”