It was market day in St. Denis, and Bruno Courrèges, the town policeman, was strolling between the stalls along the rue de Paris on his morning patrol with his basset hound, Balzac, at his heels. He was shaking hands with the men along the street and exchanging the bise with the women from twelve to ninety when he saw his friend Ivan at Maurice’s vegetable stall, clutching his stomach.
“Putain de merde,” Ivan gasped when Bruno asked what was wrong. “I’ve got the most terrible pain in my gut. I had a few twinges last night, but this is—aargh.” He fell to his knees, his shopping bag spilling strawberries and heads of lettuce.
Bruno was about to call the pompiers, the local fire brigade that also provided the emergency medical and ambulance service, but realized there was no way they could get through the crush of stalls and shoppers that filled the rue de Paris. He put an arm around Ivan and half carried him down the narrow alleyway that led to the rue Gambetta, where he commandeered Maurice’s handcart, loaded Ivan aboard and began pulling him back to the main square in front of the mairie. He called Fauquet, owner of the local café, to help. With Balzac trotting ahead to clear their path over the pedestrian walkway beside the bridge, they hauled a groaning Ivan over the river, through the parking lot in front of the bank and into the medical center.
“Bruno, you may have to do the cooking tonight.” Ivan gasped as they set him down and the receptionist went in search of a doctor.
“Don’t worry about anything, Ivan,” Bruno said automatically. “Let’s just see what’s going on with you.”
The doctor on duty was Fabiola. She ignored Bruno and bent over Ivan to ask what the problem was, and he pointed down to just above the groin. She opened his shirt and put a stethoscope to his belly while her other hand took his pulse.
“Ambulance, urgent, for Périgueux hospital, possible burst appendix,” she called out to the receptionist.
“It’s the golden wedding anniversary of Patrice and Monique,” Ivan said through gritted teeth, his face creased with pain. “I can’t let them down. I’ve already bought the chicken, cheese and wine. Thirty guests, some canapés with the apéro, soup, chicken tarragon with puréed potatoes, salad and cheese, yogurt mousse with strawberry . . .”
Ivan broke off to groan, and Bruno said, “Ivan, I only cook for small tables of friends. There’s no way I could manage thirty. Let me see if I can get someone else to help out.”
“You cook for thirty at the tennis club all the time,” said Fabiola, before telling Fauquet to ask Dr. Gelletreau for a pack of sterilized instruments.
“I can put together one simple course with lots of help,” Bruno said. “But this is a special occasion. Patrice was on the council when they hired me, and Monique taught me half of what I know about cooking. We’ve got to do well by them.”
“Sounds like you owe them your best efforts,” said Fabiola as the ambulance arrived with a brief burst of its siren. She grabbed her medical bag as the pompiers came in with a stretcher. Dr. Gelletreau handed her a sealed pack of instruments, which Ivan eyed with alarm. She had to go with Ivan in case his appendix burst on the way.
“Don’t be silly, Bruno,” she said. “You can pull it off. You have friends. Sort it out.”
Ivan pressed a key into Bruno’s hand, winced and then said, between gasps, “I was going to make that tomato soup of Pamela’s and something with strawberries for dessert. The wine’s in the pantry, and Stéphane will drop off the cheese.” He closed his eyes and squeezed Bruno’s hand. “Thanks, I knew I could count on you.”
Ivan was laid out in the back of the ambulance, Fabiola joined him, and they were off.
Fauquet turned to Bruno and said, “Fabiola’s right, you know. You can handle the dinner. Still, it’s a pity this happened after the Japanese girl left.”
Bruno shook his head sadly. Ivan had, over the years, introduced the palates of St. Denis to the wonders of global cuisine, thanks to his love life. He had gone on vacation to Spain and returned with a Belgian girl who added to his restaurant’s menu many different ways with mussels, from normande and à la crème to Rockefeller. She made a broth called waterzooi that was very warming and tasty on a wintry night. Then he had gone to some Italian beach and returned with an Austrian girl, or perhaps she was German, and suddenly St. Denis understood what a glorious dish a well-flattened Wiener schnitzel could be in the right hands, washed down with a glass of Grüner Veltliner. Then in Turkey he had fallen for a Spanish girl, and Bruno still yearned for her gambas al ajillo and her dulce de leche.
When Ivan had announced that his next destination would be Thailand, the gastronomic fantasies in the town ran wild, only to be dashed when he returned with a young Australian woman he’d met on the island of Ko Samui. But hope soared again once the locals tasted what Mandy could do with her fusion cuisine that blended Malay, Vietnamese and Thai dishes. St. Denis went into mourning when Mandy left to begin a wine course in Bordeaux, but then came a wonderful surprise. Miko, a Japanese teacher of French, enjoying an Eiffel scholarship to study French culture, ate at Ivan’s restaurant, stayed for the summer and enchanted the customers with yakitori chicken and shrimp tempura.
So now, with Miko gone, much as the locals admired Ivan’s way with the familiar dishes of the Périgord, the gastronomic pride of France, they could hardly wait for his next vacation. Indeed, there were lively discussions as to whether he should be sent to India, Tuscany or Hong Kong. There was even talk of crowdfunding to help finance his trip. But Miko’s departure had sent the usually cheerful Ivan into a mood that St. Denis decided to call introspection, for fear that it might turn out to be a real depression, and then where would they be? And this spring Ivan had taken no vacation at all, consoling himself by offering his customers the occasional moules à la crème, paella à la mode de Consuela or, on one treasured occasion, pad krapow moo saap, a Thai gem of fried basil and pork.
Bruno stopped at the Hôtel de Ville to tell the mayor, his employer, that he would be otherwise engaged that day. The mayor simply nodded; Fauquet had already called him.
“Since I’m one of the guests tonight, I’m very happy you’re stepping in,” the mayor said. “Let me know if you need a hand peeling potatoes, setting tables or any other unskilled work.”
Bruno thanked him, left his uniform jacket and cap in his office and went back to the market to recover Ivan’s shopping basket. He let himself into the restaurant and went straight to the pantry to see what other supplies he would need. On the counter beside the stove, he found a copy of the menu, written in Ivan’s italic hand.
Kir royal de Ch Lestevenie et canapés de pâté de chevreuil
La soupe froide de tomates à la mousse aux herbes
Poulet à l’estragon avec sa purée de pommes de terre et ses haricots verts
Salade verte et ses fromages du coin
Gratin de fraises Monbazillac
Brut, Ch de Lestevenie
Bergerac Sec de Ch des Eyssards, 2020
Ch la Vieille Bergerie, cuvée Quercus, blanc, 2018
Ch Bélingard, réserve rouge, 2016
Ch de Monbazillac, 2015
Marie Duffau, hors d’âge, Bas-Armagnac
Bruno thought he’d better get some copies made, when his phone vibrated in the pouch on his belt. It was Pamela, the woman from Scotland whom the town had first nicknamed the Mad Englishwoman from her habit of coming to Fauquet’s for her morning croissant on horseback, and then doing the London Times crossword, while Fauquet tried to stop the horse from eating his roses. She was now the joint owner of the local riding school and a respected member of the chambre de commerce, which had done more to integrate her into St. Denis than the gentle and reasonably discreet love affair Bruno had enjoyed with her. It was she who had given the recipe for the tomato soup to Ivan.
“Bruno, I’ve heard the news,” she began. “Fabiola called me from the ambulance. I can make my soup and take some of the strain off you. I’m going to buy the tomatoes now. Are you in the restaurant?”
He said he was and would wait for her arrival. Then he opened the huge fridge. There were thirty chicken breasts, eight one-liter pots of Greek yogurt, four of crème fraîche and four labeled chicken stock, four kilos of unsalted butter, two of demi-sel and two dozen eggs, which Bruno had delivered to Ivan from his own chickens the previous day.
In the pantry, he found what looked to be ten kilos of old potatoes and the same amount of new ones, another five kilos of green beans, a couple kilos of shallots, five kilos of yellow onions and two of red and a long tress of a dozen heads of garlic hung from a beam. There was a bottle of Armagnac, six of the brut and six of the Eyssards white, another six of the Quercus and twelve of the red. At a quick estimate, Bruno reckoned that Ivan had already spent some three hundred euros on drink.
Balzac, sniffing around the restaurant, had paused by the door that led out to the yard and gave a tiny yelp. Bruno went to open it, and Balzac scampered out to relieve himself on a patch of grass beyond the paved section. Ivan had not yet opened this area for summer lunches and dining, but there was more room here than in the small restaurant. Bruno paced the area and thought that if he placed the tables along three sides of a square, serving would be easy, and everyone could see everyone else, particularly the golden-wedding-anniversary couple at the center.
He found a broom and swept the terrace clean. There was a climbing vine along one wall, a wisteria had been trailed across another, and there were roses on the old stone wall that divided Ivan’s yard from the house to the rear. There was plenty of basil, parsley, chives and tarragon in the herb garden. Bruno plucked off a leaf of tarragon, sniffed and enjoyed the slightly numbing, aniseed taste when he chewed it. Good, it was the real French version, the sativa.
There were three iron bars running the length of the garden, well above head height, on which Ivan would sometimes hang lanterns, Bruno recalled. He’d try to find those, but before he could look, he heard the door to the street open and Pamela’s voice calling his name.
“In the garden,” he called in reply. She arrived with Gilles, Fabiola’s partner, and put down what looked like five kilos of tomatoes before embracing him.
“Fabiola called from the ambulance to say you might need a hand,” Gilles said.
“Looks like you’re planning to feed them outside,” Pamela said. “Good idea, always better at this time of year. The weather forecast is excellent, and it means the smokers won’t have to make constant trips outside. Now, what’s on the menu and what do we need to buy from the market?
“I’ll do the soup, prepare the strawberries and make the Monbazillac sabayon and leave the main course to you,” she said, after studying the menu Ivan had left. She went into the pantry and looked at the supplies. “I don’t see any venison pâté,” she said.
“I think he was planning to use mine,” said Bruno. “I’ll bring a few jars from home.”
“Good,” said Pamela, halfway out the door. “I’ll get the menu photocopied while you two move the tables and chairs outside.”
“Funny how Pamela always likes to take charge,” said Gilles, once the door had closed behind her. “It must come from running the riding school. But then Fabiola is the same. Do you think they were born that way?”
“No,” said Bruno. “I think it probably comes from their experience with men like us. Let’s get these tables moved.”
Pamela reappeared just after the furniture was in place in the yard and wanted to know where Ivan kept his tablecloths. Bruno replied that he’d never seen him use them.
“You can’t have a golden-wedding-anniversary dinner without tablecloths,” Pamela said. She would go home and return with some of her own. Gilles was told to polish the wineglasses and ensure the cutlery was clean while Bruno prepared the haricots verts.
“Do them in butter, façon conserve,” she said as she left. “They’re so much better that way.”
First, Bruno began to drain some of the yogurt in a colander lined with paper towels. Then he cut the ends off three kilos of the haricots and turned to the bags of tomatoes. He put the four biggest red and the four yellow tomatoes to one side and turned on the oven to two hundred degrees Centigrade. He knew Pamela’s recipe well, so he sliced the rest of the tomatoes in half crosswise, deseeded them before laying them sliced side up in two roasting pans, drizzled olive oil over them and slid them into the oven, setting the timer for forty minutes.
Despite Pamela’s instructions, he thought he could leave the haricots until the evening, so he went looking for Ivan’s lanterns. At the top of a storage cupboard full of crockery, he found three long electric wires with lightbulbs and several Chinese lanterns of different-colored paper, all neatly flattened and packed. He opened them up, found a stepladder and went into the garden with Gilles to fix the bulbs and lanterns to the bars. They were still at it when Pamela returned with the tablecloths.
Under her direction, they spread them over the tables and let her lay out the first set of cutlery with the soup spoons on the outside, before telling Gilles to do exactly the same layout with the other twenty-nine. She went to the kitchen to prepare the strawberries, and when the timer buzzed, Bruno took the roasted tomatoes from the oven and left them out to cool. Then he blanched and peeled the four big yellow and the four even-bigger red ones and seeded them, diced the flesh and put that in the fridge.
“What time does the dinner begin?” she asked. “I have to exercise the horses.”
“Seven,” Bruno replied, “with drinks and bits of toast with venison pâté, then we’ll sit everyone down for the soup at seven-thirty. I think I can manage alone except for the serving. I’ll come back about five to peel the potatoes, start on the chicken and make the salads.”
“I’ll be here by seven to finish the soup and make the yogurt-and-herb mousse,” she said. “I can make the strawberry gratin while everyone is eating the main course. What are we going to do about servers? For thirty people you’ll need at least three, preferably four. You and me make two, and Gilles, can you help?”
Copyright © 2022 by Martin Walker. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.