On Sunday we were invited for lunch at Chez Bruno, an unbelievably posh restaurant in the south of France. At Chez Bruno all the dishes, even the ice-cream desserts, are flavoured with truffles. Resting on the gate pillars as we drove in were two gigantic stone truffles, and next to the entrance was a long painted fresco of the Last Supper, with Bruno’s face superimposed on that of Jesus and 12 Michelin-starred chefs as his apostles. In the carpark a dignified old gent stepped in front of the car. His job was to park it for us. I took my foot off the clutch thinking the gears were disengaged, but they weren’t, and the car kangarooed forward, knocking him on to the bonnet.
The restaurant was crowded with the strange faces and other minds of the French, who, if asked, would no doubt claim that the only thing the English have ever cooked properly is Joan of Arc. Our host, already installed at a corner table in the sultry conservatory, was wearing an easyJet orange shirt and Glasgow Rangers blue trousers. As the only French words I know are plume, tante and Moulin Rouge, I kept out of the business of ordering. The wine, in the form of the biggest bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape I had ever seen or imagined, was already on the table with the cork out.
Waving aside my apology for being late, our host began, as always, with a joke. ‘I bought a stepladder the other day,’ he said. ‘I’ve been looking for my real one for years, but haven’t found it yet.’ ‘Did you hear about the Parisian who threw himself in the river?’ I countered. ‘He was declared in Seine.’ Looking around at the other diners, I recognised that strange patina one often sees on the faces of the wealthy. The six at the next table had finished their meal and were sitting on, silent, immobile and vacant as a group meditation class. Then they roused themselves, struggled to their feet and tottered unsteadily away, to their beds, presumably. Their place was taken by a beautiful, anxious-looking young woman in a short, lapis lazuli blue dress, and an older man with the aura of a gangster who neither spoke to her nor looked at her, in spite of her heart-rending efforts to attract his attention.
A frisson passed over the dining-room. The great Bruno was moving among us, making his stately progress across the terrace, graciously receiving obeisances. With his blue frogged Nehru jacket, his startlingly obvious dyed black hair, his regal delicacy of gesture, and his expressionless face, he strongly reminded me of a Thunderbirds puppet.
We attacked the wine while a succession of dishes garnished with truffles was placed in front of us. After about the third, I excused myself and went to the toilet. In the toilet was a very surprising photograph of Prince Charles, taken from the side, relieving himself into a urinal. Back at the table, our host, a born raconteur, was telling a story about his grandfather, who was a member of the Turf Club. One day he was asked by the chairman if he would like to serve on the committee. He said he would rather not as he was a busy man. The chairman appealed to him, saying there was only one committee meeting a year, which would take up about half an hour of his time. His grandfather was sceptical but finally agreed. Several months later he attended the Turf Club committee’s annual meeting.
‘Right, let’s get this over with. We’ve had rather a lot of applications to join the Turf Club from the members of White’s, I’m afraid,’ said our host, doing an almost incomprehensible upper-class accent of a pre-war Turf Club chairman. ‘Now as we all know, the members of White’s fall into two categories: shits and bores. We certainly don’t want bores. Shits, however, largely fall into two categories: horrid shits and entertaining shits. I propose we admit the latter. Any other business? No? Well, gentlemen, I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling a bit peckish.’
A secretary was on hand, meticulously recording what was said, and a week later, our host’s grandfather received a typed copy of the protocols, in which the chairman’s trenchant observations about shits and bores, and his decision to admit only the most entertaining of White’s shits, were recorded verbatim.
On leaving Chez Bruno, I nearly ran over the car-parking man again, and I think that perhaps the vast amount of fungi we consumed subtly altered our consciousness, because we drove home in a sort of daze, and when we got back to the house we had a blazing row, our first, about William Shakespeare, of all things.