The gravel crunched under our tyres as we came to a stop in the deserted car park of Moulin de Fossard, the restaurant we’d chosen as the highlight of our Normandy jaunt.
Pam looked over her shoulder at our twelve-year-old daughter and studied her complexion. Her hair clung to her head and she shivered beneath the picnic rug gripped to her shoulders. Pam turned to me as I unbuckled my seat belt. ‘Are you sure we shouldn’t go back to the cottage and get Alex warmed up?’
I looked across the car park to the tables on the restaurant’s terrace. Overlooking the river adjoining the mill house, they were bathed in the late afternoon sun. Was I letting my taste buds determine the best course of action for our child? I leant between the seats and placed my palm on Alex’s forehead. She had warmed up since her swim in the Source de l’Orbiquet, the icy pool in the hills a few miles upriver, but I wondered whether my yearnings for fillet de Boeuf Charolais avec morels or the plat fromages fermiers de Normandie that I’d seen on the restaurant’s website, were jeopardising the wellbeing of our daughter.
‘How do you feel?’ I asked her. On reflection, asking a girl whose passion for restaurant dining exceeds boy bands, American teen soaps and shopping combined, was not a good barometer of risk.
‘I’m a lot better Dad!’ she said with a grin designed to allay any thought of going back to our holiday let for pasta with Carrefour tomato sauce. ‘We can get a table outside; it’ll be warmer in the sun than at the cottage.’ Alex then turned to her mother, eyebrows raised, aware her job with me was done. Pam glanced at Oscar, entrenched in a book beside his sister and, realising there would be no source of support from that quarter, relented.
Dining out early in France often affords the pleasure of being the focus of attention for the restaurant staff. Even by the time the cheese trolley rolled up, the terrace was still our exclusive domain. The sun was a couple of hours from setting and the air above the river was alive with buzzing specks that occasionally drew fish to the surface. In the meadow beyond, cows flicked their tails at the same distraction. Cooking smells spilled from the kitchen window and entwined with the resinous aromas of a fir, before being stolen by the breeze. As the waitress raised the lid on the cheese trolley Alex asked to leave the table, the riverbank and water wheel holding greater attraction for her than ‘food with mould on it’. Oscar followed, asking that we save some for him.
The waitress’s manner, thus far shy, became animated as she told of the provenance of the region’s cheeses. She first cut two small wedges from a Neufchâtel, the blade barely denting the bloomy heart shape before it sliced into the crumbly core. Happy to be voyeurs in a performance that precluded audience participation – there was no question of choosing here, we were getting a little of each – we let the information she imparted enhance our anticipation. The centrepiece, a Camembert eased from its box with the reverence of a Cartier watch, sagged at its centre, its sides bulging with promise as she released it from its paper shroud. As she lifted out a slice the space it left began to fill with liquefied cheese and the air around us oozed with its aroma. She completed our platters with a cube of quince conserve and laid them before us, her demeanour turning again timorous now the show was over. I ordered an old Calvados to accompany the cheese and she wheeled the trolley back into the restaurant.
‘I thought you said we should take it easy?’ Pam said.
‘I’ve only had a glass of wine,’ I replied, aware I had twisted her meaning.
She reached for a bread roll and tore a piece off. ‘Well, you can explain why the card's been declined at the end of the meal.’
‘We should be fine; we’ve not spent much so far. Besides, I can always offer to do the washing up.’
The waitress returned with the Calvados. Pam eyed the glass as I picked it up and swirled the amber liquid. ‘You’ll be washing up for a week if minimum wage is the same here.’
‘Minimum wage would be nice,’ I said, referring to the fact that since the 2008 recession our wine tasting business had been living off past glories. I put down the glass and again voiced the question we had been asking each other for the past few months. ‘What are we going to do? We can’t just wait for the economy to improve; it’s definitely not going to happen before we run out of money.’
Pam placed her hand on mine. ‘I think you should enjoy your Calvados, let’s not think about it again until after the holiday.’
We let each cheese weave its olfactory spell and, combined with the Calvados and the sunset, they soon dispelled any thought of financial woes. When the bill was presented there was thankfully no recourse to a spell in the kitchen and the waitress brightened again at a compliment on her cheese knowledge. I thought that her commentary had been enough to warrant a question whose answer might complete our idyll. I pointed to the herd now settling for the night across the river.
‘Does the milk for any of the cheeses we had come from those cows?’
‘I don’t think so sir,’ the waitress said, lowering her gaze.
Had I pressed her knowledge too hard? ‘Are they the wrong breed?’ I asked.
‘No, they are the right breed, Normandie.’
‘Does the farmer who owns them make a cheese?’
‘No sir, he doesn’t.’
She seemed very sure. ‘Does he send the milk for bottling then?’
‘No sir, he doesn’t.’ ‘Well, where does the milk go if not?’
She seemed unsure how to answer, so Pam stepped in. ‘Those are bullocks, Francis. You try milking them!’
I had a lot to learn.