Wednesday, 20 July 2011

A family affair

Here is an honest admission. I don't get families. Now obviously I understand what a family is, in straightforward cultural terms. What I don't get is close families.

I have a colleague who is constantly in touch with her wider - and widening - family. I cannot imagine how irritated I'd be myself if either of my parents thought it was a good idea to pester me on a daily basis, involving themselves in huge amounts of the detail of my everyday life.

Ours was hardly the most dysfunctional family on planet Earth and certainly not the only one: as I told my father grimly a year or so ago, if it's good enough for the Windsors ...

But we have generally learned to rub along in a sort of way, avoiding too much friction by avoiding each other for much of the time.

A few weeks ago, my mother turned 80. Some time before, I'd promised to take her, and my father, for a really good meal to mark the occasion. I already had Bistrot Bruno Loubet in mind, and had done some research on cab fares to make sure that they would be able to get back to their home, near Croydon, in the easiest way possible.

And then as the actual birthday arrived, I felt snowed under and suggested we put it off until early autumn.

But something else cropped up. My niece has just become the first member of my immediate family to get a degree - in fine arts - and although she'd studied in Leeds, her degree show was being staged in trendy East London.

Both my parents and The Other Half and I had been invited to the private viewing on 14 July.

A number of things fell into place. I called Bistrot Bruno Loubet and was lucky enough to get us in - even though it was Bastille Day with a special menu, which point had piqued my own appetite, but with also presented a number of challenges in family terms.

It was all arranged quite late, so I didn't have much time to panic.

The panic started nagging on the morning itself, building to a crescendo by 5pm. Since we didn't have to be at the gallery until around 7pm, we attended a leaving do after work, with The Other Half telling me to calm down as I knocked back three glasses of white wine in rapid succession.

I'd been asking myself what on Earth I'd done - as I realised that I was taking this family with whom I find myself sketching out a sort of distant and oddly formal dance into something that I would view as very much my own world.

My mother, looking much smaller and more hollow than I'd noticed before (but then she was out of her normal context for me) had already nearly been embarrassing at the exhibition, noting in her best stage whisper, that she dislikes tattoos, as she pointed out a man with major arm work. Fortunately, he didn't hear, but I felt that familiar cringe factor.

I remember, years ago, having to stand at the end of a film for the national anthem, and wanting to hide as she cast scorn in the direction of the majority, who were leaving.

If respectability was an Olympic event, she'd have been a multiple gold medalist.

The exhibition was fascinating. It seemed appropriate that my niece's work was about memory; about the traces of ourselves that we leave where we have lived. I thought it fascinating - as was the work of many of her fellow graduates.

My father was fairly quiet as they wandered around the exhibition, looking at work that was both beyond their experience and beyond their comprehension. My mother, as my niece put it to me later, was "curious" and asked questions, even if none of the answers really made anything any clearer for her.

After a short break, we piled into a taxi and headed for Clerkenwell through heaving traffic.

The limited menu was, as I expected, a challenge. Each of the four courses had only three options. The first trio was moules marinière with a salt cod brandade, Aberdeen Angus steak tartare with summer truffles, and a salad of quail with foie gras ballotine.

It took an age to sort out what we were having - even what we were drinking. My parents don't drink red wine, so I selected a very nice Languedoc white, which remarkably did the five of us for the entire meal.

My father went with my suggestion of the quail, but my mother couldn't bring herself to contemplate foie gras, so she took a big leap into her personal unknown with the tartare.

My father had already managed to shock me by saying just how good the bread was.

I had the tartare too - and very pleasant it was. My mother 'wasn't sure', but ate a reasonable amount, and my niece happily finished what she couldn't.

There was a moment of Raymond Blanc horror, as both parents automatically picked up salt to shake over their food, before even tasting it, but I quashed a desire to squeal, and thanked whatever gods there are that we were far enough from the kitchen to avoid the embarrassment of having Bruno himself, who was busy there, spot such a culinary faux pas.

Then it was on to either roast scallops and black pudding, Hereford snails or sautéed frogs' legs.

Now, I had never had the chance to try the latter, so that was easy. My father joined The Other Half in considering the scallops to be an obvious choice. My niece elected to try the frogs' legs too. For my mother, despite not particularly liking black pudding, there was but one option.

The frogs' legs, served on a bed of "mousseline potato", with a divinely subtle jus of parsley and garlic, were excellent, and my niece felt the same.

My father enjoyed his scallops; my mother was less enthused.

Sat at the head of the table, trying the unusual role of hostess, I found myself becoming less nervous as time wore on, but not exactly at my most relaxed. This was the biggest family gathering in ... well, in a very long time. Was it going well?

The main course offered either steamed stone bass, lamb "epigram", and three birds in a bird.

Enquiry revealed that the "epigram" was a cheffy way of saying that it was dish involving three different ways of cooking three different cuts of lamb: a cutlet, a shank and some belly.

The birds in a bird were a quail within a poussin, within a grouse, within an organic chicken, roasted and then sliced.

The Other Half opted for the lamb, while the rest of us went for the seriously stuffed bird.

This, being Bruno, was delightful, but very rich.

My mother had decided quite early that she wasn't going to be able to manage it all (the staff were fabulously un-snobby about finding a box to pack the leftovers in so that shed could take them home for the family dog) - as she absolutely had to leave room for dessert.

The choices were crêpes suzette with an orange and cardamom ice cream, cheeses or fresh strawberries, with apricot sorbet and a "dash of champagne".

The Other Half and my mother opted for the crêpes, while the rest of us went for the strawberries.

This took some time to arrive - a fact that my mother was quite open about observing. But when it arrived, we found out why it had taken time.

Her plate had had a birthday greeting beautifully piped in chocolate around the edge - and was then followed with the offer of a glass of champagne, which she readily accepted. It was the moment at which her face lit up.

The restaurant ordered a cab for my parents and my niece, who was going back with them. And as coffee was ordered, I quaffed a glass of fortified wine with a hint of walnut. Much needed.

It was a success. Well, in an our family sort of a way. It was also a very strange evening. A sense that the baton was passed some time ago.

My niece is far more grown up than ever I was at her age. I look at her with envy, regretting that I had not known or understood at that age what she does now.

I have been late in picking up that baton. And now it's as if I have finally picked it up, but only in tandem with my niece.

I watched and tried to play host for my mother in particular last week, and found it a very strange experience. And thinking of all the anti-sensual messages that she and my father conveyed to me over the years, my father's appreciation of the food in general and the bread in particular, coupled with her face when the crêpes arrived and she was offered an unexpected champagne, made for a very strange experience; a juxtaposition of 'what I say and what I do'.

It made me almost feel like Satan in disguise; as a temptress. It even brought to mind that wonderful film, Babette's Feast.

There is a sense of dread that I have had for some time now, since reading Camus's The Outsider, that when the inevitable happens, I will not be able to play the role that some will expect.

But last week at least, I could take real pleasure in seeing my mother come to life at the sight of the generosity and expertise of Bruno Loubet and his staff.

It felt, however fleetingly, that she had had a real insight into my own life and understood what she saw. And that made my own fretting before the event worth while.


  1. A nice read, I tend to fortify myself in preparation for familly meals, I rarely see them but enjoy it when I do.
    I know that I will miss them when they are not around.