Bonfire of sole
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Reviled as a traitor for his leftist agitations, war correspondent Wilfred Burchett held the one dinner menu he would allow at our table in La Closerie des Lilas, Boulevard du Montparnasse, ready to order for the four of us, confident of his own fine judgement.
He chose according to a secret view he had of our personalities, so he was playing a game. The restaurant was plush: red upholstery, gold capping, soft lighting. He guessed most of the other diners here were American tourists, and some Germans. He was not long returned from a visit to the Viet Minh tunnels circling Saigon. His home was a nearby Parisian apartment, and no longer living rough had given him bulk he wasn’t used to. His mood was content, although his asymmetrical grin and his accent seemed always to be in hope of happening on someone in authority whom he could upset.
His comfortableness in this parlour of ostentation was unexpected, since I knew the stories of his early poverty – walking to school without shoes, a mother eating little so to feed the children – because our families were friendly in Melbourne. I’d not have been surprised at some shadow of resentment, but this was not in his eyes. So I suspect he thought himself entitled to keep good company, for our table bore plaques commemorating visits by Cézanne and Picasso. Elsewhere diners felt themselves in the heady wake of Baudelaire, Verlaine, Gellhorn, Dos Passos, Stein.
“You’ll notice,” he said, “the absence of Ho Chi Minh and Vo Giap.” The French prefer to honour Americans.
For his wife, Vessa, a Bulgarian writer on culture and artistries, he chose crisped sweetbreads with walnut crumble and potatoes of two varieties. Vessa, stern of jaw and bright of eye, smiled as if this might have been a favourite, although I knew they could not afford prices at this level, and so must appear here rarely and always as guests at another’s table.
My wife through those years was Lois, for whom Burchett chose duck with foie gras and truffles, a dish with hundreds of years of tradition around Toulouse, therefore suitable for a sociologist, and one he judged might need to fill out a little more. To the summoned waiter he spoke in swift French, and I gathered the fillet of sole was for me because his family knew me as a seafarer. With a hint of greedy satisfaction I had not caught in him before, he chose for himself filet de boeuf Hemingway, sauced in a gravy spiked with bourbon.
The year must have been 1972. The US Air Force was bombing Laos in continuous raids, particularly along the east bank of the Mekong to the Vietnam border, and Richard Nixon said he might yet use nuclear bombs against Hanoi. Hanoi was a major port, a complex of shallows and channels, with millions of Vietnamese living in coastal villages around a metre above high tide. A nuclear concussion would set the ground-waters surfing, so the ships would become bludgeons, hellish and colossal.
Burchett thought I was crediting the Viet Minh with too little preparation. “They’re clever,” he said, “and they dig.”
At Dien Bien Phu they had dug around the French and overrun the garrison, ending France’s era in Indochina in 1954. Now they had dug tunnels and fortifications closing off Saigon. Around Hanoi, dredges aided by sampans with kibbles cut narrow channels through the shallows and the marshlands, so ships did not moor at dockside any longer but, until needed, were nudged by tugboats far from the port into the lowlands, where they seemed aground, already bombed.
To satisfy American anger at losing a war, I feared, might not Nixon and Henry Kissinger chance at least one bomb at Hanoi? Burchett, the first foreign correspondent into post-blast Hiroshima, knew that Giap believed this would not happen so close to the end of the war.
“Nixon and Kissinger have reparations of their own to look after. They will angle for the Peace Prize after the fighting is finished; see if I’m right.” He was half right: Kissinger was to take up his Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, before the war formally ended, a decoration that would cause the humorist Tom Lehrer to jibe that the Nobel judges had perpetrated an act of satire that could never be equalled.
A platoon of waiters with white gloves set down before us the dishes, the sauces, the condiments. Now I understood a cleverness in the design of the dish chosen for me: the diner is also the cook. A white fillet of sole lay atop a pyre of dried French tarragon, flambé, to be extinguished with cream when cooked.
Here, then, is the purpose of this memoir: to give an exquisite example of fine cuisine a wider presence in our lives.
Bonfire of Sole, Burchett
Fillet of sole crusted with grated garlic & ginger, dried French tarragon, cognac, cream.
I have added the ginger to the original.
Serve at table on a heated metal pan with lit candles beneath, the fillet on a thicket of dried French tarragon. Flambé with cognac, add again for flame. When judged cooked, into the slurry fold the cream.
This was summer, I recall, for we walked home to their apartment in the soft dusk before the street lamps lit, singing ‘L’Internationale’.