When I was about 11, I decided I wanted to try my hand at angling. So I saved up enough pocket-money to buy a rod from Hardy’s, a posh purveyor of angling tackle whose address – 61 Pall Mall – befitted a company that boasted several royal warrants. The salesman was understandably just a little bit sniffy about my request for a rod suitable for “coarse” fishing, as almost all of Hardy’s customers were interested solely in the more expensive fly-fishing tackle.

When I next visited Paris with my parents, we took a bus from the centre of the city to the western suburbs of Saint-Cloud. The vehicle was one of those long since obsolete vehicles in which the conductor sat cooped up in a tiny cubicle just by the back entrance doors next to an area reserved for standing passengers. No sooner had the bus started moving than the conductor, a rather chubby and friendly-looking man in his thirties spotted my fishing rod and asked me where I was thinking of going fishing. My answer – “the Seine” – was met with a gently dismissive smile and the advice that it definitely wasn’t worth my trying to fish in the Seine as the only things I might catch would be drowned cats or chunks of melon peel.

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The Huets in the early 1950s

After this auspicious beginning, our conversation lasted all the way to Saint-Cloud, at which point my father asked Maurice – the four of us were very soon on first-name terms – if he could recommend a good bistrot in Saint-Cloud. He replied: “No problem, I end my shift at Saint-Cloud. I’ll show you one.” It was a convivial, if rather noisy, place full of hungry bus drivers and conductors enjoying straightforward cuisine bourgeoise served by energetic waitresses. When my father insisted on paying the whole bill, Maurice said firmly: “Okay, but next Sunday you must come to lunch chez nous.” “Nous” turned out to be his wife, Mireille, and two very young boys (whose names have since escaped me) in addition to Maurice. They all lived in a tiny two-roomed flat, consisting of a living-cum-dining room, a bedroom for the parents, a kitchenette and a bathroom. Sleeping quarters for the boys were two fold-away beds that they had to pull down from the wall in the living room. Mireille was extremely house proud, so we were politely asked on arrival to take off our shoes and put on patins (felt pads), so as not to scratch the polished parquet floor with bits of gravel.

The meal was simple but extraordinarily copious and varied. We kicked off with an apéritif of Pineau des Charentes (wine must blended with cognac). This was followed by a seemingly endless succession of dishes, ranging from saucisson à l’ail, pâté de campagne, hard-boiled eggs with mayonnaise (the real stuff, not some pale concoction squeezed out of a tube), macédoine de légumes, prawns, roast leg of lamb with mojettes (as white haricot beans are known in southwest France), lettuce salad, goat cheeses, crème caramel and homemade fruit tart.

Conversation revolved around the political situation in France in the early ‘50s, mostly seen from a Communist Party (CP) angle. Maurice had been a convinced Communist ever since the war, when he fought in the Resistance. He said his most vivid memory of that not very distant period was escaping from the Ile d’Oléron by bluffing his way through a Nazi roadblock disguised as a nun.

My parents and I kept in touch with the Huets every time we returned to Paris. And on one occasion we were invited to stay for a few days at their holiday home on Oléron. Maurice, who was born in the area, was justifiably proud of its culinary traditions. One day he bought a large quantity of mussels and announced that we would be eating an éclade, an unusual dish found only on Oléron and the nearby main coast of western France.

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An éclade

The cooking of the mussels was quite a complicated operation. Maurice placed a heavy plank on the ground of his back garden on which four nails had been driven in a square formation. He then carefully perched around the nails row after row of mussels with their openings facing upwards. He next gathered an impressive quantity of very dry pine needles, which he piled on top of the mussels. He set light to the needles, which then rapidly whooshed into an inferno. While the pine needles were doing the cooking of the mussels, faint whistling sounds could be heard as hot air issued from the “wretched creatures” (as Maurice called them) while they began to open their shells.

After about 10 minutes the mussels were ready. It has to be said that the resulting dish was a little messy, since a certain amount of pine-needle ash had fallen into the by-now half-open shells. But it lent the mussels a delicious slightly resinous flavour that gave the dish its distinctive touch. A welcome accompaniment was a glass or two of the crisp dry white wine of Oléron.

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Maurice, 2002

A few years later the Huets visited London and came to lunch with me and my parents in Highgate Village – or “Eejgatt Village” as Maurice pronounced it. They were pleasantly surprised by my mother’s cuisine, which had always had a strong French flavour. We last met in Paris when we were all much older, in 2002. Proof that a chance meeting on a bus that began with an angling lesson could later blossom into a long-lasting friendship.

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