It was said of Guy de Maupassant that he ate dinner every evening in the restaurant on the upper deck of the Eiffel Tower, and when asked why he did this he replied: “It’s the only place in Paris that you can’t see the Eiffel Tower.” I’ve taken to eating at Patisserie Valerie for pretty much the same reason. True, its bland interior is a pretty unconvincing simulacrum of la belle France in la Belle Époque, but there’s at least a chance that, immured behind its plate-glass windows stocked with scary cakes, I can avoid seeing Chester, or Leamington Spa, or Sutton, or any one of the other 51 locations that the chain has clanked down upon.
Moreover, at Patisserie Valerie, whatever its shortcomings, you can dream that the leader of the centre-left party is a charismatic individual with some notion of how to break ranks with the ideology of neoliberalism. Naturally, fed up with their business-stifling and public-service-coddling state, many French people have fled over here where the chill winds of deficit reduction only invigorate their entrepreneurialism, but I can’t imagine they hang out in Valerie’s that much, any more than they do at Paul, or Café Rouge.
Les enfants du chocolat
The original Patisserie Valerie opened on Frith Street in Soho, London, in 1926 – presumably as some sort of pre-emptive Antoinette cake, flung in the face of the General Strikers. I often used to pop in to the new Soho rooms for a cup of tea and one of those macaroons that look and taste uncannily like miniature hamburgers made out of marzipan. I didn’t have strong feelings about Valerie – she was a patisserie on a par with Maison Bertaux around the corner, and you went to either one or the other, such were the simple decisions of the pre-Blair era.
I barely noticed that Valerie had cloned herself until I was standing in the bleak, rainswept street of some Walsall or Wolverhampton and looked up to see a file of those scary cakes – and garçon, are they scary! Petaline volcanoes of dark chocolate, swirling giant roses of white chocolate dusted with cocoa powder – I had breakfast in a Patisserie Valerie this morning and there they still were, looking not just like heart attacks on a plate, but an entire bloody cardiac unit. The waitress, wearing a tightly wound apron, was solicitude itself, so I ordered eggs Benedict, orange juice and a pot of Earl Grey.
I’d never eaten eggs Benedict in my life – that could be because it’s one of my wife’s favourite dishes, or possibly it’s because I associate this gloop-on-toast with a joke character in a Woody Allen sketch. It is Eggs Benedict who lulls Allen into a false sense of security by telling him that he, too, has had a pain in the chest, but that, after exhaustive testing, the doctors told him it was indigestion. The next thing Allen hears is that Eggs has died – and so he, too, undergoes a battery of medical examinations, only to be diagnosed with heartburn. On going to pay his respects to the grieving mother, Allen discovers the cause of Eggs’s death: he was hit by a car.
I expect that even without the backstory you can sympathise with my antipathy towards eggs Benedict. Most mornings nowadays, it’s pretty hard to pass the egg test; we exist in a condition of permanent nausea, relieved only by occasional episodes of out-and-out vomiting. But two poached eggs! Set upon bacon! Then upon a halved English muffin! And the whole quivery confection slathered with hollandaise sauce! Puh-lease!
Actually, my Patisserie Valerie eggs Benedict were pretty tasty. True, they arrived looking sinisterly like two blanched breasts clothed in an opaquely yellow brassiere, but that was in keeping with the framed knock-offs of Toulouse-Lautrec posters on the café walls. The main thing was that the eggs had been perfectly poached – and a perfectly poached egg forgives a lot of things, possibly even collaborating with the Nazis.
I poured my tea, sucked on my orange juice and tackled the first egg, pausing only to consider how it was that bacon always – always – gets stuck between your teeth. Anyway, I managed one breast and then laid my fork aside. The waitress came up to ask me whether everything was OK, and I said it was fine but that it was a well-known fact that middle-aged people don’t really need to eat at all: indeed, that our daily calorific requirement is 50. And with that, I picked up my folding bicycle and went back to Britain.