Frank is a thoughtful man who rarely smiles. He also happens to be the owner and chef of Le Symphony, a favourite café of mine. His menu is limited but his omelettes are a dream, and when I am in Brittany it is with him that we – Bernard and I – have lunch most Thursdays. My omelette, which usually has a mushroom filling, is listed on the menu as accompanied either by chips or by green salad. One day last summer, and for no specific reason, I asked if a tomato might be added as a supplement to, or instead of, the lettuce.
What started as a simple request turned into a joke, and then into a challenge. Accordingly, it was not long before I was asking for the infamous supplement each week. Frank always refused. “With the omelette comes a green salad — tomatoes are not on the menu.” A response that was difficult to take as clearly there were tomatoes around but prioritised for other dishes. He was adamant. I would have been happy to pay the extra for my indulgence but this was never considered.
Before I continue I should make a confession. I love tomatoes and have done so for years. It is not just their colour, shape and smell that I adore. In all their culinary forms their taste, which varies with their preparation, gives me enormous pleasure. Fried, grilled, baked, puréed, stuffed, sliced or sun-dried – all are delicious. I still remember one particular plate of thinly-sliced, freshly-picked tomatoes, served with a simple vinaigrette and sprinkled with finely chopped chives. It was a baking midday and I ate it with Rohan, who was not yet my wife, at a restaurant in the south of France nearly fifty years ago. Asking Frank for a tomato was no trivial request, the request had an emotional component. But he, of course, was unaware of all this.
Back at the Sympho, as it is called by the local teenagers, feeling exasperated after months of getting nowhere, I started to bring in my own tomatoes. The instant that Frank or the waitress had taken my order and turned to go to the kitchen, I would take my smuggled tomato from my bag and place it ostentatiously on the table. By the expression on Frank’s face, it was clear that my act of defiance did not go unnoticed.
Over the months Frank suffered in silence, serving me with a pained expression and with his lips curled. After a while it had become too much and needed to end. But how?
A few weeks ago, as the meal was ending, Frank brought over our customary coffees. When he had left I spotted by my saucer, a fine tomato, which he must have left discretely, when setting down the cup. A special present had been laid as a peace offering. I burst out laughing and with a mixture of gratitude and relief shouted over to him, “A thousand thanks to you,” and then, “touché.”
Since then, I have occasionally been the butt of Frank’s asides – “Did you want a tomato in your coffee?” – but the war game that had got out-of-hand is over. And yesterday, when I popped into the Sympho for a hot chocolate, he greeted me with a warm two-handed handshake, almost a hug, and a broad smile. Frank’s ingenuity in resolving the tomato wars has left us on the best of terms. This peace he has engineered is a real relief.