Whenever I meet fellow-members in the flesh, two questions seem to pique their interest, so I will take this opportunity of answering them.
Firstly, The Society does not pay for my gastronomic extravagances which, being private occasions, are financed by taxed income. They tend also to be special occasions, so, secondly, I don't go looking for trouble. On the contrary, I always set off for a good restaurant with hope in my heart, a selection of plastic next to it and a sense of pleasant anticipation that it should not be possible to turn to despair. That so many of my forays end up fuelling this column is, therefore, entirely unplanned.
Unfairly for the world's many gifted chefs and their attentive staff, my perfect dinners are rarely mentioned here, lacking, as they do, the comic potential of the disasters. Last autumn, I enjoyed one of my best birthday treats ever, at a two-star restaurant on the Amalfi coast, but an astonishing starter, celebrating the arrival of the season's porcini, and a fantastic winecellar, hewn from the rock of the bluff on which the restaurant perches were just not funny. I also recall with awe a similarly-starred, equally brilliant but essentially joke-free repast in La Rochelle. Two stars are sérieux. If it's laughter you're after, stick to the one and go to Nantes, where the prize for last year's daftest dining experience was awarded on the spot. They might even have the plaque on display by now.
The gourmet centre of this fair city, according to le bon Michelin, is handily situated atop the Chamber of Commerce. The food is very good even if the view is a tad estuarine. At least it's the Loire and the rain is warm.
Having ordered our meal, we were brought an amuse-gueule of cockles. Never totally at ease with bottom-feeding crustaceans, we are neither of us keen on cockles, which remind me of childhood Sundays spent in wellies sieving the wretched things from the murky sands of the Towy estuary for my father, who adored them.
Our gueules less than amused, we promptly, but very politely declined. Ah bon, came the response, so eat the tomato garnish. The waitress, clearly Marie Antoinette back from the dead, exploited our second of speechlessness to escape, without the cockles.
Next came the sommelier with the wine. We asked him to take the cockles away. Naturally, being a sommelier he couldn't possibly do that himself. The cockles remained. The maitre d' passed the table. Please take these cockles away we begged. We are allergic to them and may die on your premises. The apology was effusive, the cockles unmoved. Our starters approached, under silver domes but there was nowhere to put them. 'Vous n'avez pas mangé vos cocques!' commented the waitress, as, finally, they were taken away.
The silver domes were now uplifted, with great ceremony to reveal perfectly cooked John Dory, garnished with, er, cockles. The waitress shrugged in a very French way. I responded in a very Welsh way, with a face that would have done Jemima Nicholas proud when she saw off the first and last French invasion of Fishguard in 1797. The cockles were removed. Sarcasm on stony ground is best avoided, but when the duck arrived, under more domes, we could not resist the impulse to ask if that too came with cocques. With a completely straight face, and commendable honesty, our waitress, now rebranded as Molly Malone, said she didn't know and could only give us the "Non!" we wished to hear after looking under the dome. The cheese course was more relaxing, though we had braced ourselves for Camembert au Calvados avec ses cocques.
We laugh, but this experience cost the best part of €200. A fair chunk of that went on the wine, and the food itself was delicious. But listening to customers is surely more important than dome management, napkin titivation and silver-plated crumbing -down, and, if you want to eat cockles, there are better places to do so. Swansea Market, for instance, where inexpensive, fuss-free tubs of the little horrors are served with a smile by the ladies on the central stall. But only if you ask for them.
As befits a co-operative organisation – and any other kind with a modicum of sense – The Wine Society has been listening to members since 1874. We rely on ongoing dialogue, and many of our services originated as members' suggestions. We certainly wouldn't expect any member to live with something we had delivered that was not right. For feedback, good or bad, please don't hesitate to contact Member Services on 01438 741177 or contact us via our online enquiry form