Tristram spotted the advert in a shop window in Suttonford’s High Street. It invited amateur chefs to apply to take part in the Channel 4 programme Come Dine With Me.
Tristram adored cooking, which was just as well, as his wife rarely participated in the activity. However, he did not dare to contemplate reproducing any of his signature curries as, Clammie, his spouse, had been furious that the proprietor of Benares Balti had gazumped them in the bidding for their forever home. A mere whiff of garam masala would send her into a vindaloo of a spleen-venting frenzy and so he would have to rely on his milder fusion cuisine.
He was apprehensive, but secretly delighted when his application was successful. It wasn’t so much the winning of £1,000 that was important; it was national affirmation of his skills. And it gave him the opportunity to re-visit his beloved Rachel Khoo programmes. (Why wouldn’t Clammie wear scarlet lipstick and fifties skirts?)
But who were the other contestants?
He discovered the answer soon enough, and, as usual, there was a potentially explosive mix: Nigel Milford-Haven, an effete master from St Birinus’ Middle School, who was an acolyte of Andrew Fairlie of Gleneagles fame; Gisela Boothroyd-Smythe, a parent of the legendary Suttonford delinquents, Juniper and John, and Melinda D’Oyly-Carter, an aromatherapist and masseuse who was committed to all things pink and fluffy. She was very tactile, but tactless and preferred to be addressed as Mimi.
Tristram was of the Jamie Oliver Whack It In! school; Nigel, surprisingly, given his vocation, was not. He favoured sourcing everything locally and his partner had a field of Dexters and a dubious connection to a pig farmer, who smoked his bacon regularly. Gisela loved bondage cookery.
What is that? I hear you ask, Dear Reader.
It meant that since she could neither control her husband, nor her offspring, she trussed fowl, spatch-cocked chicken and game and tied up joints ruthlessly. All her wine choices were Appellation Controlee.
Melinda, or Mimi, on the other hand, used vats of lubricious olive oil- extra vergine-; oysters in season and thick-lipped moules in summer. She over-used Coquilles St Jacques and sighed pneumatically, a la Nigella, as she lingeringly licked the backs of spoons.
Clammie wasn’t keen on having these strange self-publicists in Nutwood Cottage, but Tristram re-assured her that they would be confined to the kitchen and dining room. With the cameras, it was a bit of a crush, however. Mimi didn’t mind getting up close and personal with the cameraman, though, and wobbled nearly as much as the champagne jellies she had served to the others the previous evening. She had deliberately placed her rhinestone-encrusted spectacles in his camera bag as an excuse to keep in contact.
Gisela was angry because her son had told his form teacher, the very one who was appearing on the programme, that his mother had cheated by tarting up a dessert from Lidl.
Nigel went on to stuff a goose with a Cox’s Pippin in the manner of Mr Bean’s preparation of his Christmas turkey. He took exception to Mimi leaning over him, looking straight into the camera lens and pronouncing: Ooh, Mr Milford-Haven: is that a tanker in your estuary or are you just pleased to see me? He insisted that this should be cut as viewing was before the watershed and half of his form would be watching. He was right. They were. However, they were hoping that he would well and truly have his goose cooked. So much for house loyalty.
When the cameraman came indoors from filming the frosty garden, Mimi took his hand and commented that it was frozen. Cue for a snatch of La Boheme as background muzak, which was mainly lost on the great viewing public. Those that did recognise it, cringed at the cliché.
Oddly, Mimi won first prize. As entertainment she had given her guests a pre-prandial massage- all except Gisela, who had been feeling unwell because of the overwhelmingly pink décor of the love-booth of a living room. (What a contrast to the evening she had hosted, when everyone had been bowled over by gun dogs and had been told where to sit in ramrod chairs whilst being presented with offal, which was promptly fed to the canines under the table, as soon as her back was turned.)
Tristram’s meal was received with polite gratitude, but the others felt that his food technology was a little twee, like the choice of his children’s names. The pugs snapped at the guests’ ankles at the start of the evening and Gisela was not impressed by their toy-like dimensions. She liked a real dog that could work.
Nigel had worn a co-ordinating waistcoat and tie which matched the hues of his starter. His food was deemed too fussy and poncey -a word which Tristram had not heard for a very long time. He tried to encourage the teacher by joking that his main course had been ambi-Dextrous, but that the steak had been a little too pink for his taste. He scored him an 8, to be kind.
It was a relief when it was all over and Clammie could access her drive again, without having to squeeze past Gisela’s Volvo. She and Tristram and Gisela sent commiseration cards to Nigel. After all, he would be writing their children’s end-of term reports in the very near future.
Melinda, aka Mimi, spent her £1,000 on a new pair of Swarovski-encrusted spectacles and a designer clutch purse, as the cameraman never did return the pair she had placed so carefully in his camera bag.