Life with grandparents when you are small has a particular glow. It is not that they spoil you, it is that they expect you to fall in with them, and that is oddly exciting. If they rise at dawn, you rise at dawn, if they serve grand teas with pretty patterned plates and expect you to hand round, that is what you do. Everything they do for you seems to be a treat, just because they are not your parents,just as everything you are to them is special, precisely because you are not their child.
My maternal grandfather was exactly half French and half English. His very English mother must have had a bit of a time with Grandpa's father, since it seems he was always looking back to France, sighing for the cuisine, the wines, the language.. I never really noticed the English side of my grandfather - it was the French side of Grandpa that enchanted me. The fact that he made me his 'favourite' was not tactful, but looking back I think he was trying to make it up to me that I had not been a boy - my brother being the heir - traditionally it would have been better if I had been the 'spare', but my grandfather, unlike my father, was not an aristocrat, and heirs and spares were just so much dusty china out of reach on a shelf to a man of his calibre.
I was more than happy to be his hand maiden in everything that he did, whether it was walking the dog in the gardens near the apartment, or sitting up front while he drove his Rolls Royce, usually far too fast, out of town. In the kitchen I was his devoted fan. On Saturday morning Grandpa would burst through the beize doors to the kitchen, and having flung a glowering look at anyone or anything that stood in his way, would begin the very holy process of Making Mayonnaise for lunch. Oh the horror of everyone present if the oil and the eggs separated, or the maid had not handed him the required number of ingredients in the right order, but equally, the delight of the yellow shiny sauce, once it was placed in the silver sauce boat, and his favourite Saturday lunch - cold lobster - laid out in front of him. And to watch him peeling a peach with a fruit knife, or cutting grapes with special silver scissors, and laying them on your plate, was to see a reverence for food that my grandmother could not share. Food bored her. Food was something to be prepared, served, and taken away, but its importance in the central enjoyment of life passed her by.
Although I was only four years old Grandpa must have sensed a fellow foodie in me, perhaps making up for my grandmother's lack of interest. Seated beside him in hotels and restaurants he would say to the waiter, in French, 'and for my grand daughter I think ....' Wine was tasted, a little drop, with water, puddings were perused with reverence, by us both. Long spoons with small rounded heads were produced for tall glasses of vanilla ice cream. Summer puddings, winter puddings, Grandfather could recognise a pudding fan at a hundred yards, and having nodded to me to begin his eyes would light up as I eat slowly, keeping pace with him, silently savouring whatever had been put in front of me, delighting the hovering waiters with my appreciative restraint. For greed would not have been tolerated. The point of food was to delight in the gifts that 'le bon Dieu' had sent us. We eat slowly, never spoke until the end, and then we smiled, at each other, at everyone and everything, because life was so good.
Sometimes, despite the undoubted chic of the apartment on Wilbraham Place, an unusual visitor would come to our door. My grandmother would call out 'it's the onion seller', and Grandfather would put down his book, or his newspaper, and issue forth to the hall.
The onion seller was Breton, so his French was very different from Grandfather's French, but, as with waiters, he quite obviously delighted in his friendship with Grandfather. His navy blue beret and his inevitable striped shirt contrasting with Grandfather's impeccably cut Savile Row suits. Theirs was a genuine friendship based on mutual respect. Lots of handshakes, smiles, onion leaves shedding a little on the Persian rug, a rope of onions finally unleashed from around the seller's neck, Grandfather holding them out, surveying them in sudden silence, knowing that the silence meant everything to the seller. It meant that Grandfather was looking at the onions, appreciating their growth, imagining what they would turn into. Conversation would resume, plentiful nods, constant references to le bon Dieu, more handshakes, some money, and finally, regretfully, our onion seller would leave, not to return again for a few months. My grandfather would close the door behind him, slowly, sadly, for he loved to speak French, and my grandmother didn't know a word, and while I was beginning to master a little, I knew hardly more than you would teach a parrot. Then his mood would lift, and he would bustle through the beize door to the kitchen once more barking for the maid who was instructed to hang them from the clothes horse over the stove.
The following Sunday, the maid's night off, he would bustle back into the kitchen, and start to make us the Sunday night treat, a dish of tomatoes and some of the newly arrived onions, now finely sliced and served with little triangles of toast. Such a simple dish, but somehow those onions, those tomatoes, his reverence for them as they bubbled away in butter, made even my grandmother's expression lighten. Long after Grandpa was gathered, she and I would reminisce about that dish, wondering as we did at the taste, remembering the onion seller, and find ourselves sighing for those days when there was not so much as now, but in some strange way, a great deal more.,