Gaston was hired to prepare breakfasts at the Premier Lodge Hotel in Newbury on account of his outstanding cooking ability and modest wage demands. His speciality was egg dishes, for eggs he considered to be a gift from the gourmet gods; oval bombs of taste and utility, ready to reveal their qualities via hard-learned gastronomic methods. Eggs Benedict, Eggs Florentine, Eggs Sardou – you name it, he could bake, steam or boil it, producing dishes of premier nutrition, flavour and delight.
Pru, the Manageress of the Premier Lodge Hotel, felt fully justified in Gaston’s appointment and was delighted by the long queues of breakfasters prepared to wait their turn at the egg station, ignoring the traditional troughs of self-service rusky sausages, rindy bacon and mushy baked beans that residents had previously made do with. When breakfast finished each morning, the waiting staff, washer-uppers and any remaining diners could not help but form two lines and applaud Gaston off the dining area and through to the kitchen in appreciation of another mornings outstanding ovoid excellence.
Meanwhile, across the road, their fervent rivals at the Travel Inn Hotel, were finding that bookings were falling week on week. Seeing the rival Premier Lodge car park always full of ever larger and sleeker cars, and their breakfasts achieving an unprecedented and implausible 10.6 on Trip Adviser, Trevor, the Travel Inn Manager, decided something needed to be done. It was.
That weekend was the Newbury Spring Show, and wandering around it glumly, Trevor’s spirits were lifted to see the crowds fawning over Erasmus, an enormous black Ghanaian man in a lemon coloured suit, dotted with azure blue question marks, who seemed able to accurately ‘Guess the Age’ of anyone who was prepared to queue long enough and hand over £1.50. Participants were delighted to have their exact age announced to the ‘oohs’ of onlookers, who stood and watched having first bought an egg-in-a-bun, fried to within an inch of its life by Phil, a weasely man whose skin was as greasy as the hot plate onto which he threw the eggs. The sizzling lard was given piquancy by a steady sprinkling of forehead sweat and granules of ash that inevitably fell from the cigarette that hung from the corner of his mouth. A man of few words, Phil expressed himself through the medium of fried food.
Trevor watched and smelled revenge frying to buggery on the hotplate, and immediately hired Erasmus and Phil to start at his kitchen the very next day. Come the morning, he’d made an oval platform sparkling with tinsel for Erasmus to stand on, with Phil’s hotplate, supported on a chicken-shaped terracotta stand right behind it. He sat the two men down and explained how beautiful the breakfasts at the Travel Inn were going to be.
Just after 7am, the first breakfaster yawned his way into the restaurant, taking the default line to the bacon. But Erasmus, stood on the shimmering platform, called out “Sir, you may not know it or understand it, but the most suitable breakfast for you today would be,” he lifted his eyebrows for dramatic effect, “an egg, lightly poached and well-seasoned.”
The man stopped. “An egg you say? Lightly poached and well-seasoned? I’d not considered such fare, but… why not!”
Erasmus lifted his hand and clicked his fingers, the cue for Phil to slap an egg into the poacher, slam it on the hot plate then lightly poach the egg before seasoning it well with cracked black pepper, sea salt and ash.
The diner scoffed his egg like he’d never scoffed an egg before. “Hurrah!” he called, wiping a trace of yolk from his lips. “That man is an egg genius,” and he made a point of re-booking a stay for the following week. Trevor, hiding behind the cereal unit to see how his plan would pan out, grinned.
Within just a few weeks, bookings were full at the Travel Inn, as people clamoured to have their breakfast order predicted by Erasmus and scorched into reality by Pete.
Their success did not go unnoticed at the Premier Lodge across the road, where empty seats started to be seen at breakfast time for the first time since Gaston had arrived. He reacted in the only way that a highly strung Gallic gourmet could, and upped his ante, introducing truffle shavings to his scrambled eggs and frothing up spumes made from samphire hearts to drizzle on those that he’d fried. Despite these noble efforts, no extra bookings were received and all he succeeded in doing was hit the profit margins of the hotel.
Meanwhile, business at the Travel Inn grew and grew, as Erasmus’ amazing powers selected fried eggs, poached eggs, boiled eggs, scrambled eggs, naked eggs, green eggs, eggs sunny-side up, over easy, omelettes and frittatas – all perfectly foretold to the unbounded joy and appreciation of the astounded breakfasters.
When Pru saw the Travel Inn’s breakfast move to 10.7 on Trip Adviser, she knew she had to act to save her hotel, and seeing that her largest cost was Gaston and his egg cookery, she demoted him from eggs to breads and hung a sign on the egg station to advise the diners that, ‘One egg is un ouef’.
Poor Gaston. Needless to say he did not take this well, but manfully, he decided to keep all of his jouets in the pram for now, and instead threw himself into his new role, baking the finest range of breads that any budget hotel chain had ever seen. His fevered hands kneaded dough after dough as he worked every night, baking batches of bloomers, brioche, stotties, foccacias, bazlama, melanpan, plaits and cottage loaves. However, in the mornings, he stood in front of his massive display of baked goods, but with only a trickle of guests. So he only got to toast a few; but he toasted them perfectly.
Seeing there was more dough on Gaston’s work surfaces than was being received though the tills, Pru felt she now had no choice but stop him baking any more bread, so she provided her customers with 4-day old Nimble loaves, which she expected them to toast for themselves, by placing the aged slices inside a contraption made from the rusted caterpillar trucks of an old East German T-72 tank, where its incumbent flame-thrower would carbonize one side of each unhappy slice, while leaving the other side limp and soggy.
Poor, poor, Gaston. Devastated at a second demotion, he sought solace by going on a 3-day egg-bender at a local hotel before his planned return to France. As luck may have it, he chose the Travel Inn across the road for his debauched soul-searching. Coming down to breakfast with his head feeling more cracked than a refrigerated egg thrown into boiling water, he was surprised to see that the queue for the egg station was as long as the ones that had once waited for him at the Premier Lodge. He eventually reached the front of the queue only to face Erasmus, who did not spout out his usual, immediate diagnosis, but stood for a few seconds, while his eyelids raised, lowered and then raised again in thought.
“Hmm,” he said in his deep authoritative tone, “O see you are a connoisseur; a man of eggs. A gentleman, whose feeling for the holy triangle of yolk, shell and albumen is both sensitive and eternal. For you sir, I advise…”
Gaston waited impatiently for this showman’s response. As he stood, he felt a strange, invisible force coming from Erasmus’ general direction. It seemed to meander up his nose, around the egg-shaped synapses of his nervous system, curling through the coils of his small intestines, before drawing out his preferences, requirements and delectations.
“…for this gentleman,” resumed Erasmus, “ I advise a 100 year-old, Chinese egg, foraged by a small boy named Chan, which should be wrapped in spider silk and shipped – not flown to the UK, at a speed not exceeding 7 knots. The egg is to be boiled for 2 minutes and 12 seconds in melt water from an Icelandic glacier to reach its optimum viscosity, before being griddled on a lithium plate for a further 50 seconds, then served on a bed of African sacred ibis feathers, and eaten with a spork and a single shortbread soldier.” As luck would have it, they had one left in stock. Having made his declaration, he turned around to Phil and tapped his nose, their secret sign for a second flick of cigarette ash to be incorporated.
Even Gaston had not heard of this incredible meal, with its most intricate provenance and cooking techniques. But he smiled as his gastro-experience told him how the sweetness of the unlikely shortbread would render the yolk rancid, and thus condemn the otherwise sumptuous concoction as inedible.
The dish was served. Having been unable to do anything but admire the impeachable presentation of the superb plate placed before him, Gaston inserted his spork into the upper reaches of the egg, took a small slither which he brought to his lips. He slurped the small eggy blob around the inside of his mouth, allowing each highly-tuned taste bud in turn to assess the pungent delicacy. He sat back, closed his eyes, lifted his head and allowed the slippery squidge of masticated egg to slide down his throat. He could not help but smile with delight…
It was truly disgusting.
Before he lashed out in French fury at this ‘son of one hundred egg-imposters,’ for his fraudulent cookery, and lay waste to the gaudy platform, he retained enough self-control to have one more taste, to confirm his repellence, dunking the irreverent biscuity soldier into the ghastly gloop.
He could not help but smile again.
He couldn’t help it. The sickening sugar content of the biscuit had transmogrified the putridity of the foul egg into a magnificence of gourmetric glee. It was simply the most delicious creation he had ever tasted, and he bolted the remainder of the egg-soaked soldier in one almighty chomp, relishing the dissolving shortbread as it played a symphony with the digestive enzymes of his duodenum.
‘Manifique,’ he managed not to shout, and he left the building thinking what a revelation that the black carbon sprinkling was, and wondering which volcano they had selected it from. His smile was that of a broken man.
Poor, poor, poor, Gaston – redundant and now out-egged, he could only see two ways ahead. He soon dismissed the one which involved his immersing himself in egg wash, rolling in millet, and then lying down in front of his chickens – his worthless pecked and devoured body would most likely spoil the otherwise pristine colour of their yolks. He had only one option left… Revenge.
To prepare to face his nemesis for a second, winner takes all bout, Gaston booked himself a 6 months retreat at the Guantanamo Bay Holiday Village, and read the whole of the Hong Kong Book of Kung Fu. His toughness was tested to the limit when a water boarding experience turned out to be not simply a reviled torture technique, but an altogether more distressing week’s windsurfing holiday in Devon. His mind was now as impenetrable as algebra is to a 12-year old grammar school boy, so he booked another stay at the Travel Inn. He didn’t sleep a moment that night, testing the armour of his mind by watching repeat after repeat of Come Dine With Me on the hotel TV while chanting “I shall ova-come.” By morning, he was at such a peak of cranial power he felt he could survive any egg dish thrown at him and take penalties for France versus England with his head.
Breakfast time came, and he queued to face a return bout with Erasmus. This time he could take it. To disguise himself, he shaved off his petite handlebar moustache, pushed a pair of dark sunglasses up the length of his aquiline nose, and wrapped his cravat around his head, bandanna style. With a concentration greater than that of sugar in a glass of Ribena, he calmly awaited his turn.
Erasmus, having correctly called the perfect egg dish for all breakfasters for nearly a year now, raised his eyebrows and scratched his chin at the sight of what looked like a feeble attempt at a Bono impersonator standing before him. He cast the miasma of his eggy thought waves across the space between them, and up into the elegant nostrils of this man, whose dress-sense was, at best, as rank as fish eggs lying in the sun. But Erasmus’ thought-tentacles struck a hard shield, which yielded nothing. Beads of sweat started to condense on the soothsayer’s forehead, but Gaston did not notice – every ounce of his being was focussed into keeping his egg-desires hidden from Erasmus’ probing.
The battle of minds became intense, and the two men grappled, quite mentally. Phil nervously awaited his instruction, his spatula twitching in his hand, fag ash hissing as it dropped into the un-egged hot plate in front of him.
Those in the queue behind, hungry and in need of a hearty egg-based breakfast started to get agitated, but their harrumphs and watch-tapping had little effect on the battle in front of them. They watched the two men as keenly contested as two chavs fighting over a tattooist.
The battle of wills became so locked that empty plates start to rattle in their piles and the plum tomatoes wobbled in their dish. After a few more seconds of competitive single-mindedness, the walls of the dining room started to shake and as the combatants stood, staring into each other’s souls, diners, queuers and waiting staff ran for safety, as eggs started to burst in their boxes and the ceiling started to drip with their yolks.
“That’s enough!” shouted Trevor, worried about the structural integrity of his hotel.
“No, c’est un ouef!” corrected Gaston, who found himself quite unable to resist a second use of this pun. It was a fatal error. His eggy quip was appalling enough to create the tiniest of cracks in his inner shell, allowing Erasmus’ insistent inquests to burst through, and for him to yell his final instruction: “TWO SAUSAGE, BACON, NO EGG,” before either his or the brain-poached Gaston’s bodies collapsed to the ground.
These days, if you find yourself in Newbury and in need of a good breakfast, take my advice and choose either the Wetherfork or Toebay Carbery. But don’t ask for eggs – you never know what it could lead to, or who might be manning the hotplate.