fifi and the Chilean truffle by Orson Welles
Originally published in the London Evening Standard in 1957.
Twenty-five years have passed since Orson Welles scared the peoples of these United States with his much too realistic production on the radio of Wells' WAR OF THE WORLDS. Welles, who is still remembered for this, for the films he directed such as CITIZEN KANE and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, and for his portrayal of Othello, has long been interested in this field (he was one of our Judges in the Unicorn Mystery Book Club days) and has, as this short-short shows, a deft and ironic touch when he tells of a crisis - and a death. H.S.S.
There was once a truffle that almost started a world war.
Not "trifle" - truffle.
Tuber Melanosporum. The black things they put into goose livers. Pigs dig for them, but they almost never get to eat them. Any pig you're likely to find rooting about under an oak tree in the French Province of Perigord is bound to be heavily chaperoned by a keen-eyed farmer with a pocket full of corn. The pig gets the corn, and what the farmer gets is a pretty penny (or "joile sou").
That Shakespeare among chefs, Brillat-Savarin referred to the truffle as "the black diamond of the kitchen," and the little roots are priced accordingly.
In the autumn months optimistic porkers in Northern Italy turn up an outstandingly succulent "white" truffle - actually a lovely clouded grey. These are grated into silky paper-thin flakes and heaped over the fluffy rizottos of Milan. But luckily these superb rarities are seasonal, and travel poorly - and thereby hangs my tale.
It happened in Paris and the tragic hero was a Minister in the French Cabinet.
The villain was a truffle.
This truffle was neither black nor white.
"It pretends," said Henri, the Minister's chef, "to be grey. But in point of fact it is the most abominable green."
The truffle was, moreover, enormous. It was the size of a cantaloup and it came from Chile, where the Minister's wife's father had once been en poste.
This lady's childhood memories of Chilean truffles were so glamorous that she had pulled strings, and the striking example now under her chef's suspicious eye had been flown all the way from Santiago to Paris in the diplomatic pouch.
His Excellency the Minister had at first mistaken it for some exotic meteorological specimen, while the First Under-Secretary, with a nice flair for melodrama, took the precaution of immersing the truffle in a tub of water under the impression that it was a bomb.
Madame, the Minister's wife, lost no time in setting everbody straight. As they well knew, an official dinner of the highest importance was to be given that very evening.
"It is July," she pointed out, "the white truffles of Italy are not to be found, and the people eat black truffles every day."
This last, of course, was not strictly accurate, but her husband contented himslef with hinting that perhaps his honoured guests, being dignitaries from the wilds of Soviet Russia, would not, during their brief stay in Paris, have already become sated to the point of boredom with French truffles.
"The truffle of Chile," said Madame with finality, "is a pleasing novelty. Inform the chef to use it with the sole." And with this she leaves our story, for the dinner was a stag affair.
"It would not be wise," said the Minister with typical understatement, "to disregard my wife's wishes. And besides, the Bolsheviks couldn't possibly know the difference."
But the chef, a man of vivid temperament, was not to be placated. "Think of the responsilbilty!" he cried, holding the mossy truffle at arm's length. "Sixteen high ranking dignitaries of the Soviet Union! Suppose they die?"
"Now, now, Henri - don't make a drama of it -"
"Drama?" - first placing the truffle gingerly on the floor, Henri started waving his arms - "Drama? Let me assure Your Excellency that to involve such a vegetable growth in a fish sauce, and feed it to a group of revolutionaries schooled to the most direct methods of political action - is not to make drama, but to encourage tragedy!"
"He is thinking," said the First Under-Secretary in a discreet undertone, "of reprisals."
"Well, now Henri, don't forget the Ministry's behind you."
"Your Excellency forgets to what I owe my first loyalty."
"Naturally, your professionally pride -"
"Not at all, I refer to my position as a member of the Communist Party."
It had slipped the Minister's mind that his chef was a Communist. "That does make it awkward, doesn't it?"
"I am already suspected of deviationism," said Henri. "Imagine my fate if so much as one minor gastric upset -"
"Henri, my wife stands behind those truffles."
"She is a brave woman, Your Excellency."
"Now if one of you," said the Minister, "would care to act as a guinea-pig -"
There followed an uneasy silence only disturbed by the asthmatic snufflings of Fifi, an aged Peke.
"It boils down to this -" the Minister resumed, staring bleakly out of the window - "we have the choice of poisoning the entire Soviet delegation or defying the express wishes of my wife. Either contingency is unthinkable. Fifi! Come back with that!"
The Pekinese had seized upon the truffle, and was worrying it drearily across the parquet floor. The First Under-Secretary jumped forward as Fifi dug her teeth into the vegetable's greenish flesh; but suddenly he stopped - the dog was chewing with evident relish a generous hunk of the Chilean delicacy, and a terrible look had come into the Minister's eye.
"Long ago," he said, speaking in tones he generally reserved for funerals of the highest pomp, "this elderly and ailing beast should have been put quietly away. Give it another piece of truffle. Should it survive till dinner we are safe to proceed with the menu as planned by my wife. But should Fifi perish - it will be in a good cause: the security of the Republic."
By dinner time everyone was breathing easier. Fifi was perhaps the only exception. Not that the truffle hadn't agreed with her; it had, but in the evening hours her asthma was always a bit troublesome. The Minister let her out to graze in the garden and turned back with a light heart to receive his guests.
A bare hour later the Comrade Vice Commissar of Soviet Fisheries was already on his feet proposing a toast to peace. Henri had turned the hated truffle into one of his most subtle triumphs, chopping it with shallots and mushrooms into a sauce of white wine thickened with butter and the yolks of eggs.
The Russians to a man had mopped their plates with bread and asked for more, and now over his second glass of an excellent champagne the Minister was congratulating himself on a diplomatic success when the First Under-Secretary slipped a pencilled note under his hand. The message was simple:
"FIFI IS DEAD."
The Minister mumbled his excuses and rushed into the kitchen.
"Call for an ambulance!" he cried, "If the Russians die here in the Ministry, it will bring down the Government!"
His hand froze on the telephone. One ambulance would scarcely be adequate; there were 16 in the delegation. The image of 16 ambulances, each bearing its Soviet diplomat, screaming and clanging out of the Quai d'Orsay, was quickly replaced with a mental tableau of 16 distinguished corpses in 16 hearses surging endlessly down the Champs-Elyses in what would certainly be the most well-attended funeral in history. Every Communist in Europe would march in that procession; there would be a general strike, and then -
In the dining hall another Comrade Commissar could be heard proposing another toast. "I give you -" he said, "the French Revolution."
"That -" thought the Minister, "is precisely what we're going to get." With 16 honoured guests of the Republic struck down at an official dinner in cold blood, revolution was only the beginning - this was war!
Dessert was just aboout to be served when a trustworthy doctor, under the strictest oath of secrecy, was smuggled into the Ministry and put to work with Henri in the kitchen. There are, it seems, only two effective antidotes for truffle poisoning, and it was felt that neither of them was sufficiently tasteless to risk introducing the "Bomb Surprise." Obviously the antidotes would have to be surreptitiously administered and if world peace was to be preserved it could only be with the coffee.
"Turkish coffee," the First Under-Secretary urged, "Cafe Diable - laced with heavy spirits. Henri must arrange it."
The chef, mindful of his own responsibilities as a good Communist, laboured mightily.
"Try some tobasco," suggested the Minister, "or a bit of curry powder."
"Your Excellency," said Henri, spitting out a spoonful of the brew, "at one period of the Occupation I was implicated in a pate of very young kittens; one has one's resources, but they are exhausted: the effluvia of the clinic persists. Send for the stomach-pumps and the priests - I know my limitations!" And here the good man burst into tears of despair.
At this black moment there enters the Third Under-Secretary. He knows nothing of the present diplomatic contretemps, for his rank is not such as to admit him to the banquet. "I have been speaking to Madame -" says he, "on the phone. She was most upset over the news about Fifi."
The Minister cuts him off with an impatient gesture. "We are all upset," he says, "indeed, we've felt the loss most keenly."
"Madame asks me to request that we fire the assistant gardener."
"This is hardly the moment for domestic trivialities. My God, man - we're on the brink of -"
"But the gardener left the gate open, and you know how Fifi always would run after cars -"
The Minister seizes the Third Under-Secretary by the lapel of his coat, a lapel which will shortly be brightened with the Legion of Honour. "You mean - ?"
"Yes, the poor old thing tried it just once too often. A big delivery truck. Death was instantaneous. It was very sad."
Sto Pro Veritate