Written by Allan Hall
A peculiar animal mania gripped the Daily Star newspaper in the 1980’s after the underdog to The Sun wrested from its clutches a donkey called Blackie that had been tormented in a Spanish street festival.
‘Mule Never Walk Alone’ was the headline which heralded Blackie’s arrival at Liverpool docks. He was the catalyst for ever more bizarre animal yarns, one which propelled me to Portugal and a fine dining odyssey across the continent.
The former Pakistani ambassador to Britain, clearly a fan of the newspaper once described by a judge as “the thinking man’s bin liner,” – wrongly; it was never that intellectual – penned an impassioned letter to the editor after Blackie’s arrival with tales of an aristocat which had fallen on hard times.
The feline in question had lived hitherto with his rich owner in a villa in the Monchique mountains fringing the Portugese Algarve. The cat found itself homeless when she died suddenly and he found himself trading places; the heated kitchen for a wild garden, the luxury catfood tins for rubbish heap scraps.
The canny diplomat knew which buttons to push. The letter had been open only a few minutes before I and a photographer were despatched with all haste to Portugal to bring pussy home at all costs.
+ + + + + +
Like children and actors, things rarely go to plan when journalists meet animals. The cat was feral, only had one lung and was missing a fang. This has caused its spittle to form a long canyon down the left side of its lower jaw. It attacked a local ex-pat who foolishly volunteered his services to help catch it after a long liquid lunch, forcing the photographer to abandon me to drive him, bleeding heavily, to hospital.
After some considerable time beneath the burning sun I scooped the elusive beast it into a sack with the aid of leather welders’ mittens. Then, suddenly, a car bearing English holidaymakers roared to the front of the villa that had morphed through death into a vacation rental property.
“You’re a vet then?” enquired the well spoken father-of-two whose lithe wife and children with excellent teeth decamped to the cool interior of the villa to bring out to me a tortoise with an ingrowing claw and a goldfish with gill herpes. It seems the sobriety challenged, now wounded lunchbucket who fell foul of the cat, had told this lie to the bearded lady who acted as housekeeper shortly before he was struck.
Needs must. I pronounced a course of vitamin tablets for Horace and advised changing the water for Bertie the fish before departing down the hill with the unhappy cat in a sack to wait for the photographer to return.
+ + + + + +
The cat, dubbed Perdido, or The Lost One (I did work for a tabloid after all), spent the night hissing in a wicker cage suspended from the balcony of my hotel room in Faro. The next day we took it to a vet who we instructed to provide us with the necessary paperwork to get it into Britain where it could trade the gorgeous 90 F heat and tropical garden for grey skies and pitbull-infested parks.
“I can’t let it fly,” he said. “It only has one lung. You will have to drive it. And not in that,” he pointed at the non-air-conditioned hire car. “He must have air conditioning.”
So it was that Perdido was chauffeured through Europe, on to a promised land he would never see.
While he turned the luxury Citroen with air conditioning into his personal toilet, I mapped out the culinary route best suited for us. Well, me.
+ + + + + +
Near Pau, in the French Pyrenees, after an all-night drive through Portugal and Spain, I pulled up outside an auberge at shortly before noon. It had flagstone floors and rough tables that looked like they had been plundered from a 19th century schoolroom.
There was no menu. The crone who ran it alternated between dining room and kitchen, warbling that although she lived in the mountains, the cuisine was Burgundian. And the memory of those pork chops she served me lives with me still.
Perdido dined on a not inconsiderable portion of cote du porc farci, followed by a formidable hunk of really pongy Muenster cheese, as I drove him onwards to our next halt – the town of Loches in the Loire. It was here, on 11 May 1429 that Joan of Arc arrived, fresh from her historic victory at Orleans, to meet the king.
But on the day Perdido and I arrived, I intended to make the office pay for an historic lunch.
The splendid Hotel de France in the Rue Picoise has a marbled floor inside and a cobbled inner courtyard where dining takes place on fine days. Like the day I arrived.
The countryside around Loches is famed for its fat white asparagus, and it was this, served cold, covered in a tangy vinaigrette with slivers of tiny chopped-up gherkins within, aided on its way south with a velvety Chinon red wine served cold, which constituted the first course.
Perdido turned his nose up at the asparagus so I bought him a herring from the Loches market which he seemed to enjoy in his filthy, increasingly ammoniac wicker cage. Then, pausing only for an afternoon snooze, it was on towards Calais and the ferry that would bear us home.
But not before stopping at the esteemed Hotel du Centre in Wimereaux, on the stunning French Opal Coast with its broad expanse of beaches and tangy sea air designed to bring an appetite to the most jaded of palates. It was home then, as now, of Jean Boulanger and his good lady who have been cooking good, unpretentious French food for close on four decades. Perdido was behaving himself so I took him into the dining room where red velvet banquettes nestled on a black and white tiled floor near to a well-stocked bar.
The skate wing on offer at the Hotel du Centre is second to none and this is how you cook it:
I wiped the sauce away from Perdido’s morsels which he enjoyed with some french bread and unsalted butter. He was also a fan of the establishment’s cherry clafoutis, which is a fancy name for a sweetened Yorkshire pudding.
The catnapping adventure was drawing to a close. In these pre-mobile phone days I asked Mr. Boulanger to let me phone the office in London to see how far they had got in arranghing the paperwork their end to bring Perdido into the anti-rabies stronghold that was Britain.
A few days in a newspaper office is an eternity. They had forgotten all about me, about him. “Put him in a cattery or something,” said one of the caring souls on the newsdesk. With the aid of Mr. Boulanger we got him a berth at the local vets where I pledged he would be removed from ASAP.
I am not a cat fan. But I felt a twinge of sadness leaving him behind, so many hundreds of miles from the warm sunshine that once played upon his back, stuck now in a white cage in a northern clime far, far away.
At Calais the pretty AVIS hostess in her pristine maroon suit gave me a look of disgust intermingled with pity when she came to read the mileometer of the Perdidomobile. I smiled guiltily. There was little point in attempting an explanation about its unique aroma.
A week later I telephoned the vets’. Of course nothing had been done to expedite his removal from France. There was to be no Blackie glory for him. The vet said he had escaped.
Cheerio Perdido. I hope you found a billet somewhere.