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A Matter of Taste Chapter Ten: Orchard Crumble Pie

Matt Sheldon looked about at the bustle happening around him and sighed. It had been nearly a month since Max left LEtoile de Angleterre. While life seemed to go on as usual, things felt rather empty and soulless at the restaurant. Matt chalked it up to the departure of the restaurants much-respected, if not loved, chef de cuisine, The second chef de cuisine to leave, Matt thought somberly as he half-heartedly chopped through mounds of mushrooms for the days macerated mushroom salad. Things had been bad enough when their first chef de cuisine flew the coop two years before. The loss of Melaine Valeriano seemed to have hit a raw nerve in her successor, one that pretty much caused him to question his own ability to keep the kitchen together. Matt remembered how Max would tell him how inadequate he felt to the task of running a restaurant that bore two Michelin stars but not his own name at the door. It galled him further that the chef-patron the owner didnt seem to care a whit what happened at the restaurant. Poor Max, Matt thought as he handed the huge bowl of chopped mushrooms to an assistant. He must have been so depressed while he was here, seeing how Vincent never gave a damn to what happened here every day. He wondered to himself how his friend was. Max had, on record, sent just one email since he arrived in Manila. That particular missive simply told him and Kevin that he arrived in Manila safely and that he was staying at his cousins place for a bit. Other than that, Matt heard nothing more. From the corner of his eye, Matt noticed a tabloid left by one of the wait-staff. His eyes widened in horror when he saw who was on the cover. Go, go, go, Gemma! That was the headline superimposed on a snapshot of Gemma Lazarby, daughter of accounting mogul Henry Lazarby, pole dancing in a nightclub. subheader read: Bean-counter princess new bad girl of London club scene. What the fuck is this?! Matt exclaimed aloud when he grabbed hold of the tabloid. Whats up? Kevin asked as he came to stand next to Matt. This! Matt declared, brandishing the tabloid cover in Kevins face. Good God, Kev! Maxll have a fit if he sees this! Page 1 of 13 The

Kevin took the tabloid from Matt and flipped over to the cover story. He clucked his tongue and shook his head disapprovingly at what was written within:

Gemma Lazarby, 29, heiress to the Lazarby accounting fortune, was recently seen having a bash at the Black Velvet, currently the hottest pop-up club in Chelsea. While known to be in a relationship with Max Balfour, Earl of Thornton, Lazarby was seen in the company of Man U striker Corwin Kane. However, it is notable that Lazarby didnt leave the Black Velvet with Kane. Instead, she was seen speeding away from Chelsea aboard a Jag driven by society bad-boy Michael Eames-Harlow. In between being ferried in by Kane and ferried out by Eames-Harlow, Lazarby was said to have gone and done a little bit of pole dancing after trying out the Black Velvets rather extensive menu of alcoholic libations. According to those present at the time, an inebriated Miss Lazarby nearly got into a serious piss-up with the Lady Emily Bryce-Colquhoun who is said to have referred to her as a disgracefully slutty, despicable social-climbing slag. A little birdie told us that the Earls parents, the Marquess and Marquise of Claymore, are not happy at all with the way Miss Lazarby has been [mis]behaving of late. Indeed, Lady Claymore has said something along the lines of I pray that my son forgets about her soon if he knows whats good for him! When pressed for details, all Lady Claymore will say is that she and the Marquess are waiting for certain things to play out which we take to mean that Clan Balfour has another candidate to become the next Countess of Thornton. The Earl himself has not been available for comment. All we know at the moment is that hes resigned from his position as chef de cuisine at two-starred LEtoile de Angleterre; rumor has it that, like his predecessor chef par excellence Melaine Valeriano, he had a nasty exchange of words with celeb chef / LEtoile owner Vincent Ville-Valmont. As to his whereabouts, his parents and clan are keeping suspiciously closed-mouthed about where he is

Christ, the sous-chef swore underbreath as he handed the tabloid back to Matt. Max will have a fit if he finds out about this. That, my friend, is a serious understatement. Page 2 of 13

Matts eyes narrowed as he reread the article. Hed known both Max and Gemma since they were in Oxford. At the time, Gemma Lazarby had been a sweet, quiet girl who was pretty much at sea with her fathers newfound wealth and the familys suddenly elevated status in life. Matt remembered how she was modestly dressed, rather soft-spoken and shy, and had a rather anxious air about her as she was all askance as to how to behave among what she used to refer to as the gods on Olympus. For this reason, Matt wondered why or, better yet, how Gemma got so wild over the past several years. Max, on the other hand, already had working nobleman written all over his person. A quiet, studious boy who rarely smiled, Max never really participated in the rowdy pub scene that pretty much constituted the bulk of the students social life. Instead, he spent afternoons after class at his maternal grandparents coffee bar where he honed his kitchen skills with his French grandmother while he debated political theory with his grandfather who taught the subject at the university. Not once did Matt hear his best friend allude to his titled background, nor was he wont to flaunt his familys considerable wealth. Indeed, the description tight as a Scotsmans purse had applied very accurately as far as Max Balfour was concerned. Matt opined to himself that they drifted apart when their personal values started to get in the way. Max was a well-meaning workaholic: a man who took pride in his work and excelled at it. Gemma, on the other hand, had transformed into a society belle who made it a point to see and be seen among those who were up and about at the latest clubs and parties. The transformation never sat well with Max whose idea of a good time involved a night out with mates at his local, maybe a few rounds of pool or bowling, a movie and dinner someplace nice or he would just invite everyone back to his place and theyd all cook dinner together. And when he didnt feel like going out, Matt thought, hed stay home and curl up with a good book or do the Times crossword. Do you suppose we ought to mail this to him? Kevin now asked, pointing to the tabloid in Matts hands. Or do I just email a link to the online version? Matt thought about that for a moment. Then, he nodded. Email him, he ordered Kevin. Let him see what sort of tart his girls turned into. As Kevin turned to go back to his station, Matts phone chimed with an email alert. The two of them stared at each other even as Matt fished the phone out of his jacket pocket. To their growing alarm, it was from Max:

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Hey, guys. Sorry I havent dropped a line; got pretty much caught up in domesticity here in Manila. Ive seen a doctor about my condition. (Said doc is MVs older brother.) He says Im healthy enough, only he wont let me work save for just a few hours a day for the next month or so.

MV? Kevin asked, his curiosity piqued. Melaine Valeriano, Matt replied, picking up the meaning of the initials at once. Hes run into the boss! What else does he say?

MV invited me to her book launch the day after I arrived. It was a blast: lots of folks, press people, society bums the usual lot. She baked her tarte Tatin during the demo; it rocked, and she even had her caramel ice cream to go with it! Weve been hanging out quite a bit, MV and me particularly when I realized wed met long before we started working at LEtoile. Weve hung out and pigged out in Chinatown during which her dad invited me to work for a bit in product development. (He owns this snackand-drink company called Snappisnax; its rather big in Asia and some parts of the US.) And Surprise! Surprise! Ive invited her to go to the movies with me tomorrow. Youre right, Matt; she is nice

Matt blanched at this development, but it was by no means an unwelcome one. Hed longed for this to happen. He prayed that this would happen. Despite the fact that they always seemed to be sniping at each other, Matt always felt that Max and Melaine understood each other better than anyone else. Case in point: Melaine never needed to issue an order all she needed to do was throw Max a look and hed do it. Sure, hed make all sorts of snide comments and shed end up issuing threats, but he never needed anything verbal. One look was all it took for magic to happen in LEtoiles kitchen. And perhaps the magic can now extend beyond the kitchen, Matt thought hopefully.

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Meanwhile, Lydie Balfour was reading the exact same article in her personal study back in Scotlands Claymore Keep. The Marquise of Claymore pursed her lips in a thin, tight line as the reporters words jumped at her. Lady Bryce-Colquhouns description of Gemma Lazarby was rather apt; in fact, Lydie felt that despicable social-climbing slag was even an understatement! I never liked Gemma, truth be told, she admitted to her mother-in-law who came to have lunch with her. There was always something so false about her. False? Eleanor Brixton-Mays Balfour, Duchess of Clyde, regarded her daughter-in-law inquisitively. Yes Lydie frowned thoughtfully. Whenever we came to visit Max at Oxford, she was always unfailingly polite. But, whenever she thought no one was looking, I could see her grimacing as if something or someone had offended her. Oh, my! Eleanor exclaimed. That just wont do in a social gathering! Keep a stiff upper lip is the rule we live by. Yes, and whenever I was alone with her, she always tried to steer the topic towards clothes and jewelry, particularly how much we actually spend on these things! Lydie

shuddered, positively horrified. Such a faux pas, Mamma! I know that I, too, was not to the manner born, but my mother taught me better than to speak of such things so openly! Eleanor smiled indulgently at her; it had never been a secret that Lydie had always been her favorite among her daughters-in-law. Shed been her late daughter Grisies best friend both at school and at university. And, while admittedly middle class and of foreign parentage, Lydie always seemed to have been destined to become a noblewoman. Shed always had the elegance, the manners for it. I am of the belief that most modern girls are of similar nature, she sighed to Lydie. The girls some of our lads date these days! Oh, if it were all up to me, Id go back to arranging marriages the old-fashioned way! Lydie laughed at that. If only all our boys would be as lucky as our Puck in the marriage department, she sighed wistfully. Gingers grown into her role as Countess very well. Then again, Gingers a diplomats daughter and was a diplomat herself; proper etiquette and social norms are second-nature to her. Page 5 of 13

Ginevra-Gertrudes marriage to Puck was a foregone conclusion from the get-go, Eleanor reminded her daughter-in-law. Remember when she lived in Glasgow for a year? We came so close to either adopting the lass or marrying her off to Puck in a heartbeat. Alas, these things did take time. She smiled. And now shes given us an heir, two spares, and a lovely little girl who reminds me so much of our dear Grisie! She, too, sighed at that point. Ah, I agree that if only the rest of our lads would find such a treasure! Lydie narrowed her eyes speculatively at her mother-in-law. Have you, as yet, formed an opinion about Melaine Valeriano? she asked her. Eleanor raised an eyebrow at this. Maxs former boss? she asked. A young lady whom, I understand, was an intimate of Gingers while they were growing up? She grinned rather impishly. I like her, Lydie; I like her a lot! She reminds me quite a bit of myself during the time Conrad and I were courting: no-nonsense, slightly cynical, refreshingly and brutally frank. She winked at her daughter-in-law. Rather like you, as well, my dear! Lydie threw her head back and laughed, obviously flattered and delighted. I remember how mortified I was when I shot some cheek at you when we first met! she exclaimed. I feared that you would tell Graeme to stop seeing me and Grisie to end our friendship. It was only when you and Papa left that Grisie told me how much you actually liked me for all that I made fun of your taste in clothes at the time! She smiled. Melaine is every bit as frank; Max used to complain a lot about how shed tell him off for looking shabby at work, but he eventually appreciated her sarcastic advice. Eleanor regarded her daughter-in-law speculatively, her expression rather calculating. I take it that Melaine is your candidate? she asked. Lydie rolled her eyes and sighed. Oh, if only it were that easy, she said. But, yes: I am seriously considering Melaine. Shes like the daughter Graeme and I never had. Normally, Lydie kept her mobile phone away from herself at meals. Today, however, she had an odd feeling that someone was going to call at lunchtime. She was not wrong; the Facetime application in her phone was on and her sons face appeared in the screen. Hi, Maman! he greeted her, looking well-rested and certainly less stressed. Bon soir de Manille. Et bon jour de LEcosse, mon petit! Lydie replied. You look wonderful, darling! Youre obviously getting enough rest.

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Eleanor trotted over and stood behind Lydies chair. Max grinned when he saw her come into view and waved. Hi, Grandma! he said. How are you? As well as I can be, Maxie dear, Eleanor assured him with a warm smile. Where are you right now? Im at the Greenbelt Mall, Max replied. Melaine and I just finished watching the new Steelsheen movie. Were off to dinner. Melaine?! both Lydie and Eleanor exclaimed, all agog. As in Melaine Valeriano? Lydie demanded, her heart all aflutter. Is there any other? Max chuckled. He seemed to hold his phone at arms length so that they could see the young lady standing beside him. Milady Claymore, Melaine said, inclining her head politely in greeting. How are you? Im well, Melaine dear; thank you for asking. Lydie grinned at how changed she looked: her hair was longer and pulled back into a bun, her face beautifully clear like fine porcelain certainly not the haggard-looking girl shed been back in London. How pretty you are! Lydie declared admiringly. Melaine seemed to blush and murmured her thanks. Lydie noted the slightly

proprietary way the younger womans hand seemed to rest on her sons shoulder. I just called to say hi, Max informed his mother with a faint smile. Ill email you and Dad tomorrow. We miss you, Lydie assured her son warmly. Oh, and your father said to tell you well be in Manila with Grandpa and Grandma for the Holidays. Max brightened up considerably at that. Sounds fun, he said. Speaking of which, Ginger says shes planning to put up a crown roast of pork for Christmas and a whole rack of lamb for New Years. He dimpled endearingly at his mother. Oh, and Puck and I were wondering if you could make your orchard crumble pie, too. Hes ordered in lots of apples and pears from Korea. Lydie grinned at that. You and Puck eat so much that its just shocking that neither of you seem to gain any additional weight! she laughed. Very well; tell Puck Ill bake a pie for Christmas.

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Swell! Max declared exuberantly. He playfully puckered up his lips and blew his mother a kiss. Beside him, Melaine smiled and wiggled her fingers in farewell. Adieu for now from here, Maman. Bye, Grandma! Goodbye, Lydie murmured somewhat sadly as the call ended. Nevertheless, seeing Melaine with her son brought a smile to her face and her mother-in-laws. The two women grinned at each other knowingly. Id better drop Ginevra-Gertrude a line, Eleanor murmured consideringly. She ought to have Melaine over for Christmas luncheon. Mamma, the young lady will probably be busy with her family, Lydie gently chided her. But, I agree: Melaine ought to join the family for a meal while were there for the Holidays. There was an impish twinkle in her eyes. We ought to get to know her better.


Between them, theyd crunched through an enormous tray virtually a trough filled with battered fish, potato wedges, stuffed potato skins topped with cheese and bacon, corn chips, and popcorn in several flavors, washing it all down with a cherry cola (his choice) and a blueberry cola (hers). They discovered a mutual preference for action-adventure flicks over romantic comedies a genre both found insipid, unrealistic, and utterly inane. They agreed that Michael Fassbender was certainly an excellent choice for the hero in the film adaptation of Steelsheen, the comicbook series Max collected so avidly over the years; anyone else was too bulked up in their opinion. Melaine also promised to introduce Max to her friend Praxi Altamirano-

Monserrat, the creatrix behind Steelsheen, seeing how theyd been classmates in college. Max was plain thrilled by the prospect of meeting his long-time idol, but seemed to be even more thrilled by the fact that hed actually gone on a date and enjoyed himself. He wondered if his mother saw how happy he was when he called her. Truth be told, it was actually the first time in quite a long time two years, as a matter of fact that he actually enjoyed himself. He hadnt expected to have fun, least of all with Melaine, but he did and she did, too and felt much, much better. His original plan had been to simply watch a movie with her, then drive her home. But after over two hours of cheeky banter, snarky comments at scenes that were a bit off or drawn Page 8 of 13

out, and overall hilarity at some of the more ludicrous bits of dialogue, Max decided that he ought to take Melaine out to dinner. They ended up at a Chinese restaurant Puck and Ginger had recommended on the strength of its soup noodles, chow mein, dumplings, and honeyed lemon chicken. Between cups of tea, they talked about how the last two years had passed and how things had changed. Youve heard that Vincents gunning for a third star? Max asked her. Yeah, Melaine replied, refilling his tea cup. Hes a right bastard to leave things up to you while hes out swanning about. She grimaced. Its despicable. Max snorted at that. You should have heard what my father had to say about it, he said. Despicable was the most polite thing he said. Everything else was kind of unprintable. That bad? Yeah, that bad. Melaine shook her head. I feel sorry for everyone we left behind, she said, her voice suddenly soft and worried. I wish there was a way we could help them. Max eyed her speculatively. We could do a hostile takeover, he said. Be serious, Max, Melaine chided him. I am serious, he assured her, leaning forward, his face intense. I mean, really: it isnt fair that Vincent has every right to swan about just because its his name hanging over LEtoiles door. The bastard hasnt done a decent days work since he earned his first star every effort that came after that was your doing, Melaine, and definitely not his. You had a lions share of the work, too, she reminded him. Yeah, but I always felt that I never seemed to do enough. Max paused thoughtfully. Then, he looked her in the eye. Especially after you left, I always felt that what I was doing would never be enough. Melaine seemed to hesitate at first, and then she reached out to touch his cheek. Max, see where it got you, she said. You burned yourself out and for what? So that Vincent can have another Michelin star that he himself didnt put any effort into? Max covered her hand with his, pressing it closer to his cheek. It was stupid of me, he admitted with a sigh. I should have taken my fathers advice and started my own restaurant. Why didnt you, then? He blinked, teal-green eyes seemingly caught off-guard. I He gulped nervously. I lost the person I wanted to team up with for it. Page 9 of 13

What do you mean? Melaine asked, puzzled. Its not like Matt or Kev would turn their backs on you. Those two will go through hell and high water for you! I wasnt talking about them! Max declared. Im talking about you. Melaine stared at him in disbelief. What? If I were to open my own restaurant, Id string along someone who shares my passion for cooking, someone whod give it their all with no regrets and no bullshit whatsoever. And you thought Id be the one to be all that? Max smiled. I did, he admitted. And I still do. I still think youre the only person for the job. Melaine regarded him dubiously. And what does Miss Lazarby have to say Bollocks to what Gemma says about it, Max said fiercely, effectively cutting her off. If she cant deal with the fact that working with food is what I want to do in life, then shed better back off a long way from me. Shes made things hard for you, Melaine murmured worriedly. Max nodded. Thats an understatement, he agreed. By the way, your brother told me that if you could afford it, youd buy LEtoile lock, stock, and barrel. Melaine nodded emphatically at that. I would, she said. And Id bring back everyone who left and Id make sure we all got rewarded for jobs extremely well done. Presently, their food arrived and they were silent for a few minutes as a short grace was murmured by Melaine and they dug into the platters of chow mein, salt-and-pepper squid, dumplings, and Hokkien-style fried rice with a savory stew to ladle over it. Max moaned most pleasurably at each bite, something that amused Melaine a great deal. You could never marry Gemma Lazarby, she declared pointedly. raptures with your food while she wouldnt touch a morsel. Thats Gods own truth, Max sighed, reaching for another battered piece of squid. Slyly, he noted that Melaine herself was not shy about second helpings or thirds, for that matter. I suppose thats why you dont have a boyfriend at the moment? he asked. One of em, Melaine agreed, helping herself to half the mushrooms in the chow mein. Most Filipino guys think its unladylike when a girl enjoys her food. Chauvinistic scum, Max muttered darkly. Sheepishly, he added that his father used to warn him about girls who didnt eat. Dad told me a girl who doesnt like to eat isnt worth dating, let alone marrying! Page 10 of 13 Youre all in

I think your dad was thinking of what Federico Fellini said, Melaine said with a smirk. Never trust a woman who doesnt like to eat. She is probably lousy in bed. Max raised his eyebrows at this, particularly because Melaine picked up two more dumplings off the platter, more squid, a few prawns from the chow mein, as well as a heaping scoop of rice and stew. He blinked as he felt his cheeks growing warmer from the blush that was presently spreading across his face. I take it your boyfriends His voice trailed off and he dared not look her in the eye. He was startled when he heard her laugh. When he looked up, Melaine was blushing and she smiled somewhat ruefully at him. I cant tell you if Fellini was right, she said. Im a virgin. Max nearly choked at that and had to take a large swig of tea to get his bearings back. Oh, shoot! he exclaimed apologetically. Sorry, Melaine; I didnt No offense meant and none taken, Melaine assured him.


I had fun today, Melaine admitted sincerely as she and Max hopped aboard the elevator. So did I, Max replied. He didnt smile, but everything that needed to be said was in his eyes. Um, well, I Is something wrong? He shook his head. I was just wondering if He took a deep breath and practically exhaled what he wanted to say. I was wondering if you wanted to go out with me again. Melaine stared at him, her cheeks flushed pink. I.., she stammered. I dont see why not. Youre a nice guy to hang around with. Gee, uh, thanks, I think, Max murmured, scratching the back of his head uneasily. So, uh, you bowl? Melaine grinned hugely at him. I do, she replied. I can roll a perfect game, by the way. Ohoho! Max laughed. Someones pretty smug about her abilities in the lane! Watch me, Melaine warned him in a friendly manner. Well see. The elevator dinged to tell them that they were on the 29th floor. Heres your stop. Page 11 of 13

Yeah. Melaine turned to him and gave him a hug. Thanks for the treat, Max. Dont mention it, he said, dimpling. As the elevator doors opened, Melaine seemed to hesitate and Max looked a little sad at the thought that they would be parting ways for now. It was as if they wanted to spend a little just a little more time with each other. I just remembered, Melaine remarked absently. What? I baked an apple pie earlier today, she replied, a hopeful look on her face. Maybe youd like to come in for a slice? Its probably not as good as your mothers pie, but I do pride myself that it tastes nice. Maybe you could have a cup of coffee, too? Max blinked, but he didnt hesitate. He followed Melaine out of the elevator and into her flat.


Orchard Crumble Pie For the Crust: 1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour 1/4 teaspoon fine salt 1/4 cup vegetable shortening 1/4 cup iced water

For the Filling: 4 medium apples, cored, peeled, and sliced 4 medium pears, cored, peeled, and sliced 3/4 cup brown sugar 1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

For the Streusel: Page 12 of 13

1/4 cup flour 1/4 cup brown sugar 1/4 cup butter Grease a nine-inch pie plate; set aside. Cut the shortening and salt into the flour with

two knives or a pastry blender until the mixture has the appearance of fine breadcrumbs. Add the iced water by tablespoons, tossing the mixture with a fork until well combined. Form dough into a ball and set upon a floured surface. Roll out the dough to approximately 1/2 inch thickness and line the prepared pan. Set aside. Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees / Gas Mark 5. Make the streusel by cutting together the flour, brown sugar, and butter till the mixture also resembles breadcrumbs. Set aside. Toss the sliced fruit with the brown sugar, cinnamon, and flour. Leave to rest for about five minutes. Dump the filling into the prepared crust, evenly spreading it over the surface. Spoon any juices left in the mixing bowl onto the fruit. Cover with the streusel. Bake for 40 45 minutes. Serve warm with scoops of vanilla or ginger ice cream on the side. Makes 1 pie and serves eight.

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