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Murder on the Menu: On the French Riviera

Murder on the Menu: On the French Riviera

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Murder on the Menu: On the French Riviera

268 pages
4 hours
Sep 13, 2013


War-hero, huckster, showman and womanizer extraordinaire, Frenchman André Surmain has defied the critics and pulled off something really quite remarkable - forging a reputation for the Lutèce as the finest restaurant not just in New York but in the whole of the United States. “What do you think this is”, a New York hot-dog vendor once memorably remarked to a customer who dared to question the quality of his wares, “the Lutèce?”

The contrast with the hilltop town of Mougins, just a stone’s throw from the glamor and glitz of Cannes on the French Riviera, could hardly be more stark. For in Mougins it seems as if time has stood still. In fact not so very long ago, deprived of a main access road, donkeys would haul provisions up a long and dusty pathway to the Place du Village where one could be forgiven for thinking that nothing much ever happens. And where village life seems to revolve around drinking a pastis at Mougins’ one and only bar - La Taverne Mouginoise - run by the grumpy but wily Valentine Santoro and her long-suffering husband Jules.

But when André Surmain leaves New York to return to his native France he soon discovers that the notion of nothing much ever happening in Mougins is illusory. Taking over the Santoros’ run-down Taverne and converting it lavishly into his latest gastronomic temple, he battles to convince the editors of the Guide Michelin that Le Relais à Mougins is indeed one of the greatest restaurants in France and worthy of its make-or-break stars.

As the lives of the Surmain and Santoro families come to be increasingly intertwined MURDER ON THE MENU serves up a series of real-life, true story dishes which include Murder, Art, Scandal and Sex. A most unusual menu indeed.
Sep 13, 2013

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Murder on the Menu - Jeremy Josephs


I set off to research and write this book almost twenty years ago. As I did so I had two themes in mind - issues of gastronomy and the Côte d’Azur. I was rather keen on a provisional working title A Restaurant on the Riviera I had come up with. It was meant to be hard on the heels of a previous book A Château in the Dordogne. A little bit of detective work - and a lot of luck - eventually led me to the hilltop town of Mougins, just a stone’s throw from Cannes. It was hardly an unpleasant environment in which to base myself as I started to get stuck into the research. Well, I could hardly believe my good fortune when I stumbled into the parallel stories of André Surmain and Pauline Santoro, whose vastly varying paths in life somehow come to be intertwined. I soon realized that the title I had originally pencilled in would tell the truth, for sure, but certainly not the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Because I had in fact come across a series of stories which touched upon a number of diverse issues - the occupation of Mougins during the Second World War, the founding of the world-famous Lutèce restaurant in New York, an excursion to the beautiful island of Majorca, more than the odd dealing with Pablo Picasso - plus positively the last thing I had expected - for a murder to have taken place in the town. I won’t say who or why, of course, because I have tried to present Murder on the Menu as something of a whodunit. Still, there could be no escaping from the old cliché that fact is stranger than fiction. It was all rather a lot to digest but I was in little doubt, as an established author with a reasonable track record, that this story would appeal to literary agents and mainstream publishers alike. How wrong I was. Boy, did I battle to find a publisher - both in the UK and the States. But to no avail. I tried for the best part of eighteen months before reluctantly resigning myself to my fate - that this book was unlikely ever to see the light of day.

It kind of knocked my confidence as a writer, if truth be told, because when you are being rejected left right and center - well, let’s be honest about it - who likes rejection? And so rather than taking another chance on another project failing I turned my hand to freelance journalism - writing articles about life in the south of France where I am based. All of this was back in the mid-nineties. And so it was that the unwanted manuscript lay in the ‘cave’ of my home in Montpellier. Gathering dust. A forgotten story. I didn’t even have it on disc. Then I had one of those ‘eureka’ moments. I reminded myself that the world of publishing has now changed. All that is required now, believe it or not, are writers and readers. Of course agents and publishers will always be there, and quite rightly so, but the electronic age and the arrival of Amazon has been a game-changer indeed. And a very welcome one at that. So I started to put some of my other books - the rights having reverted to me - on Kindle. Imagine my surprise when I found that my book about the Newall murders Murder in the Family was regularly featuring on the best-sellers list, at least within its category of true crime. The same was true in respect of another book which I thought had also had its day Hungerford: One Man’s Massacre. Thus it was that I headed off towards the cave and dusted down, literally, my manuscript. And set about scanning, editing and getting it into publishable form. But this time under my own imprint. It’s actually been a lot of fun and really helped me in respect of addressing ‘unfinished business’ in terms of my progress as a writer.

My original intention - since we are now the best part of two decades down the line from the original research - was to update everything. To do an epilogue, of sorts. And then I had second thoughts and decided to leave matters as I had originally written them up in the winter of 1996. It goes without saying that a lot has happened since then. C’est la vie, as the locals say, and that includes people passing away too, unfortunately. But I came to the conclusion, the right one, I hope, that I would leave the story as I found it all those years ago. Not out of laziness, I hasten to add, but because I think it works. Whether or not that judgement was right, of course, is for others to decide.

So it is with some considerable measure of delay but an enormous amount of gratitude nevertheless that I would like to thank the following people who helped me in the research and preparation of this book. There are so many individuals to whom I am grateful that I am simply going to list them in alphabetical order, rather than attempting to specify the precise manner in which their assistance happened to come my way. So it’s an enormous thank you and a grand merci to Micheline Battaglia, Rob Chennalis-Walker, Joelle Dalmasso, Stephen Davis, Roger Devaye, Christine Dechartres, Pauline Santoro, Jean-Pierre Goss, Harold Josephs, Julia Josephs, Sylvia Josephs, Christian Kraft, Lulu Lambert, Marie Leonelli, Philippe Martin, Mike Meade, Patrick Middleton, Pierre Orsi, Zohra Rholam, Inez Sassier, Rose Sherwood, André Soltner, André Surmain, Ghislaine Surmain, Nancy Surmain, Philippe-André Surmain, Clair Symonds, Brigitte Valera, André Villers and, last but certainly not least, Lester Wunderman.

I would just ask one favor, if I may. If, having read the story, you take the view that the better course of action would have been to have left the manuscript in the cave, well, put it this way, please don’t go out of your way to communicate that thought to me. I don’t think my evidently fragile ego could handle such rejection again!


Montpellier, 2013


Jean-Charles Malet was mad. Not insane or out of his mind in any way. But rather angry. The down-to-earth blacksmith and farrier of the tiny hilltop village of Mougins could not for the life of him understand why nearby towns on the French Riviera - Grasse, Cannes and the like - enjoyed all the modern facilities one could wish for whereas his beloved Mougins had next to none.

‘It’s ridiculous’, he would protest to anyone prepared to listen, ‘we are in the 1930s and we haven’t even got a main road up here.’ ‘How on earth are we expected to do business in the modern world?’ he would enquire rhetorically. Everyone in the village agreed with Jean-Charles. But no one did anything about it. Other than to grumble and complain.

Malet had a point. For to travel to Mougins in the thirties - not that many did - was truly to take a trip back in time. It was not exactly to the Middle Ages. But with horse-drawn carriages making their way laboriously up towards the village square via nothing more elaborate than a dirt track - and with goats, mules and chickens waiting to greet you upon arrival - it didn’t seem all that far removed. Life had changed little over the centuries. No roads. No water. Nothing.

Paul Painlevé happened to be from a family of skilled artisans too. Perhaps that was why he could relate to Malet’s passionate plea for a proper access road to Mougins. Painlevé had been prompted to enter the political arena following the Dreyfus Affair, notorious for the enduring divisions it created in French society following revelations of trumped-up charges against a French Jewish army officer. And he joined the Human Rights League as a result. But now Painlevé found himself confronted with less lofty ideals - it was election time, after all, and he was clearly anxious to secure the villagers’ votes. When Malet and Painlevé’s paths happened to cross at a rally no one was in the least bit surprised when Jean-Charles Malet stood up to speak. Far be it from him to be intimidated by the presence of a leading politician from Paris. Some villagers stared down towards their feet in embarrassment, sensing that the man who was never more at ease than when trimming or balancing horses’ hooves was about to launch into his familiar refrain about the importance of providing Mougins with a proper road. Others looked up with pride. Whatever the case, Malet did not disappoint. And he astounded his fellow villagers with an unrivalled ability to eloquently articulate the case. It was difficult to believe that he was nothing more than the local blacksmith.

Clearly keen to be returned to Parliament in Paris again, Painlevé’s response was anything but evasive.

‘Very well’, the politician replied, ‘you will have your boulevard. And this is how much it will cost.’

Whereupon, and with a flourish, he produced a piece of paper upon which he wrote out three zeros in large figures, so that his message would be clear for all but the most myopic to see - that if elected he would ensure that the state would finance the project to the very last centime. Returned to the Chamber of Deputies with a large majority, he had gone on to serve as war minister in the government of Raymond Poincaré. But in pursuing his glittering political career, Paul Painlevé did not forget to honor his pledge to the people of Mougins, the Boulevard Courteline the happy consequence of an expensive but evidently effective election campaign.

Despite their close-knit village mentality most Mouginois were warm and hospitable. And they went out of their way to welcome families prepared to share their lives with them. Families such as the Santoros who were of immigrant, Italian stock. But a minority did not - especially when they would witness their own living standards being surpassed with apparent ease, contemptuously referring to their new neighbors, although seldom to their faces, as les macaronis. Not that Jules Santoro had time to worry about name-calling of any kind: for his Taverne also found room to accommodate the bureau de tabac, where he soon became involved in the brisk and lucrative trade of supplying gitane and gauloise cigarettes to the local population, in addition to selling candy and stamps. Jules’s easy-going, extrovert personality also assisted in the process of integration, together with an unrivalled ability to provide simple snacks such as lapin (rabbit) à la provençale, ratatouille and various sorts of spaghettis at a moment’s notice. So slowly at first, but with a rapidly gathering pace and momentum, almost everyone in the village - from grave-digger to gendarme - would have cause to look in at La Taverne Mouginoise from time to time, some for an apéritif, others for nothing more elaborate than a cup of coffee or glass of red wine.

The Taverne soon carved out its own unique role in the village life. In fact to a large extent the Taverne was village life. If elderly folk wanted to enjoy a game of pétanque, then that would first require a visit to Jules in order to collect the appropriate material. Most rounds of belote, the ever-popular card game, would likewise take place chez Santoro. The same was true for ping-pong and pool. Occasionally, on a Saturday night, a mobile cinema projector and screen would be hired and the latest releases from Paris shown in a room at the back of the bar. And when sufficiently inspired and energetic Jules would reach for his accordion, never far from his grasp, his evident enthusiasm for the task invariably coaxing customers to down their drinks and join in with the spontaneous dancing and song.

Throughout this period the city of Cannes, although less than four miles away, could just as easily have existed on another planet. Named after the canes of its once-reedy shore, Cannes had long since transformed itself into an international resort famed for attracting celebrities, and thereby assisting in the process of establishing for the French Riviera a reputation as one of the world’s most enchanting and exotic vacation destinations. Just a couple of years after all of the excitement in Mougins because of the completion of the Boulevard Courteline, King Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor, was barely a stone’s throw away - staying in Cannes with Wallis Simpson’s party, and there presenting her with a diamond charm as a sign of his enduring infatuation. Small wonder that the catchphrase ‘Menton’s dowdy, Monte’s brass, Nice is rowdy - Cannes is class!’ was the byword of the twenties and thirties.

It was precisely one century earlier that Lord Brougham had stopped at the former fishing village whilst en route to Savoy, whose milder climate he hoped might be of assistance to his ailing daughter. Unable to proceed to his intended destination because of a cholera epidemic in France, the former Lord Chancellor found himself confined to Cannes, but so captivated by the surrounding countryside of wooded hills that within a week he had purchased a plot of land upon which he built the villa Éléonore-Louise, wintering there for almost four decades. English milords and the Tsar’s families followed suit, flocking to the Riviera in order to build their own retreats. Before long they had created decorous anglophile enclaves in balmy, lemon-scented surroundings, Cannes itself soon bearing the street names of Sir Walter Scott, Milton and Shakespeare. But throughout this period of scrambling towards the sunshine no Englishman ever thought to set foot in or look up towards neighboring Mougins, contenting himself instead with Cannes’ celebrated palm-planted Croisette, with its excess of hotels de grande luxe, and largely created to cater to distinctly upper crust English tastes.

The Café de la Paix - premises which would become La Taverne Mouginoise.

Mougins as a tranquil backwater - long before it became a chic part of the Côte d’Azur.

There was no trace of any such hesitancy on the part of the Irish. Or at least by one particular Irishman, Benjamin Guinness, of the Dublin-based brewery dynasty noted for the creation of its dark and creamy stouts. In fact it was the brewery boss’s small, private plane which was the very first aircraft to land on the entire Côte d’Azur - long before the idea of constructing an airport at Nice had been put on the drawing board. Hurling a series of suitcases to the ground to disperse the herds of cows threatening to impede his impromptu runway, Benjamin Guinness would regularly pilot his plane to safety on a narrow strip of land in a field not far from the Chapelle de Notre-Dame-de-Vie, a twelfth century priory founded by monks from St-Honorat, and situated firmly within the commune of Mougins, although naturally not within the fortified village itself. Following in the best traditions of Lord Brougham, Guinness duly built his own house on the French Riviera, the predictably named Villa Notre-Dame-de-Vie, converting an old farmhouse into a most luxurious home, and paying for the renovation of the chapel in the process. Up until the middle of the eighteenth century, when the practice was banned, local legend dictated that if a stillborn baby was taken to that ancient chapel by way of a pilgrimage, then the infant could be brought back to life, at least for a period of time sufficient for a hasty baptism to be performed, thus conferring on the small soul immediate entry through the Pearly Gates and up towards the heavenly clouds above.

The Santoros were fortunate in that when it came to the birth of their own two children, there were no such complications at all. For little Gilbert Santoro made his way into the world in 1934, but three years later found himself propelled into the role of big brother with the arrival of Pauline in the Spring - the birth of a daughter preceded by a son automatically conferring on the proud parents le choix du roi - the King`s choice - as many people pointed out at the time. Raising his young family in a home named Les Arpèges - Arpeggio - Jules Santoro vowed that he would do his utmost to instil a love of music into the hearts and minds of son and daughter alike.

The opening of the Boulevard Courteline did more than merely provide improved access to the village: it revealed a hitherto hidden treasure of a site occupied since Roman times and with the remains of the original fifteenth century ramparts and fortified Saracen Gate still visible for all to see. But most impressive of all was that outsiders could at last share in a secret which the people of Mougins had been obliged to keep to themselves for so long - the most spectacular, panoramic view not just of the ritzy resort city of Cannes below but out towards the sun-dappled offshore islands, the Îles de Lérins, and the deep blue of the Mediterranean beyond. And yet despite the new boulevard fulfilling a role far in excess of the expectations of its engineers - and notwithstanding the arrival of the moneyed Guinness clan within the community itself - the lives of Cannois and Mouginois hardly came to be intertwined at all. Far from it. In fact in the past it was such a rare event that a person from Mougins should so much as set foot in Cannes that for several centuries the locals had a word in provençal for it - Mouginçale - which, literally translated, meant Mougins goes down to the town. The brand new boulevard might well have been working wonders, but clearly something else would be required before such a fortress mentality might begin to shift even to the slightest degree.

That elusive ingredient proved to be water. But water only found its way to the village one year before the outbreak of the Second World War. Prior to that all that existed was a concrete cistern designed to gather as much rain water as possible, plus a small natural source in the village. Even before the searing heat of the summer months, the cistern would have long since dried up - obliging the people of Mougins to take their donkeys down to the fountain and carry water back to their homes, two to four bucketfuls at a time. Not only did this make for a rather harsh and wearisome way of life, it was also the root cause of much of the poverty which afflicted almost every single Mouginois. For an absence of water meant an absence of viable crops, or at least having to rely upon dry vegetables such as beans and lentils, with many villages attempting to eke out an existence from the region’s only truly natural resource of olive trees, with their leathery, lance-shaped leaves. Water changed all that. Suddenly orange trees became viable; suddenly fields of flowers began to spring up in each and every direction. And no flower flourished more speedily or successfully than jasmine whose shining white and yellow leaves had long since found their way to Grasse, only five miles away, and established as the center of the French perfume industry since the early eighteenth century. There, based upon experience passed down from one generation to the next, perfumers were trained to identify and classify hundreds of separate fragrances and could skilfully blend together different chords of scent in a process of diffusion known as sillage.

No one was more delighted to have water pumped up into her home than Valentine Santoro. In fact she had reason to be doubly pleased, since the taps of the Taverne were also soon being turned on and off with such regularity that almost overnight it began to appear incredulous that the village had ever been able to survive without an immediate and unlimited supply of water on demand. Whilst her husband was gentle and jovial at heart, Valentine was made of much tougher stuff, and that toughness was reflected in her face. A large, Amazonian lady, her main preoccupation in life was to make as much money as possible in the shortest possible time. Not that she had any training in marketing or management - indeed she was barely literate at all - but many Mouginois would in due course discover to their cost that Valentine’s lack of formal education was not to be confused with the absence of a most astute business brain. She was also distinctly lacking in social skills of any kind, often failing to make the slightest effort even to pass the time of day with her customers, without whom there would clearly have been no livelihood at all. Her abruptness hardly appeared to have any adverse effect on the daily takings though, certainly because the Santoros’ Taverne Mouginoise simultaneously fulfilled two roles, doubling up as the one and only café du village and its tabac too, thus benefitting from a near monopoly position. Nor was Valentine any the less unrelenting on herself: together with her husband she would positively

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