Georgette Heyer and Bruce Chatwin have nothing in common, save that in these extracts from two of their novels there is a common theme, that gourmet food served in grand surroundings can be deeply depressing if the company and the mood are unsympathetic.
Cousin Kate: Georgette Heyer
I’ve discovered Georgette Heyer late in life. Like a lot of people, I suspect, I was put off by the dreadful book covers and the low brow, Mills and Boon, Barbara Cartland image she has been unfairly saddled with.
When I began to read her I was impressed by her deep knowledge of Georgian society and history. Several of her heroines are grown up women of depth, some of her novels include explanations of political, social and military matters that entitle her to be regarded as a serious historian.
This extract is from Cousin Kate, a book that divides her readers. It was apparently written in a hurry during a difficult time and is unlike her usual content and tone. It includes a mentally ill character and machinations over the inheritance of an estate, woven into a gothic plot with a romance that is understated.
The heroine Kate is from the impoverished branch of a family that owns a huge estate, to which she is invited. This is the dinner that is served to a handful of ill-assorted guests on her first night.
The cod’s head was removed and replaced with a loin of veal; and the soup with a Beef Tremblant and Roots. Between them, side dishes were set on the table: pigeons à la Crapaudine, petits pâtés, a matelot of eels and a fricassée of chicken. Kate, partaking sparingly of the veal, in the foreknowledge that she would be expected to do justice to the second course, watched, with awe, Dr Delabole, who had already consumed a large portion of cod, help himself to two pigeons, and eat both, with considerable gusto.
The second course consisted of a green goose, two rabbits, a dressed crab, some broccoli, some spinach, and an apple pie. It occurred forcibly to Kate that Lady Broome’s housekeeping was on a large scale. She was not so much impressed as shocked, for as one who knew that one skinny fowl could, skilfully cooked, provide a satisfying meal for three hungry persons, and who had seldom had more than a few shillings to spend on dinner, this lavishness was horrifying. Torquil had eaten two mouthfulls of the crab before pushing his plate away, peevishly saying that the crab was inedible, and toying with his apple pie; Sir Timothy, delicately carving a minute portion of rabbit for himself, had allowed her to place a spoonful of spinach on his plate, and then had left it untouched; Lady Broome having pressed Dr Delabole to permit her to give him some of the goose, took a small slice herself; and Kate, resisting all coaxing attempts to make her sample the goose, ended the repast with the apple pie and custard.
Georgette Heyer’s books are full of well researched details like this of Georgian upper class domestic life. They include references to meal times and to meals that are unfamiliar to us. For example, there is the nuncheon, a meal that is something like our brunch, eaten late morning and very like a buffet, with cold cuts, fruit and pastries.
Utz: Bruce Chatwin
Set in Czechoslovakia in the 1980’s, the eponymous central character is a passionate collector of porcelain.
In this extract, he visits a restaurant in Prague, the Restaurant Pstruh. The scene captures the privileged position enjoyed by senior Party members.
Pstruh is Czech for “trout” — and trout there were! The cadences of The Trout Quintet flowed methodically through hidden speakers and shoals of trout — pink, freckled, their undersides shimmering in the neon — swam this way and that way in an aquarium which occupied most of one wall.
“You will eat trout”, said Utz.
I had called him on the day of my arrival, but at first he seemed reluctant to see me:
“Ja! Ja! I know it, But it will be difficult.”
On the advice of my friend, I had brought from London some packets of his favourite Earl Grey tea. I mentioned these. He relented and asked me to luncheon: on the Thursday, the day before I was due to leave — not, as I had hoped, at his flat, but in a restaurant.
The restaurant, a relic of the thirties in an arcade off Wenceslas Square, had a machine aged décor of plate glass, chromium and leather. A model galleon, with sails of billowing parchment, hung from the ceiling. One wondered, glancing at the portrait of Comrade Novotny, how a man with so disagreeable a mouth would consent to being photographed at all. The head waiter, sweltering in the July heat, offered each of us a menu that resembled a medieval missal.
“I will order”, said Utz, who waved his napkin, like a flag of truce, at the headwaiter. “I will order trout. au bleu isn’t it?”
“Blau,” Orlike bantered.
Orlik tugged at my sleeve. “My friend Mr Utz here believes that the trout, when it is immersed in boiling water, does not feel more than a tickling. That is not my opinion.”
“There are no trout,” said the head waiter.
“What do you mean no trout?” said Utz “There are trout. Many trout.”
“There is no net.”
“What can you mean, no net? Last week there was a net.”
“It is broken.”
“Broken, I do not believe.”
The head waiter put his finger to his lips, and whispered. “These trout are reserved.”
“Them,” he nodded.
Four fat men were eating trout at a nearby table.
“Very well,” said Utz. “I will eat eels. You will also eat eels?”
“I will,” I said.
“There are no eels,” said the head waiter.
“No eels? This is bad. What have you?”
“We have carp.”
“How shall you cook this carp?”
“Many ways,” the waiter gestured at the menu. “Which way you like.”
The menu was multilingual, in Czech, Russian, French and English. But whoever had compiled the English page had mistaken the word ‘carp’ for “crap”. Under the heading CRAP DISHES, the list contained “Crap soup with paprika”, “Stuffed crap”, “Crap cooked in beer”, “Fried crap”, “Crap balls”, “Crap à la juive…”
Later in the book, Utz recalls World War II and the lengths that he had to go to, to transport his collection out of the path of the invading German forces. He is in Vichy where he finds a celebrated restaurant.
He turned his attention to food.
On his first day at Vichy he had bought, from a book shop in the Rue Clémenceau, a “gastronomic guide” to the region. He had always cared for his stomach, always befriended chefs.
However, in the war years, especially in moments of terror, did he recollect the pleasures of the table! The day the Gestapo took him for questioning, he had been unable to focus on the abstractions of death or deportation: only on the memory of a particular plate of haricots verts, at a restaurant at a white road in Provence.
Later, during he worst of the winter shortages, the months of cabbage ,cabbage, cabbage and potatoes, he comforted himself with the thought that, when sanity returned and the frontiers were open, he would eat once again in France.
He studied the guide with the fastidious dedication he usually reserved for porcelain hunting: where to find the best ‘quenelles aux écrevisses’, the best ‘cervelas truffé’ or a ‘poulet a la vessie’. Or the desserts — the ‘bourriouls’, ‘bougnettes’, ‘flaugnardes’, ‘foussases’ (one could hear the gas in those names). Or the rare white wine of Chateau Grillet, which was said to taste of vine flowers and almonds — and behave like a capricious young woman.
Putting his new-found knowledge to the test, he reserved a table at a restaurant beside the Allier.
The day was warm and sunny: sufficiently warm to eat outside on the terrace, under an awning of green and white striped canvas that flapped lazily in the breeze. There were three wine glasses set at each place. He watched the reflections of the poplars z-bending across the river, and the sand martins skimming over its surface. On the far bank, fishermen and their families had spread their picnics on the grass.
The waiters were fussing over a ‘prince of gastronomes’ who was paying his annual visit. He had come in after Utz, flushed crimson in the face and perambulating his stomach before him. He tucked his napkin inside his collar, and prepared to plough through an eight course luncheon.
At last, when the menu came, Utz gave a grateful smile to the maître d’hotel.
He ran his eye over the list of specialities. He chose. He changed his mind. He chose again: an artichoke soup, trout ‘Mont Dore’ and sucking pig “à la lyonnaise.”
“Et comme vin, monsieur?”
“What would you suggest?”
The wine waiter, taking Utz for an ignoramus, pointed to two of the more expensive bottles on the list: a Montrachet and a Clos Mageot.
“No Chateau Grillet?”
“Very well,” Utz acquiesced obediently, “Whatever you recommend.”
The meal failed to match his expectations. Not that he could fault its quality of presentation: but the soup, although exquisite, seemed savourless; the trout was smothered in a sauce of Gruyère cheese, and the sucking pig was stuffed with something else.
He looked again, enviously, at the picnickers on the opposite shore. A young mother rushed to save her child, who had crawled to the water’s edge. He would like to be with them: to share their coarse, home made pie that surely tasted of something! Or had he lost his own sense of taste?
The bill was larger than he expected. He left in a bad mood. He felt bloated, and a little dizzy.
He had also come to a depressing conclusion: that luxury is only luxurious under adverse conditions.