Food in Literature Part 18 header image

Part 18 brings two new extracts chosen by Helen. The first, from Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore, is the internal thought processes of Nina as she prepares dinner for her sister and other guests. By contrast, the extract from The Annual Banquet of the Gravediggers Guild by Mathias Enard gives a detailed list of what was consumed at the banquet of the title.

Talking to the Dead: Helen Dunmore

talking to the deadA novel about the complex relationship between two sisters, family secrets and buried memories.

Nina goes to visit her sister Isabel, who has just had a baby. Nina is a fastidious and extremely good cook and the book contains several descriptions of food and cooking . This is one of the best, as she prepares a meal where the centre pieces are a whole baked salmon and an apple tart.

The tart will take longest. I’ve bought white Normandy butter. Pastry flour, three pounds of sharp, sweet Jonagold apples. They are not the right apples, but I won’t get better in the fag-end of the season, before the new apples come in. They must be cut evenly, in fine crescents of equal thickness which will lap round in ring after ring, hooping inwards, glazed with apricot jam. The tart must cook until the tips of the apple rings are almost black, but the fruit itself is still plump and moist, When you close your eyes and bite you must taste caramel, sharp apple, juice and the short, sandy texture of sweet pastry all at once. No one taste should be stronger than another. The pastry is made, and resting in the fridge. One piece of equipment that Isabel does possess, among her rusty whisks and wooden spoons which smell of onion, is a huge marble slab with a broken edge. I made the pastry on it, cutting the butter into the heaped flour and rubbing it in quickly, lightly, so the paste just holds together.

I’m simmering the reduction for the hollandaise sauce. It smells of bay leaf. More than I think it should. I wonder if I should add a second slice of onion, and then decide not to. It bubbles and thickens, releasing the spiciness of mace and a sharp vinegar smell. I live making sauces, real sauces which glisten with egg yolks. Now for the stage that I like best. I’ve got a pan of water simmering on a ring, but it’s still too high, the water bubbling with more energy than it needs. The controls on these rings are crude. I turn it down and the water seems to go to sleep. Up, and it bubbles. I fiddle again, and at last I get what I want. The water squirms, almost unnoticeably alive. I place my bowl of sauce over it and put in the first lump of butter, watch it start to slither, and then whisk. I drop in another lump whisk again, and go on, watching it thicken, making sure the sauce stays smooth as ointment and doesn’t curdle. There are twelve lumps of butter to go in. The sauce swallows them all, gleaming, fattening on what I’ve given it. I let it cook a little longer, still whisking gently. Now it looks right. I dip in a clean wooden spoon and the sauce coats it perfectly.

They’re all sitting down, waiting, even Isabel. I can hear them from the kitchen: a laugh, then a murmur, like the sound of an audience settling in its seats. Everything is on the table now except the salmon. It’s been out of the oven for half an hour, resting and cooling, inside its foil. I take a pair of scissors and cut a corner of the foil, running the blade along it, then fold it back from the fish. I smear my two hands with butter and ease them under the salmon and then lift. It comes up perfectly, its bright silvery skin intact and I lay it back down again on a layer of fresh dill, on a clean white plate.

The Annual Banquet of The Gravediggers Guild: Mathias Enard

gravediggersThis stupendous novel is set in a small village in the Vaucluse. It begins with the arrival from Paris of a serious young anthropologist, who intends to write a learned paper on its history and customs. It is the dead of winter, his accommodation is cold and uncomfortable, and his only means of travel an electric bike. To begin with he hates the place and considers its inhabitants as inbred and primitive. His rather pompous observations are very funny. Gradually, he becomes drawn into the community and begins to feel at home.

The description of his research into family histories becomes interlinked with reincarnation. This is a community largely untouched by incomers, apart from one ex-pat English couple. Everyone has lived many previous lives and not only in human form. The type of reincarnation you experience depends upon the quality of the life you have led previously. Hence the priest, who has spent his last human life suppressing his carnal urges is reborn as a young wild boar, joyfully coupling with any sow he can find. A group of murderers are reborn as disgusting worms, that the anthropologist is revolted by when they appear in his bathroom.

Death and time-travelling are a central theme of the novel. One of the main characters is the village undertaker. Grave digging and the profession of undertaking is an ancient and proud skill, with its own Guild, organized by arcane and solemn traditions. They pride themselves on being always ready to answer when called upon. As the local undertaker says: people keep on dying “even in war time”.

Just once a year the entire Guild convenes for a banquet. It is a matter of pride for the hosts to put on the most sumptuous and expensive dinner possible. The Banquet fills an entire chapter and I can only extract a couple of passages. Here is a representative list of the food eaten by just one of the members;

A tartine of Rillettes au Vouvray
A sliverette of duck pâté
A cask of cornichons to accompany the above
An egg mimosa, that is to say, two halves
Two tiny goat’s cheese gougères barely larger than a monkey’s gonads
Six thighs, or three frogs
Six or eight large snails, whether from Perigord or Poitevin
A Vol-au-vent à la Reine of veal sweetbreads
A bowl of bouillon with croutons topped with foie gras
A poached egg en meurette with bacon-wrapped soldiers
A croustade of crayfish
Six (he was uncertain of the true number) oysters au gratin
Eight—no sorry just one more—nine langoustines immersed in citrus mayonnaise
Three breaded crab claws
Four thick slices of stuffed eel
Two helpings of lamprey à la Rochelaise
Half a fillet of carp in aspic
A plum brandy trou
A spoonful of coquillettes with Comté
Another spoonful of coquillettes
A slice of sucking pig in chocolate sauce
A ramekin of courgetti gratin with Tôme de Maillezais cheese
A haunch of hare in sorrel sauce
A first slice of leg of lamb with a few white beans
A too small portion of veal fillet grilled on the open fire and worth braving the fires of hell
A scant few petals of the spiced thigh of that same beast
Sauce béarnaise for the sheer pleasure of unctuousness and tarragon
A jardinière of spring vegetables

Three small glasses of festive Kirs Royales made with sparkling Saumur hat tickled his nose
A flagon of crimson Chinon
As much again of straw yellow Chenin d’Oiron

(then he lost count)

There is a pudding course of choux buns and éclairs filed with cream and chocolate.

Then the cheese course. Two of the founders of this web site are ardent turophiles, so for them, I’m including the entire description.

There were cheeses from all over France, from the France of Switzerland and Italy, the France of England and Holland, La Grande France, with cheeses as French as the cumin scented Handekäse from Frankfurt and Maine, the most venerable old Gouda, smoked sheep’s Idiazabal and powerful Somerset cheddar. No sooner did Bellende’s cry resound than the apprentices appeared carrying huge wicker trays festooned with vine leaves and spring flowers and piled with dozens of cheeses of every shape, parallelopipeds, cubes, hearts, cones, cone trunks, puranidons, spheres, half spheres, quarter spheres, cylinders, cylinder sections, and of every hue, white, cream, green, yellow, gold, blue inside, grey, ashen, brown, orange and even a smoke black and a brick red, inimitable; every hardness on the Moh’s scale was represented; here were the cheeses hard as the heat of an oak, Comtés whose aged wheels had rolled down from the Jura, Testes de Moines powerful enough to stun a heathen; softer cheeses whose pale fat spread like the belly of a pasha on a divan in the seraglio and melted without need of heat under the effects of time, ripe raw milk Camemberts, Vacherins liquified by lethargy; the terrifying Epoisses, which like the Reblochons slithered in waves from their washed rinds; the Fourmes d’Ambert and Montbrisons that sweated like great sticks of dynamite; the Roqueforts that smelled of sheep and mould, in short of Aveyron; the Munsters that vied with the Maroilles for the attention of the nostrils, the small goats' cheeses paled modestly—though it was they that were kings of the cheeseboard—the Mothais wrapped in chestnut leaves. The unctuous Chabichous, the Saint-Maures nestled in straw, the Selles sur Cher with their tang of hazelnut, goats' cheeses that were ripe and runny, fresh and firm, white or cream, or daubed with ash.

The bread had been carefully selected—what was required was a slightly brown sourdough bread, made from ancient grains, slightly acidic, with a texture that was dense yet not too dense, springy yet melting, and a scored crust baked so that it was almost black in places and redolent of fire, of charcoal, of ovens; the bread circulated in loaves weighing four or five pounds, which waiters carried wedged against their left shoulders like a violin, so that it could be sliced to order—all thought of sleep was now abandoned, all space for melancholy, the cheeses had arrived!

The Gravediggers once again began to sing, this time canticles and antiphons, a Magnificat to the glories of fermentation, to curds, to rennet drawn from the stomachs pf calves, glory to all Ruminants, glory! Glory to the goat, the ewe! Glory to bacteria, glory to Death! And the wines began to circulate! Damnably fine white wines! White wines to accompany cheese! White wines from every terroir! Pouilly, Sancerre, Chablis as round and plump as the Baby Jesus. Enough to make one swoon! Colour paired with colour. A white Crozes Hermitage with the Comté! A Marsanne or Roussane for Beaufort from the upland pastures! Glory to the Cow, glory to the Ewe!

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