White Truffles in Winter by N.M. Kelby (Alma Books, 2012) is a book I first heard of on Lindsay Healy’s Little Reader Library blog in a guest review by Angi Holden. It sounded intriguing enough to go on my library list and I finally managed to read it earlier this week.
About the Book:
White Truffles in Winter imagines the world of the remarkable French chef Auguste Escoffier, who changed the way we eat through his legendary restaurants at the Savoy and the Ritz. A man of contradictions – kind yet imperious, food-obsessed yet rarely hungry – Escoffier was also torn between two women: the famous, beautiful and reckless actress Sarah Bernhardt and his wife, the independent and sublime poet Delphine Daffis. In the last year of his life, he returns to Delphine, who requests a dish in her name in the same way as he has honoured Bernhardt, Queen Victoria and many others. But how can even the best chef in the world define the complexity of love on a single plate?
I found this a fascinating glimpse into a series of equally fascinating lives in a tumultuous era. Escoffier’s life was shaped by the Franco-Prussian and First World Wars while the story is told during the last year of his life, with Europe on the brink of war once again. The cast of characters includes hoteliers, politicians, royalty and stars of stage and screen. There is sumptuous writing about food, including some of Escoffier’s own rather idiosyncratic recipes:
You must first select forty rather large and boisterous crayfish. They must be filled with life, able to snap your small finger with ease. If you need to test this, ask an assistant; that is what they are there for.
Once they are chosen, open a bottle of Moët. Pour it inot a bowl. Add the crayfish. Stand back. They will put up a fight, but rest assured that this is a merciful death, one that you would wish upon yourself. (p. 94)
Beats “first catch your hare” into a cocked hat, doesn’t it? And there is a wealth of detail about the dishes, the system of kitchen management, the development of service à la russe and so on.
On the other hand, the foodiness can also get annoying. I had a great deal of sympathy for the housekeeper Sabine trying to get meals on the table with Escoffier insisting that she should spend eight hours preparing veal stock as no larder is complete without it. The fact that there was neither veal nor money yet there were hordes of hungry mouths to feed was neither here nor there. Certainly Sabine’s assessment that Escoffier had a strange idea of “simplicity” chimed very well with my opinions when watching Masterchef, for example.
The writing too was somewhat disjointed. The story being told in flashback was quite disorientating – it wasn’t always clear whose point of view we were seeing and the chronology kept sliding away from me somehow, despite being reasonably well informed about that era.
Nonetheless, this was a highly enjoyable read with a very convincing love triangle at its heart. Escoffier and Daphne Daffis’ relationship is deftly conveyed with a real sadness at a life spent apart largely due to an inability to communicate their real feelings for each other. And it ends with a dish the reader can almost taste that combines simplicity and complexity, home cooking and fine cuisine in a wonderful metaphor for the book itself and the story it tells.