White Truffles in Winter
As his life draws to its close, the legendary Auguste Escoffier, whose recipes and system for running a kitchen form the foundation of modern haute cuisine (not to mention the trials undergone by Masterchef competitors), sits down to write his memoirs. 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 poet Delphine Daffis, fiercely independent despite having been passed from father to husband as part of Escoffier’s winnings in a pool game. 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. His challenge is to define the complexity of love in a single dish.
He describes his work as “a memoir in meals” and this, in the main, is what N. M. Kelby gives the reader. Using Escoffier’s recollections as a framing device, she constructs a biographical novel about his life and loves, and his pioneering work as cook and chef de cuisine. Her writing is sumptuous and beautiful, a sensual experience to match that of eating the dishes she describes, from gallons of homely tomato sauce to a julienne of black spring truffles perfumed like new grass. Ultimately, however, I found this novel failed to engage me because it lacks a strong enough narrative arc. A life, however remarkable, is never enough on its own to make good fiction. It has to be seasoned with plenty of dramatic tension, and this book was just too bland for my taste.
288 (UK), 352 (US)