Just down the road from where I live is the village of Martinborough, centre of a wine and olive growing industry that has become a major tourist destination for foodies. And one of the attractions is named after the man who was arguably one of the founders of France’s grand cuisine, whose life story I borrowed from for the hero of my novellette A Suitable Husband, written for the box set Holly and Hopeful Hearts.
He had a rough start: born in Paris and abandoned by his parents at the age of 10 at the height of the French Revolution. A job as a kitchen boy, in return for food and board, led to him being apprenticed at a pâtisserie in a high-profile, fashionable neighbourhood. He soon became known for his centrepieces, which his employer displayed in the shop window. Sometimes several feet high and moulded from sugar, marzipan and other foodstuffs, they were architectural shapes such as temples and ruins.
Carême freelanced in private kitchens, and learned to create whole meals, and when the diplomat Talleyrand was given a chateau at which to entertain and impress those Napoleon wanted to influence, Carême convinced Talleyrand to take him, too. The test Talleyrand set was a year of menus, with no repetitions using only seasonal produce. Carême passed. He had just turned 20.
He went (after the Napoleonic wars) to London, where he was chef to the Prince Regent for a time, then back in Paris he worked for the banker Rothschild. He laid the foundations for the system that became French cuisine, and was a prolific writer. He is credited with being the first cook-book writer to say: ‘You can try this for yourself at home.’
My character Marcel Fournier is also a talented and ambitious chef, a few years younger than Carême. In this short excerpt, he is indignant that he is not to be in charge of both kitchens at Hollystone Hall.
In Spitalfields, until he was apprenticed to a cook in an inn on Tottenham Court Road, then in Soho where he took charge in an earl’s kitchen, and finally, after having himself smuggled into France and attracting the man’s attention by the bold trick of sneaking into his office with a box of his own pâtisseries and menus for a year’s worth of banquets, in the kitchen and under the direct supervision of the great Marie Antoine Carême, chef to Tallyrand and through him to the diplomats of Europe.
For the past two years, Marcel had been one of the most sought-after chefs in the whole South of England. Good English cooking, indeed.
For more information, see: