From PG Wodehouse’s ‘peerless’ Anatole to John Lanchester’s merciless Tarquin Winot, a novelist chooses her favourite kitchen creations
Last modified on Thu 3 Feb 2022 12.38 GMT
Creating a fictional cook in prose is challenging: using plain, monochrome text the writer must bring to life the richly flavoured and perfumed world in which her cook resides. But when successful, the fictional cook is a force to be reckoned with, often springing off the page in a delicious, seductive frenzy of tastebud-tickling drama.
When I began researching my novel, I was lucky enough to have original source material. The Language of Food tells the story of food writer, Eliza Acton, who left two beautifully written cookery books and a poetry collection. I also had shelves of cookery books and foodie memoirs. But, while often crammed with mouth-watering descriptions of meals, these books were less about plot and character. And so, finally, I turned to fiction, scouring libraries and bookshops for fictional cooks and chefs.
Here are some of the lesser-known fictional cooks that I fell in love with:
1. Kitty Allen in The Good Plain Cook by Bethan Roberts
Bethan Roberts’ second novel is set in rural Sussex and tells the story of the flamboyant socialist, Ellen Steinberg (inspired by Peggy Guggenheim), who places an advert for a “good plain cook to perform domestic duties for artistic household”. Local girl Kitty Allen replies. In response to Ellen’s demands for glamorous dishes such as quiche and artichokes, Kitty cooks “patched up egg and bacon pie”, “incinerated fish” and “flat” omelettes. But then Ellen asks Kitty to teach her to cook. Kitty proposes mutton cutlets, but Ellen wants French food. Against this backdrop, Kitty begins to find her own voice.
2. Manuela in The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
In this bestselling 2006 novel, Manuela is a Portuguese cleaner, and the “only friend” of concierge and co-narrator, Renée. However, Manuela is also a talented baker. She visits Renée every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, bringing a home-baked delicacy that is presented as artfully as it’s been prepared. Almond tuiles are “nestled among curls of carmine tissue paper”, almond sponge fingers are “set in frilly white paper”, dark chocolate florentines are wrapped in “ivory tissue paper” tied with a blue velvet ribbon. With her kindness, Manuela transforms Renée’s lonely life “into a warm and joyful epic”.
3. Anatole in the Jeeves series by PG Wodehouse
Anatole is a “peerless”, moustachioed chef “of the most extraordinary vim and skill”, who first appeared in Wodehouse’s 1925 story, Clustering Round Young Bingo. He went on to feature in 11 Jeeves novels and short stories. Employed by Aunt Dahlia at her country house, Anatole is lauded as “God’s gift to the gastric juices” whose cooking includes dishes such as velouté aux fleurs de courgette, consommé aux pommes d’amour, Nomais de la Mediterranée au fenouil as well as a “masterly” English steak and kidney pie. Unsurprisingly, he is in great demand, and several plots pivot on the unscrupulous poaching of Anatole, or the threatened barring of Bertie from his aunt’s dinners.
4. Tarquin Winot in The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester
Lanchester’s 1996 debut novel features the sinister and chilling self-taught cook, Tarquin Winot. Although this darkly humorous book is described on its cover as “a cunning commentary on art, appetite, jealousy and failure”, it’s also a hunger-inducing hymn to the joys of eating. The deluded Tarquin devotes pages to his cooking tips, his knowledge of culinary history and his menus (omelette, roast lamb with beans, peaches in red wine, or egg curry, prawn curry, condiments and mango sorbet). Horror, hunger and humour combine as Tarquin forages, cooks and kills.
5. Monsieur Escoffier in White Truffles in Winter by NM Kelby
The legendary French chef, Auguste Escoffier, is reimagined in his last year, as he returns to his wife, Delphine. She asks him to make her a dish, just as he did for the other love of his life, actor Sarah Bernhardt (a creamy strawberry dessert he named Fraises Sarah Bernhardt and a chocolate-dipped macaroon still known as a Sarah Bernhardt). We follow Escoffier as he ponders and then prepares a final menu for his wife: scrambled eggs served in their shells with wild caviar; a casserole of pigeon and peas; and wild strawberries served with brie that has been “drizzled with candied lavender and honey”.
6. Monsieur Armand in The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden
Godden’s much-loved 1958 novel includes a chef – Monsieur Armand. Set in the Champagne region of France, where a mother and five children are holed up for the summer, Armand runs a vast kitchen with “always a good smell of cooking onions, new bread, coffee and wine”. His cooking (“poulet a l’estragon, veals and steaks, salads and snails in garlic butter”) and narrator Cecil’s discovery of French food form an evocative setting, ineluctably shaping this story of love and deceit. Meanwhile, Armand drinks a bottle of wine between lunch and dinner, and fattens up Cecil’s sister with “slivers of chicken and spoonfuls of cream”.
7. Tilo in The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Tilo is an immigrant from India who runs a spice shop in California. As she roasts, grinds and blends spices, she also serves up wisdom and advice to her local community. Until, that is, a lonely American turns up, threatening to destroy her magical powers forever. Sumptuous descriptions of spice are woven through this story of magic and myth – “fried garbanzos, yellow sticks of sev, spicy peanuts in their red skin … whole mung beans green as moss … tea spiced with clove”. Like Eliza Acton, Divakaruni was a poet first – and it shows in her artful prose.
8. Rosa in La Cucina by Lily Prior
Rosa Fiore is a solitary librarian with a deep passion for cooking the food of her Sicilian homeland. When Randolph Hunt (Rosa knows him only as L’Inglese) comes to research the local cuisine, Rosa’s life changes. After a summer of fervent cooking, eating and sex, he disappears, leaving Rosa to seek solace – once again – in cooking. Caponata, pasta, soup, pies, marzipan, cakes, roast pork, mountain spinach, potatoes with rosemary, apple tart with quince … but how can Rosa ever forget the man who ate oysters from her naked body and wove spaghetti bolognaise through her hair?
9. Gabrielle in The Cook’s Tale by Elizabeth Ayrton
Ayrton wrote several cookery books and her understanding of food radiates from this first novel (published in the US as Sauce and Sensuality). Gabrielle has transformed her parents’ roadside cafe into a highly regarded hotel, serving classical French dishes. When she falls in love with Erasmus Delacroix, Gabrielle must choose between being a wife or a professional chef. As she ponders, she tells stories of the many talented cooks in her family, from great-great grandmother Marthe to Aunt Solange. Ayrton includes the favourite dishes of each cook (chicken with white grapes, apricot tart, fondue), so that the recipes, “all practical and tested”, may be followed by readers.
10. Gerald Samper in Cooking With Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson
Gerald is a ghostwriter for C-list celebrities who likes inventing recipes. From his Tuscan hilltop he cooks with great gusto, using copious amounts of an Italian digestif called Fernet Branca. The plot is fast-paced but daft, the characters ludicrous but hilarious, and the recipes imaginative but ridiculous. Mussels in chocolate, garlic ice cream, a pie made from cat and kerosene, all doused in Fernet Branca, and described by one reviewer “lingering in the mind like poems”. This farce of a novel is a perfect reminder that no cook should take themselves too seriously.
The Language of Food by Annabel Abbs is published by Simon & Schuster. To help the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.