White Truffles in Winter by N. M. Kelby

I’ve just finished a story about a chef who won his wife in a pool game; worked in the finest hotels in the world; saved hundreds of people from a fire; cooked for kings and queens; had affairs with high-profile women; fought in wars; lived apart from his wife for decades but spent his last months with her; coined a word (deliciousness/ umami); and revolutionised the way kitchens were set up and run.

It may sound like fiction but it’s all part of the life of French chef, Auguste Escoffier. It’s remarkable stuff. Yet with so much to work with, why did I find N. M. Kelby’s novel, White Truffles in Winter, bland?

Kelby’s writing style is floral – descriptive, detailed and pretty. Not my usual thing but then again, if I’m reading about simmering veal stock or kneading butter into brioche dough, it’s fine.

I was also fine with the inclusion of trivial facts and descriptions of cooking techniques throughout the text, even if they appeared a little forced in some instances – mention of how famous dishes came about; the correct way to make tomato sauce; and that the number of pleats in a chef’s toque represent the number of ways he or she can cook eggs, were interesting. However, the story was not dynamic and there was a feeling of emotional detachment, or rather coolness, that left the whole thing flat.

Apart from dissecting Escoffier’s past, the story focused around his wife’s dying wish that he creates a dish specifically for her. However, I struggled with the love in this story. I didn’t feel Escoffier’s desire for anyone, let alone the fact that he was supposedly torn between his wife and actress Sarah Bernhardt. His relationships with both women lacked passion – without passion and desire, it’s hard to convince the reader of motive.

There was light relief in the character of Sabine, a feisty young woman employed to look after the Escoffier’s in their dying days –

“…she’d fallen asleep with the book in her hand dreaming of the line ‘One must not forget that good, sound cooking, even the very simplest, makes a contented home.’
The next morning she awoke wanting a cigarette and a sailor. Unfortunately, neither was readily available…”

Alas, not enough to make this book wholly satisfying.

2.5/5 If you like reading about food, it’s a good pick, otherwise…

I don’t think this is overthinking Bearnaise sauce, do you?!

“Even many years later when you find yourself standing by your son’s grave, there are no words that can describe that moment, the depth of it. But a sauce can reflect that moment. Nothing speaks more accurately to the complexity of life than food. Who has not had, let us say, a Bearnaise, the child of hollandaise, and has not come away from the taste of it feeling overwhelmed?
At first, it fills the mouth with the softness of butter and then the richness of egg, and before it becomes too rich or too comfortable, the moment shifts and begins to ground itself in darkness with the root of a shallot and the hint of crushed peppercorns. But then the taste deepens. The memory of rebirth is made manifest with the sacred chervil, sweet and grassy with a note of liquorice, whose spring scent is so like myrrh that it recalls the gift of the Wise Men and the holy birth whenever it is tasted. And then, of course, the ‘King of Herbs’, tarragon with its gentle liquorice, reminds us not to forget that miracles are possible. And just when we think we understand what we are experiencing, the taste turns again on the tongue, and finishes with shrill vinegar, followed by a reduction of wine, so that the acid tempers the sauce but never dominates. And, finally, in your mouth, you have the entire experience of father and child that you tried to put into words – from the fleeting comfort to the moment where you finally realize that life is beyond your control and everything needs balance, even faith.”



22 responses

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

    • That para isn’t truly representative of the book – the rest wasn’t quite as descriptive and was broken up by dialogue but either way, the tone remains. Which brings me to a constant niggle I have with historical fiction (any, not just this book) – dialogue will always be tricky because you’ll never know what was said. In this case, the dialogue seemed reasonable and believable but I’ve read some books where the use of particular words or phrases to give historical context is so overdone that it’s annoying.

      • True! I read something about that yesterday, where they said ‘hello’ wasn’t used until the nineteenth century, and only then as an expression of surprise – historical dialogue is a minefield!

      • I still think one of the best pieces for historical fiction I’ve read in last few years is Vanessa and Her Sister – written as diary entries, it largely dodged the dialogue problem but that aside, the whole book felt seamless. Worth checking out.

  2. Actually, I felt like this the first time I had Béarnaise sauce. My sister’s first husband made it, exactly as it should be made, using a million saucepans and turning the kitchen into a disaster area in the process. But it tasted divine, and I’ve never had one like that since…
    It’s as if my first ever glass of red wine were a glass of Grange, and nothing since then could ever compare!

    • That’s a brilliant story Lisa! It’s true though, when you have a sauce made properly (and I admit that I don’t have the patience these days for stirring Hollandaise or Béarnaise and have a cheat method instead) it is truly sublime. I had a similar experience with salmon and Hollandaise when I was in Ireland – I recall thinking ‘Would it be rude to drink from the sauce jug…?’

  3. I ended up liking this book more than you, probably because of the food descriptions, but I agree about Escoffier- I thought his only real passion was food.

    And yes to the bernaise. On everything!

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