Set in seventeenth century England John Saturnall's Feast is a swoon-worthy feast for the mind brimming with Lawrence Norfolk's rich imagination, masterful narrative, fascinating characters, and his astonishing breadth and depth of historical food knowledge that will satisfy the most hungry reader.
John wins a place in Buckland Manor which boasts kitchens rivaling any Michelin Star-rated restaurant operating today after barely surviving starvation and accusations of witchcraft leveled at he and his mother at their isolated village of Buckland. After being run off from their home by villagers, his mother kept him alive by teaching him her foraging skills and by feeding him stories and images of a garden that once existed containing food enough for all. And of the Feast. At Buckland Manor John identifies spices in a pot of broth by his sense of smell:
'Mace... crushed cumin,' John continued. Coriander seeds, marjoram, rue. Vinegar. Some honey and.' His voice trailed off. All four Head Cooks were staring at him. Vanian's black eyes narrowed. 124
If you enjoy Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs this may be your cup of tea because much of it follows John's life 'downstairs' in the kitchen, but John Saturnall's Feast features another perspective as well, Lord Buckland's daughter, Lucretia's, who is most decidedly 'upstairs'. Motherless Lucretia must find her way in Cromwell's England quite on her own when suddenly she finds herself betrothed to a man whom she loathes. She must be a lady at all times, maintain decorum, not marry for love, but is simply a pawn in her father's ministrations.
Lucretia refuses to eat until her father calls off the marriage and John accepts the challenge to create a dish compelling her to eat. Lucretia and John develop an understanding and he devises dishes in which it appears she has eaten nothing, when in fact, she has eaten a bit. All these years John's kitchen skills have grown rapidly and readers watch as he progresses from peeling potatoes in the scullery to easing stones from peaches in the kitchen, until one day he cooks for the King of England.
Norfolk's ability to have smoke and spices and aromas whisp off the page luring readers by their very nosehairs and pulls them deeper into this world where cookery is a mystical knowledge, cookbooks contain potions and spells, and feasts have the power to balance the natural world.
So, if you like food, British history, myth, alchemy and witchcraft, this is the book for you.
'The Feast belongs to its cook, I told your mother,' Scovell said. 'It was for all, she answered. Those were her last words to me. I understood her nature too late. But she udnerstood mine better. When she left, I believef the Feast was lost forever.' He looked uip at John. 'Then you came.'
The Master Cook eyed the crowded shelves, the row of gallipots half-hidden in shadow then the low door that connected his chamber to the room beyond.
'She wrote in her book,' Scovell murmered and it seemed to John that he spoke to the dead women as much as to himself. 'But not on paper with ink. She wrote it in you. And she sent you here. She sent you to me.' 193