The Times: "As a piece of historical fiction, there is not an ounce of fat on it a compliment, even for a work so concerned with the food of France."
Date: Jun 29 2013
A snake bouillabaisse seasoned with salt, cayenne, fennel and saffron. A wolf’s heart pickled with coriander, peppercorns, cloves and celery seed, served cold with bread and cabbage. Flamingo tongues boiled for an hour, then braised in butter and accompanied with a leek and date sauce. Cheese made from the milk of young Corsican women. Dog, cat, alligator, loris. These are just some of the dishes prepared by Jean-Marie Charles D’Aumout, a minor French noble whose inquiring palate is the one constant over the course of a colourful life, brilliantly imagined by Jonathan Grimwood and presented as memoir in his debut literary novel The Last Banquet.
We meet D’Aumout when he is a small child, sat on a dungheap, eating beetles. It is 1723 and his parents — impoverished French petite noblesse — lie dead in their beds, having succumbed to starvation. He is rescued from squalor by the Duke of Orleans and tossed a piece of Roquefort cheese. “Without thinking, I licked my fingers and froze at the taste of a sourness so perfect the world stopped”. From this point on, his path is set: he is packed off to boarding school then military academy, nurturing a quiet taste for gastronomic experimentation while doing what you need to do to rise through aristocratic society, which in his case involves rescuing the daughter of a powerful lord from both wolves and rebellious peasants.
D’Aumout’s early years, particularly, fizz by. Romance and adventure drip off every page, but Grimwood doesn’t trade only in derring-do. He captures all the unspoken nuance of male friendship as he details the relationships D’Aumout forges with the sons of great magnates and the sons of an emergent, impatient bourgeoisie, relationships made all the more complex by the rigid social hierarchies of the ancien régime.
Of course, we all know that with every passing chapter we are one step closer to the guillotine. Just as with Perfume by Patrick Suskind and Pure by Andrew Miller, placing this story in pre-Revolutionary France — a world about to be turned upside down — lends it an edge as well as a strange sort of romance. And in many ways, it is a book all about nostalgia, in the way that a memoir full of recipes is almost bound to be. As the protagonist ages, no new dish ever seems to quite match that first taste of Roquefort. A lot of things, it turns out, taste like chicken.
The pace slackens as the years stretch, D’Aumout’s duties taking him to Versailles, where shabby venality reigns. Sex, like food, is explored: by the end, you would back yourself to know how to undo the intricate dress of a willing 18th-century lady, and there is even a recipe for a redingote Anglaise — a condom — made from the intestines of small animals, boiled, scraped and “exposed to the vapour of burning brimstone”.
Grimwood even has D’Aumout engage with historical figures: he corresponds with Rousseau and meets Benjamin Franklin. You can read these as hints of his previous existence as Jon Courtenay Grimwood, a sci-fi writer with an interest in alternative histories.
By the end, D’Aumout is old and alone in his château, save for his blind pet tiger, as the revolutionary mob approaches and the finale, when it comes, feels like a logical conclusion. As a piece of historical fiction, there is not an ounce of fat on it — a compliment, even for a work so concerned with the food of France.