Extract from 'The Devil's Feast' by Miranda Carter
Posted by Miranda Carter
This Thursday 10 November LRB contributors Miranda Carter and Bee Wilson will be discussing Carter's latest novel, The Devil's Feast. Read an extract from the novel below. The book follows Alexis Soyer, a Frenchman from the 19th Century who became the world's first celebrity chef.
‘Gentlemen,’ Soyer called, ‘pray be seated. I have an amuse-bouche upon which I would like your opinion and a fine white burgundy which will complement it perfectly.’ He unlocked a small cabinet and extricated a bottle chilling in a bucket of ice.
Mr Percy, the steward, whom I had met earlier, arrived and poured the wine ‒ a deep, transparent gold ‒ into eleven small glasses. A waiter served each of us with a morsel of lobster in a buttery sauce flavoured very gently with Indian spices laid inside a small, crisp, layered pastry case or vol-au-vent. It was so light one almost inhaled it. The wine, scented with butter and honey, was gone all too soon.
‘Gentlemen, what do you think?’ Soyer asked. ‘I am planning to serve it, along with a number of other dishes we shall eat tonight, at our banquet for the Prince of Egypt next week. I wish my dishes to be perfect, so I rely on your opinions.’ He bowed low. ‘Is the spicing correct? Is the sauce too heavy?’
The chef Francobaldi laughed. ‘Another of your butter sauces, eh, Alexis? A mite safe, I’d say.’ But there was ice in his laugh, and I should have said he was envious. Soyer’s colleague, Monsieur Morel, stiffened, but Soyer waved it off. ‘Giovanni likes to tease.’
‘It is a masterful combination, Alexis,’ Ude, the elderly chef, pronounced imperiously. ‘Quite classical.’
‘Quite heavenly,’ said Mr Jerrold.
‘Of course, I am not the first to produce a lobster vol-au-vent,’ said Soyer, ‘but I am pleased with the spicing and the delicacy of the dish. I think no one can rival me there. And, may I say, several distinguished persons have commented upon its refinement. The Duke of Leinster said so only last week, and the Marquis of Ailsa too.’ Francobaldi rolled his eyes.
‘Now for our simple supper.’ The door opened, and Mr Percy ushered a troop of footmen into the room, carrying dozens of plates.
How shall I describe it? Vivid, surprising, complicated, delicious. I had never tasted the like. We began with a soup of early asparagus, light yet intensely flavourful, then turbot in a delicate pink sauce of lobster roe, then a whole salmon trout, remarkably suspended in aspic as if at the moment just before it took the hook.
Then the first of the ‘removes’ arrived: braised pigeons with asparagus and peas, and an extraordinary construction made of pastry in the shape of a crown, stuffed with small poached chickens which had in turn been stuffed with mushrooms, ox tongues and sweetbreads. Into the pastry crown’s sides had been stuck little golden skewers on which were strung slices of truffle and pink crayfish tails. We applauded wildly. Soyer described it as his little trompe l’oeil, and said again that he was confident no one had ever seen anything like it and it would astonish the guests at the banquet.
There was a small pause while we were entertained with hors d’oeuvres ‒ among them a fresh salad of celery, young onions and sliced radish, another of haricots verts, early green beans dressed in a warm brown butter, and tiny crab rissoles.
It was at this moment that Francobaldi suddenly looked across Monsieur Ude at Morel and said with an anger that took us all by surprise, ‘What the fuck did you say?’