My first question is ‘Why isn’t Muriel Barbery herself a food critic?’ – her descriptions of food in The Gourmet are exquisite.
As the world’s most celebrated food critic, Pierre Arthens, lays dying in his plush Parisian apartment (the same apartment building of The Elegance of the Hedgehog fame), his mind turns to key culinary moments in his past. Having eaten at the finest restaurants and drunk the best wines, Pierre is desperate to recall the most delicious food ever to pass his lips. All he wants is one last taste.
“How ironic! After decades of grub, deluges of wine and alcohol of every sort, after a life spent in butter, cream, rich sauces, and oil in constant, knowingly orchestrated and meticulously cajoled excess, my trustiest right-hand men, Sir Liver and his associate Stomach, are doing marvelously well and it is my heart that is giving out. I am dying of cardiac insufficiency. What a bitter pill to swallow.”
“I’m going to die and there is a flavour that has been teasing my taste buds and my heart and I simply cannot recall it. I know that this particular flavour is the first and ultimate truth of my entire life, and that it holds the key to a heart that I have since silenced… and original, marvellous dish that predates my vocation as a critic, before I had any desire or pretension to expound on my pleasure in eating.”
And so begins the culinary journey through Pierre’s life – rich, sumptuous vignettes of the critic’s most fond food memories ranging from grilled meat and mechouia salad in Tangiers, and barbequed sardines in Brittany to eating a freshly picked tomato, still warm from the sun in his aunt’s garden and a tiny square of salmon sashimi, the only piece deemed suitable from a whole fish by the best sushi chef in the world.
“An apple tart, with thin, crisp pastry, and wedges of golden fruit insolently veiled beneath the discreet caramel sugar crystals.”
Chapters alternate between the voice of Arthens – who is arrogant, fearsome and self-important – and the voices of others that orbit around him – his family, a would-be protege, his housekeeper and even a cat. In Arthens, Barbery has created a supremely unlikeable character who is, for want of better words, brilliant and utterly compelling.
“Between these two extremes – the rich warmth of a daude and the clean crystal of shellfish – I have covered the entire range of culinary art, for I am an encyclopedic aesthete who is always one dish ahead of the game – but always one heart behind.”
There was so much I liked about this book – the plot was short and punchy but the descriptions about food were lush and indulgent; Barbery created strong, highly memorable characters; and the descriptions of food are epic. A couple of the narrators lost me a little but all was redeemed with the punchline ending. It is fabulous, brilliant and fitting.
5/5 I waited until March for my first five star read… It was worth the wait.
Dare I suggest an accompaniment to The Gourmet? So many possibilities but I did love the two pages devoted to the person who suggests a sorbet instead of ice cream –
“In the simple word ‘sorbet,’ there is already an entire world… you have already opted for lightness, already chosen refinement, you are offering airy vistas while refusing a heavy land-bound trek with closed horizons. Airy, indeed: a sorbet is airy, almost immaterial, it froths ever so slightly as it makes contact with your warmth…”
Enjoy this orange sorbet, slightly icy, in the style made by French grandmothers.