Sunday, June 23, 2013

John Saturnall's Feast

UK cover - the one I read
John Saturnall's Feast / Lawrence Norfolk
London: Bloomsbury, c2012.
408 p.

I first heard of this as a recommendation from another book blogger (Gavin at Page 247) and thought it sounded like something I would enjoy. I've finally read it, and thankfully, she was totally on to something! This was an enjoyable read, combining English history (right around the years of Oliver Cromwell and the Restoration) with food -- the main character, John Saturnall, is a cook.

I love reading old recipes, and so that was part of the delight of this novel. Norfolk describes the dishes made in the enormous Buckland Manor, where John ends up. There are excerpts from a book attributed to John Saturnall, with woodcut style illustrations, describing events and feasts, interspersed with the regular narrative. And much of the forward movement of the story is tied up in John's progress through the kitchen, from scullery to head cook.

As the book begins, John and his mother live in a small village where she practices herbalism and helps women through health issues. But, of course, the fanaticism of the Cromwell years is coming, and his mother is denounced as a witch. They flee up to Buccla's Wood, a place where locals will not go, believing that is the original dwelling place of Bellica, during whose reign the valley was a paradise of lushness and ease but who was also called a witch and destroyed by an early priest.

US Cover - which do
you prefer?
John eventually gets discovered and sent to the Manor and his life truly begins in its kitchens. His mother has passed down the story of The Feast, a tradition from the years of Bellica, a tradition that his family is intimately connected with. He is always searching for the perfect food, the perfect feast to offer, using his unusual skills of taste and smell to create new and elaborate dishes. One of his triumphs is a pastry case filled with clear jelly, with pastry shapes embedded within (a little fancier than a jello mold, I must say). This dish brings him to the attention of the King.

But throughout his culinary journey, he also has to discover how to live with other people. The massive household staff becomes his family, replete with friends and enemies alike. John also catches the eye of the daughter of the house, and their slowly building relationship is also one of the key elements of the book. At the end we discover one of the reasons they are so tied together, another example of how history is never truly shaken off, but resurfaces with its influence over and over again.

I loved the way that Norfolk incorporates all the particular archaic language of cookery from that era. It adds so much to the book, flavouring it with a strangeness and mystery that whets the appetite for more. (Norfolk has added a short glossary to his website if there are too many strange terms for the reader). I think that most of the vocabulary can be easily understood in context, although I am glad they modernized the spellings -- no f/s confusions here. I enjoy reading older cookbooks (like Pleyn Delight, which I own) so was already familiar with some of the foods, but I think that Norfolk has really succeeded in creating a picture of a crowded, busy, working kitchen and the divisions between kitchen staff and household or estate staff as well. Different strata of society are revealed, especially when Buckland plays host to sad King Charles I. And Sir Kenelm Digby even makes a cameo, to my delight.

This was not a perfect book -- the pacing sometimes seemed uneven, and there were a few things like the Crabbe and Goyle-like bullies when John arrives in Buckland that seemed too obvious a choice -- but nevertheless I enjoyed the read very much. The atmosphere was slightly mythic with its references to Buccla and the Feast passed down the generations, as well as John's uncanny ability to identify ingredients. There was history, action, betrayal, true love, and the pleasures of magnificent food. A wonderful book to sink into for an entire weekend.


  1. I've wanted to read this book since I first read an excerpt online. I'm a sucker for descriptions of food. Thanks for the review. Now off to reserve it at the library.

    1. Hope you'll like it, it is well worth reading!!

  2. This sounds so interesting! I love food-oriented books, especially ones that feature recipes and history. Lovely review, Melwyk.

    1. This one is most certainly not full of usable recipes, but the descriptions of food and ingredients are amazing. Such a fun read.


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