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Celebrity chef ahead of his time
Celebrity chef ahead of his time

British novelist Lawrence Norfolk is famed for his erudite and provocative historical fiction, intricately plotted, ambitious historical fiction that's seen him likened variously to Robert Graves, James Joyce and Umberto Eco. So it's not surprising that his new and fourth novel, John Saturnall's Feast, should stand all preconceptions about British food on end.

Already lauded as one of 2012's best books, it tells the story of a 17th-century orphan who became the greatest chef of the age. From the kitchen to illicit bedchambers, royal tables and the battlefield, it surveys England and its struggle with Puritanism through the prism of a lost culinary tradition.

"The early 17th century was a golden age for English cooking," Norfolk says. "British food was wonderful. Who would have thought it?"

Norfolk was labouring on an altogether different novel called The Levels, until he read friend Kate Colquhoun's 2007 social history, Taste: the Story of Britain through its Cooking.

"I had the same view of British cuisine as most people have and was amazed to discover that British cooking was not the joke that I knew it to be but had once been vibrant and cosmopolitan and technically sophisticated.

"Then we reached the English Civil war of 1642 and suddenly the cuisine of the past is swept away, together with the social order that sustained it. There was nothing about haute cuisine in the middle of the war, just people grovelling around in hedgerows trying to survive.

"But I found my interest quotient going up. What, I wondered, if you were a cook? How would you cope?"

Thus he began to conceive of the story of John Sandall, or Saturnall, a village boy apprenticed in the kitchens of Buckland Manor, and of the sophisticated cuisine that flourished in England before the war between Cromwell's Puritans and Charles I.

"A cuisine," explains Norfolk, "where there were three different cuisines working at once. One was the traditional English roasts and puddings that everybody knows about, the second was what we think of as North African, that was brought back by the Crusaders - saffron, lamb cooked with apricots and so on - and thirdly there was continental cuisine, cream-based sauces, delicate pastries and things.

"We hadn't had a serious war for 100 years so instead of building (fortified) castles, the aristocracy built kitchens, amongst other things. So the time was uniquely favourable for these ingredients."

Anchored in mythical notions of the ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia and pre-Judaeo-Christian notions of gardens and feasts, the novel is a rich, page-turning weave of love and war, sex and religious fanaticism, class and political rivalries. A book where the rigours of starvation rub alongside details of the most sumptuous, exotic dishes imaginable.

Each chapter begins with a recipe from the 1681 Book of John Saturnall, in which he outlines his thoughts on food as well his Saturnall feast in arcane, Jacobean English. His dishes serve as a kind of language, both of love and of politics.

"The act of cookery was always a kind of language in which one thing was being said by one person and something else was being said by the person who was consuming it," says Norfolk.

"And I think that's true generally. It's always an exchange between whoever has done the cooking and whoever does the eating. To eat is a very primordial experience, and a very intimate one."

In writing the novel too, which is qualitatively different from his previous works, Norfolk came to feel he's begun a whole new career as a novelist, abandoning his famously complex and baroque style as well as his labours on The Levels, for a book that was, he recalls, a joy to write.

"If I wasn't running to the kitchen every day, I was running upstairs to write. At root I really believe that fiction is very simple. We want to know what happens next, we want to be engaged with characters because around the corner somewhere is death, and stories can console us in that predicament.

"So there's a kind of primeval quality to fiction and I think I'd kind of lost that really, but felt I regained it with this book."

But he's not about to abandon his passion for the past any time soon. Already at work on a new novel set in the Elizabethan age, he says: "The past is the great voyage that's left. I just feel that all these journeys are to different worlds that happen to be in time, not in space.

"It's merely curiosity and empathy for the people who live in those worlds which draws me to them. I also think - which is actually wrong but I do think it - if I'm not going to tell their story, who is going to tell it?"