Cooked: Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death by M.C. Beaton
Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death. That title was irresistible. I thought it had the ring of a Famous Five Adventure for Grown-ups, which is exactly what it is, replete with wholesome adventure, a formidable heroine, and plenty of breaks for food.
Agatha Raisin has spent a lifetime in the Public Relations business, massaging the fragile egos of the temperamental ‘talent’. At last, she has accumulated a nest egg sufficient to fulfill her lifelong ambition of retirement to a rural idyll in the Cotswolds. Agatha acquires a picture-perfect thatched cottage and pays to have it decorated de rigeur while she figures out exactly how to become a countrywoman. She must learn to garden, she will read books other than those of her clients, and, of course, she will cook. To this end, a gleaming row of cookery books is installed on a spanking new kitchen shelf.
The dream would be complete if it weren’t for the unpleasant fact that the village of Carsely seems less than eager to welcome their newest citizen.
Fifty-three year old Agatha, with her ‘plain brown hair and a plain square face and a stocky figure’ is a competent, no nonsense sort of woman, accustomed to commanding respect. Having succeeded in PR ‘by being a sort of one-woman soft-cop/hard-cop combination’, Agatha has no doubt whatsoever that she can persuade Carsely to adopt her as one of their own .
Step one in Agatha’s campaign for social acceptance is to impress the locals by winning The Great Quiche Competition at the village fair. After all, ‘wasn’t that what mattered in these villages? Being the best at something domestic?’
Leaving nothing to chance, Agatha scuttles up to London to purchase an exemplary tart from a famed Quicherie. Defeat, however, is snatched from the very jaws of victory, when a sliver of her fancy quiche kills the judge stone dead.
‘You killed him, Agatha Raisin. You killed him with your nasty foreign quiche, just as much as if you had knifed him.’
Agatha sharply reaches the conclusion that she will never live down the shame of her Quiche of Death unless she can prove it was murder.
While the plot verges on the ridiculous, it avoids predictability. Beaton, a seasoned pro, succeeds in distracting the reader with a tasty red herring or three. What's more the characters of bucolic Carsely ring perfectly true. Agatha Raisin is fabulously cantankerous, eschewing political correctness and delighting in antagonism. Young Bill, the policeman (yes, really called Bill), is a proper, loveable sweetheart. James Lacey, the love interest, is a charming and chiselled army man, ‘handsome enough to strike any middle-aged woman all of a heap.’ Arriving quite late in the day, the colonel is just in time to reawaken Agatha’s hormones and leave the reader keen to move on to Book Two.
M.C. Beaton is one of a half dozen, or more, pseudonyms used by Marion Chesney over the course of her prolific writing career. Born in Glasgow, Chesney began writing books in the 1980s because she could find nothing to read ‘in between Mills &Boon and Booker books, no books for a bad time on a wet day.’ She has produced a string of historical romances, as well as 34 books, so far, in the Hamish Macbeth detective series and 27 in the Agatha Raisin series. Writing exactly the type of book that you would curl up with on the wettest day of your holidays, it is hardly any wonder that, at 81 years old, M.C. Beaton remains one of the ‘most borrowed’ authors from British libraries.
Whilst enjoying a resurgence in popularity since Alexander McCall Smith made ‘cosy crime’ fashionable, Beaton reportedly can’t stand that term and threatens to ‘give a Glasgow kiss’ to anybody who uses it to describe her work. On that basis, I shall refrain.
Not a bit cosy but light and cheesy as any prize-winning quiche, Agatha Raisin is just the ticket for a summer’s day.
A Deadly Quiche
I offer a long guarded family recipe which has, thus far, NOT resulted in death by quiche although I may be murdered for publishing it. The effort of whisking the egg whites is rewarded with a quiche which is light as a soufflé.
In the spirit of Agatha Raisin, I grant full permission to cheat and use shop-bought shortcrust pastry, in which case this quiche is the work of mere moments to prepare. The quantities given fill a 23cm tart tin.
For the pastry (if making):
6 oz plain flour
3 oz salted butter, cold and cut into cubes
For the filling:
8 oz bacon lardons
8 oz cream
4 oz grated cheese
2 spring onions
1. Wash your hands in cold water and then use the tips of your fingers to lightly rub the butter into the flour until the mixture has a texture of breadcrumbs. Break the egg into a cup and mix it with a fork. Add about two thirds of the egg to the flour and butter mixture and use your hands to bring everything together into a ball. Retain that last dribble of beaten egg for the next step. Press the pastry into a flat disc, wrap it in cling film and leave it to rest in the fridge for an hour (make coffee, read a few chapters).
2. Preheat the oven to 180˚C. Roll out the pastry between two sheets of cling film and then press it in to the tart tin. Line the pastry case with a sheet of baking paper, fill with baking beans and bake for 10 minutes. Remove the baking beans and brush the pastry case with the remaining beaten egg and bake blind for a further 5 minutes. This is the crucial step to preventing the dreaded soggy bottom.
3. Fry the bacon lardons.
4. Separate the 4 eggs into two mixing bowls. Add the grated cheese, spring onions and pepper to the egg yolks and mix well.
5. Whisk the egg whites until they are stiff and then fold into the cheesy mixture. Scatter the bacon over the pastry case and pour the cheese mixture on top. Bake for 35-40 minutes until the centre is set.
The quiche may be eaten hot from the oven but I like it best when it has just cooled to room temperature.