The Food of Love by Prue Leith
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Prue Leith, familiar to many as a judge on BBC's Great British Menu, is a true renaissance woman. She studied drama, art, architecture and French before training as a Cordon Bleu chef. Moving from her native South Africa to London in the 1960s, Leith established herself as a ‘cook-for-hire’ catering lunches at Belgravia homes for posh ladies who let on that she was the scullion.
Leith was asked to ghostwrite a Daily Mail food column for the Queen’s cousin, Lady Elizabeth Anson, and agreed on the condition that she was also given a column in her own name. Leith alternated Lady Elizabeth’s fine-dining tips with her own everyday recipes. Her name was made, the catering business flourished, and Leith was soon organising parties for Elton John and the Queen Mum.
During her 38 years in the food business, Leith has published twelve cookery books (including the classic Leith's Cookery Bible), founded a world-renowned cookery school, advised British Rail on their menu, and run Leith's, her famous Michelin-starred restaurant. You might think that now would be the time for her to sit back and enjoy a digestivo, but retirement is not on the menu for this unstoppable woman.
In 1995, Prue Leith began writing fiction and churned out five contemporary romantic novels. The Food of Love is her first venture into historical romance. The second and third books in the Food of Love trilogy are expected to follow soon and Leith has hinted at a TV adaptation.
The story opens in 1940 and follows the Oliver family, from their Cotswolds farm to a London restaurant, through 14 years of wartime rationing.
One of the joys of reading historical fiction is the insight if offers into life at a different point in time. It was interesting to read a novel that shone a spotlight on wartime cuisine. The war and food rationing had a revolutionary effect on how the people of Britain farmed, cooked and ate their food. Leith has clearly researched her subject well and lays a solid foundation for her story.
Our heroine, Laura Oliver, is just 14 at the outset, over-indulged by her snobbish father and doted on by her older brothers. The war brings a selection of scruffy suitors to her doorstep and scuppers Daddy’s plans for a suitable match. Laura makes some catastrophic choices and loses everything, including her father’s respect. With the help of Giovanni, a good Italian man with a passion for food, Laura must carve out an independent life.
Giovanni re-ignites their fortunes with his English adaptation of the Italian classic, mozzarella in carrozza. With the greatest disdain, he is forced to substitute the heavy wartime loaf for his mother’s white bread, dried egg powder for real fresh eggs and, worst of all, cheddar cheese for mozzarella. Nevertheless, his fried sandwich takes London by storm and so begins a food empire.
Being something of a cheese toastie afficionado, I took it as my duty to test Giovanni’s recipe.
Two thick slices of locally-made white bread, a mound of Cork cheddar, and the golden yolk of a free range egg, all bound together with the egg white and fried in a generous lash of Irish butter. In that one sentence is the making of a meal you could die for.
The joy of watching the runny yolk spill out when you cut the sandwich is nothing short of erotic, not to mention the pleasure of mopping it up again with a piece if crispy, cheesy, butter-salted bread. This truly is the food of love. I have a feeling I will be investing in one of Prue Leith’s cookery books.
While there is nothing wildly original about this novel, the ingredients of a good book are all there. The characters are appealing, the plot is a satisfying and the book is peppered with enough insider knowledge to give it the flavour of an expose. I thought that it lacked a little seasoning or perhaps a touch of spice. This is a decent book to fill the gap, on a train perhaps, or when you just want something light and easy.
If books were compared to restaurants The Food of Love would not be in the Michelin guide. Forget about fine-dining and imagine taking your favourite corner table at the local ristorante. Order a comforting bowl of minestrone and a fiasco of chianti, sit back and relax. Buon appetito.