The Queen of Puddings Pays the Debt to Pleasure.
I am on the horns of a dilemma. John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure is one of those books that are best enjoyed when you turn the first page without foreknowledge. Every morsel of information I give you will detract from your experience, every tidbit will taint your pleasure. How then, should I whet your appetite without spoiling your dinner?
The book opens with the line,:
‘This is not a conventional cookbook.’
This statement, certainly, is the truth, more than can be said for anything that follows. Our narrator defines unreliability. While The Debt To Pleasure comes replete with gastronomic guidance, its author doesn’t feel under obligation to diligently transcribe weights and measures. Take, for example, this recipe for mango sorbet:
‘1. Buy a sorbetière. 2. Buy some mangoes. 3. Follow the instructions.’
The title is borrowed from the notorious John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester’s blatantly obscene restoration poem, The Imperfect Enjoyment , providing just a hint to our narrator’s erudition and his proclivities.
When, with a thousand kisses wandering o’er
My panting bosom, “Is there then no more?”
She cries. “All this to love and rapture’s due;
Must we not pay a debt to pleasure too?”
We meet Tarquin Winot, a professional critic of food and art, as he sets out on a journey from Portsmouth to Provence. His intention is to put down on paper, as he travels, his ‘physiologie du gout,’ a culinary autobiography of sorts, anchored on the form of the menu.
‘A menu can embody the anthropology of a culture, or the psychology of an individual; it can be a biography, a cultural history, a lexicon; it speaks to the sociology, psychology and biology of its creator and its audience and, of course to their geographical location; it can be a way of knowledge, a path, an inspiration, a Tao, an ordering, a shaping, a manifestation, a talisman, an injunction, a memory, a fantasy, a consolation, an allusion, an illusion, an evasion, an assertion, a seduction, a prayer, a summoning, an incantation murmured under the breadth as the torchlights sink lower and the forest looms taller and the wolves howl louder and the fire prepares for its submission to the encroaching dark.’
Yes, Winot is a long-winded fellow, fond of big words and lengthy sentences. He is also immediately, hideously, hilariously and gloriously unlikeable. He is, and I say this with love, a pompous, misogynistic, hypercritical, snobbish, depraved, despicable and pathologically deluded ass. Tarquin Winot is, in a word, fabulous.
Our self-appointed hero has invested in a ‘seductively miniaturised Japanese Dictaphone’ with which he records his musings, his commentary on local cuisine and customs, a selection of seasonal recipes, and his reminiscences of earlier meals and adventures. His anecdotes are delivered casually, with the sort of tangents and off-shoots you might expect from a madman talking to himself.
He begins, at one point, to enlighten us with a recipe for blinis but, somewhere between ‘heat a heavy cast-iron pan’ and ‘when the smoke starts to rise’ delivers a disquisition on the advantages of being born in a caul, as he was and so also were Freud and Freud’s favourite character, David Copperfield. It is a sign, don’t you know, of being destined for greatness.
Tarquin’s knowledge of food is encyclopaedic, his scholarship breathtaking. I learned from him why chess players eat caviar. I learned about the most intriguing, perhaps the most important, of Michelangelo’s sculptures. I learned that all that glitters is not E175.
For all Tarquin’s distracting discourse on food and wine and artistic merit, it soon becomes clear that there is more to his mission than a gourmand’s jaunt to the South of France. We are given cause to wonder why he is wearing a wig, a false moustache and a deer-stalker hat. We can only guess his reasons for repeatedly changing one rental car for another. We are left to imagine why he carries a well-thumbed copy of the Mossad Manual of Surveillance Techniques.
It is clear that Tarquin Winot has a plan. He is up to something.
The Debt to Pleasure is one part gourmand’s guide to eating well, two parts depraved handbook to getting your own way in life.
The question is this: will Tarquin get his just desserts?
Queen of Puddings.
Winot’s culinary exploits all began with the Queen of Puddings. It was the first dish he was ever taught to make for himself. This is his own recipe for what he describes, quite correctly, as an ‘appropriately wintry dish and considerably easier to make than it looks.’
It is a confection, also, which seems to symbolise well enough the man himself. The Queen of Puddings appears harmless enough but that sweet frothy top belies the hidden depths and sticky darkness at the core.
5 oz breadcrumbs
1 Tbsp vanilla sugar
2 oz butter
Grated rind of one lemon
1 pint of hot milk
4 eggs, separated
4 oz caster sugar plus an extra teaspoonful for sprinkling
2 Tbsp of your favourite jam.
1. In a large mixing bowl, combine together the breadcrumbs, vanilla sugar, lemon zest, melted butter and hot milk. Leave to cool to room temperature so that the eggs won’t scramble.
2. Add the egg yolks, mix well and pour into a well-buttered pudding dish or quiche dish.
3. Bake at 180˚C for 20 minutes or so until the custard has just barely set.
4. While the bottom layer is cooking, whisk 4 egg whites until the peaks stand up on their own. I like to whisk the egg whites by hand. It acts as a sort of preliminary penance for the sin of gluttony I am about to commit. Winot specifies a copper bowl but then, he would. Next, fold in the caster sugar ‘with the distinctive wrist-turning motion of somebody turning the dial on a very big radio.’
5. Remove the base from the oven and spread a generous layer of your favourite jam, in this case blackcurrant seems apt.
6. Spread the meringue over the jam, bringing it right to the edge of the dish to seal the edges. Sprinkle one more spoon of sugar over the top and continue to bake at 180˚C for a further 15-20 minutes until the top has a good colour.
7. Eat, with wild abandon, you never know which pudding will be your last.