It would take a reader with strong willpower to get to the end of The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery without drooling. The book really should come with one of those Government- style warnings on the front: Read only when you’re not hungry.
It could be Barbery’s description of the sweet yet sharp smoky flavour of grilled sardines or her evocation of sashimi whose texture is “velvet dust, verging on silk” that gets you salivating. Perhaps however your tastes run more to:
Pan roasted breast of Peking duck rubbed with berbère; grapefruit crumble à la Jamaïque with shallot confit.
This is the world of Pierre Arthens, the greatest food critic in France. He has two days left to live, two days in which to find the answer to a question that torments him — what is the most delicious food he has ever eaten. He knows it’s a flavour from his childhood or adolescence, a time many years before he took up his vocation. It’s a flavour that he feels represents the truth of his whole life. He recollects meals eaten au plein air with some farmers, lunches at his grandparent’s house, a stand up snack in the kitchen of one of the world’s leading chefs and mezze dishes in a tiny restaurant in Tangiers. While he scans his memory, those who know him give their opinions on his character.
No-one it seems likes him very much, neither his wife, his children or his mistress. Not even the cat who Arthens adores, has a good word to say for him. In their eyes he’s just a cold, arrogant and self centered man who has put his love of food above everything else in his life. By the end of the book you realise that the story isn’t about food at all; it’s about obsession and pride.
This is a portrait of a deeply flawed character. The style verges towards the florid but that’s the nature of food writing anyway and Barbery mixes it with some snatches of black humour
“How ironic! After decades of grub, deluges of wine and alcohol of every sort, after a life spent in butter, cream, rich sauces, and oil in constant, knowingly orchestrated and meticulously cajoled excess, my trustiest right-hand men, Sir Liver and his associate Stomach, are doing marvelously well and it is my heart that is giving out. I am dying of cardiac insufficiency. What a bitter pill to swallow.”
I enjoyed it for what it was but wasn’t that hooked because the character of Arthens wasn’t developed enough. We never got to understand why this man was so self centered and obnoxious, nor why his wife stuck around with him or why he was so revered. Full of promise but ultimately disappointing.
The Gourmet was Barbery’s first book before she went on to gain acclaim for The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Maybe this book was simply an amuse bouche before the real thing.