An Appetite for Violets

by Martine Bailey


Reviewed by Margaret Tomlinson


An Appetite for Violets is an exuberant tale full of charm about an eighteenth-century cook for a British gentleman whose new young wife suddenly descends on the household while her husband is away. Biddy Leigh is a pretty country girl with a passion for cooking. Recipes from her collection grace the beginnings of chapters, from Taffety Tart ("Roll and fill with pippins and quinces and sweet spice and lemon peel as much as delights.") to Funeral Cakes ("Add grains of ambergris and so mix it up, and put into it three or four spoonfuls of flour. Then put into paper coffens and bake them in the oven.")

A madcap flight to the Continent, where Biddy's mistress plans to use her in a risky scheme, offers an excuse for a jaunt through the world of eighteenth-century fancy cookery. If readers guess at many details of Lady Carinna's plot long before the innocent Biddy catches on, there is still plenty of suspense and bafflement to satisfy. Biddy herself is a delightful mixture of good humor, pluck, naïveté and just enough intelligence to keep readers from looking down their noses at her.

Details relating to fashion, food and travel in An Appetite for Violets are well-researched, though the characters' behavior can stretch credibility. Sticklers for historical authenticity may find the lower-class characters too breezily uncowed by their masters and mistresses to be quite believable, while the aristocrats seem a little too comfortable with the lack of deference they are sometimes shown. But readers looking for a mouth-watering romp through the history of cooking will easily excuse these lapses in a thoroughly entertaining novel. (2014, 391 pages including a selected bibliography of sources)

More about An Appetite for Violets at Powell's Books or Amazon.com


Other historical novels about cooks:

The Gentleman Poet by Kathryn Johnson (2010), about a servant girl shipwrecked on an island with her demanding mistress and a disguised William Shakespeare. See review or more info at Powell's Books

The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark (2008), about a chef's apprentice at the palace of the Venetian doge in 1498 who becomes involved in a search for an ancient book of secrets. See review or more info at Powell's Books

John Saturnall's Feast by Lawrence Norfolk (2012), about a seventeenth-century scullery boy who works his way up to the status of cook. See review or more info at Powell's Books


Nonfiction about eighteenth-century cookery:

The British Housewife: Cookery Books, Cooking and Society in 18th Century Britain by Gilly Lehmann (2003). More info

The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture by Rebecca Spang (2000). More info

Eat My Words: Reading Women's Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote by Janet Theophano (2003). More info


Online:

Savoring the Past, a blog featuring historical recipes


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