A menu can embody the anthropology of a culture, or the psychology of an individual; it can be 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 breath 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.
And it’s from this deluge of highfalutin contemplation, that Lanchester introduces us to his protagonist Tarquin Winot.
The Debt to Pleasure is structured by seasonal menus. Each quarter of the novel is divided by a selection of foods typical of and appropriate to the individual season. Some of the best include recipes for blinis, Irish stew, Queen of Puddings (the first ever dish Tarquin learns to cook), bourride, peaches in red wine and a variety of curries. The menus are the subtext for Tarquin’s memories: it is soon clear that food, not human interaction, holds the power to provoke memory and emotion. In each dish, we find ourselves entering an increasingly uncomfortable world of snobbish obsession. On the virtues of salad cream, he quips:
at least had the virtue of tasting ‘like itself’ – -that’s to say, like the byproduct of an industrial accident.
and his brother’s school dinners:
We then sat down to a meal which Dante would have hesitated to invent.
(Having also been subjected to tray after tray of mysteriously mottled brown school dinners in England, I heartily sympathise).
As you may have gathered, finding a recipe for inspiration was not a problem. I finally came to the decision to eschew the other grander suggestions, in favour of the humble aioli. It’s the novel’s promise of the aioli recipe that singles it out. As the only recipe to which he makes reference multiple times, Tarquin dangles the promise in front of the reader like a gilded carrot. And it’s no wonder, providing as it does the most telling encounter between Tarquin and his brother (perhaps his most intimate relationship) in the novel.
My brother, who didn’t much like what he, with self-conscious unpretentiousness, called ‘foreign food’ (a category from which he excluded curry), was none the less an enthusiast for garlic, especially in the form of the aioli currently under discussion: ‘The nearest thing the French have to HP sauce’, I remember him saying, as he ladelled another dollop of the ambrosial confection onto his plate. [...H]e would always insist on my constructing an aioli of the classic Provencal marque, with a cold poached piece of fish as the central dish (often, controversially, not salt cod) or a personal selection of boiled meats and an intelligent array of accompaniments ranged around like an edible honour guard (boiled eggs, asparagus spears, broccoli florets, peeled fava beans, carrots, haricots verts, warm new potatoes in their jackets – or, as the Italian expression has it, in their nightshirts – tomatoes, celery, beetroot, chickpeas and a half-pint or so of simmered escargots).
2 egg yolks
4 cloves of garlic
480ml olive oil
1 lemon, juiced
I kept absolutely to the letter on this one. Just as Tarquin would have wanted:
[P]ut two egg yolks in a blender with four cloves of garlic and slowly whizz in a pint of olive oil (ail meaning garlic and oil being the term for olive oil in Provence’s attractively rough-and-ready, local dialect) and the juice of a lemon.
Consumed in large quantity, aioli can have a stifling effect, so any companion dishes should be light and invigorating: I myself prefer to serve only with a tossed green salad… The preferred libation is rosé wine.
I chose to serve the aioli the poached cod (poached in white wine and leeks) and the aforementioned “edible honour guard”: soft-boiled eggs, broccoli florets, carrots, beetroot, plum tomatoes, potatoes and celery.
Serves 2. But if your evening’s anything like Tarquin’s, you may need to finish it yourself.