Christobel Kent hungers for a foreign adventure to feed her imagination
Most novelists will say lockdown has not noticeably affected their working routine. How could they pretend otherwise? It’s never involved much more than parking yourself on a chair in front of a screen, or a notebook, and choosing the words. But we’re being a bit shifty here – perhaps it’s a rather Anglo-Saxon reluctance to warble on about inspiration – because writing really hasn’t been the same. However buttoned-up and British you are, fiction is still largely the work of the imagination, and the imagination needs to be fed. In my case, literally: I miss foreign food, steamy restaurants, brilliantly coloured markets, bars fragrant with coffee and vanilla, a campervan on an Italian beach selling sandwiches and cold white wine. Spending a year eating only food you’ve cooked for yourself leaves the resources depleted.
It isn’t exactly that I get my ideas eating abroad; but there’s something about the sybaritic alchemy of the Parisian brasserie or the Italian trattoria that surely sets any imagination free. Writing my first novel A Party in San Niccolo in secret, I still remember this phrase: “the pleasant chink and clatter of a table being laid” (as heard by my heroine, a harassed mother, soon after her arrival in Florence) popping into my head. I felt something lift off my shoulders: a cold, heavy, admonishing Puritan something. Partly that sense of liberation was the realisation that in parallel to our pleasure in actually eating (and I’m paraphrasing Roland Barthes here, or is it Plato?), just the sight of those words, the idea of food brings us pleasure – even if we’re not hungry.
From the moment I walked off a plane aged 24, into the glittering heat of the Po plain and saw spires rising out of the heat haze, I knew it was the place for me, forever
And this is why I needed, in those early writing years, to describe somewhere other than Britain (although I’ve very happily written novels set in this country since then). British crime fiction has many satisfactions, dry wit and ferociously committed, intricate plotting to name but two, but food is not its strong point. To write lovingly about food in a British setting is, at best, a distraction. When food is mentioned it tends to be deployed as social signifier, but not much else. Take Dorothy Sayers’ novels, where Lord Peter Wimsey’s port is contrasted with the watery soup into which the ugly beads of lady socialists dangle. To find cuisine given its beautiful due, and a place that seems natural in any narrative, we have to cross the channel. Nicolas Freeling, creator of Van der Valk, for example, was a trained chef and his Kitchen Book and Cookbook are classics.
And then, of course, there is Georges Simenon. Whenever anyone says to me that they find Simenon’s Maigret stories incomprehensibly flat and dull, his plots flimsy, his characterisation thin – and believe it or not, they do – I know they have no interest in food (or women’s underwear, but that, as Gaston the barkeeper says in Irma La Douce, is another story). Whether it be a sandwich and a beer brought up from a bar in the Place de la Nation, or lobster (“Waiter! Fresh mayonnaise, this smells of soap”) with a half-bottle of Riesling, or choucroute and Alsatian sausage, or “delicious, crisp chips” when Simenon talks about food he is not passing social comment or indicating his status, he is introducing pleasure. Neither the philandering novelist nor his detective the uxorious Maigret is a Puritan. When he talks about food Simenon is talking about so much: he is amplifying, he is conjuring up a world of smell and taste and touch and sight, the crispness of a tablecloth, the gleam of a chandelier in old glass, the tinkle of cutlery, the sight of the nape of a woman’s neck in evening dress at the next table.
I was spoilt for choice when I decided to set my first detective novel in Europe. I could have plumped for France, the closest shore: and might once have gone for humble Dieppe where, aged about nine, I first stepped on foreign soil and ate the most delicious thing I’d ever had in my life up to that point: bread and butter. French bread and butter: the crisp golden crust, the feathery interior, the cold pale, unsalted ambrosia that is Normandy butter. But although I love France and have family there, from the moment I walked off a plane aged 24, into the glittering heat of the Po plain and saw spires rising out of the heat haze (poor as a church mouse and recently split from my boyfriend), I knew it was the place for me, forever. And then I went out to dinner. In Modena.
If I wanted to give free rein to my love of food I might well have chosen Modena, or Bologna, which I know well and have described in one novel as the culinary capital of the universe (once, stranded there in a snowstorm, I ordered a glass of Franciacorta in the nearest bar and was without ceremony or extra charge handed two oysters with it). When I taught there in my twenties I was taken to unprepossessing bars and trattorie whose food made you want to run into the street and sing. But I would have drowned in detail: I would not have been able to stop. Exquisite ravioli, buttery and sage-drenched; the most delicate tortellini floating in glossy stock; prosciutto crudo di San Daniele, thin as a cigarette paper. Instead I chose Florence, the Italian city I have lived in and know best: that austere and forbidding home of bean-eaters whose love is hard won, where my heart has settled.
My private detective, Sandro Cellini, is a Florentine through and through. Born in the quartiere of Santa Croce, living in close proximity to the food market of Sant’ Ambrogio, his offices are in the Oltrarno, the humblest quarter of the city. Sandro, who lives under the disgrace of his summary dismissal from the state police force, embodies that combination of pessimism and fierce pride that I admire so much in the Florentine character. And he loves his food. Each of my three heroes in the series has a particular relationship with their daily bread. Giuli, an ex-con and former prostitute under Sandro’s wing, is also an ex-anorexic, and over the course of the novels a sign of her recovery and rehabilitation is her growing interest in food; by the sixth in the series, The Viper (2020), she is positively ravenous. Luisa, Sandro’s wife, is the novel’s cook. Sandro reveres her skill and feels it as the source of her omnipotence; if women can do something as complex and rewarding as cooking, they should surely rule the world. And when Luisa’s job becomes more demanding, at a point when Sandro is questioning the wisdom of starting a detective agency, it looks like he might have to up his game in the kitchen. With this changing of roles, his entire worldview comes under threat.
On Sandro’s first day as a private detective, a comfortless grey November morning that heralds an ominous All Saints’ Day, he arrives in his new and unfamiliar offices with a little plastic tub of bacala alla Livornese, made and packed for him by Luisa. A rich, oily stew of salt cod and tomatoes. He opens it and a drip lands on the desk top, marking it irrevocably. Sandro contemplates the indelible red stain, considers his own incompetence, his untidiness, his greed, the fact that he may have to have his best trousers let out (and not for the first time). And then he begins to eat.
Food is balm, food is pleasure, food is detail, food is love, food is order. And I like those things with my fiction.
Christobel Kent is a Gold Dagger-nominated author. She has lived in Essex, Modena, Florence and Cambridge, and has written seventeen novels, ten of which are set in Italy. The sixth novel in the “Sandro Cellini” series, “The Viper” (Corvus/Atlantic) came out in August 2020. Her new novel “The Widower” (Sphere) will be published in May