Nothing could please a chef more than a chance to learn the secrets of a Baron's castle kitchen. Having travelled the length and breadth of the country compiling his masterpiece, The Science of Cooking and The Art of Eating Well, Pellegrino Artusi relishes the prospect of a few quiet days and a boar hunt in the Tuscan hills.
But his peace is short-lived. A body is found in the castle cellar, and the local inspector finds himself baffled by an eccentric array of aristocratic suspects. When the baron himself becomes the target of a second murder attempt, Artusi realises he may need to follow his infallible nose to help find the culprit.
Marco Malvaldi serves up an irresistible dish spiced with mischief and intrigue, and sweetened with classical elegance and wit. His stroke of genius is to bring Italy's first cookery writer to life in this most entertaining of murder mysteries.
Release date: January 1, 2014
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Print pages: 192
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The Art of Killing Well
In the morning, the sun rose behind the hills, and as the castle was built a little way below the summit, the solar rays did not directly penetrate the windows of the bedrooms housing the seventh Barone di Roccapendente, the members of his family and his guests (of whom there were usually many), which meant that they were able to sleep peacefully until quite late.
In the early afternoon, the sun’s rays hit the castle, its gardens and its surrounding estate mercilessly, forcing anyone who was outside to bear a murderous heat made all the more pitiless by the humidity of the nearby marshes. But at that time, the baron and his family tended to be inside the castle, whose rooms with their vaulted ceilings were pleasantly, reassuringly cool, which helped their occupants to concentrate on card games, reading and complicated embroidery. The only people remaining outside beneath the relentless sun were the farm labourers, the estate manager, the stablemen and the gardeners, but they were accustomed to the heat.
The masters of the castle did not customarily emerge until about six in the evening, when the earth had tired of all that heat and had started to turn its back on the sun. This evening was no exception: at six o’clock on the dot, the baron and all his companions had come out into the garden to wait for the second of the guests who had been invited to enliven the weekend’s hunting party. The first guest, Signor Ciceri, described on his business card as a “landscape photographer and daguerreotypist”, had arrived that afternoon, to be greeted with polite indifference.
The second person due, on the other hand, was famous and quite distinguished, which was why they were waiting somewhat restlessly. Although almost all of them were wastrels who had never done an hour’s honest work in their lives, the castle’s residents had been subjected, thanks to the infernal heat, to a day of complete immobility in the coolness of the large rooms, and were now even more bored than usual. That was why this anticipated arrival was the genuine highlight of the day and the occupants were strolling in the garden in groups of two or three, exchanging hypotheses about the personage in question, all the while listening out for the sound of carriage wheels and horses.
There were in fact many things they did not know about the expected guest, and these things had been shared out equally among the various inquisitive groups strolling on the lawn. His personality. The way he dressed. But, above all, what he looked like. After all, this was the end of the nineteenth century, and famous people were known mainly for what they had said and done, not for what they looked like, which most of the time was completely or almost completely unknown. The good old days!
“He must be fat.”
“Do you think so?”
“I’d be surprised if he wasn’t. Have you ever come across a thin cook?”
“As a matter of fact, I haven’t. But the man isn’t actually a professional cook, is he? I gather he’s a textile merchant.”
“Apparently so. And that isn’t his only business. I wouldn’t like to …”
As he was thinking about what he wouldn’t like to do, Lapo Bonaiuti di Roccapendente’s eyes briefly met the anxious, vacuous gaze of Signorina Barbarici, nurse and companion to his grandmother, Nonna Speranza, and wondered, perhaps for the thousandth time, who would ever dream of going to bed with such a dog.
“What wouldn’t you like?”
“Oh, nothing. I was miles away. Anyway, it just confirms what I was saying. A merchant who likes good food. He’s a man who accumulates. Money in the bank, and fat on his belly. You’ll see. They’ll have to call us to prise him out of the bathtub, assuming he knows how to use one.”
“What are you saying, Signorino Lapo?”
“It wouldn’t surprise me. He is from Emilia-Romagna, after all. Coarse people” – he bit off the end of his cigar and spat it out – “who think only about eating, working and accumulating possessions.”
Not like me, Signorino Lapo’s way of walking screamed to the world: slow and aloof, his thumbs in his trouser pockets, his eyes moving from side to side. New clothes, English walking boots. Lapo’s vision of the way to behave with other human beings was simple and uncomplicated. If she was a woman and beautiful, you went to bed with her. If she was a woman and ugly, you went to bed with a different woman. If he was a man, you went to the brothel together. Everything else in life – eating, chatting, riding, and the occasional hunting party – was the moral obligation of a genuine man of the world, who had to rub shoulders with everyone, even inferior beings like Signorina Barbarici: a kind of interlude which, when pleasant, made the waiting less tiresome and, when unpleasant, added a little urgency to the great moment.
Signorina Barbarici did not reply. But then she had not been asked for her opinion.
Signorina Barbarici’s relationship with the world was also quite well defined: she was afraid. Of everything.
Storms, for example. Brigands, who came into your house, stole your jewellery and your embroidered tablecloths and did terrible things to women. Bees, which got in everywhere and after they had stung you stayed there, clinging stupidly to their target, and you had to get them off you. Her father, who was forever yelling. Her mother, who bore the brunt of it and passed it on to her. Men. Women. Solitude.
That was why Signorina Barbarici (who had been christened Annamaria some decades earlier: rather a pointless act, because nobody ever called her by her name) had, in order to survive, transformed herself into a kind of machine that agreed with everything. Only this ability made it possible for her to bear without serious consequences the daily humiliations she suffered at the hands of Signora Speranza. At the moment, though, for the first time that day, the signora was ignoring her and talking to her granddaughter in a sundrenched corner.
“He’s not going to cook for us, is he?”
“I have no idea, Nonna.”
“Because I’ve never eaten anything that wasn’t made by Parisina. A man, can you imagine? Since when have men taken to cooking, I ask you?”
“Many great cooks have been men, Nonna. Vatel, for example. Brillat-Savarin.”
“I’ve never heard of them. And you’ve only read about them in books. I don’t suppose you’ve ever eaten anything cooked by this Brillassavèn. Like me, you’ve always eaten what Parisina makes. Though even she, lately … Well, let’s not go into that, shall we? I may be old, but I’m not stupid. Apparently, there’s no such thing as meat these days. Fish only on Friday, otherwise anchovies. Endless vegetables. We’ve become goats, that’s what we’ve become.”
She was indeed old. And she had good reason to complain: she was in a wheelchair, and had not been able to move around for years. Not that it could have been much easier before, given that she must have weighed a good hundred kilos, badly distributed, from the neck down, over a useless body. But her face was thin, and her jaw still worked perfectly well, especially when she opened it to speak.
“It’s summer, Nonna, and very hot. We should eat light food.”
“Summer my foot. What do you care, all of you? The less you give me to eat, the sooner I’ll die, and you’ll have one less thing to worry about. Away with the old lady! She’s so fat, it might cost a bit to bury her, but then you’ll have more room.”
“Nonna, people are coming.”
That was the only way to shut her up: decorum before everything. And Cecilia knew that. Which was another reason she did not fit into this household.
Cecilia was short, with plump hands and hair gathered in a plait. Her body required a little imagination, given that she was trapped inside a dress that was a cross between a monk’s habit and a grain silo. Just as well, since her strong point was her eyes. Two large dark eyes flecked with green, whose calm, frank, direct gaze told you that she knew perfectly well you hadn’t changed your underwear this morning, but that when it came down to it, that was your affair.
Remote from these various debates, the baron was waiting at the top of the garden for a sign from Teodoro, his invaluable butler. As he waited for Teodoro to announce, simply by changing position, that the guest’s arrival was imminent, the baron wondered where he would be right now without Teodoro.
Unaware of this, the butler elegantly scanned the bend in the road beyond the chestnut tree. He was wearing his gloves, his livery and his bow tie: to all appearances, he was fastidiously dressed. In reality, beneath this exterior, Teodoro was wearing only a dicky, cut off at the sleeves and halfway down the back, with just enough of it left not to stain his jacket with sweat, which was also why he was not wearing any socks, vest or long johns, a trick he employed during the summer, and which afforded him a keen satisfaction.
“… and it was delicious, really delicious! And digestible, too, even though it had nutmeg, which I really can’t digest and always comes up into my throat, and in fact in the book he says you should be careful with spices because they can be unpleasant for ladies, but in fact …”
If one had to describe the two ladies sitting at the small wrought-iron table, one would have to start with the buttons. The first one’s cotton dress was done up at the back by a close-packed line of round buttons, the last of which was situated just one millimetre beneath the third cervical vertebra, like a mother-of-pearl garrotte. There were similar lines of buttons on the sleeves, from elbow to wrist, and on the half-boots, from calf to knee (if anyone had been able to see her calves or her knees). From the way she spoke and how she was dressed, it was safe to say that breathing was not a necessity for this woman.
“… that among other things poor Bastiana also made pigeon that way, but she overcooked it and it always ended up as tough as wood, and poor Ettore was the one who had to eat it and even say it was good, God help us, otherwise she would call him mad, even though she herself was never exactly normal, you remember Bastiana, don’t you? Of course you do, poor thing …”
The other lady was wearing a flowered dress, with gold braid down the front, from neck to shin, to protect her substantial bosom from the rays of the sun. Her wizened little head was nodding rhythmically. The only way she could possibly have got a word in edgeways would have been to have hit her companion over the head with her chair, and so her contribution to the debate was limited to a few sporadic squeaks.
It was obvious that they were sisters, and equally obvious that they were spinsters: a slow, inexorable and bitter destiny which, apart from marking them out in their lives and in their clothing, had also affected their official designation. According to the register of births, the two women were Cosima and Ugolina Bonaiuti Ferro, first cousins to the baron, but, for everyone else, including the servants, they were simply “the old maids”.
They lived a parallel life, made up of embroidery, reading out loud and much pointless stroking of Briciola, the bilious Yorkshire terrier which had been sold to the baron as a hunting dog and adopted by the two sisters when the baron, after one look at it, had kicked it away, muttering that with such a dog the only thing you might just possibly be able to hunt would be mice.
A cookery book. Poor Italy.
Walking slowly at a safe distance from the two ladies and their chatter, his feet on the lawn and his mind just back from Parnassus, Signorino Gaddo was reflecting despite himself on the supposed merits of the awaited guest. In this atmosphere, there was no point even mentioning poetry.
You’re going to be pleased, his father had said to him. A first-rate man of letters will be coming here for the boar hunt, so for once you’ll have someone of your own level and may even deign to open your mouth a little.
Gaddo had greeted the news with apparent equanimity, but things had started to boil up inside him.
Some time earlier he had gathered together his best poems, tied them with a red ribbon, and put them in an elegant cardboard cylinder. Not many, because genius is a question of detail, of phrasing, not of weight: it is the spark that lights the fire, not the log. It had been a difficult choice, of course, and hard-won. It had cost him a great deal to exclude some of his favourite verses, such as “Impetuous Heart”, and, . . .
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