Martine Bailey: Taste of murder

By Stephen Jewell

Martine Bailey puts a dark twist on food in her ‘culinary gothic’ novel that features real, historic family recipes, writes Stephen Jewell.

Martine Bailey's An Appetite For Violets has been praised as a new genre: the culinary gothic.
Photo / Martin Bailey
Martine Bailey's An Appetite For Violets has been praised as a new genre: the culinary gothic. Photo / Martin Bailey

British writer Martine Bailey has fantastic memories of New Zealand. Halfway through a 20-month sabbatical, she was living on Auckland's North Shore when she heard the news that a publisher had bought her debut novel, An Appetite For Violets.

"We were like gypsies, house-swapping with Kiwis," she recalls. "But I'd only just met an agent the month before we left Britain, so I thought, 'What am I doing?' as I was still working on the edits."

Arriving in New Zealand in September 2011, Bailey and her husband spent a year in Whakatane before moving to Auckland. With the book set in her native Cheshire, and in Italy and the French Alps, writing from half the world away allowed her to approach An Appetite For Violets' historical milieu from a fresh perspective.

"I'd done all the research and I'd packed lots of notes and photos," she says, now living back in Chester. "Once you've done all of that, you just need peace and quiet. That's why New Zealand was perfect for me as it was all sun, sea and solitude. It couldn't have been better, because over here it's all news media and things happening all the time.

You get a lot more peace of mind over there, and the libraries were also good."

Praised by Fay Weldon for pioneering a new literary sub-genre (the "culinary gothic"), An Appetite For Violets explores links between food and murder. "It was really thrilling that she said that because she's a fantastic writer with strong connections to New Zealand," says Bailey, who believes you can gain invaluable insights into people from their diets.

"What we eat shows a lot about our character, our tastes, our class and aspirations. In this book there's a lot about snobbery and food, and there's also the slave character who misses his food from home."

Bailey became intrigued with the dining habits of the Georgian era after exploring the archives at Wrexham's Erddig Hall, which inspired the novel's fictional stately home, Mawton Hall.

"If someone writes it down, it's like a gift of pleasure from the dead, in a way that can then be handed down the generations," she says of the recipes, which were known as "receipts" in the 1700s. "I also really started to enjoy the whole thing about the freedom of language and the liveliness of it. I'd been writing on and off for years, and I thought this is the sort of book I'd really like to read."

The story centres around young undercook Biddy Leigh. Bailey opens each chapter with an authentic recipe, from a fricassee of chicken to a plum fool, apparently taken from The Cook's Jewel, an ancient tome Biddy is given by her predecessor.

"Those old household books were really quite powerful documents," she says. "They were like scrapbooks where people have said, 'this is my best way of doing this or that', or 'this is my Aunt Charlotte's syllabub'. It's very anti-commercial in a way, and I don't want to sound cliched but they were people's most heartfelt documents. They're probably the only thing we've got from that time that ordinary people wrote, apart from wills."

Bailey has also created several of the dishes herself, laying on lavender macarons and soul cakes for her book launch in London. "I've had to adapt a few of them but there's nothing in there that's entirely fictional," she says, admitting that she hasn't tackled some of the more outlandish examples.

"I haven't made some of them because they're slightly strange, although the food back then wasn't quite as strange as you might think. But given that this is a novel, I've chosen some pretty amazing recipes - like a full-size figure of a person in marzipan - which I'm not going to make in my kitchen."

She has also not attempted the pungent sweets from which the book takes its title. "A lot of people have asked me if I've made the violet pastilles, but I haven't got the equipment for that and it's quite hard to make confectionary. But I did make a violet cake last Sunday and because I'd toned down the violet, people really liked it. But back then they probably had them more perfumed, so it's an acquired taste and we've got a lot of other flavours now."

With the narrative beginning in 1773, Bailey believes that the so-called Age of Revolution had some similarities to the present day. "Any historical book has to have a parallel now for it to be meaningful, and it was certainly a time of great commercial change with trade, shops and travel all opening up. For me, it was also quite a romantic time and a bit fairy tale-ish.

"There are elements of Cinderella in the story since there was quite a lot of social aspiration in those days. In medieval times, if you were born a peasant you would probably have to stay a peasant but, from what I've read in servants' memoirs, there was quite a lot of possibility in the 18th century for people to change their lives by acquiring airs and graces, and moving on and up, which I liked very much."

Partly inspired by British reality television show Poor Little Rich Girls, there's also a contemporary edge to An Appetite For Violets' other main character, the enigmatic Lady Carinna. "It was that sort of condescension to the ordinary girl that you sometimes get," Bailey says of the ITV series, in which two contestants of different social classes swapped places with each other. "I've only seen a couple of episodes but it really struck me with that sense of entitlement contrasted with someone who is really hardworking.

"With Carinna, she's got all the trappings of a Georgian young woman; she is spoiled and selfish. But there are reasons for that in her background so you'll have to read the book to see what happens to her."

An Appetite For Violets (Hodder & Stoughton $37.99) is out now.

- NZ Herald

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