John Saturnall’s Feast

Date-Palms grew in the First Garden. Bees filled the Combs in the Hives and Crocuses offered their Saffron. Let the first Dish be Spiced Wine, enough for All to dip their Cups. Let the Feast begin….

1625. In the remote village of Buckland, a mob chanting of witchcraft drives out John Sandall and his mother Susan. Taking refuge among the trees of Buccla’s Wood, John’s mother opens her book and begins to tell her son of an ancient Feast kept in secret down the generations.

The Feast is John’s legacy. But as the rich dishes rise from the pages, the ground beneath freezes. That winter John’s mother dies. Taken as an orphan to Buckland Manor, the ancestral seat of Sir William Fremantle, John is put to work in its vast subterranean kitchens, the domain of Richard Scovell. Under the Master Cook’s guidance, John rises from the squalor of the Scullery to the great house above. There Sir William’s headstrong daughter Lucretia defies her father by refusing to eat.

John’s task is to tempt the girl from her fast. Slowly a bond forms between them, but greater conflicts loom. The Civil War will throw John and Lucretia together in a struggle for survival against the New Order’s fanatical soldiers, and against an ancient legacy which threatens to pull them apart. To keep all he holds most dear, John must realise his mother’s vision. He must serve the Saturnall Feast.

John Saturnall’s Feast charts the course of one man’s life from steaming kitchens to illicit bedchambers, through battlefields and ancient magical woods. Weaving fact with myth, the novel tells a rich and complex story of seventeenth century life, love and war.

Extract, courtesy of Granta 119

UK Publication: September 13, 2012. Bloomsbury Publishing

The starting-point for John Saturnall’s Feast was a chapter in Kate Colqhoun’s “Taste: the Story of Britain through its Cooking”. After describing the glories and excesses of Elizabethan and Jacobean cooking, we arrive at the English Civil War. Suddenly the cuisine of the past is swept away together with the social order that sustained it. In a few short months in 1642, a world collapses. What, I wondered, if you were a cook? What would you do? How would you cope?  John Saturnall’s Feast grew forwards and back from that point. The food became the language of a vexed love story between John and Lucretia. The dishes became how they expressed their emotions across the social divide: quaking puddings, rose-flavoured sugar syrups simmered for hours, quails roasted and dusted in bay-salt then stuffed with pistachio-cream and set in ‘nests’ woven from parsley stalks…

The decades before the Civil War probably marked the height of English cuisine. Native Anglo-Saxon traditions mixed with Middle Eastern influences brought back from the Crusades and modern European techniques (Italian in origin although often called French). I’ve listed some of the more obscure vocabulary in a short glossary. The hunger for fresh and various produce was marked and all these tastes were fused in the ambitions of cooks like Joseph Cooper and Robert May. A recent survey lists 225 foodstuffs as ‘commonly consumed’ in those years, and remarks that today 90% of our diet comes from under 20.

The cookery was a pleasure but the psychology of the time posed different challenges. The habits of puritan thought are very remote from our own but it is a historical cliché to see only denial in the gloomy introspections of the Calvinists. They were as passionate as their Cavalier opponents. Both were thin-skinned and capable of excessive emotions. The execution of Charles I was a triumph of stubbornness, amour-propre and sense of grievance over common sense. Rendering the inner lives of that time without condescending or deferring was the most difficult task in the novel.

US edition: Grove Atlantic 2012