Welcome to the first post in “Cooking The Books”. Every Wednesday writers and friends will be dropping in to share the food in their books or in the books they love.
Before my guests arrive, I’ve decided to kick it off with Her Italian Aristocrat, my recent release with Destiny Romance.
I love reading books with food in them. And food turns up a lot in the books I write. Not just the passing mention of a meal consumed but often mouth-watering detail as to what the meal consists of and the care that went into its preparation. And food is a helpful assistant in conveying the unique qualities of a book’s setting: Po’boys? The deep south. Crab cakes? Maryland. A pie and a coldie? Australia.
When I visited the hill town of Macerata in the Italian Marche, the first meal I ate was Vitello Tonnato. It had been on my culinary bucket list for ages. Thin slices of veal are smothered in a creamy sauce of mayonnaise, tuna, anchovy and capers and eaten cold. Since it was high summer and extremely hot, Vitello Tonnato was perfect.
While writing Her Italian Aristocrat, also set in a hill town in the Marche, I was casting around for a dish that could be the specialty of a local restaurant and I picked Vitello Tonnato. In retrospect, this dish resonates perfectly with my hero and heroine. When I think veal I think prosciutto, sage, breadcrumbs, anything in fact before an unusual marriage of beef, tuna and anchovy. So too, Luca and Gemma are, at first sight, a surprising combination. He’s a wealthy aristocrat, scion of an ancient family and Gemma is…well, that would be telling.
Early in the book, Luca entertains Gemma to a meal in his ancestral home, where each tries to outwit the other in gaining the attention of their elderly dinner partner, the owner of the local shoe factory:
Dinner was to be served in a small, intimate salon instead of the vast dining room, and when they entered the candlelit room Gemma gave a surprised cry of pleasure. The table was set with fine linen and antique faience plates, and the Andretti crystal and silverware sparkled in the candlelight. It pleased Luca that she admired his home and he glanced around the room with renewed pleasure.
They took their places around the table, Gemma to his right where she was just close enough for her alluring fragrance to tantalise him. He poured wine from the decanter into her glass, then filled Marco’s and his own.
The pasta course arrived, borne by Bruno, his flat feet in their carpet slippers slapping against the flagged floor. He served a small portion onto each plate and withdrew. Luca shifted on his chair and focused on Gemma. Now was the moment.
‘You and Marco share a similar interest,’ he began.
Gemma stopped mid-twirl, her fork wound with pasta, while she looked from Luca to Marco and back again. Marco, his mouth already filled with spaghetti, raised his eyebrows in enquiry.
‘Shoes,’ Luca announced.
Marco harrumphed good-naturedly as Gemma continued to watch Luca.
Luca turned to her, allowing a thread of triumph to enter his voice. She would be revealed and Marco forewarned of the fate awaiting his company. In typical Italian fashion, there was no reason this couldn’t be achieved around a good table. Deeply satisfied, Luca’s smile broadened.
‘Marco is the owner, with his two grandsons, of Brunelli of Montefigore. You recall I told you about them this morning?’
The old man swallowed and wiped his lips with the linen napkin. ‘All women love shoes, Luca. Are you stupido? Every woman in the world has an interest in common with me.’ He turned to Gemma. ‘The business has been in my family for generations. We are renowned the world over for the quality of our shoes. Perhaps you have even heard of us?’
‘Believe me, Marco, she’s heard of you.’ Anger speared through Luca as he glared at Gemma, challenging her to deny it. She sat, her hair shimmering in the candlelight and her bright eyes wide, the picture of wounded innocence. Surely Marco wasn’t being hoodwinked by her charm? So close. Any moment now Gemma would have to disclose the real reason she was in Montefigore.
Her steady gaze locked on him. He didn’t trust that small smile playing about her mouth but Dio, he wanted to kiss those lips. Had he taken leave of his senses?
Gemma turned to Marco and her smile widened. ‘Of course I’ve heard of Brunelli Shoes. I’m wearing a pair right now.’ She swivelled around in her chair and stretched out a slender leg encased in silky stockings. Luca swallowed hard, his mouth suddenly dry as she arched her foot, lazily admiring the blue ankle-strap stilettos. His fork clattered onto his plate. She had more tricks than a second-hand car dealer.
Having made myself mightily hungry while writing this book I decided to make vitello tonnato at home. I’m lucky enough to have a wonderful Italian butcher in my local shopping strip in North Carlton, the heartland of Italian migration in Melbourne. They’re the real deal. A shop full of often cantankerous but helpful Italian blokes who make their own sausages, cut the meat how you want it (leave the fat on please) and love to know how you’re going to prepare it. It wasn’t quite as delicious as that beautiful meal accompanied by a couple of glasses of cold verdicchio and eaten under blisteringly blue Italian sky. But I hope I’ve captured that feeling in Her Italian Aristocrat.
From next week the guests at my table will be a wonderful mix of writers. We’d love to have you join us.