The Leopard at Perch Hill

The weekend was spent in a blur of food and flowers, as Emily’s Walking Book Club went to Perch Hill for its first Summer Feast. We feasted on an Ottolenghi dinner of lamb with pomegranate and tomato salad, delicious beetroot puree and aubergine delights. (We had made bets on the train down as to key Ottolenghi ingredients that would be included and we did very well indeed, as we managed to get: pomegranate molasses, lamb, aubergine, cardamom and za’atar – oh the horror on Yotam’s face when a naive punter asked, what’s za’atar?) Then came Sarah Raven’s breakfast and lunch, with everything picked fresh from the beautiful garden, including extraordinary nasturtiums, making the salad almost too pretty to eat.

And then came Emily’s literary feast – the walking book club discussed The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, paying particular attention to the abundance of food in it.

Perch Hill walking book club 1 - striding over the Sussex hills

It was a beautiful setting and we wandered through woods and over fields looking out at the Sussex countryside and thinking how different it was from the Sicilian landscape described in the book and how lucky we were that our summers were rather milder than those in Sicily, ‘as long and glum as a Russian winter and against which we struggle with less success’.

I wrote about The Leopard a few months ago, so here I thought I’d write more specifically about food in the novel.

We had better begin with the famous macaroni pie:

The burnished gold of the crusts, the fragrance of sugar and cinnamon they exuded, were but preludes to the delights released from the interior when the knife broke the crust; first came a spice-laden haze, then chicken livers, hard boiled eggs, sliced ham, chicken and truffles in masses of piping hot, glistening macaroni, to which the meat juice gave an exquisite hue of suede.

Delicious, and just about enough of a recipe to try to make it at home. In fact my brother recently attempted to concoct it, albeit without the truffles, with great success. It rather puts all our Italian pasta dinners to shame…

More interesting, however, is how Lampedusa describes the reception of the dish:

The beginning of the meal, as happens in the provinces, was quiet. The arch-priest made the sign of the Cross and plunged in head first without a word. The organist absorbed the succulent dish with closed eyes; he was grateful to the Creator that his ability to shoot hare and woodcock could bring him ecstatic pleasures like this, and the thought came to him that he and Teresina could exist for a month on the cost of one of these dishes; Angelica, the lovely Angelica, forgot little Tuscan black-puddings and part of her good manners and devoured her food with the appetite of her seventeen years and the vigour given by grasping her fork half-way up the handle. Tancredi, in an attempt to link gallantry with greed, tried to imagine himself tasting, in the aromatic forkfuls, the kisses of his neighbour Angelica, but he realised at once that the experiment was disgusting and suspended it, with a mental reserve about reviving this fantasy with the pudding; the Prince, although rapt in the contemplation of Angelica sitting opposite him, was the only one at table able to notice that the demi-glace was overfilled, and made a mental note to tell the cook so next day; the others ate without thinking of anything, and without realising that the food seemed so delicious because sensuality was circulating in the house.

Perch Hill walking book club 2 - feeling rather gluttonous with all that pieThis is real eating! I love the way they all give themselves up entirely to the food. There is a remarkable ‘sensuality’ in the way they eat dinner – everyone appreciates its sumptuous goodness, just as they do Angelica’s beauty. A far cry from the stuffy dinners of English country houses at the time…

The rich macaroni pie is a very good example of Sicilian cucina baronale – literally the cooking of the barons – and Lampedusa emphasises this by showing the organist thinking he could exist for a month on the cost of it. He would be used to the contrasting, rustic cucina povera. Indeed, later on in the book, the priest goes home and Lampedusa notes that the simple dinner there ‘was much enjoyed by Father Pirrone, whose palate had not been spoilt by the culinary delicacies of Villa Salina’. The Prince, on the contrary, is so used to the cucina baronale that he, with his refined palate, is the only one to notice the defect in the demi-glace.

Angelica, who turned everyone’s heads as she entered the novel a few pages ago is shown ‘grasping her fork half-way up the handle’, betraying the fact that while she may be beautiful and wealthy, she is certainly no lady. Tancredi is shown to be an infatuated young romantic, imagining tasting her kisses with each bite, but also – and this is key – a pragmatist, for he soon gives it up when he realises it’s ‘disgusting’, thinking he’ll try again with pudding. Of course it is Tancredi who has the famous line ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ He is open to change and compromise, happy to bend his ways with the times in order to come out on top, and his eating of the macaroni pie is no exception.

It is astonishing how many deft, minute character studies Lampedusa crams into this paragraph of macaroni eaters!

A similar sensuality of eating and food appears a little earlier in the book with the ‘foreign peaches’, grafted from German cuttings:

There was not much fruit, a dozen or so, on the two grafted trees, but it was big, velvety, luscious-looking; yellowish with a faint flush of rosy pink on the cheeks, like those of modest little Chinese girls. The Prince felt them with the delicacy for which his fleshy fingers were famous.

Brilliantly, these luscious peaches are next seen as they are borne by Tancredi’s lackey as a present for Angelica. Surely there could be no more fitting gift. You can almost read Tancredi’s mind, as he thinks her kisses would taste more of these peaches than of the macaroni pie.

Perch Hill walking book club 3

We wondered, on the walking book club, if there might be any significance to the fact that they were grafted from German cuttings. There is an earlier description of a rose brought from Paris, ‘degenerated’ thanks to the ‘strong if languid pull of Sicilian earth’ into something ‘obscene and distilling a dense almost indecent scent’, like ‘the thigh of a dancer from the Opera’. Here the message is clear that the Sicilian environment is so intensely sensual that it degenerates the refinements of Paris into something obscene. But what about the German roses, which ‘succeeded perfectly’ though yielded little fruit. Perhaps, suggested one clever lady, this is a reference to the alliance between Germany and Italy during the Second World War. An excellent theory, for the War was very much in Lampedusa’s mind as he wrote The Leopard in the years following. It even makes an appearance when he flashes forwards to the ceiling being destroyed in 1943 by ‘a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn.’ – just as Lampedusa’s own family Palazzo was destroyed during the War.

Indeed, food is often a metaphor for politics in The Leopard. My favourite instance of this is in his description of the rum jelly:

It was rather threatening at first sight, shaped like a tower with bastions and battlements and smooth slippery walls impossible to scale, garrisoned by red and green cherries and pistachio nuts; but into its transparent and quivering flanks a spoon plunged with astounding ease. By the time the amber-coloured fortress reached Francesco Paolo, the sixteen-year-old son who was served last, it consisted only of shattered walls and hunks of wobbly rubble. Exhilarated by the aroma of rum and the delicate flavour of the multi-coloured garrison, the Prince enjoyed watching the rapid demolishing of the fortress beneath the assault of his family’s appetite. One of his glasses was still half-full of Marsala. He raised it, glanced round the family, gazed for a second into Concetta’s blue eyes, then said: “To the health of our Tancredi.” He drained his wine in a single gulp. The initials F.D., which before had stood out clearly on the golden colour of the full glass, were no longer visible.

This is not just an account of a family eating a jelly, but a rather lavish metaphor for Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily as part of the Risorgimento, which is taking place at that very moment.

The Prince has recently bid farewell to Tancredi who has gone off to fight to aid Garibaldi’s landing at Marsala. Lampedusa even manages to slip in the name of this port, as the Prince is drinking a glass of it. The jelly, like Sicily, would seem to be impossible to scale, but is in fact penetrated ‘with astounding ease’. Garibaldi did indeed invade ‘with astounding ease’ (helped by the presence of British ships), and soon Sicily’s resistance was no more than ‘shattered walls and hunks of wobble rubble’. Tellingly the initials F.D., which stand for the last Bourbon King Francis II, become invisible.

Once again, I was reminded of how wonderful a book The Leopard is, and the walking book club concurred. As did this very sweet little sheep that first bleated at us from afar, no doubt keen to join the discussion, and then bounded over to us as we approached. Perhaps he always felt himself to be a misunderstood leopard.

Perch Hill Walking Book Club 4 a literary sheep

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2 Responses to “The Leopard at Perch Hill”

  1. Alice Says:

    Your walking book club always sounds marvellous, Emily. (Confession: I have no clue what za’atar is.)

    I’ll have to ensure I eat before reading this, otherwise I’ll be raiding the cupboards in between page turns. The descriptions of the food conjure such vivid images of the food and dishes. I must be hungry now, it’s hard focusing on the use of food as metaphors when I just want to eat the dishes.

    Your yellow Wellington boots are amazing.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thanks Alice! It is indeed a good book to read with a plate of pasta in front of you. And yes, those boots are a bit of a favourite – very glad you like them.

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