I found The Gourmet an interesting book, maybe an appetiser, or an amuse-bouche, forÂ MurielÂ Barbery’s later book The Elegance of the Hedgehog (which I haven’t read). It offers tantalising glimpses of food that Pierre Arthens, France’s celebrated food critic recalls as he lies dying, trying to remember the most delicious food he ever tasted. He thinks the flavour of this elusive food is
the first and ultimate truth of my entire life, and that it holds the key to a heart that I have since silenced. I know that it is a flavour from childhood or adolescence, an orginal, marvellous dish that predates my vocation as a critic, before I had any pretension to expound on the pleasure of eating. A forgotten flavour, lodged in my deepest self, and which has surfaced in the twilight of my life as the only truth ever told – or realised. (pages 12-13)
As he remembers back to his childhood his life and character are alsoÂ revealed through impressions and memories of him from his wife, son and other relations and acquaintances. These are in short chapters building up a picture of Pierre’s character and contrasting with his own thoughts and memories. They are interspersed with Pierre’s florid, over-blown, pretentious ruminations on food, including fish, meat, vegetables, bread, mayonnaise, ice cream and sorbet, none of which provides that elusive taste he is seeking.
I wished the short chapters from his family and friends had been longer and his own shorter – I wanted to know more about the otherÂ characters. I know from the extract from The Elegance of the Hedgehog that there is more about Renee, the concierge of the apartement building where Pierre lies dying in that book, so I will read that at some time. I liked the changes in writing style between the characters and Pierre.
All in all, it’s a delightful description of food, mouth-watering, rich and sumptuous, but somehow lacking in substance. By the end it wasÂ losing impetus as I began to wonder what it could possibly be that had been tantalising him so much and thatÂ was so important to him. The ending was really inevitable and rather sad.
My copy was kindly sent to me from the publishers, Gallic Books.