Warming the Heart of a Phantom: French Cuisine in ‘Disfigured’

The heroine of my Gothic romance, ‘Disfigured’, is a French cook circa 1870.  Sylvie Bessette is a home cook, not a chef, as she herself explains.  Fiercely independent, she decides to set herself up as a professional cook for the home-bound and invalids.  It is a profession that suits her admirably, for one of her driving characteristics is a need to nurture others.

I had a lot of fun with Sylvie and her very French pride and sensibility.  She likes to disparage English food and when she is cross with Erik, her client, she thinks of punishing him by making him boiled beef and cabbage.  This is because in her mind, it is all the English eat.  Les rosbif was and is one of the kinder nicknames the French have for the English.  Sylvie has never been to England but that does not stop her from forming an opinion.

Research is one of the pleasures of writing fiction, and it was interesting to research how Sylvie might have set up her professional kitchen.  I learned that a Godin professional cooking stove was the crème de la crème of stoves, and that Paris was plumbed for gas by 1870 so that the latest model stoves used both gas and wood.  So naturally she had to have one like that.  If you look at the Recipes page of my website, www.disfiguredseries.com, you will see a photo of a stove very similar to Sylvie’s.

In order to make the shopping easier on our heroine, I situated her on a fictional street in an older part of the city where an open air market took place once a week.  Such things did exist, and there were probably many farms and orchards providing fresh food for Parisians located close to the city, where now, no doubt, there is only more city.

Things did get a bit tricky when I came to the realization that the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 would have a decided impact on a professional cook.  For one thing, the Prussians set up a blockade and nothing could get in or out of Paris until the war ended.  But I solved that little problem because of course there would be a black market and some smuggling going on, n’est ce pas?

Sylvie learned to cook at her mother’s elbow, and her mother was cooking for people who were ill or invalids as an act of kindness. It is her mother’s recipes Sylvie turns to when she starts her business.  In Sylvie’s own words, “Eschewing the elegant restaurant cuisine prepared by the likes of M. Escoffier, my mother returned again and again to simple French peasant food.  It was, she often said, the healthiest food in the world.”  Auguste Escoffier was known in those times as the “King of Chefs”, a famous chef, restaurateur and cookbook writer.  He is known for modernizing French haute cuisine.

Cooking a meal for, say, 15 people, on a daily basis, would not be a particularly easy task for one person to accomplish in 1870.  This was Sylvie’s job when she started cooking for a private hospital.  To make her stock, she would not be opening a can or a carton of broth, she would have to make her own.  She would be making a trip to the butcher shop on a regular basis, getting the whole chickens to be simmered for hours to make chicken stock, or picking up beef bones, and many vegetables of course.  She would make the shells for her fruit tarts from scratch.  At Christmas she made more than one traditional Yule Log, or Buche de Noel.  If you look up a proper recipe for this dessert, you will find it quite daunting to prepare.  When I included a number of the recipes for dishes mentioned in ‘Disfigured’, I left that one out on purpose because it looked so complicated!  However, I hope readers will visit the Recipes page on my website, because at the beginning of each one I include a little explanation of where it appears in the book.

Sylvie’s real adventures of the culinary (and otherwise) begin when she gets the job of preparing a meal each evening for a mysterious man known as the Opera Ghost.  Once she discovers that he lives underground, she is always trying to think of dishes to make him that would bring the warmth of the sun to his lonely cavern.  He falls in love with her cooking, if not herself.  But through her cooking, and her deep desire to nurture others, Sylvie manages to worm her way into his life, if not his heart (at least not for a while).

I hope people interested in cooking will try some of Sylvie’s recipes, and let me know how they like them!  Bon Appétit!

Happy reading,

Wendy