BOOK REVIEW / Peasant stew and other food for thought: Brillat-Savarin: The judge and his stomach - Giles MacDonogh; John Murray pounds 25

'IN EVERY provincial hamlet there is a Careme wearing an apron, an unsung genius,' wrote Honore de Balzac, in what I like to think was a conscious parody of the 'village Hampden' passage in Gray's 'Elegy in a Country Churchyard'.

Certainly it is one of the more intriguing accidents of history that a system of public restaurants unparalleled for quality and imagination since the time of Apuleius should have been the legacy of France's 1789 revolution, while England's regicides spawned only a tradition of bulllike country squires whose homes were their castles, and who regarded it as indecent to be seen eating in public except, in extremis, at one's club.

Compare Hobbes's heavy directives composed in the remote fastness of an English country house with Voltaire's lightning banter, fruit of a thousand conversations at court. Contrast the traditional sepulchral silence of the Reform Club with the brisk intellectual banter of Maxim's. Could this essentially domestic dichotomy illuminate the difficulty that the two countries have always had in understanding each other's mentalities?

Giles MacDonogh does not begin to speculate along these lines, but his engaging and well-researched biography of one of the founding fathers of gastronomy provides plenty of food for such thoughts. Jean-Anthelme BrillatSavarin (1755-1825) emerges as an enormously likeable man: witty, sensual, and as adept as the Vicar of Bray at walking the political tightrope faced by all those in public life in revolutionary France. A lawyer by profession, he represented his rugged Savoie home province of Bugey in the Estates General.

Moderate but non-committal as the king and queen lost their heads, in 1792 he sensibly left for the United States to avoid the wave of Jacobin extremism which was sweeping the continent. There he showed considerable ingenuity in making a living by teaching French and playing first violin for a New York orchestra ('I spoke like them: I dressed like them. I was careful not to give the impression I was cleverer than them'), but returned home as soon as he could.

Restored to his dignities in Bugey, he then became one of the judges of the important national appeal court in Versailles, and deftly, negotiated survival through Bonaparte's Empire and the restoration of the monarchy in 1815.

The book that made his name was La Physiologie du Gout, 'or meditations on transcendental gastronomy'. Published when he was 70, it was something of a bombshell to colleagues on the bench who knew him only as a rotund and old-fashioned bachelor, known more for legal absentmindedness (his hunting dog once ate a brief that he had carelessly let fall underneath his chair) than witty and cultured culinary epigram. But it was hailed by the beau monde as a landmark, uniting as it did the then fashionable medical theories of the body with the compulsive eating that was also a hallmark of public life.

For all his love of Parisian restaurants and an assured place at the court of the legendary Madame Recamier, Brillat's heart remained rooted in his beloved Bugey. MacDonogh visits the gentilhommerie Brillat owned in Vieu, kept by its present owner much as it was in the gourmet's day. He describes the layout: a ground floor bedroom for two gout-ridden sisters, a tiny bedroom off the dining-room for Brillat himself, an ice-house set under an ash tree in the garden 'so that food served should be reliably fresh, and the old judge need not do without the sorbets he had grown to love at Tortoni and Velloni in the grand boulevards of Paris'. He then reiterates the feasts served there, the management of the vineyard, and Brillat himself wandering, Horace in hand, through the countryside.

He died, aged exactly three score years and ten, only two months after his famous book was published, and leaving life, in the words of his nephew, 'like a well-fed guest leaving a banquet - tanquam conviva satur - without regret, without weakness'. La Physiologie remains his monument - though perhaps not the one he would have chosen for himself. Rambling and discursive, frequently autobiographical, it was described as 'olla podrida' (peasant stew) by Balzac, who wrote his own Physiologie de Mariage a few years later. It has endured, never out of print in 167 years, albeit more quoted from than read these days.

But Brillat had a quite different literary legacy. Fond as he was of food, he was proud above everything of his many flirtations with women, and enjoyed writing about them. He started a novel dedicated to Madame Recamier which might have become another Liaisons Dangereuses, and amused himself with writing saucy contes de conquetes, which were apparently read aloud with relish on high days and holidays at Vieu as late as the 1890s.

Regrettably, prudish descendants destroyed them in the 1920s, except for one fragment which MacDonogh reprints. It is delightful, like a gracefully erotic Greek vase written in words.

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
Crime watch: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Brühl in ‘The Face of an Angel’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
News
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
News
‘The Late Late Show’ presenter James Corden is joined by Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks for his first night as host
news
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss