A sumptuous tale to get your teeth into
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Food Taster by Peter Elbling
If you can imagine a warm doughy base crumbling against the sides of your palate, the sugary pulpiness of a soft brown pear lying on your tongue like a satisfied woman, Eden's succulent juices filling up the canals between your teeth, you would not even be close!
Peter Elbling's The Food Taster is a sumptuous Renaissance fairytale complete with beautiful maiden, doting father, star-crossed lovers and an evil Duke.
Ugo DiFonte, a humble contadino (peasant) and his apple-cheeked daughter, Miranda, are captured by the tyrannical Federico Basillione DiVincelli, Duke of Corsoli, and taken to live in the duke's castle, where Ugo is forced to become the corrupt nobleman's food taster. Upon his arrival at the Palazzo Fizzi, Ugo looks on in horror as Luca - the previous food taster - has his tongue sliced off with a dagger for supposedly trying to poison the duke.
In 16th-century Italy, poisoning was a common method of ridding oneself of one's enemies. Duke Federico is a feared and hated noble who is rumoured to have killed his own father, poisoned his brother and once forced a woman to eat her own child. Consequently, Ugo has good reason to be terrified of the ominous role he is compelled to play at his new master's heavily-laden dining table.
The novel is written as a lyrical first-person narrative from the witty food taster's viewpoint and is a detailed memoir revolving around life in a 16th-century Italian palace. DiFonte is an endearing character and a quick study. Armed with a saucy sense of humour and an irrepressible passion for life, he manages to manoeuvre himself surreptitiously into the uneasy position of becoming indispensable to the volatile duke.
"Of all the servants, be they chamberlains, grooms, scribes, cooks or so on, surely the food taster is the bravest of all. What other servant risks his life not once, but two or three times a day just in the service of his work? In truth, we are as brave as the bravest knight, for if a knight is outnumbered in battle he runs away - I have known many that fled before the battle even started - but does a food taster run away? No! Every day he does battle and every day he stays until the battle is ended."
The luckless Ugo lives through numerous palace intrigues, including poisoning attempts, an accusation of witchcraft and an outbreak of the plague that sweeps through Corsoli, killing nearly a quarter of its inhabitants and leaving corpses piled up in the streets of the town. The most difficult challenge he faces, however, is the blossoming into womanhood of his beloved almond-eyed daughter, Miranda, who begins to attract the attention of palace courtiers, even catching the eye of the despicable duke who is on a quest to find a wife.
Conspiracies are as much a part of palace life as the pomp and pageantry of the duke's banquets and a cast of larger than life characters keep the reader entertained throughout. The Food Taster is an enchanting culinary experience. It is amusing, well-researched, and provides some interesting insights into the colourful and superstitious world of Michelangelo's Italy.
Peter Elbling was born in London and emigrated to Canada when he was nineteen, in search of fame and fortune. He is a writer, actor, and director who has worked in television, film and theatre. He created and co-wrote the satirical best seller, The 1980s - A Look Back, and co-wrote the film, Honey I Blew Up the Kids. He lives in Venice, California.
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