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Anthony Capella is clearly a man with a passion for food. This is food writer turned novelist's fourth novel and this time he turns his attention to ice cream, more precisely how it first came to be created - in the English royal court of Charles II, if you believe that.
The story starts in the court of Medicis in Florence where a young Carlo Demirco is apprenticed to a maker of frozen desserts. One day when his master isn't around, Carlo secretly samples one of their frozen confections for the first time and is immediately captivated by its texture and taste. Soon after a budding entrepreneur suggests to Carlo that they could make their fortunes as business partners supplying ices to the royal court at Versailles and the pair head to Paris.
It doesn't take long for Carlo to become the darling of Versailles; his delicious ices are in demand and so is he as the beautiful women of the court throw themselves at Carlo. Although Carlo doesn't refuse their advances, the woman he is interested in, Louise de Keroualle, a lady in waiting to King Charles's sister, remains steadfastly disinterested. After the death of her mistress, Louise has had no formal role at the court; when Charles comes for his sister's funeral, he finds a special bond with Louise, with whom he can talk fondly about his sister. Noticing how highly Charles thinks of Louise, a plan is hatched by French politicians which, it is hoped, will persuade the King of England to enter into an accord with the French; if all goes according to plan, Louise will become Charles's mistress and influence his decisions. Carlo's wonderful desserts, meanwhile, will delight the English court and make the king and his courtiers look favourably on France for such a novel gift. There is one major obstacle to the plan's success: the strait-laced Louise has no idea what is really expected of her, believing she has been chosen for her brain. How will she react when she learns what she has to do and how will Carlo react when he finds out why the woman he wants more than any other has really been sent to England?
The settings may change but Anthony Capella's novels have more or less the same theme: a story of unrequited love and how wonderful food has the ability to break hearts or mend them. He always writes so beautifully about food and "The Empress of Ice Cream" is no exception; the descriptions of the ices, cordials, sorbets and ice creams are mouth watering. I particularly loved the descriptions of how different characters reacted to their first taste of these iced sweets and I loved the idea that his cordials, made from fresh herbs and all kinds of exotic fruits, could make the women of Versailles fall at his feet.
Equally Carlo's first experiences of the English foods he eats at the inn where he is billeted are humorous and memorable, and having come from the grandeur of Versailles, the contrast of muddy, dirty London, backward in comparison, is a stark contrast which is portrayed brilliantly. Carlo's stay in London coincides with a particularly cold winter so Capella treats us to a magical depiction of one of the famous ice fairs that was held on the Thames.
Capella's idea that ice cream was invented in England is the result of various historical sources and certainly recipes for ice cream were being presented in English cookbooks just twenty years after the action of this novel is suppoosed to take place. Louise de Keroualle did exist and was sent to England to be a mistress of Charles II. Capella has taken facts from here and there to weave a colourful tapestry that is, for the most part, highly believable.
At the time the story takes place Charles II was on a collision course with parliament; Charles was throwing money around, rebuilding royal palaces and engaging the very best clothes-makers, cooks and craftsmen. Having returned from France the king had been struck by the idea of the monarch as an absolute ruler, his new style of rule did not match the aspirations of Parliament. The idea that these cream ices are for the enjoyment only of the king reinforce the position that Charles had created for himself in England. However, when Carlo discovers how useful traditional English desserts such as custard can be in creating these new confections, he may having a job in ensuring that only the king can enjoy them.
It's details like these that really illuminate and enhance this novel. Capella drops all the right names - Nell Gwynne makes a raucous appearance - that place the story firmly in the right era and the attention to the political detail also lends an authoritative tone. It's a shame, then, that Capella's failure to create characters the reader can really care about, and the frequent dives into the depths of absurdity do much to undo what is good about "The Empress of Ice Cream". Louise's character is inconsistent and her complete change of personality is implausible. Even Carlo who renounces his caddish behaviour in his attempts to win Louise, is pretty hard to like and his treatment of those he considers inferior in London is contemptible. It is unusual that I encounter characters that I like less and less, but Louise and Carlo are notable exceptions. However, I did find their early dialogues quite amusing and Capella's style has an element of restoration comedy about it. It's a pity that Capella doesn't always manage to capture the right tone as there are bits of dialogue that sound uncomfortably modern.
As much as I found Carlo difficult to like, his determination to make a creamy ice kept me engaged. All the time he has been making ices, he has had an inkling that the ultimate confection will be made from freezing cream but he knows he is missing something. In London he meets Mr. Boyle, a scientist who has been engaged to supervise the creation of special ice houses commissioned by the king who had seen something similar in France. He mentions to Mr. Boyle that he is trying to create a frozen ice using a technique involving saltpetre but Mr. Boyle sees that it is ice that should be at the very heart of Carlo's project. How exactly he will apply that knowledge is for the reader to find out.
"The Empress of Ice Cream" is a colourful and entertaining read that can be enjoyed on a number of levels. There's romance - although readers who have enjoyed other Anthony Capella novels may be disappointed to find that the romantic aspect is underplayed in this story, intrigue and politics and, of course, food at the heart of the story. I won't pretend that this is a novel that will be enjoyed universally; for all the attention to historical detail I frequently felt that the story was getting a bit silly. Food lovers - and by that I mean readers who really, truly love food and enjoy reading about food history and traditions - will surely love the "Empress of Ice Cream" as much as I did. It even inspired me to buy an ice cream making machine!