Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Empress of Ice Cream by Anthony Capella

FRANCE 1670. Carlo Demirco's mastery of the extraordinary new art of creating ice creams has brought him wealth, women, and a position at the court of Louis XIV.

Then Carlo is sent to London, along with Louise de Keroualle, an impoverished lady-in-waiting. The most powerful ministers of two countries have decided that Louise is to be Charles II's new mistress, and will stop at nothing to make sure she submits.

But Carlo too is fascinated by the enigmatic Frenchwoman.With the king's every pleasure the subject of plots and betrayals, and Carlo's only weapons his exquisite ice creams, soon he must decide ...Where do his loyalties lie?

If you were to ask me who my favourite English king to read about is, I would probably choose Henry II, but not far behind you would find Charles II, and yet on the surface of things there is not that much to admire. He was a king who lived for pleasure, had multiple mistresses and numerous illegitimate children, but after the years of austerity that was enforced during the years of the Commonwealth, his court must have been something to behold.I guess though, when it comes down to it, I have been charmed by the way I have read Charles II through the fiction I have read over the years. (I have previously posted about this fascination here)

The title and cover of this book alone would have caught my attention, but to read further in the blurb and find out that it is set in the Restoration court of Charles II made it a must read for me! Stir ice cream into the mix and it is even better!

The events that are portrayed in the book come to us from two different perspectives. The first is of a young man who we meet in Italy where he is the young apprentice of an ice maker. He is being taught the art of the ice by his owner - the four flavours, the skills, the tips to creating the perfect textures for ices, cordials, for ice carving and more. But Carlo has lofty ambitions. He wants to do more than just stick to the rules that he is being taught. He wants to experiment with new flavours, new techniques, and most of all, he wants to be his own man, to call no man master.

Offered a chance to escape from his life in Italy, Carlo finds himself in the court of Louis XIV, and it is there that he meets Louise de Keroualle, a lady in waiting to Minette, the sister of Charles II, and sister in law to Louis XIV. Carlo is very quickly besotted, but Louise is out of his reach. She may be impoverished but she is the daughter of one of the most noble families of Brittany, and whilst Carlo has made his own way to Court, he is still of ignoble birth.

It is Louise who provides the other perspective in the narrative. Following the death of Minette, Louise is sent to the court of Charles II. It seems everyone but here is aware of what her objective is to be - to become mistress to Charles II and to influence his decisions and policy to the advantage of her native France. Carlo is also sent to France as part of the 'gift' from Louis with a brief to create an ice the likes of which has never before been seen or tasted in England.

One of the hallmarks of the decadence of the Court is that there was a total fascination with all things French - fashion, art, food... ices. Carlo spends all his time trying to create the dessert that we now know as ice cream, using some of the most famous intellectuals of the time to help develop the methodology. Far from being an accessible treat as it is for us today, the desserts created by Carlo were only for the rich and powerful, and sometimes they were created for the king alone.

Many of the desserts that are described in the book sound incredible - for example, at one of the feasts Carlo creates a pineapple ice that not only is made from the then exotic and difficult to obtain fruit, but is also carved to look exactly like a pineapple - although in the quest for more and more unique tastes and combinations there were also some that were not quite so enticing to my more modern palate!

Providing contrast to the glittering courts, we also get introduced to Hannah and Elias who live in the same establishment as Carlo. These are the working class, the people who suffer under the heavy burden of poverty and who see the merriment of the court and find it hard to believe that there can be such wastage, particularly as the king and parliament are increasingly at odds about issues like funding the wars against the Dutch. Stir in anti-French sentiments and anti Catholic sentiments that were rife at the time and they provide a necessary contrast to the constant over the top details of life at Court.

When you read an Anthony Capella book it becomes obvious pretty quickly that this is an author who loves food, and I would go so far as to say that if you want descriptions of sensory experiences - be they taste, sight or the other senses - then Capella should be a go to author. This is particularly true of The Wedding Officer and the Food of Love with their focus on Italian food, and of this book. It is only when the narrative moves away from the focus on the sensuous that it loses its way. Unlike some of the other portrayals I have seen of the relationship between Louise and Charles this one is definitely more clinical, colder and more  about business, and this is also a bit of a difference between this book and others by this author that do tend to have romantic themes.

That is not to say that there is no mention of love - for all that this isn't completely a romantic story, there is lots of discussion of love and sex:

I have heard love compared with a fire. But that is all wrong. If you touch a flame you draw back. The pain is quick and sudden and then it is gone.

Love is like ice. It creeps up on your, entering your body by stealth, crumbling your defences, finding the innermost recesses of your flesh. It is not like heat or pain or burning so much as an inner numbness, as if your heart itself were hardening, turning you to stone. Love grips you, squeezing you with a force that can crack rocks or split the hulls of boats. Love can life paving slabs, crumble marble, wither foliage from trees.

Rating: 4/5

Originally posted at The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader


  1. I am with you on your love of Charles II. Great review! Adding this one to my WL :)

  2. I had been interested in this one when I first heard about it and then promptly forgot about it. This is the first review I have seen. Glad to hear that it was a decent read, and I always love reading descriptions of food - especially things that we wouldn't normally eat today!

  3. Is this seriously a book that's both a historical fiction and about food? Talk about 2 of my loves coming together. I'm sure I'm going to enjoy reading this one!

  4. Shoshanah, if you like reading HF about WWII, try Capella's book The Wedding Officer.

    Dolleygirl, it's worth reading to see how you like it.

    There's just something about Charles II isn't there Holly!

  5. This didn't appeal to me when I saw it on the shelf but your review makes me want to read it. I'm not if there's enough of Louise de Keroualle to warrant inclusion on my list of royal mistress books although presumably she is the Empress of the title?

  6. There's a lot of Louise in the book. It is an interesting portrayal of the role of Royal Mistress given the more clinical nature of the relationship that is portrayed than I have read in other books!

  7. Sounds like it should go on my TBR pile! I particularly appreciate portrayals of royal mistresses which aren't romanticised as the older type of novel tends to do.

    I love descriptions of food too!

  8. You had me at the description of the pineapple ice!

  9. I love Capella's books, haven't read this one yet, though. I'd like to read more about Charles II, too. Great review!

  10. My favourite novel from the reign of Charles II has got to be An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears, although I must confess that it features very little ice cream.