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SEVEN FASCINATING THINGS I LEARNED WHILE WRITING BITTER GREENS

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

BITTER GREENS has won the ALA Award for Best Historical Fiction 2015! 

Here are:

SEVEN FASCINATING THINGS I LEARNED WHILE WRITING BITTER GREENS

1. Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who first wrote the fairy tale we know of as Rapunzel, once dressed up as a dancing bear to rescue her much younger lover

2. She was second cousin to the Sun King, whose dogs slept on satin sheets in four-poster beds and ate off gold plates. His dwarves, however, slept on the floor in the corridor and were only tossed the occasional bone.

3. It was during the Sun King’s reign that champagne began to be drunk out of crystal glasses. This is because Louis XIV believed that glass was impervious to poison.

4. Vichyssoise was also invented during the Sun King’s reign. This is because it took so long for the king’s soup to reach his table. It had to be carried for miles through the corridors of Versailles, with everyone in the crowd curtsying and bowing as it passed, before being tasted by the taster to the taster to the taster to the King’s royal taster. I am not joking. Five different people tasted it before it reached the mouth of the king. No wonder it was always cold.

5. It was around this time that women started carrying little dogs in their handbags. This was so they could feed the soup to the dog first, and see if it died.

6. The Sun King and his court were not entirely paranoid. During his reign, a plot to poison the king was uncovered and led to the discovery of a criminal magical underworld in which fortune-tellers, witches and alchemists were doing a flourishing business selling “inheritance powders” made from arsenic and powdered toads. Two hundred people were implicated, including the king’s own mistress; 36 people were tortured and died at the stake.

7. The reason why it’s bad luck for actors to wear green is because Moliere, the Sun King’s favourite actor and playwright, was wearing a green coat when he died. He was in the middle of a scene in which a hypochondriac pretends to die. It took the audience a little while to work out he was not acting.

Read more about BITTER GREENS or BUY THE BOOK! 

BITTER GREENS: The facts behind the Fiction of the Sun King & his Court

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

BITTER GREENS, the winner of the ALA Historical Fiction Prize 2015, is set in the corrupt and glittering court of Louis XIV, the Sun King. Here are some fascinating and little known facts about France at that time ...




In recent months, I’ve been visiting a lot of Book Clubs who have read my novel Bitter Greens. Some have cooked me French onion soup; others have poured me fine French champagne. All of them have been full of questions.

Most questions begin ‘Is it true ...?’

Some of the most eagerly asked questions were about the court of the Sun King, and so I thought I would write a little more about this most imperious of kings. It is all really quite fascinating. 


Yes, it is true that the Sun King used to ride out in a coach with his wife and his two favourite mistresses. 

Yes, it is true that he married his bastard children’s governess (although he never acknowledged her as his wife).

Yes, it is true no-one except another royal was permitted to ever sit in his presence (except at the gambling tables, one reason why gambling was so popular with his footsore courtiers). Even his own sons had to remain standing, though his daughters were allowed to squat on little footstools, a privilege that they fought over bitterly.

Yes, it is true that courtiers had to bow or curtsey to any dish being carried to his table.

Yes, it is true that it was considered rude and vulgar to knock at a door. Courtiers grew the nail of their little fingers long so they could scratch at a door.

The etiquette of the court at Versailles was extraordinarily rigid.

Take the King’s daily routine.

He was surrounded at all times by his courtiers and soldiers – three or four thousand was the usual number.

Every morning, a chain of servants and courtiers passed each item of clothing to the king. For example, the Valet of the Wardrobe brought the King's shirt, passed it to the grand chamberlain, who handed it to the Dauphin, who passed it to the King. 

He had one servant whose only job was to present him with his golden goblet of wine. 

The King ate alone, watched by up to 300 people at a time. At one meal he is said to have eaten "four platefuls of different soups, a whole pheasant, a partridge, a plateful of salad, mutton hashed with garlic, two good-sized slices of ham, a dish of pastry and afterwards fruit and sweetmeats."

The King expected all noblemen to live with him at Versailles. Anyone who preferred to live on their own estates soon fell from favour. The King would simply say, ‘I do not know them’, and favours would be passed to those who danced attendance upon him. 
 
Louis XIV was Europe’s longest serving monarch. He reigned for 72 years and 110 days. He out-lived his son, and his two eldest grand-sons (all three were named Louis too). He was succeeded by his five year old great-grand-son, Louis XV. 

And, yes, it is true that vichyssoise was invented because it took so long for the King’s soup to reach him after being passed along a long chain of tasters to ensure it was not poisoned. If the King ate cold soup, everyone must eat cold soup. 


Read more about Bitter Greens here and BUY IT HERE 

BITTER GREENS: some recipes from the feasts described in 'Bitter Greens'

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Gourmet Delights from Gascony

My books are filled with feasts. 

From larks’ tongue pies to gypsy stew, the food in my books is always carefully researched and vividly described. Part of my research always involves cooking, as far as possible, the meals I describe. (Larks’ tongue pie was a little difficult to achieve, I must admit).

My novel Bitter Greens has a feast scene set in the Chateau de Cazeneuve in Gascony, in which the baroness of the chateau rather reluctantly puts on a meal for the Sun King, Louis XIV, and his corrupt and decadent court.

Gascony is located east and south of Bordeaux, and is a beautiful, rolling, green landscape of orchards and vineyards and tumbledown chateaux, with the snow-capped Pyrenees floating high on the horizon.   

It is famous for its duck dishes – there are far more ducks than people in Gascony – creating the most delicious foie gras, confit and rillettes. Gascony is also the land of the cassoulet, a hearty peasant dish made with duck, sausage and white beans. Pigs hunt for truffles in the forest, and in spring the chestnut trees are in glorious flower along every road. 


Its other most famous invention is the delicious and heady Armagnac brandy.

I tried my hand at a few of the more famous Gascon dishes, with the most delicious results. Here are my favourites: 

Chestnut soup (Soupe aux Chataignes)
Soupe aux Chataignes is a very popular Gascon soup due to the abundance of sweet chestnuts which are grown here.
The primary problem of cooking with chestnuts is peeling them. The old-fashioned way is to score the chestnuts with a knife then bring to the boil in a large pan and simmer for about 10 mins, drain a few at a time and peel off the inner and outer skins while still hot. 
I find it easier to boil a few days in advance and leave– the skins seem easy to remove then. 
Easier still, buy a can of chestnut pureé from your best local delicatessen (cheating, I know, but infinitely easier). 
Serves 6
1 kg of peeled chestnuts or can of chestnut pureé
whites of 4 leeks, washed and chopped
55g of butter
3 potatoes peeled and chopped
4 carrots peeled and chopped
3 tablespoons of crème fraiche
salt and pepper
thin slices of French bread, brushed with oil and toasted
Melt your butter in a large pan with a lid, add leeks and sweat gently for 10 minutes. Add the rest of the vegetables and chestnuts, 2 litres of water and salt and pepper, then bring to the boil. Cover and simmer for 45 mins.
Pureé with a blender and season to taste, stir in the crème fraiche, add the French bread and serve.


Gascon Cassoulet with Duck Confit and White Beans
I travelled to Gascony with my three children, and spent a week staying near Saint-Émilion. We ate this cassoulet  in a tiny stone cafe overlooking the Romanesque church, on a chilly spring evening. I’ve done my best to recreate the dish at home
Serves 4
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
250g pancetta, diced 
1 medium onion, cut coarsely
1 pound dried flageolets or Great Northern beans, rinsed and picked over, then soaked for 2 hours and drained
4 fresh thyme sprigs from the garden
2 litre chicken stock
1 large garlic, broken into cloves and peeled 
salt to taste
4 pieces of duck leg confit, trimmed of excess fat
½ kg of French sausage – duck, pork, garlic – whatever you can get - sliced crosswise 
100g bacon, cut into cubes
2 cups coarse fresh bread crumbs
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
In a large saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the pancetta and cook over moderate heat until the fat has been rendered, about 5 minutes. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the beans, thyme sprigs and stock and bring to a boil. Simmer over low heat, stirring and skimming occasionally, until the beans are al dente, about 1 hour.
Add the garlic cloves to the beans and simmer until the garlic and beans are tender, about 15 minutes. Discard the thyme sprigs. Season the beans with salt and let cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate the saucepan overnight.
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Rewarm the beans over moderate heat. Transfer the beans to a large, deep baking dish. Nestle the duck legs, sausage and bacon into the beans. Bake for about 40 minutes, until the cassoulet is bubbling and all of the meats are hot. Remove from the oven and let rest for 15 minutes.
In a skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the bread crumbs and cook over moderately high heat, stirring, until browned and crisp, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle the bread crumbs and the parsley over the cassoulet and serve.


Apple and Armagnac Croustade (Croustade à l’Armagnac aux Pommes)
This looks and tastes amazing! It’s a little fiddly to make, but well worth the effort.
around 10 tablespoons butter 
6-8 large apples, peeled, cored and sliced as thin as you can
1 vanilla bean
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup Armagnac (use brandy or Calvados if you can’t find it)
8 sheets filo dough
1/2 cup caster sugar (or more, as needed)
1/3 cup sliced almonds, divided


For this recipe, I like to use a soft-sided silicon cake pan so you can remove the cake more easily. Spray with cooking oil.
Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Place the apple slices in a bowl. Cut the vanilla bean lengthwise in half and, using the tip of a small knife, scrape the seeds over the apples and drop the pod on top. When the butter is foamy, add the apples with the vanilla and the sugar and cook, stirring very gently but frequently, until the apples are soft and caramelized, about 20 minutes. Transfer the apples to a bowl and allow them to cool to room temperature.


Heat oven to 180°C. Melt the remaining 6 tablespoons butter and set it aside. 
Unfold the filo dough on your work surface and cover it with a damp towel.
Remove the top sheet of filo (re-cover the remaining sheets), brush it lightly with butter, and dust it with sugar. Gently and loosely crumple the dough into a circle and lay it into the cake pan. Sprinkle it with about one-fifth of the almonds. Repeat this procedure three more times, until you have four buttered, sugared and almond-sprinkled sheets of filo lightly layered in the cake pan. 
Spoon the apples into the centre of the croustade, leaving a border of a few centimetres depth. Working as you did before, butter, sugar and crumple a sheet of filo, fitting it over the apples. Sprinkle this layer with the remaining almonds, and cover this with another crumpled sheet of buttered and sugared filo. Do a little styling and draping; arrange the filo so it looks good.


Slide the croustade into the oven and bake for about 10 to 12 minutes, watching the top of the tart carefully to make certain it doesn't brown too much. The top should be just lightly browned. Remove the croustade from the oven.


Increase the oven temperature to 200°C. Butter and sugar another sheet of filo, loosely crumple it and place it on the last layer to make a light, airy crown. Bake the croustade for 5 to 10 minutes, or until lightly browned, then remove it from the oven again.


Butter the last sheet of filo and, once again, crumple it to make a crown. Place it on top of the croustade and dust it heavily with the remaining powdered sugar. Return the tart to the oven and bake until the top layer caramelizes evenly, about 5 to 10 minutes. Check the progress of the sugar frequently because it can go from brown to burned in a flash.

Read more about BITTER GREENS or BUY IT HERE!




BITTER GREENS: Charlotte-Rose de la Force in her own words

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

To celebrate BITTER GREENS being awarded the American Library Association prize for Best Historical Fiction 2015, I thought I'd run some vintage blog posts about the writing, research and inspirations of the novel. 

When I was researching the life of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the real life heroine of my novel 'Bitter Greens', my translator Sylvie Poupard-Gould found a description she had written of herself, one of the few pieces left of her own writing.

Here it is:

“If I wished to create a flattering self portrait, as one ordinarily does, and that I wished to infuse it with as much wit as possible, [I would say]

Never would the much celebrated Helen have had such sweet attributes,
Nor the glory of Niquee caused such a stir.

How many lovers would I have defeated by my charms!
I would renew all our old Paladins - I alone would remake their destinies,
And there would be such a display of arms!

You have to admit, my dear Prince, that things only have the value which we believe them to have, and that I could say, for instance, that I have the loveliest height in the world, that height with which poets often endow their Venus.

It seems to me that I have read somewhere in Homer that She had black eyebrows and eyes - I am in possession of these very same ones. Eyes that we ascribe to the Mother of Love must surely be beautiful: Mine are as such- they say that they are touching, and that never a gaze was so full of charm... I have small and well made feet; my legs, my chest and my hands are rather beautiful. My hair is plentiful, and of the same shade as my eyes. My mouth is red, my teeth fair and I look youthful,

A rose complexion,
Hiding other secret delights,
Which are made of such things that we know but of which we cannot speak...

Isn’t it true then, my Prince, that I have just described the most pleasant beauty conceivable?

All that I have just said is true, and so we must stop here in order to delight those who have not yet laid eyes on me- send this portrait to foreigners, enchant nations and sing my future glory!

However, if I am to remain loyal to this austere sense of truth that rules me, I must confess that, far from being beautiful, I am only just pretty in the eyes of those who love me- who knows what I must look like to those who are indifferent!

All that I have said is true, but there are unpleasant consequences. My nose is not beautiful, my cheeks are high, I have a large mouth and facial features that could do with being more regular. It is almost certain that I am not attractive at first sight, but that with time, one gets used to me. So, to come back to my original point, I look cold, which may give me a distinguished air. I do not seek to attract, because it so happens that very few new people attract me; in this, I am different from other ladies, and like to concentrate my energies on that which pleases me:

To see him, to love him and to remember him
To look after only him
Of the object of my affections
My soul will never tire

I am absolutely the enemy of all constraints, even though my life is one perpetual constraint.
Although I am the mistress of my words and of my actions, of my appearance I am not. I change faces frequently, depending on the mood I am in. Sadness leaves a horrible impression, pride and contempt show too much and do not sit well, languor seems touching, but it is happiness and gaiety which open me up and suit me best. All passions are clearly reflected in my eyes (...) they have a beautiful language for those who wish to listen.

I was born independent and haughty, craving glory to excess. It is also from this trait that I have drawn the strength not to be defeated by adversity. The greatness of my courage allows me to defeat all that I find ill; it allows for a display of resolve that is above my gender and that counters the most outrageous attacks of fortune.

My life is an ongoing philosophy, a living morality. I am extremely fair; I know neither resentment nor the satisfaction of revenge. The misfortune of my enemy triumphs over my anger, and therefore, there is no duty that does not benefit from my generosity.

Whilst I fear malicious gossip, I do not dread fair criticism. True to my virtue, I would much less forgive myself a misdemeanour than others. I am hard on myself and so always look to correct myself- I look for my own approval and do not give it lightly.

 


Read more about BITTER GREENS or BUY THE BOOK!

 

BITTER GREENS: Review by Margo Lanagan

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Golden Stair: Kate Forsyth's Bitter Greens
—review by Margo Lanagan

The year before last, I wrote a Rapunzel story. It began with the prince arriving at Rapunzel's tower to find her severed plait of golden hair tumbled in a pile on the grass. As he mourned over it, the witch rode up. She captured him, took him to her castle and imprisoned him in a dungeon. There, the single strand of hair that he had souvenired sprang to life, insinuated itself into the padlock and released him, and led him through the castle to rescue Rapunzel from her prison room.

Kate Forsyth has found a stash somewhere of just such live, enterprising threads. Her new book for adult readers, Bitter Greens, is a turf-to-tower-window braid of live, red-gold hair. It's a big, glorious read, full of love, lust, pain, politics, blood red and blue, and some of the best frocks and the worst fleas ever.

Forsyth binds three main strands into this glowing cable. First, via the life of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, who published 'Persinette' in her Les Contes des Contes in 1698, she leads us into the staggeringly ornate, crowded, venal, powdered-and-patched court of Louis XIV. Through Charlotte's eyes we witness the scandal, the witch-hunting (literal and figurative), the favour-mongering and the grinding of the intricate machine of court etiquette—all revolving around the spoilt, unsmiling King whose attention, like a toddler's, must be caught in just the right way if the sun is to shine in Versailles. All this determinedly superficial making and breaking of livelihoods and reputations finally gives way in the dead-serious matter of the persecution of the Huguenots, which forces the Protestant Charlotte-Rose to choose between exile and banishment to a convent.

The second strand of the story is the Rapunzel tale itself. Forsyth takes this up just as Charlotte-Rose did at the Abbey of Gercy-en-Brie, amplifies and vivifies it, anchors it firmly in late-Renaissance Italy and winds it through the Charlotte-Rose story. "No one can tell a story without transforming it in some way," says Charlotte towards the end of the book, and this is a fairytale retelling that grows layer on layer, allowing us to glimpse a whole society from Medici to mendicant even as we revel in the magic at work upon, and within, the poor imprisoned mask-maker's daughter Margherita.

The third strand, without which the other two would never connect, is the story of the Venetian witch Selena Leonelli, La Strega Bella. Having as a child witnessed her mother's serial rape, she apprentices herself to Wise Sibillia and learns the art of maintaining her beauty and extending her life by drawing and consuming virgins' blood. To tell more of her story would be to spoil Bitter Greens for you, but the beautiful witch's tale involves art, plague, Inquisition, kidnapping, murder and desperate romance, with her battle against the ravages of time casting a cloud of menace over all.

Forsyth has transformed what must have been a truly massive amount of research into a rich and lively story, presenting historical realities that seem fantastical, and fantastical elements that feel real. She passes us deftly in and out of each character's dancing. For all this lightness of touch, though, the overpowering impression left by Bitter Greens is one of sadness. In the background of the three absorbing stories silently builds a catalogue of strictures, burdens and demands placed on women in history, a great stacking up of odds against their enjoying financial independence and freedom of movement, thought and association. The central image of the Rapunzel tale is the golden rope, means of entry to and exit from the imprisoning tower. But what of the girls and women past and present who could never grow such a fabulous extension of themselves? Must they remain un-rescued and unsung in their towers forever?

 

Read more about BITTER GREENS or BUY IT HERE!


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