“Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away. A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner.” It’s there in the opening lines of Hilary Mantel’s new book The Mirror & the Light – a queasy joke about food that seems entirely worthy of its author. The date is May 1536, the place the Tower of London. The queen on the scaffold is – was – Anne Boleyn, whose beheading ends the second book and begins the third in Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. Lest we have forgotten the kind of man we are dealing with, eight years since the publication of the last instalment, Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel slaps it down at the outset: Cromwell is a man for whom executions are hungry work. What can you say to that? Bon appétit?
A weight of expectation hangs over this book. Will it win Mantel the Booker Prize for the third time? That would certainly make for a happy ending, something the books themselves are reliably short of. If, by some oversight, you don’t know what happens to Thomas Cromwell, I won’t spoil the surprise – but in an author’s note at the end of The Mirror & the Light, Mantel brings us up to speed with the fates of the other real-life characters. Save for a few notable exceptions, it reads like the death toll at the end of a Scorsese film.
Which brings me back to Anne Boleyn sans her head. “You can eat, sir?” Cromwell’s son Gregory asks, incredulous, after the beheading. Not just eat, but feast – on “fine white loaves” and “wine of head-spinning strength”. Throw in a stinky cheese and some bresaola and you’ve got yourself a picnic. We may squirm, but in a world consumed by sexual and political appetites, it’s Cromwell’s appetite for food that strikes me as the most endearing and honest thing about him. How apt that Mantel compares him, at the end of Bring Up the Bodies, to “a choice plum in a Christmas pie… sleek, plump and densely inaccessible”, for it’s through food that we see him at his best.
Certainly, Mantel’s Cromwell is the unimpeachable host, unlike Thomas More, who serves a dinner so unpalatable that Mantel sums it up thus: “Several dishes, which all taste the same – flesh of some sort, with a gritty sauce like Thames mud”. Said to rival the king’s, Cromwell’s kitchen at Austin Friars boasts a repertoire that includes eels salted in almond sauce; spinach tart “green as the summer evening”; and pastries filled with venison and currant jelly, pike and horseradish, and plum and raisin.
Perhaps more telling is Cromwell’s understanding of the emotional significance of food, such as when the king forces Cardinal Wolsey to leave York Place in Westminster to retire to his palace in Esher. The first thing Cromwell does is inspect the new kitchens and check the eggs, as if about to whip up an omelette for his dejected employer. Likewise, Cromwell instructs his own kitchen to make up “beef olives … stuffed with sage and marjoram, neatly trussed and placed side by side in trays, so that [Wolsey’s] cooks need do nothing but bake them” – an act of kindness akin to making up casseroles for distraught friends, saving them from having to cook for themselves. It’s food as an expression of love.
I have a feeling that if Cromwell were around today, he wouldn’t be a politician or a bureaucrat, he’d be a chef-restaurateur. At least that’s how he’d be happiest. In Mantel’s telling, he certainly has the clout for it. A blacksmith’s son from Putney, he earns his stripes not at the forge, but as an apprentice to his Uncle John, a cook in the kitchens of Lambeth Palace. It’s there that he learns how to read from scribbled orders for flour and dried beans, and how to count from tallying up loaves sent to the archbishop’s table. It’s his uncle who teaches him, in a moment of rare tenderness, how to make an aromatic custard, with nutmeg, mace and cumin, and how to eat one too. “Got to eat it when it’s just warm. Too hot or too cold and you don’t get the beauty of it. A cook has to learn. It can’t always be leftovers.”
“A light hand with a sauce and you’re welcome anywhere,” Cromwell is told, and so it proves, when his culinary skills become a means to social mobility, and he lands in the kitchens of the Frescobaldi banking house in Florence, stuffing ravioli with minced pork and clarifying calf's-foot jelly. It’s a continental education that any chef would envy, and it stays with Cromwell on his return to England, where he sends his men out foraging for mushrooms to make torta di funghi, and considers planting cherry trees in the garden so he can taste the luscious fruits he first ate abroad.
Had Cromwell not ascended so highly in Henry’s court, perhaps we would know him best as a food horticulturalist for the varieties of plums he brought back to England: “fruits the size of a walnut or a baby’s heart… mottled and streaked, stippled and flecked, marbled and rayed, their skins lemon to mustard, russet to scarlet, azure to black,” Mantel writes in a rhapsody on plums.
But Cromwell also grasps details that only restaurateurs would, such as the time it takes for a dish to travel from kitchen to table. The reason he hates dining at court, he says, is because the food walks half a mile and reaches him cold. It’s bad topography and would kill any restaurant.
Of the king’s tastes, Cromwell must be especially solicitous. So when, in Mantel’s account, Henry dines at Austin Friars with his wife-to-be Jane Seymour and daughter Lady Mary, in a possibly fraught first encounter between the two, it falls to Cromwell to smooth things over by serving the king’s favourite: globe artichokes. These were considered to be an aphrodisiac, which goes some way towards explaining Henry’s affinity. Though, for context, other aphrodisiacs of the day included beans (thought to inflate a flagging libido through gaseousness), apricots (simply because they were known as “apricocks”) and potatoes. This last one, when it arrived later in the century, may be hard to fathom as an aphrodisiac, but roast one in goose fat and it will get a rise out of anyone.
In their favour, globe artichokes make anything eaten afterwards taste sweeter, which ruins the balance of wine, but partially accounts for their reputation as a tool of seduction. The best way to eat them is surely the classic way – boiled in salted water, then served whole, the petals stripped away one by one, dipped in a vinaigrette or melted butter, their flesh scraped off between one’s teeth. Consumed this way, globe artichokes become a treat so languid and unhurried as to be practically tantric.
In the UK, you can already buy the smaller Mediterranean varieties (try Natoora or Fine Food Specialist), but you have to wait until summer for the homegrown kind, although the number of British producers has fallen in recent years. St John of Smithfield, which has globe artichokes on the menu from the end of June to mid-September, uses both British and French. (You’ll also find them being served to perfection at Notting Hill’s Hereford Road, run by St John alumnus Tom Pemberton.) According to St John’s Fergus Henderson, the vinaigrette is the secret. He uses a tried-and-tested recipe: two cloves of finely crushed garlic, one-and-a-half dsp of Dijon mustard, a pinch of sea salt and pepper, the juice of one lemon, one dsp of white wine vinegar and 300ml of extra-virgin olive oil. “The lemon juice tempers the vinegar in the same magical way that whisky and lemon juice meet in a whisky sour, both becoming something else altogether,” Henderson explains. It’s alchemy fit for a king.