Cooking Up A New Historical Mystery

TheCocoaConspiracy  Cara/Andrea here, wearing my “Mystery” hat today (decorated with gaily wrapped Holiday chocolates) as I celebrate the release this week of the second book in my Regency-set Lady Arianna historical mystery series. December is actually a perfect month for it, because eating, drinking, dancing and partying—all to lavish excess—play a prominent role in the plot.

It all starts with chocolate—my hero and heroine possess a number of unconventional talents, including an expertise in Theobroma cacao. So when Arianna spots a rare book of botanical engravings on the subject in a fancy London bookshop, she decides to purchase it for her new husband, the Earl of Saybrook. The trouble is, someone else is equally determined to possess it and she must fight him off (luckily she knows some very unladylike moves from her rough-and-tumble childhood.)

Chocolate-engraving-2The episode is forgotten, until she and Saybrook are invited to attend a country house party for an elite group of international diplomats, where she is shocked to discover that her erstwhile assailant is one of the guests. But even more ominous is the discovery that the chocolate book contains hidden documents that implicate someone near and dear to them in a plot to betray Great Britain at the upcoming Congress of Vienna. To find the real culprit, they must travel to Austria, where rulers of Europe—along with the crème de la crème of high society—have gathered to make peace . . . and make love, not necessarily in that order. And so, amid the swirl of lavish entertainments, opulent balls and sumptuous suppers, their sleuthing talents are put to the supreme test.

TalleyrandOne of the fun things about writing the book was adding some of the real life people who attended the Conference as “color” characters. And trust me, they were colorful indeed! Metternich, Talleyrand, Alexander I of Russia—a writer would be hard-pressed to make up more flamboyant personalities. So they play a role in the story. But so does an even more delicious historical figure.

Careme-portraitMarie Antoine Carême served as the personal chef to Talleyrand, the charismatic French Foreign Minister, during the time period of my story . . . now forget Bobby Flay and Gordon Ramsay—Carême was the first celebrity chef, and in his astounding career, he cooked not only for Talleyrand but also for Napoleon, the Prince Regent, Tsar Alexander and the Rothschild family. Known as the Chef of Kings, (and the King of Chefs) he revolutionized many elements of haute cuisine, but he is perhaps best known for his amazing skills with pastries. So how could I resist having him and Arianna cross cooking spoons! 

The heat is on . . . but I’ll leave you to discover the details of my story on your own. Right now, let me give you a little taste of the real-life adventures of Marie Antoine Carême.

Careme-1 Careme-3Carême was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. One of many children, he was, at age ten, abandoned by his family in revolutionary Paris during the tumultuous days of 1793. He was taken in by the owner of a cheap chophouse, where he was put to work in the kitchen. In 1794, Carême was apprenticed to a well-known pâtissier, whose shop was located close to the Palais-Royal . . .and it was here that his genius began to soar!

Careme_2Pastry shops at the time featured elaborate display windows to attract their clientele, so fanciful creations would be made out of spun sugar, almond paste and dough. Now, Carême was a quiet, serious boy who spent his free time in the Bibliothèque Nationale, where he was fascinated by the architectural books showing ancient ruins, classical monuments and famous buildings. He began to copy these structures out of confectionary materials, creating what came to be known as his signature “Pièces Montées.” Pyramids, castles, cathedral—his art quickly became famous throughout the city and attracted the eye
of a notable gourmand—Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord.

Careme-diningA lover of fine wine, sublime food and beautiful women, Talleyrand commissioned the young Carême to create centerpieces for a number of his lavish parties. Impressed with his skills, he offered him employment at his Chateau Valencay, which was purchased with government funds so that Talleyrand could entertain diplomats and VIPs in proper French style. (Napoleon was famous for his utter disinterest in food, but he was savvy enough to know that sumptuous meals were an important weapon in winning allies around the Continent.)

But first, Talleyrand challenged Carême to come up with a full year’s menu using only seasonal produce. The chef succeeded, and voila—his career rose to even greater heights. Working for Talleyrand, he expanded his repertoire to all the different dishes served at a meal. In the course of honing his skills, he is credited with pioneering a number Cooksof innovations. The chef’s toque, and the serving of meals “a la Russe” (with each course brought to the table in succession, as we do today) instead of “a la Francaise” (where all the courses were set out at the beginning of a meal) are among his contributions to cuisine. He also wrote a number of cookbooks, including the multi-volume L’Art de la Cuisine Francais), which redefined haute cuisine.

Carême won further fame by creating a spectacular wedding cake for Napoleon and his new Austrian Empress. A year later he followed it up with a magnificent spun sugar creation for the christening of their infant son—a Venetian gondola crafted in sweet shades of celestial blue!

Tsar-AlexanderWhen Napoleon was forced to abdicate, Tsar Alexander of Russia entered Paris to be part of the diplomatic negotiations, and Talleyrand quickly invited him to stay at his palace on the rue St. Florentin. The Tsar  became so fond of Carême’s cooking that when he moved to the Elysee Palace, he asked to borrow the chef for the duration of his visit. (Carême created the now-famous dessert Charlotte Russe in honor of Alexander. Nesselrode Pudding—which became a favorite sweet of the Prince Regent, was named after the Russian Foreign Minister Karl von Nesselrode.)

RowlandsonepicurebigThe next King he served was the future George IV. After Waterloo, Prinny set out feelers to Paris, anxious to engage a top French chef for his own kitchens. Carême agreed to cross the Channel, and for a time cooked in London and the Prince’s Royal Pavilion at Brighton. (I find that a lovely pairing—the fanciful centerpieces gracing the tables of the fairytale Pavilion!) Prinny was said to have remarked that Carême’s luscious foods would be the death of him . . . to which Carême responded, “Your Highness, my concern is to tempt your appetite; yours is to curb it,”

Careme-4Alas, Carême could not stomach the English weather and returned to France after several years . . . where Tsar Alexander promptly offered him a king’s ransom to come cook in St. Petersburg. That lasted only a short while (I assume the Russian winter was no more palatable than the English rain) and back he came to Paris, where he became the private chef to James Rothschild of the famous banking family.

Carême died at the age of 48, his lungs ruined by years of toiling over charcoal fires. But his legacy of culinary genius has inspired generations of chefs to be artists in the kitchen.

So what about you? Do you like to cook . . . especially pastries? Do you have a favorite sweet for the holidays? Please share! I’ll be giving away a copy of THE COCOA CONSPIRACY to one randomly chosen reader who leaves a comment here between now and Tuesday evening.

Rakes, Rogues, Parties and Princes

AP-avatar Cara/Andrea here,
TTAR The new year is barely into its first chapter, but I’m delighted to announce that tomorrow kicks off my first new release of 2011. (I hope you will all polish up your reading spectacles because you’ll be seeing a lot from me in the coming months—including a Big Announcement as we head into April) Yes, I’m popping the bubbly for To Tempt A Rake, but it’s also a tiny bit sad because as I toast the pristine new pages that are hot off the presses, I am also closing the final chapter on my “Circle of Sin” trilogy.

Russia&Prussia Hail &  Farewell
It’s particularly hard to say goodbye to the hero, Marco, He actually came to life in my Andrea Pickens “Spy” trilogy and had a lot of fun raising hell in those books. Indeed, he was such a swashbuckling character that I couldn’t resist introducing him to the circle of my scientific women when I started my current Cara Elliott series. (Some of you may already know that he tuned out to be Alessandra’s cousin . . . something that took me by surprise. ) Well, he finally got tired of playing a secondary role and demanded his own book. So it was a Good Thing that Kate, the hellion of the Circle, was worldly enough and gritty enough match his devil-may-care bravado. 

Talleyrand_devil Continental Intrigue
Given that they are adventurous and international (Kate is half American and Marco is all Italian) I decided to set part of their story outside of England. They are caught up in a deadly web of Continental intrigue when a foreign diplomat is murdered at a country house party, and Kate finds herself the prime suspect. Marco suspects she is hiding a dark secret, but has his own clandestine reasons for offering to help prove her innocence. And so their investigation leads them from England to Austria, and the famous Congress of Vienna, which convened in the fall of 1814 in order to reorganize Europe after Napoleon’s exile to Elba . . .

But enough of my fictional story—let’s take a quick look at one of the influential—and fascinating—gatherings of the 19th century.

Peace-Festival-Vienna A Waltz To Remember
The Congress of Vienna was also meant to be a grand ending of sorts—the rulers and diplomats from all over Europe were looking to close the book on the strife and upheavals of the Napoleonic Wars and begin a new chapter of world peace. (In many ways, it was the precursor to the United Nations.) Countless books have been written on the complex negotiations and their ramifications (Henry Kissinger wrote his PhD thesis on the Congress) so I won’t attempt to delve into its nuances. Suffice it to say, it was an extraordinary attempt to consider a vast range of issues, both political and social, and to structure a  “balance of power” to ensure that there would not be another world war.

Ball Politics and Parties
Some of the major issues had to do with East Europe—what to do with the various pieces of Poland that had been carved up during the wars; how to deal with Saxony and Prussia; how to keep Russia from becoming too powerful. And then there was the rising nationalism in the Italian peninsula and the Balkans to consider. All these questions of borders and national identity were incredibly important, of course. But what I found fascinating was that the leaders of Europe also understood that issues such as religious freedom, free press and individual rights were very critical in establishing stability and peace throughout the regions. And so there were delegations not just from countries, but from “special interest” groups (much like our modern day lobbyists) ranging from prominent Jewish leaders and anti–slavery organizations to a group of publishers who wanted laws passed to protect intellectual property!

MetternichsOffice Making Peace . . .and Love
Now, as you might know from my previous posts, I love doing research on little arcane details about an era, as well as the “big” picture. For me, those things—the fashion and furnishings, the people and places or the arts and ideas—are what help make a story come alive.

Well, trust me, there probably wasn’t a more “alive” spot
on the planet than Vienna during that time. Yes, the emperors, kings, princes, margraves, powerful government ministers and their entourages had come to the Austrian capital to make peace . . . but they had also come to make love (not necessarily in that order!) In other words, they had come not just to work but to play! And play they did! Glittering balls, sumptuous banquets, fanciful medieval jousts, spectacular fireworks—the daily list of extravagant entertainments for the participants was mind-boggling. (Ah well, what better way to end my trilogy than to go out with a bang. Quite literally!)

Metternich Real-Life Rakes
The cast of colorful real-life characters at the Congress of Vienna makes fiction appear, well, awfully tame. Prince Metternich, the powerful Austrian Foreign Minister who was a guiding force of the Congress of Vienna, was a savvy negotiator, a polished diplomat—and a rakish lady’s man. He was madly in love with the Duchess of Sagan, who had come to the city in order to court favor with the Tsar of Russia . . . (warning: get out your notebooks, for the tangle of love affairs and dalliances gets quite complicated.) Alas, poor Metternich. He spent much of his time writing passionate love letters to the Duchess when he should have been reading treaties and aligning borders . . . a fact that his canny rivals took advantage of.

Talleyrand Prince Talleyrand, the worldly and sybaritic French Foreign Minister, was perhaps the most brilliant—and cunning—statesman of the era. The consummate survivor, he had served King Louis XVI, the radical Revolutionary government and Napoleon (who called him ‘shit in silk stockings’ after the prince betrayed him in secret negotiations with the Allies in ’08.) Called by some le diable boiteux because of a congenital limp, Talleyrand loved the finer things in life (he always dressed in the elegantly old-fashioned velvet-and-lace style of the previous century) and brought the famous chef Antoine Careme with him to Vienna, not only for his own pleasure but to  butter up potential supporters of French interests over the sumptuous dinners and desserts. (At one point he wrote to Paris and wryly said he needed more saucepans, not more secretaries.)

TsarAlexanderOnHorse And then there was Tsar Alexander I of Russia. Charismatic, complex and  mercurial, Alexander was determined to make Russia a force to be reckoned with on the European stage. It seems he was also determined to seduce every female within arm’s reach. One of my favorite anecdotes involves him seeing the wife of a prominent diplomat at a party. As she was alone, he sidled up and asked if he could occupy her husband’s place for the evening—to which she replied coolly, “Does Your Majesty take me for a province?” In addition to the opposite sex, Alexander also loved the rich food and wines of Vienna—he had to have a whole new wardrobe sent from St. Petersburg because he gained so much weight partying every night!

DuchessofSagan And the Ladies Who Loved Them
The ladies were equally interesting. A noted beauty, the Duchess of Sagan attracted an impressive array of influential men to her weekly salons. As did her rival, Princess Bagration, a Russian who was known as the Naked Angel of the North because she wore only white muslin, well damped to cling to her shapely curves. The Duchess’s younger sister Dorothee—who was Talleyrand’s niece by marriage—served as the prince’s hostess, stirring rumors as to what else was cooking inside the Kaunitz Palace beside Careme's delicious desserts . . .

 And I haven’t even begun to talk about the parties, but I’m running out of space! (My favorite is the Carousel, a recreation of a medieval joust which took place in the indoor arena of  the famed Spanish Riding School. However, I promise you will hear about that at a later date!)

Riding-School So, to end this, let me ask a question that brings us back to books. How do you feel about linked books? Are you sad to see a series end after three books? (trilogies seem to be the favorite number with publishers these days) Or are you just as happy to move on to new things? I confess to being a big fan of some long-running series, like the Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters. Have you any favorites? I’ll be giving away a copy of To Tempt A Rake to one lucky person who leaves a comment here between now and Tuesday night. So be sure to chime in!