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Review: The Empress of Ice Cream by Anthony Capella

empress of ice cream anthony capella Review: The Empress of Ice Cream by Anthony Capella

Lygon Street in my native Melbourne is famous for its back-to-back gelati shops, where tattered awnings gust in the breeze, ushering confection-hungry patrons inside, and where vast metal tubs veritably ooze with decadent promises, enticing a passer-by to ignore the biting evening chill and to instead indulge in something vastly inappropriate for both the weather and the time of day. And so many do: the streets throng with uni students after the unusual ripeness of pandan or starfruit gelati, with clattering businesspeople after zesty sorbets, with families insistent on the most diabetic of chocolate concoctions, those that are swirled with hazelnut craters, caramel streamers, crispy faux-peppermint flakes. Theres something vastly intriguing about these chilled desserts, about the fact that their allure overrides all fear of tormented teeth, sudden headaches, and cold-induced coughing. Something about the way that they challenge all sorts of foodie norms in terms of texture, taste combinations, and of course serving temperature that fascinates, that beguiles.

Anthony Capella, author of a number of popular food-themed novels knows well the temptation of such indulgences, knows well how the spectre of rich foods wars with our sense of propriety and even morality, and its with nothing less than sheer glee that he settles down to tackle the emergence of ice-cream and similarly themed delights in the royal courts of 18th Century France and England. We first meet 'Carlo Dimarco when he is but a mere apprentice in the art of creamed ices, but watch as his obsession with his work, his unfettered creativity, and his unabashed self-importance sees him climb quickly the ranks of society until he finds himself in the position of limonadier at the court of Louis XIV. But Dimarcos ices soon become more than mere delights for the French king when he is sent abroad to use his trade to ply English king Charles II. But Dimarco is not sent alone: with him is Louise de Keroualle, a young woman who, despite her impeccable breeding, is utterly impoverished and therefore considered any ineligible partner by mostDimarco, of course, being the exception. However, de Keroualle has a mission of her own, and given that her wit and savvy are weapons that she wields with considerable facility, it is not long before she has ingratiated herself into the Kings inner sanctum, and, of course his bed chambers. What follows is a complex series of both political and romantic manoeuvrings garnished with exquisite descriptions of the most arcane-sounding ices and desserts and all manner of courtly decadence and ostentation.

Theres a curious wintry feel to The Empress of Ice-Cream, in part due to the setting, and of course in part due to its subject matter, and Capella works to imbue his characters and their interactions with a similar frosty allure. Much like his dessert of choice, his characters are also morally ambiguous by nature, and are strange and decadent in their intentions and desires. Capella, however, contrasts the grandiose affectations of the court with the far more bucolic aspirations and lives of those who long for a return to a regent-free England, pairing elaborate sorbets with humble meat pies, for example, and juxtaposing the astonishing expenditure of the debt-ridden court (something that hits rather close to home in todays context) with the necessitated frugality of those not among the royal classes. Capella delights perhaps a little too much in these contrasts, however, fiercely ensuring that the morally upright underlings are victorious against their societal superiors, whose efforts to better themselves result in abject dissatisfaction.

Theres no denying that The Empress of Ice-Cream is a rich, sumptuous book, and like a truly superlative dessert, it demands that the reader dive in unchecked and unbound. Capellas love of all things gastronomic is deeply infused in each page of this book, and its difficult not to marvel at some of the concoctions touched upon as exemplars, as well as at the sheer complexity and difficulty of the confectioners art at this time (about the only thing that Dimaro had in his favour was that England was experiencing a mini ice age at the time). However, like many rich things, it can be a little overbearing on the palate at times, and there are times when the reader finds themselves lost in a sea of familiar flavours. This is in part, I think, due to the fact that the book is a reimagined account of actual events, and the necessity of adhering to fact affects the overall flow and plot of the narrative. There are also some structural idiosyncrasies that detract a little from the cohesion of the narrative of the whole. The first of these is the way in which the point of view characters alternate rather unevenly and without evident rhyme or reason. The first several chapters, for example, are given over to Dimarco, and it is not until some time later that de Keroualle abruptly appears as a point of view character. This, paired with the fact that the switching between point of view characters remains haphazard and disorderly, almost makes the de Kerouelle chapters feel ancillary or subordinate to Dimarcos chapters. The second of the structural elements that I took issue with was the heading of each chapter with a snippet from the manual The Book of Ices. While this initially piqued my interest, these snippets gradually began to feel interchangeable and unimportant, as though the author is struggling to come up with an appropriate quotation as the book wears on.

Despite these criticisms, I dont doubt for a minute that lovers of lush, opulent fiction (and of course, lush, opulent desserts) will find themselves smitten by a mere taste of this book. Many a reader will be intrigued by the historical curios that line its pages, and certainly by Capellas take on the discovery and development of ice-cream as we know it today.

Rating: star Review: The Empress of Ice Cream by Anthony Capellastar Review: The Empress of Ice Cream by Anthony Capellastar Review: The Empress of Ice Cream by Anthony Capellablankstar Review: The Empress of Ice Cream by Anthony Capellablankstar Review: The Empress of Ice Cream by Anthony Capella

With thanks to Hachette Australia for the review copy.

Purchase The Empress of Ice Cream.

Anthony Capella is also featured in our list of books for coffee lovers.

Other books by Anthony Capella

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  1. I love that cover, and I wish Lygon Street was in my neighborhood! The Empress of Ice Cream certainly sounds interesting, but I think Id have to be in the right mood for it. Also, Id have to make sure there was no ice cream in the house!

  2. Stephanie /

    Lygon Street is wonderful! Independent book shops, cinemas, and plenty of food! :)

    This book is very much a decadent, relaxing mood, and would be perfect on the beach or with a glass of wine (and of course, some ice-cream!). I have a copy of The Various of Flavours of Coffee by the same author, too, and will review that soon.

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