It’s 1625 when young John Saturnall and his mother are chased up into Buccla’s Wood by religious zealots who term her a witch. She is not a witch but a wise woman with ancient knowledge and stories of a magnificent feast that happened centuries before.
When John’s mother is dying in the wood, she sends him to Buckland Manor in the Vale, the home of Sir William Freemantle. There he learns that his mother worked in the manor before she became pregnant with him. He is taken into the kitchen, where he shows promise of becoming a great cook.
Just as John is becoming a Master Cook and Sir William’s daughter Lucretia is reluctantly betrothed to a wastrel in an attempt to save the Vale, the Civil War breaks out. As the Freemantles are supporters of King Charles I, the household has years of suffering before it.
At the beginning of each chapter is an excerpt from The Book of John Saturnall, written using the culinary language of the times. The novel is lushly written, full of the details of running a 17th century kitchen and household.
I was less interested in the unlikely romance, perhaps partly because Lucretia as a character is poorly defined. However, overall I found this novel deeply interesting.
By the way, the Grove Press edition is beautifully presented, with heavy paper, two colors of ink, and gorgeous woodcut-style illustrations.