Michèle Barrière: Author of Historical and Culinary Crime Novels

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Michèle Barrière: Author of Historical and Culinary Crime Novels
Who in the world has ever read a culinary crime novel set in medieval Paris? I sure hadn’t, that is, until a friend gave me a copy of Michèle Barrière’s Souper Mortel aux Étuves, or Fatal Dinner at the Steam Room. The novel begins in the year 1393, with a murder at a disreputable steam room establishment in central Paris. The main character of the novel, Constance, must avenge her husband’s murder. To find out whodunnit, she becomes a cook at the steam room, working for the formidable Isabelle la Maquerelle. Belying the lovely rhyme of her name, Isabelle is a feminine version of a maquereau, the French word for the fish mackerel, but also for mac, as in pimp. Constance counted on everyday run-ins with the steam room’s rough customers, who in typical medieval fashion, would eat with their hands, and possibly the same dagger they used to stab somebody the night before. But what Constance hadn’t bargained for was doing a daily (kitchen) battle with the establishment’s regular chef. During one of their culinary jousts, she meets the famous chef Taillevent. Michèle Barrière’s first novel, Fatal Dinner at the Steam Room. Photo © Allison Zinder As a food historian and novelist, Michèle Barrière shows off many authorial talents, and one of them is to weave together fact and fiction. Barrière’s novels trace not only the history and evolution of French kitchens and cuisine, but also French “art of the table” (which includes table manners!) throughout the centuries. Readers also glean historical information on specific people throughout history. You might recognize from above that Taillevent (real name: Guillaume Tirel) was the alleged author of the period’s most famous cookbook, Le Viandier. But he was also in fact a real working chef to kings Charles V and the VI. King Charles V loved good food and French books refer to him as a “wise and cultivated” king. During his reign in the 14th century, he managed to channel water from a spring in my local neighborhood of Belleville to one of his residences, the hotel Saint Pol in the Marais. If you’ve been to the Marais, you’ll know that the closest metro station to that area of Paris is called Saint Paul, named for just this residence. But Charles V was not only a lover of clean water. He was a living patron saint of artists and all sorts of cultivated people, and set up a library containing almost a thousand books in one of the towers of his fortress in the Louvre. This collection would eventually become the royal library, and then the national library, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, or BnF. My personal library doesn’t have a thousand books, but it does have a signed copy of Fatal Dinner at the Steam Room. Michèle had inscribed “For Allison, from John: a little spin through the kitchens of the Middle Ages. Happy tasting!” Before the pandemic, when meeting people in cafés was a normal activity, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michèle in person near her home in Montmartre. “A little spin through the kitchens of the Middle Ages.” Photo © Allison Zinder

Lead photo credit : Michèle Barrière (C) Guillaume Bonnaud

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Allison Zinder is a gastronomy guide and culinary educator working in French food, culture, history, and art. A certified chef and pastry chef, she offers market tours, food history tours, food-related Study Abroad programs, and Food & Beverage courses at hospitality schools in Paris. Allison has lived in France for 25 years. She is passionate about sharing her deep cultural knowledge, and has created engaging educational experiences for over 4000 clients.


    2021-05-31 09:51:49
    Wish they were translated. And sorry you got my appetite up for these when they are not available in English! Barnes and Noble has several titles of hers, but none of them are in English. Please do another special on someone whose books are available in English. Or translate them for the English/American audience. They sound great.


    •  Allison Zinder
      2021-06-01 10:02:11
      Allison Zinder
      Bonjour Dana: I'm very sorry, I really should have mentioned in the article that Michèle's books are not yet available in English! I've been gently pestering her for some time to see if they can be translated. So far, no dice, but I will reach out to her editor to make a formal request. Again, I apologize, and hope that you'll be able to find some of Michèle's books in English soon! Kind regards, Allison