I imagine that if Nigella Lawson had been a girl of, say, six or eight years, and stumbled across Madame Pamplemousee and Her Incredible Edibles by Rupert Kingfisher (Bloomsbury Children's; $19.95) on a trip to the library, it may have been attributed with igniting her life-long passion for food, with the same fervour that Judy Blume's Are You There God...? triggered many a pre-teen's commitment to bust enhancing exercise (Lawson's lust for food itself negates the need for any such exercise – eat your potatoes, girls).
In a word, this book is delightful. A Cinderella-like fairytale, with black-and-white illustrations by Sue Hellard complementing every page spread, Kingfisher has conjured up a world where food is mysterious and pleasurable, with the ability to affect common feeding folk like a spot of Harry Potter magic unleashed on a muggle.
Set in Paris, epicurean capital of the world, the story revolves around the young Madeleine, whose natural culinary flair lands her in all sorts of trouble but ultimately leads to her salvation and happiness.
In the opening pages, we meet Madame Pamplemousse, whose discreetly located food shop sells "rare and exotic delicacies", like Giant Squid Tentacle in Jasmine-scented Jelly and Scorpion Tails in Smoked Garlic Oil (ick!). However, it's the coveted secret ingredients for Madame's rarest delicacy, which is served like a pate with bread, which becomes the point of contention.
Madeleine has been sent to stay with her uncle, Monsieur Lard, who is a fat slob of a man and owns a "big, flashy restaurant called the Squealing Pig." His cooking, unbeknownst to many a tourist and visiting celebrity, is known to be revolting and laden with, you guessed it, lard.
One day, Madeleine, who finds herself drowning in dirty dishes after sparking Lard's jealousy with a superb tasting soup, is sent to buy ingredients for some foul recipe. On the trip, she discovers Madame Pamplemousse and her store (as well as her cat comrade, Camembert) and walks away with a jar of pate which has the power to transform tastebuds and the mind. The pate impresses Lard's customers so much that he becomes set on discovering the secret ingredients, sending poor Madeline on a covert mission to undermine Madame Pampelmousse (who is, of course, quite the wise old woman). What ensues is a complicated relationship based on deception and culinary kinship, which ultimately reveals Madeleine's good character, celebrates her gastronomic expertise and brings about the downfall of her greedy uncle.
At times dark and odd, this clever book is embellished with edible descriptive passages, complex characters (the food critic will amuse adult readers) and a sound moral message. Catering for children aged 6-12 and registering 138 little pages, it traverses literary territory between Lemony Snicket, Harry Potter and your classic Disney fairytales.
Considering most tween girls are today growing up with food phobias and body image issues, I would encourage mums to slip this little hardback under the Christmas tree. I'd sooner breed a mini-Nigella than a potential Pussycat Doll.
Girl With a Satchel