The Count … plaintively devoured the greater part of a fruit tart, submerged under a whole jugful of cream – and explained the full merit of the achievement to us, as soon as he had done. ‘A taste for sweets’, he said in his softest tones and his tenderest manner, ‘is the innocent taste of women and children. I love to share it with them – it is another bond, dear ladies, between you and me.’
When I think of villains in literature, I don’t often associate them with eating. They may use food for evil purposes – such as the strawberries Alec d’Urberville seduces Tess with, or the Turkish Delight the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe gives to Edmund – but, as far as I know, literary villains themselves don’t spend much time eating.
Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White is an exception though. The novel, which is narrated from the perspectives of a range of characters, was first published in serial form between 1859 and 1860. Considered an early example of the sensation genre, it highlights the unequal position of women in 19th century society. Like other sensation novels it has a secret at its heart, which is eventually exposed, and includes elements designed to shock the reader – insanity, kidnapping, false identities, mysterious deaths and criminal acts. Needless to say it is a gripping read.
Count Fosco – or to give him his full name, Isidor Ottavio Baldassare Fosco – is the uncle by marriage to Laura Fairlie, who early on in the novel marries Fosco’s closest friend, Sir Percival Glyde. Fosco and Glyde plot together to try and deprive Laura of her immense fortune and to have incarcerated Anne Catherick, the ‘woman in white’ who claims to know a shocking secret about Sir Percival. Fosco is definitely the brains in this evil partnership.
Fosco is introduced to the reader in the narrative of Marian Halcombe, the half-sister of Laura Fairlie. Marian is an intelligent and perceptive woman, but she is initially deceived by Fosco and admits the hold he has over her:
I am almost afraid to confess it, even to these secret pages. The man has interested me, has attracted me, has forced me to like him. In two short days he has made his way straight into my favourable estimation…
Noting how Laura’s aunt has been almost tamed through marriage to Fosco, becoming a submissive and biddable woman, Marian confesses that he would probably be able to tame her too:
If he had married me, I should have made his cigarettes as his wife does – I should have held my tongue when he looked at me, as she holds hers.
Marian’s attraction to Fosco particularly surprises her because he is ‘immensely fat‘ and she has ‘always especially disliked corpulent humanity‘. And this overweight Italian expresses a particular liking for fruit tarts, a dessert that he eats on a number of occasions in the novel.
Fosco’s liking for fruit tart, alongside his fondness for pet animals – he brings ‘a cockatoo, two canary birds, and a whole family of white mice‘ to England – contribute to his rather feminine character: Marian notes elsewhere that he is softly spoken and listens attentively to women – making him far from your stereotypical villain. All these characteristics, including a propensity for desserts, serve to conceal his true nature and the extent of his villainy from both the reader and the other characters.
The fruit used in the tarts seems of little interest to Fosco. In fact, when the narration shifts to the voice of Hester Pinhorn, who cooks for Fosco and his wife when they move temporarily to London and take lodgings in St John’s Wood, she recalls his particular obsession with the pastry of the tart:
‘What are you making there? A nice tart for dinner? Much crust, if you please – much crisp crust, my dear, that melts and crumbles delicious in the mouth.’
So that gave me free rein with the filling when making Count Fosco’s tart. Greengages were being sold at my local farmers’ market, a fruit that to me has an old-fashioned ring to it, so I used them. I coupled the fruit with an almond cream filling, the sweetness of which will offset any possible sourness in the fruit.
COUNT FOSCO’S FRUIT TART (makes 1 large tart or 8 individual ones)
(for the pastry)
250g plain flour (plus a little extra for dusting)
50g icing sugar, sifted
125g cold unsalted butter, cubed
1 large egg, beaten (and 1 tablespoon milk, if needed, to bind)
pinch of salt
(for the almond cream)
110g soft unsalted butter
2 eggs (lightly beaten)
110g ground almonds
30g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
8 – 10 greengages, sliced
Begin by making the pastry. Sieve the flour and icing sugar into a large bowl. Add in the cubes of cold butter and work them into the flour and sugar by rubbing your thumbs against your fingers to create a fine, crumbly mixture.
Add the egg to the mixture and bring it together into a ball of dough – if need be add the milk.
Flour the work surface, place the dough on top. Using the palm of your hand, pat it into a flat round, flour it lightly and wrap in cling film. Put in the fridge to rest for at least half an hour.
Whilst the dough is resting make the almond cream.
Beat together the butter and sugar in a mixing bowl until soft and creamy.
Add the beaten eggs and mix until completely combined.
Next add the ground almonds and flour and mix, and then finally stir in the almond extract.
After the dough has rested take it out of the fridge and allow it to return to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 180C / 160C Fan / Gas mark 4. Roll out the pastry to a thickness of 2-3mm. Line the greased tin(s) with the pastry and bake blind for 10 minutes (for small tins) or 15-20 minutes for the large tin, returning the pastry cases to the oven for another 5-10 minutes to brown off the pastry after removing the foil/greaseproof paper and baking beans.
Now spoon the almond cream into the pastry cases and arrange the sliced greengages in a pattern to your liking. Return the tarts to the oven for 15-20 minutes (individual) or 30-40 minutes (large tart) until golden brown and the fruit is cooked. Serve with plenty of cream, a la Fosco.