Being a high-wire secret agent during World War II and its aftermath is particularly tricky if you happen to be a firm pacifist.
The hard-to-find* gem, It Can’t Always Be Caviar (Es Muß Nicht Immer Kaviar Sein), was an international bestseller in the Sixties. In 1961 the novel was even adapted into a film. The back blurb of my 1967 Mayflower-Dell paperback shouts out in bold orange and turquoise lettering, “Fleming? Deighton? Le Carré? This is Europe’s answer”!
Those comparisons really do not do Johannes Mario Simmel’s book justice. For one thing, the tone of the story is that of a caper, humorous and irreverent, and for another, the main protagonist really, really does not want to have anything to do with government institutions or killing.
Unfortunately for Thomas Lieven and luckily for us readers, the vagaries of fate and raw talent get him recruited by the intelligence organisations of one country after another. He has to figure out not only how to stay alive in the cut-throat game of espionage, but how to get out of the deplorable messes that governments create for each other and their citizens - without resorting to violence. How, exactly, he manages to outwit his German, British, French, and American superiors while simultaneously aiding his fellow human beings through methods that satisfy his own ideas about morality and honour provides one of the most amusing and original spy thrillers – or books of any genre, come to think of it – I have ever had the pleasure of reading.
Thomas’s twin passions are cooking and women, and all the most critical points in his life are linked to one or the other, or both. For example, on 4th September 1940, a meal consisting of “Fried Onion Soup, Veal Fillets in Madeira Sauce, and Pancakes Flambées” facilitates Thomas’s transition from “the youngest private banker in London” to an expert passport forger. “Good God Almighty! And I shall never, never, never be able to tell the story in the club!” (Page 114-115.)
His culinary adventures are laid out in as careful detail as his spying escapades, enabling the reader to recreate each recipe. As for the women? He finally meets his match and – well, read it yourself ;-)
In the novel’s pages Simmel makes the claim that the story is based on actual events and persons. I will leave the truth of that for any fellow readers to decide.
*A new French edition seems to have been released last year, titled On N’A Pas Toujours Du Caviar, by Robert Laffont/Pavillons Poche. German-language editions also seem to be readily available.
(Mayflower-Dell paperback, 1967, page 9, 10, 11):
“His name is not, of course, Thomas Lieven.
We shall be forgiven, in the circumstances, for changing both his name and his address. But the story of this once peaceful citizen, who still loves cooking and who involuntarily became one of the most daring adventurer’s of his day, is true.
We begin it on the evening of April 11, 1957, at the historic moment when Thomas Lieven was lecturing on the preparation of lettuces.
Let us go back, then, to the kitchen in his villa.
‘Never let a salad come into contact with metal,’ said Thomas Lieven.
Kitty gazed as though hypnotized at her employer’s slender hands and listened to his instructions with continually renewed excitement.
‘For the sauce,’ said Thomas Lieven, ‘we need a pinch of salt and a teaspoonful of strong mustard. We add a hard-boiled egg, sliced small. Then plenty of parsley and even more chives. Four tablespoons of genuine Italian olive oil. The oil please, Kitty!’
With a blush, Kitty handed him the desired article.
‘Four spoonfuls of that, as I said. And now a cup of cream, sweet or sour according to taste. I’ll settle for sour–’
At that moment the kitchen door opened and a giant entered. He wore pin-striped trousers, a jacket striped blue and white, a white shirt and a white tie. Without his upright thatch of hair he would have resembled a second, excessively large, edition of Yul Brynner.
‘What is it, Bastien?’ asked Thomas Lieven.
The manservant answered in a slightly drawling French accent: ‘Herr Direktor Schallenberg has arrived.’
‘On the dot, eh?’ Thomas commented. ‘That’s the kind of man I can work with.’
Lady Curzon Soup
Apple Hedgehog with Wine Custard
Toast and Cheese
11 APRIL 1957
11 APRIL 1957
This dinner brought in 717,850 Swiss francs.
Apple Hedgehog With Wine Custard
Ripe apples of equal size are peeled, slowly simmered in vanilla-flavored syrup and before they disintegrate removed to a strainer to drain. Meanwhile almonds are blanched, cut into strips, put on a baking sheet and well roasted. As soon as the apples are properly drained they are drenched with a liqueur, rum or cognac, speared with the cut almonds and placed on a dish. For the custard the yolks of two eggs are mixed till foamy with half a cup of sugar, two tablespoons of cornstarch, half a cup of water and a cup of white wine. The mixture is then stirred over a small flame until thick. The whites of the two eggs are beaten until stiff and folded into the mixture, being flavored if desired with rum, arrack, cognac or similar spirits.”
Wishing you mouth-watering readings!
(For another fictional, culinary feast that I highly recommend, see The Food of Love by Anthony Capella.)