As complex and full-flavored as a fine wine, John Saturnall's Feast is a celebration of nature’s bounty in 17th-century England, where a wise woman with intimate knowledge of herbs and natural remedies is labeled a witch and her son bullied by the boys of the village. A cult of fanatical believers led by Timothy Marpot grows strong in Buckland Village, as John and his mother, Susan, flee their burning cottage amid cries of witchcraft.
When Susan expires after imparting her wisdom to her son from the Book of Feasts, filled with centuries of lore and exotic illustrations, John is sent to the kitchens of Buckland Manor. There he learns of his mother’s earlier attempts to safely deliver Lady Buckland’s first child, a daughter named Lucretia. With Lady’s Anne’s death in childbirth and Lord Buckland’s broken heart, the wise woman is banished, her unborn son the only solace in a country fearful of her knowledge.
Under the tutelage of Master Cook Scovell at Buckland Manor, John keeps the secrets of the Feast imparted by his mother in his heart, his culinary gifts encouraged by Scovell: “She wrote her book. But not on paper with ink. She wrote it in you.” The unfortunate John falls in love with the obstinate only daughter of Lord Buckland, Lady Lucretia Fremantle, but their positions in life do not bode well for a romance of unequals. In this isolated manor, John cultivates his craft, creating dishes with unerring instinct, a talent given to few chefs: “Every true cook carries a feast inside him.” But fate and politics intervene at Buckland Manor, as English civil war interrupts the wedding feast and any certainty of the future.
While Lord Buckland and his retainers go off to fight, the manor is left to endure the rigors of a country divided by political extremes. The chasm of class between Lucretia and the talented John grows less important when survival is at stake. All the secrets, memories and lessons of John’s fraught childhood find expression in this place, even the wooing of a lady. A tale of romance and extraordinary culinary feats comes to life through John’s burgeoning skills, the melding of ingredients, flavor, imagination and passion making tribulations tolerable. But with the ascension of Cromwell’s Roundheads and Marpot’s return as a despotic spiritual authority, reality returns to Buckland Manor, along with Lucretia’s husband-to-be. Fleeing the kitchen where he has flourished and the woman he secretly loves, John seeks solace in the world for his shattered dreams until fate calls him back once more.
Norfolk’s prose gives time and place the cachet of uncertainty, poverty, superstition and political rivalry that defines 17th-century England, the country torn by internal strife and the class differences of a society in transition. Everything John has learned from his mother finds expression in the manor’s kitchens, even the nascent hopes of an impossible love. The characters, adversaries, fanatics, kings and nobles, village folk and servants color the pages of John Saturnall's Feast with classic dramas, friendship, romance, jealousies and accomplishments, John generously sharing the bounty of his gifts.