A Dragons’ Banquet 1~6
This is a series of exerpts taken from The Life Of A Dragon to prove that gastronomy can be discreetly introduced in any story or novel, be it fiction or not!
Incidentally “Sea Ears” are Abalones in English, or “Oreilles de Mer” in vernacular French
PART 1: SEA EARS
But for the moment, dragon or not, he had more work than he cared for.
He was interrupted in his ruminations by a young man’s voice from the kitchen door.
“Jonas! Greetings! Look at what I’m bringing!” shouted a genial Naeem carrying a large wooden box. Jonas hurried to see the contents. The young man was such a great source of information on what dwelt in the sea. Ekan had never lost his passion for those great expanses of water and the mysterious teeming lives below the surface.
There were no different fish from the day before and their quality was irreproachable as ever. But in a corner he found half a dozen large slightly round dark shells dotted with small holes. He took one of them, turned it over and saw a kind of large foot under it. He scratched his shaved head in wonder.
“What are these?”
“Abalones. We also call them “sea ears”. Divers have to go down quite deep to collect them. But I can tell you they are worth the effort!”
“I believe you, but how do you cook them?”
-Shall I show you?”
“Sure! All of you, make some room! Time for some learning!” laughed the black giant, quite happy to discover another culinary experience.
Demonstrating at the same time, Naeem, thoroughly enjoying himself, explained:
“First, you clean the shell and the shellfish by rubbing the whole with salt and then rinse it with water. Sponge the water off with a clean cloth. Next, heat some oil in a frying pan until very hot. Put the abalone shell up onto the frying pan. Let it cook for a while, then cover it and let it steam inside its own juices for about the same time again. Take out the abalone and put it shell down onto a wooden cutting board. Insert a spatula between the shell and the meat. It should come off easily. Now turn the shellfish over, innards on top. Take off the innards. Throw them away or use them to make broth. Cut out the top of the shellfish, as the meat there is a bit tough to eat. Last, cut it in very thin slices from top to bottom and at a slant. You can eat the slices hot or cold as they are, with spices or sauce.”
He proceeded to cut the cooked abalone as indicated and offered a slice to everyone present. Ekan brought the slice to his mouth. The meat was very tender and succulent, as the shellfish was very fresh. A look at his staff was sufficient to convince him they had found a new choice food.
“Tell me, Naeem, do you usually cook your shellfish in oil or butter?”
“Well, either would do. Butter would be best, but it darkens quickly. Oil is a bit heavy. Mixing the two might be a better idea. But butter does not come cheap”
“I see. I’d like to show you something. Come outside with me!”
The young fisherman and the kitchen staff looked askance at Jonas. The Black Dragon beckoned them all to follow him outside. He guided them through the back garden to the very edge of the property. Quite a few trees with a height varying between that of one and two adult men stood there laden with small oval fruits. He pointed at the trees.
“Naeem, what do you call those trees? I’ve seen many of them around. I’ve been meaning to ask somebody for a while.”
“They are called oliva trees. They’ve been there for as long as I remember. I’m sure those trees have been growing here for generations. As far as I know, apart from their shade, they are pretty useless.”
“Really?” answered Jonas.
He picked a handful of the small fruits.
“People have never used them for food or else?” he continued looking at everybody. Negative nods were the only reply.
Holding the berries in his right hand over his open left hand, he proceeded to squeeze and crush them in his enormous grip. A yellow green liquid started sipping out of his clenched fist into his left palm. Throwing away the crushed fruit, he dipped a finger into the oily substance and tasted it.
“Well, well. I’ll be damned! And thinking that all the time we had the solution for something better than that terrible bean oil of yours next to our door! Taste it and tell me what you think!”
Each member of the kitchen staff and Naeem dipped a finger into Ekan’s palm and tasted the oil. Some came a second time for a bigger dip. All showed surprised faces, eyes round and lips smacking.
“What do you think, Grazel? Would your people and our customers appreciate such a taste?”
“I’ll be damned, too!” exclaimed the senior kitchen maid. “So that’s what those trees have been there for all the time! Why did our ancestors forget such a treasure?”
“We’ll probably never know.” answered a pensive Jonas. “Alright ladies, back to work! I’m going to ask the Dwarves if they can come up with some kind of press. Naeem, come with me!”
“But, I have to…” started the young man.
“Don’t worry! I’ll talk to your father. But before that, I’d like to have a word with you. Let’s pick up a couple of baskets first!”
They went back to the kitchen to take the baskets and back again to the oliva trees where they proceeded to harvest the berries. While they were doing that, Ekan addressed Naeem.
“We shall have to find a more efficient way to harvest those fruit. Picking them up one by one will be too much time consuming and backbreaking!”
“Why don’t we do like for chestnuts? Just put a cloth under the tree and beat the branches with long sticks.”
Ekan stopped his work to look at the young man’s face.
”Naeem, for all your knowledge of the sea and the fish, you ought to use your brains and skills for a land job. I understand your father needs you. But that is only in the mornings. Meaning no disrespect, but that leg of yours will never allow you to follow your sire’s steps.”
Seeing the young man’s face darken, the Black Dragon raised a hand in appeasement.
“What I mean is that I see a better alternative for you that won’t prevent you from helping your father and provide you with a decent respected life.”
“What kind of alternative could it be, then?” asked a still miffed Naeem.
“Naeem, you have an inborn sense for cooking and choosing the best quality ingredients. Why don’t you become a cook? How about starting as my apprentice?”
“At my age? And what about the kitchen maids? Won’t they think I’m intruding?”
Ekan laughed Naeem’s reservations away.
“There is no age for becoming a cook! Good food is good food. That is all! As far as Grazel and her maids are concerned, they are overloaded with work, what with serving the guests and all that cleaning. If you show them respect, they will be only too happy to share all their little secrets! A kitchen is all teamwork, nothing else! You can help your father in the mornings. Work in the kitchen will become a natural continuation of your everyday life. I’m pretty sure I can convince your father! So, what do you say?”
Ekan held out his hand. Naeem hesitated a moment but finally shook it.
“As long as my father agrees, I shall be honored to serve you!”
“You are a good son and I’m sure your father will be proud of you! But know you are not serving me, you are helping me! Now let’s take those oliva to the Dwarves, shall we?”
PART 2: Dwarven Tableware at an Elves’ Table
The Elf Forest was in an uproar.
Wilfred had arrived the previous day with a group of the eleven of the strangest creatures Elves had ever met in their Realm, or so to speak outside. Creatures of legend they were. The tall people of the woods had a lot of prejudices against the other races, but the Dwarves evidently provoked extreme reactions with their short stocky bodies, their beards and their enormous feet that could be heard trample the soft forest soil from miles away.
Queen Ellana had sternly warned her subjects to behave in the most respectful and welcoming manner, but some individuals were sorely tried in their personal feelings. On the other hand, their Queen had proved the perfect host.
Her grace, gentility and deference had left the Dwarves dazzled and speechless. Fortunately, Numnir had smoothly assumed the role of the guests on their behalf, or the Elves had would have thought his companions mute or dumb. The Court had a fair knowledge of the common language, so communication had not become much of a problem when tongues started to loose later.
The Dwarves had retired early as they certainly needed rest after having crossed half the Forest before reaching Queen Ellana’s Court.
Tents had been prepared for them, but it would take a long time for the inhabitants of the mountains to get comfortable under such flimsy protection in spite of the very clement climate.
The following day witnessed unusual activity. Queen Ellana had ordered a large tent to be erected to house all the guests at the banquet offered in the honor of their special visitors. The occasion in itself was not of great import as Elves were fond of revelry and never missed an opportunity to celebrate. What started to rouse the interest of the denizens of the Forest was that everybody had been firmly asked out of the tent just before the festivities were supposed to begin. Ellana’s subjects’ curiosity was further exacerbated when the Dwarves appeared, carrying boxes of all kinds and sizes out of their own abodes into the banquet tent.
Questions flew but no answers came. Everybody understood they would have to wait until the feast began and the usually staid Elves were openly fidgeting.
Their plight was mercifully ended just as the sun started sinking behind the trees when a herald announced the banquet was ready. Even so, proper decorum forced everyone to enter the cloth hall in a single file and in the order of his status. The Queen, Dargelblad and Numnir, as well the Prince Consort and the Dwarves were already seated, clearly demonstrating the importance accorded to the guests to the detriment and chagrin of the Elf nobility. The latter, to the last man and woman, had to walk to the Royal Seat to salute their sovereign before proceeding to his and her predetermined place along the banquet table. But once seated, every Elf could not help but observe and become further intrigued by a white silk cloth covering their dinner set, whereas Ellana, Aerdhel, the Dragons and the Dwarves were facing an uncovered set of elven-made plate, fork, knife, chopsticks, spoon and glasses. The Dwarves did not show any curiosity at their outlandish dining set as they had had plenty of time to examine and train with such unusual utensils before coming to the Elf Forest.
When at last all the guests had been seated, Queen Ellana rose up and addressed the assembly:
“Honored guests, faithful servants of the Forest! As I may presume you all know, we are here assembled today to welcome the vanguard and illustrious ambassadors of a great Race whose very existence we had all forgotten in our ignorance and self-centered pride! When I say vanguard, it is my sincere belief we are witnessing the advent of a very long and fruitful relation between our two people. By illustrious, this is how you shall call our guests once you have seen what they had brought us, in spite of what some of you might have thought or said, for which I wish to offer my heartfelt apologies!”
The Queen was not known to apologize or reckon her faults if she ever had any, and her words put a few of her courtiers to shame on that day. Some could feel her displeasure and discovered they would be accounted for.
“But I am quite certain that all who had doubted our guests’ intentions and abilities will be the first to offer their thanks and friendship!”
The sarcasm was not lost. What was supposed to be a source of festivities was quickly turning into a masterly remonstrance of her subjects.
“I know Dwarves are people of few words but of great deeds. Why do you not lift the napkin in front of you to discover what presents they have brought all the way from the Iron Crags for your sole pleasure!”
Every courtier, with as much grace and restraint they could muster, obeyed their Queen to unveil what was under their napkins.
Few people in Alymndes could boast they had ever seen a truly astonished Elf in their life. But what the Dwarves were witnessing was the whole of the Forest nobility and authority gaping in mute surprise and wonder.
The knife, the fork and spoon were lying in their normal place, but each plate was of enameled pottery with patterns, motifs and colors of their own. The Dwarves had chosen subjects drawn and submitted to their skills by Numnir, as the Dwarves knew so little about the outside world before they began to heat their kilns. Some nobles were lovingly tracing their fingers along the leaves, fruit and plants so dear to them. Next, as their eyes went beyond their plates, they discovered a pair of chopsticks made of a substance they had never seen. Pottery they knew, although enamel was a discovery, but glass intrigued them endlessly. Each set of chopsticks was made of that substance in many colors interlacing each other as if they were flowing through and away. Next as each napkin was completely lifted, a drinking glass appeared to further heighten the astonishment of his recipient. Each drinking vessel had been manufactured with flash glass of two different tinted layers over a transparent one. Motifs had been cut and carved out the glass at varying depths to make them appear in rich lights and shades. Every Elf was holding his glass in front of his eyes, unendingly twirling it in the light of the fire globes hung to the roof of the tent which soon resonated with the amazed exclamations of joy of the happy Elves.
Those, who just a short while ago had come to sneer at their visitors or worse mock them, were presently unashamedly vying for their attentions, full of praise and questions, although Court rules prevented them to leave their seats and join the beaming Dwarves.
Ellana raised her hands to command silence.
“Gentlemen, Ladies! Are you forgetting your station and manners?”
She continued in a thinly veiled mocking tone:
“Behold! Long have I waited to witness the flower of the servants of the Forest throw their reserve and pride to the winds and at last show some true admiration and modesty for something not of their own making! I shall cherish this precious moment for the rest of my life! I hereby pray the Kingdom Under The Mountain to accept my humble thanks and proclaim all Dwarves Elf-friends!”
Turning to Numnir:
“But words are only words. Dear Flint Ironfoot, Ambassador of Drumbeat Hammerblow, King of all Dwarven Races, would you be as kind to repeat for the benefit of our audience what you so eloquently advocated to us last night?”
Numnir stood up and bowed to the Queen.
“Your Majesty is too kind when she praises the Dwarves for something they have done all their lives. We have come to your Forest, not only to offer you our crafts, but also to discover your arts and culture and propose an exchange of skills as well as combine our efforts into the creation of new artworks.”
The assembly went silent for real. Numnir had the satisfaction to discover he had struck a chord in the Elves’ hearts. He had their attention riveted to his words of art and crafts. However, there were other aspects he wished to discuss.
“I sense that my speech is of some appeal to you, so if you would allow me to continue in spite of all the great food and drink waiting for us, I shall make an outline of what we would like to submit to your judgment. The material used to manufacture the chopsticks and wine cups is called glass. The technique, as for enamel, the material covering your plates, is not too hard to replicate. The problem resides in the forges, ovens and intense heat needed for long periods to achieve perfection. As far as I know, only Dwarves can endure long exposure to such extremes in temperature. Natural crystals holds few secrets for you, but they are brittle and hard to fashion, whereas glass, although breakable, can be molded into any shape and tinted in any color. It is easy to polish, cut or carve. We dwarves are proficient with knives, chisels and hammers, but when it comes to minute details or treating silver or other soft metals, our big hands are too clumsy. Now for a start, if we could for example fashion chopsticks, wine glasses and mirrors with silver or copper holds and frames, we would create an unequaled product to sell or barter. We have already seen how quickly our crafts have become popular and in demand in Dunlago and Beaucastel, and our kin there have standing orders for at least a year. I know your love of the wines of Beaulieu, the spices of Dunlago and the soft skins of the Steppes. Shall I continue? As a last word, I have to confess trade is the main reason why we Dwarves have decided to come out of our mountains!”
The Elves were gaping at the Flint Dragon’s words. Rarely had anybody brought them to think and reevaluate so suddenly that they had great difficulties to organize their thoughts and to formulate the questions that crowded their heads. Their Queen saved them from more confusion
“Flint Ironfoot, Ambassador of the Kingdom Under The Mountain, many of us, if not all, will remember this day when somebody had to come among us from so far to provide our Forest with some greatly needed challenge and mettle! Why do we not start celebrating our good fortune? Gentle servants, bring us drink and food! Musicians, to your instruments!”
PART 3: RAW FISH
Downstairs, in the kitchen, Ekan and Naeem were experimenting with a new dish. His apprentice’s father had caught another succulent germon fish. Since a lot of people ate shellfish raw, good fish could also be appreciated in its natural taste, he reasoned. But not being able to predict his customers’ reactions with raw fish, he had decided on trying something halfway. He had chosen and cut a fillet of the fish, grilled it lightly first without any seasoning. As soon as the colour on the whole surface had changed to a light brown, he plunged the fillet into cold water to stop it cooking. The water came from the deep well in the back of the garden. He had to be careful not to upset his clients’ stomachs. He then proceeded to cut the fish into thin slices. He tried one for taste. He dipped another slice into a bowl containing a mixture of oliva oil, sweet vinegar and spices. The sweet vinegar had been another recent discovery of his. He had found out that by slowly heating normal vinegar mixed with some wine and crushed berries for a long time; he could concentrate it to a syrupy texture like he did when reducing other sauces. He handed the slice to Naeem to try while he repeated the process for himself.
“What do you think?” he asked the young man.
“Very tasty, actually! But you had better go easy with the dressing. A dash should be enough.”
“You’re right! Let’s see if we can dress a salad.”
Master Turgas chose that moment to enter the kitchen.
“Jonas, your good friend Petren is in the common room. He’d like some of your tidbits with his ale. Can you help him?”
“Sure! I just happen to have the right thing for him!”
Taking a plate, he put some fresh leaves of various vegetables the gardener had been growing on Ekan’s orders, placed a few slices of the germon fish on top and seasoned it with the dressing they had just tasted.
Turgas had a dubious look at the food.
“Do you think a man of Petren’s constitution will be satisfied with that lady’s portion?”
“Definitely! Moreover, it is about time that he began eating something good for him. All that drinking will catch up with him someday. Let’s mix it with some proper food, at least!”
Petren was sitting at his usual table tucked away from the main attention. Ekan put the plate with a fork in front of him.
“Constable, good evening to you! Would you be kind enough to try a new dish of ours? It’s on the house!”
Petren, who was obviously expecting more heavy fare, looked down at his plate and then up at the Black Dragon’s face.
“Jonas, what is this? It certainly looks beautiful but do you honestly think a man of my size will be satisfied with a meal more fit for the table of a noble’s daughter?”
Ekan sat down smiling at the irascible guard.
“Knowing your eating habits, it will do you immense good to ingest proper food. Anyway, why don’t you try first? I’m positive this will go down well with your ale. If you are still hungry after that I’ll think of something else.”
Petren grumbled on:
“As if I needed somebody to coddle me!” Holding his fork in front of his eyes: “And why do I have to use these picks when a knife and a spoon should be enough?” He nonetheless stabbed a slice of fish and some leaves together and brought them to his mouth and started chewing.
Ekan saw his expression slowly changing from puzzlement to growing pleasure. The Constable stabbed another piece of fish without forgetting to add some vegetables and engulfed the lot into his maw.
“I’ll be damned!” he growled. “Who could have foretold that one day I would enjoy woman’s food? That stuff is simply great! All my apologies, Jonas! If this is what you meant by good food, I’m ready to change my habits!… Well, some of them…”
“The pleasure is mine and you are forgiven! I’ll tell you what: this could make a good enough reason to come and visit us. Just call me for anything new I might have prepared, and we shall be able to conduct our small private talks without raising any unwelcome curiosity!”
“Well, next time will have to wait. I’m leaving for Villefranche tomorrow at dawn.”
“You are finally going to rid us of all those jailbirds and other more unsavory characters?”
“That’s right, but it is a pain in the arse to take them all the way down to Beaulieu. Well, it’s for the good of the city and the nation, and if the Judge hadn’t ordered me to accompany them in person, I surely would have found somebody to take care of that damn chore!”
“I doubt it. Knowing you too well, I’m sure you would not have left that job in just anybody’s hands!”
“Maybe, I must admit. But that is not the only reason for my coming tonight. You are invited by the Royal Couple to dinner.”
Ekan did not bother to hide his annoyance.
“May I know the justification for such a request?”
“Aren’t we grouchy tonight? I must confess I share your repugnance, but in this particular case, the Judge himself has suggested Their Highnesses should meet you. If that can make you happier, know that since I have to go there with the two of you, we shan’t have to visit them before I have come back and that won’t be before two weeks’ time!”
“I thought the Judge knew better than taking me away from work for the good pleasure of some pampered idle noble people!”
“Jonas, I suspect that he has included you in our very small circle for reasons I can’t start to imagine, but these words of yours are tantamount to high treason!”
“Spare me, Petren! I am aware of what you think of our so-called King and his kin. The Judge would do well to suggest they all go to Beaulieu where they are building an Embassy just for them to make themselves useful. Do you honestly think they will be making the decisions when war comes to us?”
“War? What do you mean?”
“Do you think that slavers’ ship should be the last to appear on our shores? Mark me, they will come back and in larger numbers than you would ever think!”
“How do you know this?”
“Petren, sorry for not telling you now and sorry again for making you angry. Be certain only that I am truly concerned with the welfare of your nation. One day, we shall be together in the fray. By that time, you will come to understand why the Judge asked for my help. In any case do not tarry in Villefranche. We shall have heaps of work to do and you shall be sorely needed!”
Ekan rose up, and amicably squeezing the Constable’s shoulder, he went to the kitchen leaving a confused Petren at his table.
Petren sat silent for a long time in front of his jug and empty plate. Truly, things were beginning to happen. He was far more crafty and devious than he let people guess. Only that black giant could see through him. The Judge was a man whose orders he executed without any discussion or comments. But Jonas was fast becoming a friend, and he did not feel comfortable with that new concern. Or was it the other way round? Could he live with the fact that somebody was caring about his person?
Shaking himself, Petren called in a booming voice:
“Master Turgas, bring me another plate of the same, will you? It’s about time I enjoyed truly good food, too!”
The few late drinkers in the lounge and at the bar looked at each other in wonder. What had the big soldier eaten to bring out such a civilized comment out of him?
PART 4: HONEY BUNS
Ekan and Mumtaz were busy experimenting in the kitchen of the Royal Palace in Dunlago.
They had just taken rolls out of the oven. Mumtaz had been requested small pastries for guests as light food to accompany coffee served in the afternoon. The Black Dragon had suggested the addition of cinnamon and raisins to the light soft bread.
His new friend was about to taste one of them, hot, as it was, when the black giant restrained him with a hand on his wrist.
“Wait. I brought something for you!”
An intrigued Palace Chef saw Ekan extract a jar from the basket he used to carry all his findings.
“Look at what is inside, and smell it!”
Mumtaz saw a viscous yellow liquid inside the jar. He brought his nose close.
“Umh… That seems very sweet. I can also smell something like flowers in it.”
“I knew you had a good nose! It is made from flowers by small insects called bees. Have you ever heard of honey?”
“Yes, but I’ve not had the chance to see or taste any. Where does it come from?”
“Shahzad obtained it from a Beaulieu trader in exchange for spices. Although you can find it in the wild inside the trunks of trees far south near the Fire Mountains, some farmers have found the way to domesticate the bees and produce honey in large quantities. It is very sweet indeed, but far healthier than any sugar you could find here. They even use it as medicine for throat sore and other ailments. This is how they use it on their bread over there!”
He demonstrated by pouring a small amount on top of one of the rolls. He twirled the pastry around to allow the honey to spread all over the surface. He the handed it to Mumtaz:
The Palace Chef sniffed the bread and the brought it to his mouth. He bit a large chunk of it and started masticating.
His eyes grew wide. He stretched his arm holding the half-eaten roll:
“Jonas, would you mind adding another little dollop of that stuff?”
“Of course I don’t! But this is as far as you go, or you’d end up gobbling the whole tray!”
He poured some more honey on the bread. Mumtaz unashamedly threw it inside his mouth and licked his fingers like a child not wanting to miss any tiny piece of a rare treat.
“Jonas, you had better urge Shahzad to acquire more of that treasure in large quantities! I can see all the gentry flocking to his shop, as soon as they get to know what honey tastes like! Can you think of any other uses, apart of topping rolls and cakes?”
“Many, actually. Any time you use sugar in sauces or drinks, you could replace it with honey, and you will find out that it is sweeter and healthier! Women would surely appreciate a dessert less fattening than some cakes I can see around!”
“Healthier? If I could support that notion, this would become a solid reason for starting a new trend of cooking, although we might have to face some resistance from the guild looking after the interests of the sugar cane growers!”
“I would not worry too much about the guild, as honey is a luxury, whereas cane sugar is a necessity. Now, the reason why honey is healthier comes from the fact that it has already been digested by the bees, thus getting rid of all impurities in the process. After all, honey is produced to serve as food for young bees!”
Mumtaz passed his hand over his pate with a dubious look.
“So we are eating something which has already been eaten?”
“Yes. But you worry too much. If you knew how much we need these little things called insects, I’m sure you would lose a lot of needed sleep, figuring out what we cannot do without them!”
Just at that moment, a servant from the Palace entered the kitchen.
“Good man Jonas, the King requests your presence urgently!”
Ekan could not suppress an exasperated grimace.
“Just when the fun had begun! Oh well, it cannot be helped! Mumtaz. Let’s top all those pastries first!”
Turning to the servant:
“Good man, would you mind waiting for us and bring that tray to the King before I join them?”
The two chefs hurried while the underling patiently stood waiting in the entrance.
Before Mumtaz could pass him the tray, Jonas picked one of the rolls and handed it to the man.
“Eat it right now, but don’t tell anyone!”
The servant gratefully accepted it and wolfed it down. He then took the tray, but his greedy eyes showed that the way to the Kings rooms would be a long one indeed.
Once he had left, Jonas turned to the other chef:
“Mumtaz, if you want to start a new trend or fashion, always begin at the bottom and make sure the so-called gentry finds themselves scrambling around in fear of losing face!”
The two men parted in laughter.
PART 5: MAGIC EGGS
The cool season had finally arrived in Dunlago, the Land of the Free Races of the Desert and the Sea. The prevailing breeze ensured that one could enjoy a stroll outside along the wharves of the harbour in relative comfort, even in the middle of the day.
Most of the guests at the Blue Mermaid sat outside at tables lined on a platform along the street under a verandah, either to sip a strong coffee or to look and be looked at. Any citizen of note would have been considered uncouth or downright boring by the higher society of Dunlago if he or she did not make the point to patronize the most famed inn of the nation at least once a week.
Ekan had more practical considerations in mind. Mumtaz had come down from the Palace for his bi-weekly visit to the Black Dragon’s kitchen. His big friend was demonstrating the recipe of an unusual dish he had discovered during his long stay in Beaucastel.
Ekan was beating eggs in a bowl under the attentive eyes of Mumtaz, Naeem and the whole staff.
“Jonas, what do you call that dish?” the young chef queried.
“They call it an omelet in the south. First , you beat eggs, add salt and pepper and heat oil in a skillet. Count a tablespoon of oliva oil for each egg and wait until it is very hot. What we have here is a plain omelet, but the beauty of that recipe is that there are no limits to whatever you could combine with the eggs. Personally, I like it as simple as possible. A few freshly cut herbs should provide ample taste.”
He turned to the back door opened onto the large garden where a couple of children were busy helping Claudius the gardener.
“Mareeva! Matthieu! Bring us a few sprigs of thin leek, will you?”
The two children had come to Dunlago in the company of Ekan as the weather had turned cold with the approaching winter. Matthieu certainly did not complain to stay away from the castle and the impossibly crowded city of Beaucastel. It would have been perfect if Lieutenant Gratien de Salles-Lavauguyon and Firebrand, his outlandish female dwarf companion had not joined their party on Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur’s orders. Whenever they could escape the clutches of their guardians, the two of them spent most of their time in Claudius’ company, in the kitchen, or playing with other children at the harbor or in the market.
They hurried inside with the herbs asked for by Mareeva’s father. They lingered to look, hoping for a tasty morsel.
Jonas chopped the leeks and included them in the eggs. He poured the mixture in the skillet and briskly stirred the whole with a fork. The whole population had adopted that kind of utensil in no time after some Elven merchants and diplomats had introduced them in the capital.
“The secret is to keep stirring them all the time, so that the hot oil nicely blends with the eggs until you obtain a light and fluffy omelet. If you just leave the eggs to fry on the oil, you will end up with a heavy and greasy piece of food impossible to present or taste properly!”
He expertly let the omelet slide from the skillet onto a plate and invited everyone to sample the treat.
There was enough for all to taste.
The two children already knew the dish but nonetheless savored it with delight.
Mumtaz was munching a second helping as he commented:
“I can see a lot of possibilities. Such food should please ladies in particular. Light but nourishing and delicious. Serve it with some salad in spicy dressing for our women, or with some stew and bread for our men. How do they serve it in Beaucastel?”
“They mostly eat it for breakfast with fried bacon and sausages on thick slices of grilled bread.”
“That could prove a good idea here, too! It could make for a hearty meal for those ravenous nobles of ours! Mumtaz mused aloud.
“We could adapt one of our traditional recipes by adding cooked vegetables cut in small cubes.” Naeem proposed. “If we fry it on a small fire instead, we should obtain some kind of soft hot pancacke. We could cut it in quarters before serving it along with some marinated fish and other garnish!”
“Good thinking, Naeem! I’ll tell you what: let us put our ideas into practice right away and offer the results to whoever happens to be sitting inside the tavern or under the verandah as a gracious service on the house! We shall be able to judge whether our customers will develop a taste for it or not!”
He turned to the children:
“You kids, come along with me! We need some more herbs!”
The three of them went out to join Claudius in the garden.
Mareeva was bent picking flat leaf parsley with Matthieu, when on an impulse; she lifted her head to watch her father.
Jonas’ imposing frame too was crouched over the neatly hoed lines of earth, a hand about to pick a sprig of leek, when his gesture stopped in midair. His eyes stared ahead of him.
Mareeva recognized the telltale signs.
Her fingers lightly tapped her friend’s arm:
The two children were two of the very few individuals privy to Ekan’s true secret nature.
The Black dragon that Dunlago people called Jonas was not speaking. In fact, he was listening.
Someone was trying to reach him in mindspeech.
PART 6: CLAMS STAMED IN RICE WINE
Qusan and the Lords of Narosan, on King Marcus’ advice, had opted to pay a visit to the Blue mermaid. They were only too glad to escape from the interminable parties and ceremonies held at the Palace to accommodate an endless procession of well-wishers and diplomats. It would also provide them with some absorbing encounters with relatively more ordinary citizens, a rare pleasure practically out of their reach in their country where soldiers simply could not mingle freely with lay people.
When they reached the tavern just before dusk, big was their surprise to realize that they were not the only ones to flee the Palace.
The verandah was already crowded with regulars who knew exactly when to come and grab the favored tables. The lounge was as much congested. They were about to turn heel in disappointment, when a voice familiarly called them from the taproom:
“Lord Qusan! Come and join us over here!”
They were astonished to discover that no less than King Gerhart of Beaulieu was hailing them from his seat at a long table on trestles with a motley bunch of friends sitting on long benches. Interestingly enough, they were all men. There were not shunning the Palace only, the veteran soldier wondered. Males were the same anywhere in the world, were they not?
He recognized Wilfred, Chief Constable Petren, Ironfoot in the company of a few Dwarves, Nepomucene de Beauvoir, Lieutenant Gratien de Salle-Lavauguyon without his fiery Dwarf companion this time, and even three of those dangerous-looking Tribesmen.
Sensing their surprise, Gerhart stood up and came to them in person. He put his arm around the shoulders of the Narosan officer to steer him to their table. The Lords of the Eastern Empire were only beginning to accept the familiarity of the Alymndes denizens, but a King almost embracing Her Majesty’s General? But after all, none of them were wearing any distinctive clothes or marks of authority. Even the Narosan men had adopted a very practical garb composed of a light cloth jacket over long pants of the same material, although the different shades and patterns painted their group into a very colorful walking tableau, which had the customers pause for a better look.
Counselor Makan’ shaved pate stood in contrast with his peers who all wore their long black hair tied in a loose knot on their napes. Their feet were set in unusual sandals with a cord passing between the first two toes, giving them great freedom of movement as they walked to the table.
King Gerhart genially ordered:
“Good Gentlemen, would you be kind enough as to make room for our guests!”
As everyone scrambled to accommodate the newcomers, Gerhart had Qusan sit at his right, while the other Lords of Narosan found themselves smoothly included in various companies.
Just as everyone was settled, Jonas appeared in the company of Naeem both with large covered dishes in their hands.
Lord Qusan found himself lost for words when he realized that the Black Dragon, whose true identity he knew, was working in the kitchens of a tavern!
“Ah, good man Jonas! What succulent treat have you concocted for our delight today?” exclaimed the King of Beaulieu, effectively interrupting the General’s thoughts.
Jonas readily explained as servants were putting bowls and plates in front of the new guests.
“These are clams,” he started as he uncovered the first dish, a very large and deep one “cooked in white wine with a little pepper and chopped herbs. Try them and if you appreciate them, I will prepare a second serving!”
The servants quickly filled the bowls and all began to masticate in unison, using the shells to scoop some of the delicious broth. The Lords of Narosan, great lovers of any seafood, ate in a solemn manner, savoring their food with deliberate concentration.
The first dish, being quickly disposed of, the bowls were taken away.
Naeem opened the second dish, a shallow and wide one, on which lay rows of cut shellfish.
“Sea ears!” a common cry came out of every Narosan Lord’s mouth.
General Qusan forgot all decorum:
“Good man Jonas! Have you any idea of the value of such a delicacy in our lands? Every year, divers have to venture further and further at sea to discover this rare shellfish!”
“Well, Naeem’s friends seem to find plenty of them! We are the only place serving them, although they are commonly found on the tables of our fishermen! They are a bit of an acquired taste in spite of their popularity!
”The least I can say is that I do not mind to eat mountains of them any time, when back home we would consider ourselves lucky to be served a single slice!”
Counselor Makan had to interrupt him:
“Qusan, if you do not cease your speech, we will never be given the opportunity to relish our hosts’ food! That is unless it is your wish to punish us for an unknown demeanor!”
Everybody laughed and began to eat in earnest. But before touching their food, Qusan and his retainers were seen putting their right hand under their jackets.
Was it a prayer of some kind? Gerhart wondered.
But the same hand quickly came out holding an elongated kind of pouch, from which they extracted exquisite chopsticks of lacquered wood. By now people were used to such utensils in Alymndes, but the dexterity shown by the Narosan Lords in their handling was simply awesome. The long sticks seemed like an extension of their fingers, taking slices one by one to bring them to their mouths where they were firmly held to allow their owners to nibble at the food.
“I had better prepare a second serving of clams at the pace you are eating your food!” chortled Ekan who started towards the kitchen.
“Good man Jonas, please wait!” Qusan called.
Ekan raised a querying eyebrow, but patiently waited as the General asked something to the Lord of the House of Tsutan in quick words of their own tongue. The ever smiling Wan-Si, jumped off his bench and virtually ran out of the tavern.
While he was away, everyone returned their attention to the feast, although one could not fail to notice that the highest Commander in Narosan took on his own responsibility to keep the plate of the departed retainer filled with his share of abalone slices. No wonder Lord Qusan commanded such respectful obedience from his followers.
Lord Wan-Si came back soon enough, carrying a stoppered kind of earthenware bottle he immediately handed over to the General.
The latter stood up and asked Ekan:
“Good man Jonas, would you be kind enough to show me to your kitchen?”
The Black Dragon smiled:
“If you would care to follow me, General?”
Naeem was in the kitchen when he saw the two of them enter. He made to leave, but the Narosan Lord called him:
“Good man Naeem, could you please stay with us? It would be a great pleasure to talk matters of common interest with you!”
The request surprised Ekan’s friend, but he did not comment. If Jonas had let him into their sanctuary, there should be a good enough reason.
General Qusan addressed both of them:
“I could not help notice that your way of cooking shellfish was almost identical to that in our lands. Only the ingredients are very slightly different.”
He opened the bottle he held, picked up a goblet on one table and poured in a generous measure of a transparent liquid.
“This is rice wine. Would you mind sampling it first?” he commented, presenting the cup to Ekan who first sniffed, then took a sip. The Black Dragon turned it inside his mouth appreciatively for a while and then gulped it down. He handed the goblet to Naeem who sampled the liqueur in the same manner before venturing:
“Very tasty, indeed. A bit stronger than our wine, but a more delicate flavor. I actually like it. How about you, Jonas?”
“I have a hunch it will taste even better after General Qusan has unveiled his recipe for our benefit!”
The staff inside the kitchen was too busy to catch the words, but they nonetheless wondered what an honored guest from a fabled land was doing in their work place.
“Shall I demonstrate first? If you like it, then you can cook a big serving as it is quick and easy to prepare!”
Naeem brought a wooden box filled with clams lying on a bed of fresh seaweed. Lord Qusan’s lifted eyebrows told him the General was impressed by the care taken in the handling of the shellfish.
Qusan grabbed a clean bowl from a nearby shelf and scooped a handful of clams into it and began to stir them around vigorously with his hand.
“If you make them dance this way long enough,” he explained, “the flesh inside the shells will detach very easily while cooking!”
After a while he asked for a pan and a lid.
He put the pan onto the fire and threw the shellfish in it and poured rice wine onto them before putting the lid over the pan.
“If I may have some chopped thin leeks, we shall add them when we uncover the lid and serve them at once!”
The cooking took only a minute, as the fire was very hot. He moved the pan away, took the lid off and added the herbs. Meanwhile, Naeem had brought some small bowls in which they served the shellfish for the three of them and Grazel, the matron of the place, who had just joined them out of curiosity. She certainly knew when a good morsel was about to come out of the two chefs’ experiments, and would not have missed it for all the gold in the world.
She closed her eyes as she masticated the shellfish. She ate them all and drank the broth. Lifting her eyes from the bowl, she met the laughing faces of the men who had observed her while eating from their own bowls.
“What do you think, Grazel?” Ekan asked.
“Forgive me for saying, but you had better run and grab all the rice wine you can put your hands on! I can foresee a revolution in Dunlago’s cooking!”
The three men chuckled in agreement.
“Which brings me back to my idea!” Qusan began. “I know personally the Narosan merchant who brought this rice wine. I could get the bottle so fast as he is staying near that covered market your King has so gracefully provided. I shall talk to him and have him keep all he has left for your sole benefit! Instead of paying him in gold, I can see and even better barter that may profit us all. We have come here for trade after all, have we not?”
“What do you have in mind we can trade for your rice wine?” Naeem asked.
“Well, it is good you are the one who asked because you will be the key! We shall leave in less than a week now. Therefore, how many sea ears, or abalones as you call them, can you get your hands on?”
“If I ask everybody around, quite a few in fact, probably enough to fill two barrels. But how can you manage to preserve them?”
“Two barrels!” Qusan exclaimed. He could barely contain his excitement. “Provide me with one barrel of salt and I shall show you how to preserve them! Once the shells and the innards are disposed of, two barrels would just be enough!”
He thought for a while.
“The only problem is how can I pay for them?”
“That should not be any trouble! I have enough money stashed to pay for them in advance! Why do we not form a partnership with your rice wine merchant? Tell him you are our sole agent. In this way, we can keep the trade benefits within a very small circle!”
Lord Qusan held his hand forward.
Naeem took it with enthusiasm.
“Now, gentlemen,! Grazel interrupted, “General Qusan had better go back to the lounge, or I can imagine some very pointed questions directed at him! As for you Jonas and Naeem, you ought to start cooking if you do not want our customers raising hell!”
The matron was crafty enough to realize this small chat augured even better for future trade relations with those outlandish guests. But it was a woman’s lot to keep a lid on men’s ardor, was it not? She had the satisfaction to see her opinion clearly vindicated by the sheepish smile on the General’s face. The man went as far as granting her with a slight bow before moving towards the door.
“We certainly could do with such women back home!” a voice rang inside Ekan’s head.
“Hsu Yia!” Ekan could not hide his pleasure, even in mindspeech, upon hearing the Eastern Dragon’s words. “I doubt it would be wise to bring changes to your society so abruptly! After all, a woman is already ruling it, are you not?!”