I set about creating my finest meal yet. I would serve boar, shark and Ortolan songbirds and that feast of land, sea and air would include the very freshest of produce. The boar could be shot that day and the Ortolan could be caged beforehand, but the shark would prove most difficult to keep fresh. I had considered salting the shark meat, but then I decided to go one step further. After a quick exchange of words and coin, I secured a fisherman’s word to return to me a live shark within the confines of a tank. The fish would only be as long as a man is tall, so there wouldn’t be much trouble in transporting it, once it was caught. The Baron’s groundsman assured me that the guests could hunt the boar on the morning of the feast. He also agreed to butcher the boar for me and deliver the cuts to the kitchen. As for the songbirds, I purchased two dozen in a shoddy cage the same morning that I enrolled the fisherman and proceeded to feed them on a strict diet of strawberries right through the week until the night of the feast. I was sure that the berry undertone would be detectable under the serum’s tutelage, however, as Ortolan are cooked and eaten whole I wanted to be sure that their digestive tracts were as clean as possible so as not to contaminate their flavour.
Once the Baron blew his horn at the boar hunt the feast was set in motion. The groundsman was invaluable, and employed a deft hand in the slaughtering of the boar and, though a rugged and illiterate man, he proved himself in my eyes. As the guests returned from the hunt brandy was served and the regalement of the morning’s dangerous events was lauded while I set about the slow cooking of the boar in a stew of vegetables and ale. The shark would be served in rice soup and then the Ortolan, as the utmost of delicacies, would be served with koi roe and truffles. I had never cooked any of these ingredients before but, of course, that was irrelevant as the serums negated my false prowess.
The excitement had sunk into my nerves by this stage and I do admit to taking two or three sharp rums myself. Alone in the kitchen I played at greatness while the pots stewed and the Ortolans sang. But all too soon I was stood there before Baron van Broone and his guests reeling off my yarn and serving lemon palette cleansers to one and all. Once the rules had been established, I returned to the kitchen and plated the boar ale stew. The steam smelled revolting as I ladled it into ornate dishes and then shelved them on the gilded trolley. It was sickening, both the gluttonous expense and the stew. I didn’t delay though and as I returned the attaché to the king of Poland leered at the trolley with an almost drunken hunger. It was strange to see such a stern man gleeful at the sight of anything, but I knew well. As the putrid steam wafted up around his head his mouth licked the air with desperate want – the thick bristles of his white moustache raking his glistening bulbous tongue. He was grotesque then, a pervert incarnate, and for a stew that I wouldn’t feed a pig. Nonetheless, I left him to his meal and placed the other bowls in front of the attaché’s wife, an enormous and hairy woman dripping with pearls. Next to her sat another huge lady, the guest of honour, the artist Countess P. de Monte. She was the only face I recognised, her paintings being the pride of countless homes up and down the country. Having come from nothing she had painted portraits of the common folk for years before bedding a prominent, married, politician. Overnight her voluminous works gained national fame. That she was there made it clear to me that the Baron was not without a sense of humour. Next to Countess de Monte sat a dower looking individual, no doubt her husband. His slicked back hair and thin lips gave him an almost reptilian appearance. And next to him sat Baroness van Broone, a slender woman of at least fifty years, but with the face of a thirty year old. It was plain to see that she had led a life of continuous pampering. I couldn’t help but imagine how she would have reacted to the stew without the benefit of the serum. Staying to observe the Baron’s horde of sluggish diners, I revelled in their groaning appreciation while being revolted by their persons. The boar then rose the temperature of the evening, glazing the eyes of my prey, and as I returned to the kitchen to finish the shark I could hear them grunting like the very animal on which they were gorging themselves.
The shark stank too. It was gelatinous and tough, but the flesh beneath the skin was soft so I served it skin-to-plate. I drizzled the rice soup atop it and served it without a care, watching again as the entire table fell into gurgling huffs of pleasure. There was an obvious scene of pitiful disregard for moral and social etiquette. I had hoped for more restrained decorum but I soon found that those of the most lofty titles showed less manners than the most ragged children of the gutter. It saddened me that my rise was facilitated by these slurring sub-human globules. Hurrying the night, I rushed the Ortolan finale – wanting to evacuate those creatures from my life. But as they wolfed their final course, without savouring it, I looked upon them and saw a chance that I had not considered: I could have charged them any fee to continue the feast, I was selling myself short.
As the, by then, usual roaring ovation clambered out of the dining hall and into the lounge I cleaned up, thankful that it was over. I had never served such influential people, but what I took to heart from that night was not money or praise, but the lesson that I should aim higher. Far, far higher.
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey