Chef Jakub – Written By Stephen Fahey. Part 44
It took us all of one day to realise that food played an immense, influential role in the life of the islanders. We didn’t speak their language but some traders and a small percentage of the local population did speak ours, so we made do. For the first few months my brother and I developed recipes and enjoyed the sunshine and the intoxicating variety of foods available on the island. All the sea-bound trade that passed carried such a wide selection of ingredients as to rival the markets of The Gulf. Olives, fish and oils dominated the island’s kitchens. There was so much character in those simple items as to bring a delicious chorus of flavour and invitation to the table such that nothing needed to be added nor taken away.
Despite the perfect location of the island as a post on a centuries old trading route the islanders all preferred produce grown in their own fields. I couldn’t blame them. The rich volcanic soil there creates yields that are superior to any other crops I have ever seen. Not to mention that, when Luke and I first tasted tomatoes grown on that volcanic soil under the serum’s influence, we both melted with what can best be described as an infantile glee. The flavour of such food is so old that one can feel the brooding truth of time that hides beneath the surface of that which we all take for granted. There was a smokiness to it, like an aged or cured meat that is so perfect as to seem almost synthetic. I doubted any man or woman could recreate such flavours absent the serums’ sweet melody.
Then, once we started cooking again both myself and my dear brother took it upon ourselves to reinvent the culinary linage of the island. We travelled north until we reached the ocean, eating everything we could find along the way. Then we travelled west and ate our way to the westernmost point on the island. Then south, then east. And then inland. It was almost a full year by the time that we had completed our tour of that magnificent culture. We met old women, all of whom were named Mama, and stout old men who sat in parks every evening and argued with a glorious excitement about them. We heard strange wind instruments made from goat hide and wooden pipes. We learned some of the words the locals used and delighted in the vibrancy of their disagreements, both faux and genuine. They were wondrous people of contrast and good taste who lived slow and steady in an actual paradise. I would have stayed there forever if I could have. Even Luke voiced the same soundings alluding to remaining on the island. It was a simple place of vast impressions that remain with me even now.
After we had seen the inside of the island Luke and I settled into the role of field hands on a vineyard near the peak that dominated the eastern half of the island. The hours were long, but there was a break for a few hours in the middle of the day when wine and cheeses were indulged in before the rather lethargic pace continued. Luke and I kept to ourselves, never getting drunk or arguing with anyone, but we never forgot our true desire. We bided our time and tested our recipes each week, taking turns to enjoy the serums’ magic. Once we were certain that we had created something worthwhile we set about hosting our employer, his son and his son’s wife. They were pleasant people, uncomplicated yet wise. The son, Zito was in his fifties and his wife, Tina was a large and delightful woman. The father, a quiet gentleman with pants that reached far too high up over waistline, was named Tomassino. In the months that Luke and I had spent with them they had each learned that I used to cook, but had had no reason to believe that I had been anything more than amateur.
The night began as they always did, with Luke and the others sat at Zito and Tina’s kitchen table. The opener, a large fish caught fresh that afternoon, had been marinated in a light lemon sauce and was slow roasted over an open pit that had chestnuts mixed into the firewood. The fish fell apart as soon as Tomassino touched it with his fork and the smell of the lemon and chestnuts intoxicated even me. I had waited a long time to cook for company again, it had been over a year, and there were all kinds of worries in my mind. But Zito and Tina and Tomassino each rolled into themselves as soon as they tasted the fish. It was the only time that I had ever seen them silent, so I knew I had done something right. There were sluggish hand gestures, pursed lips and scrunched eyelids, each a colloquial testament.
Next I presented them with a bowl of salad and dressed with aged vinegar and the oil of olives. Their eyes protruded as I placed the large bowl before them. There were tomatoes and olives, of course, but wedges of apple and celery and the tang of lime also hid within the bowl. There were tiny chillies that erupted in the mouth and peppercorns and flakes of aged cheeses that I had collected around the country that first year on the island. Every mouthful was a symphony of the great produce of the island, all bar the chillies, which were imported, but I wanted a surprise for my guests.
I then placed a large wooden board and four small plates in front of the guests and Luke, and to finish, after much effort in the perfecting of its recipe, I unveiled a small loaf of same bread that steamed as Tomassino took it in his hands and tore it apart at my prompting. The smell caught them all at once, with just a faint garlic hint in its bouquet. It was almost oily and the faces of the guests, including Luke, who I had hidden the recipe from until that moment, all dropped into an almost catatonic state. I wondered as they ate the bread where they were and what they were seeing and doing. I had baked that bread in an oven I constructed out of volcanic rock and the fire and the rock itself had taken a normal garlic loaf and made it into a vivid and powerful excitement. After their first bite Tomassino and his kin and Luke all began to drawl out moans and grunts indiscernible pleasure. As they swamped their seats with their bodies and rolled their eyes in their sockets I stood and watched with a pride of accomplishment that I can scarce relay on the page. I swelled within, feeling my blood pump as if on purpose. I was glad and happy. I was more than satisfied.
When they came back I administered the second serum before Zito took Tina by the hand and left without a word. Tomassino and Luke both sat there saying nothing but Tomassino then stood and walked onto the veranda and gazed out across the vineyard. His face was calm but his eyes were a flurry of thought. I accosted Luke but he too remained silent. He just smile into my eyes and patted my cheek, then went and sat out beside Tomassino. Confused, but sure of success I cleaned up and brought wine to my employer and my brother, neither of whom had uttered a word since dinner.
With his years, Tomassino had a natural calmness, and as he was a man sure of life for so long it was sudden and unexpected to see tears on his cheeks. Then he spoke of Carmela. I had never heard him speak about her. I knew that he outlived her for over twenty years, but only Zito spoke of her, and even then it was seldom that he did.
“She was as is the land”, he began in his own tongue, staring at the vines and the soil. “She did not ask, she gave. She would kiss my face and beat me when I did not remove my work shoes at the door. Her hands were rough but her soul was soft. She gave her love to this boy, now an old mule, and fed him and kept him. She made me the man you see. I will be hers in all the evers.”
Then Tomassino stood and walked down to the fields and Luke and I watched him walk through the rows of vines. His gait was steady but offbeat and his footsteps random as he wept freely for his lost love. On the valley air we could hear his cries bounce around the lush living greenery that surrounded him, but we did not know his pain. We did not have the honour. Turning to Luke I saw his tears too. He was a statue, sitting in absolute stillness, and without even blinking his tears flowed, dripping onto his chest.
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey