Snordwich Chronicles, XXXIX: Ralf of the Kitchen

Ralf never imagined the spring penitence could be such a busy time. Though the food coming out of the kitchen is suitably humblemostly fish, greens, and spring bunsthere are more mouths to feed than there have been at any of the great feasts.

In addition to the newly arrived party of knights and squires, since Sunday there has been a constant stream of lesser visitors: messengers from far off lords; merchants with rare spices to sell; minstrels on the lookout for new patronage; even beggars from neighbouring villages, who know how generous the alms at noble weddings are.

He is glad to have Peter to help; the boy certainly seems to pick everything up fast.

Peter’s stubbornness, though, may become a problem. Ralf sees him bristle whenever Lord Snordwich’s new cook Egidius tells them off.

Each night before they say their prayers, Ralf has to remind his young friend that if he answers back even once they may both be sent home to their parents in disgrace.

The former cook Humphrey is now weak with age. In recognition of his long service, Lord Snordwich has commanded for a bed to be made up for him above the kitchen. Here Ralf brings him his meals.

His old master has strong opinions about the way his replacement puts together a stew.

Between following Egidius’ orders, listening to Humphrey complain, and reigning Peter in, Ralf values all the more the respite he finds in his quiet garden. Here he is a lord, benevolent and wise. He tends to his plants, listens to them, nurtures them, and they yield up their fruits in tribute.

John of the Marshalsea sometimes brings him bags manure from the stables to fertilize the soil.

On Wednesday morning, the spring penitence comes to an end. All the kitchen staff rise early to make a start on the bread.

Their gifts from his lordship this year are new shirts and jackets.

Ralf’s old jacket is a little worn, but still perfectly good; he wonders whether his brother would like it. He will get a chance to ask him in a few hours’ time, when Lord Snordwich will hold his annual feast for the servants’ families.

For the lower tables, the dishes will be a herb and cheese omelet, sweet Yacothian buns, and the cuts of suckling pig passed over by his lordship’s more illustrious guests. Egidius has a different method for the buns from Humphrey, of which Ralf is certain the old man would not approve. He will bring him the omelet instead, he decides.

At lunch, Richard is delighted to hear about the old jacket. He thanks Ralf profusely, saying that he already has a new shirt from their mother, and that now he will make quite the picture back in the village.

They finish their drinks off in the buttery, where Ralf’s and John’s parents chatter amicably. They seem to have become friends.

John’s sister Cecily, it turns out, has heard all about Ralf’s green thumb from Richard. She is warm and clever, and seems to love plants just as much as he does, but he cannot stay and talk with her long. The bridal party will be past the border by now, and there are still hours of work left to do in the kitchen.

Under their master’s instruction, he and Peter spend the rest of the afternoon jointing rabbits, chopping vegetables and filleting salmon.

Some of the following day’s dishes must be made in advance too. Egidius heats and strains milk from the village, before pressing it overnight; in the morning he will have fresh cheese. Next, he makes a jelly of boiled down pig skin, infused with ginger and nectar then left to set.

Peter is fascinated by the magic of it, all his recalcitrance put aside. Ralf, though, is more interested in the spice the cook has bought from one of the visiting merchants. It looks like bark and has a sweet, woody smell. He wonders what his master means to do with it.

Through the window, the boys see the bridal party arrive. Lord Snordwich goes out to meet his guests at the gatea concession, Egidius tells them tells them, to Lord Effenmont’s high degree. There are two young ladies in the party, but Ralf does not know which of them is the earl’s niece.

He does not find out until supper time, when she and Master Roger clasp hands and consent to marry.

The household chaplain speaks a blessing over them.

The lords and their knights celebrate late into the evening, waited on by gentle squires and cup-bearers. Ralf hears John and three Effenmont grooms talking about drinks in the buttery, but he and Peter know they cannot join them; the kitchen staff will only get a few winks of sleep as it is.

At sunrise, Ralf goes outside to collect the hens’ eggs. He has been up for hours already, making bread, butchering meat, and checking on the cheese.

Egidius has also asked him to bring in his best mint and cabbages to go with the second course’s spit roast leg of lamb.

Back in the kitchen, he learns that the strange twirls of bark are cinnamon, an exotic spice used only on the most special occasions. Egidius shows the boys how to mix it with honey to fill pastries, and with eggs, sugar and golden nectar to make a thick soup.

The cinnamon goes into the centrepiece of the third course too, an extravagant dish for the high table only of roast swan in a sauce of breadcrumbs, nectar and spices.

They work all morning to get this and everything else ready, while more groups of guests arrive. Just before midday, Master Grancourt comes in to tell them that there will too many people to feed in one sitting.  He explains that the guests at the three tables furthest from the dais will need to be rotated: his lordship’s tenants and their wives for the first course, grooms and other servants of the lower household for the second, and a group of aldermen from Crafthole for the third.

At last, the bell rings and two young gentlemen in patterned doublets come in to collect the dishes for his lordship’s table.

Ralf picks up a big bowl of sweet nectar soup, and Peter one of boiled beef. As they walk across the courtyard to the main house, they hear music start to play.

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