I confess now that I am not what you might describe as an accomplished cook. There are a few simple dishes I can prepare, toast is one. But my admiration for the person who can cook knows no bounds. Any of these creative geniuses will find me sitting at the table, napkin neatly tucked into my collar. I am not proud, I willingly acknowledge their mastery.
Still it was a picture supplied by Chris Graham which set my memory off down this road. Thanks to him one lady came to mind even after all these years. Tillia Wheeldown. I swear I have never met anybody who had such a subtle touch with herbs and spices. She could take a young pullet, bland but succulent, and she would place something before you that was exquisitely flavoured. I’ve known renowned epicures leave the dining table and burst into the kitchen to kiss her on both cheeks and propose marriage.
For myself, my role as a poet means that I am not quite staff and not quite a guest. Thus before the dinner I would visit the kitchen and pass the time of day with her. It was time well spent; there was none of this coy nonsense about ‘craft secrets’ with Tallia. She would tell you exactly what was going into the pot, indeed she’d let you watch every stage of the process. I learned much from her. (My toast is seldom as badly burned as it used to be.) Indeed I took notes and passed them on to Shena who was always happy to include them as suggestions in her own cooking.
Still Tillia did have secrets. I first met her when she took the position of cook for Madame Rouel. It was in that fine establishment where I first tasted Tallia’s ‘Country Horrocks Stew.’ Some time later I had the honour to be present when Tallia prepared the stew. She showed me how you chopped cheap cuts, flank, shin, and skirt. Then she marinated them in beer and a couple of other ingredients I can no longer remember. The meat sat in the marinade for at least a night and a day before she started cooking. Finally as it cooked slowly she would add various herbs at various stages. Then she’d start adding vegetables, some cooked, some partially cooked, some not cooked at all. Finally perhaps half an hour before it had finished she’d pour in a good dollop of fortified sweet wine.
But as I was saying before my stomach got the better of me, she did have secrets. Nobody seemed to know where she had come from before she worked for Madame Rouel. Even Madame Rouel once admitted to me that she employed Tillia entirely by chance. A previous cook had given her notice and Madame was left totally bereft. Immediately her friends started treating her with suspicion. After all, a lady without a cook is a danger; you have to watch her carefully lest she steal yours!
She was so desperate she even considered advertising, and arrived in the offices of the Port Naain Intelligencer clutching her advertisement. Discreetly worded (as befitted a lady) it intimated that the position might be available. As she requested the clerk to include the announcement in the next issue, the next person in the queue attracted her attention and asked to be considered for the position. It was Tillia who had been in the office to discover if there was suitable employment available.
It was perhaps a year or so later that I was in the Misanthropes Hall when some fellow arrived from Partaan. He was a dark visaged and somewhat surly wight, monosyllabic and smelling strongly of horses and, strangely enough, wild garlic. When I saw him, he was pinning a note to the notice board. Obviously I went to see what it said; some of these fellows have the habit of pinning them upside down, on account of their fundamental illiteracy.
Instead it was a reward notice. There was a picture and description attached. The picture alone ensured the notice was placed the right way up. It seems that a number of keeps in the far south had gathered together to raise a reward which would be paid out on information which led to the arrest of a notorious poisoner. This person, a woman, had been hired by one faction to poison the leading members of another faction. As she started work it appears that the other faction had approached her with a counter offer. On top of this various individuals had become involved and had placed private contracts. Our poisoner had been left in a difficult position, having taken the money, how was she going to honourably fulfil the contracts? Eventually through subtle diplomacy she arranged a reconciliation. The various factions came together and signed a treaty over an excellent meal. Four hours later they were all dead, and the contracts had been cleanly and efficiently completed.
Now it is obvious that the poisoner found herself in bad odour in the area and had considerable difficulty collecting her rightful fee. Indeed such was the bad feeling that she had to flee. The forces of justice (or perhaps more accurately bluidy-handed vengeance) were now in tepid and somewhat delayed pursuit.
I pondered the wanted notice. It has to be said that even the most deficient in imagination would have recognised Tillia Wheeldown from the description. I felt that the situation placed me in a quandary. Once the semi-brigand had left the Misanthropes I pocketed the notice and took it with me to Madame Rouel’s. There in the presence of both Madame and Tillia I displayed to notice. Tillia looked a little shaken but Madame was firm, even obdurate. No pleading would sway her. She had made her mind up and would not be gainsaid. That very hour Madame and her maid unbound Tillia’s hair, restyled it into something rather fetching, a short bob with a fringe at the front. Not only that but once they had finished, Tillia was a blonde.
The hunt for Tillia never came near her. The Partannese hired the usual collection of bounty hunters and informers and they delved into the lives of some of the more imaginatively dangerous of the criminal classes of Port Naain. This in itself was good for the city; a few of the criminal classes were brought to justice. Also a good score of bounty-hunters and informers also died or just disappeared. After all they were tangling with dangerous people.
Nobody mentioned Tillia to those who were hunting. Quite a few people must surely have put two and two together and realised what was going on, yet nothing was said.
Which is how it should be; why would anybody betray a cook who could produce a pullet to die for?
Now it just occurred to me, some of you may not have realised that this Jim Webster chap has produced yet another work! Is there no limit to his prolificacy? But still, in this case he has returned to his peasant roots and produced a series of charming anecdotes involving rural life.
Between ourselves I have always felt that his peasant roots had not been left far behind in any case, there is a certain rusticity about the way he dresses and as for his accent! How anybody could ever hope to declaim fine verse in such mangled tones is beyond me. Yet I have let myself run on. In his own words, he describes his work as
“A collection of anecdotes, it’s the distillation of a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England. I’d like to say ‘All human life is here,’ but frankly there’s more about Border Collies, Cattle and Sheep.”
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