The Finest Bread and Butter Pudding in Port Naain

Grandash Cobwell wasn’t originally an alchemist. Indeed he had a long and unblemished career of service to his fellow man. In his youth he was a paperhanger’s gymnast. He graduated, briefly, to being a repairer of dolls and other toys, before spending many years as a deliverer of parcels and letters to those too enfeebled by age or vice to deliver their own

It was as a deliverer of parcels that he took up his alchemical experimentation. As you can well imagine, people are happy to deliver a parcel when it is light, the weather is pleasant, and the walk is short. They hire a professional when the parcel is heavy, the weather appalling and the road both long and passes through areas rank with almost bestial delinquency. After a hard day on the road, returning to a cold house, a chap wants something to warm him. Obviously he would light a fire to cook his evening meal but that takes time. Grandash needed a glass of something reviving.

Here he ran into a problem he hadn’t foreseen. Anything he could afford was harsh and even to sip it would be to put your vocal chords at hazard. Take a mouthful and you might not be able to get your breath for a minute or two. But anything smooth, anything that just slipped down and warmed you, well that was far too expensive. So he reasoned, why shouldn’t be make his own?
He set to work with a will and soon had several wine casks full of fine liquor, maturing with perfection in mind.

Unfortunately this only brought with it another problem, the first cask, which he calculated would be decent and worth drinking, would be ready to broach for his seventieth birthday. The cask he had the highest hopes for, would be ready at some point in his ninetieth year. He was not entirely sanguine about being around to enjoy it.

Now this is where the wise and well-organised win out. If you have the wit to be born into a family which takes these things seriously, you sit sipping the nectar from the casks your grandfather laid down, whilst at the same time, you distil the spirit that your grandchildren will drink, blessing your name as they do so. Poor Grandash was not so organised. Not only had he neglected to pick his grandparents with care, he had improvidently neglected to provide himself with grandchildren.

Thus and so he decided he would have to do something to convert the fiery spirit he was distilling into something more palatable, but rather more rapidly than traditional methods could achieve.

He read widely and tried many things. Flowers of sulphur was not a success. Similarly there are doubtless legitimate uses for Toadbane and Weeping Aconite, but they are not located in a respectable distillery.

Then he tried an old seaman’s trick. Apparently, on some ships where the drink ran out, or was just forbidden by the owners, a certain boot polish, heated to a liquid state over a candle and then poured through a thick slice of bread, produced a drink which was not entirely unpleasant and didn’t send you blind.

What had Grandash to lose? He had no intention of heating boot polish, but perhaps if he allowed his own raw spirit to filter slowly through bread, this might improve it.

It so happens that the only bread he had in the house was a few crumpets who were a little past their best. It was the matter of a few minutes to fit them into a cylinder and arrange things to the spirit percolated slowly through them. He sipped the result and felt that there were distinct signs of improvement.

But it was getting towards his supper time and the only food in the house was the crumpets. He speared one with a toasting fork and placed it above the glowing coals. It flashed into flame. Remembering that charcoal is apparently good for the digestion, he crunched it unenthusiastically.

But still, he discovered that if you butter the crumpet prior to attempting to toast them, the results are quite passable. Indeed there was a spell where some of us wild young things would repair to his home with our own crumpets for him to filter spirit through. Then with a suitably long toasting fork and plenty of butter, you could toast the crumpet ‘in a flash.’

But crumpets served purely because they were the material he had at hand. He still wanted to try bread. Here he merely cut the two end crusts off a loaf and allowed the spirit to trickle through. Obviously you had to moderate the flow lest the bread became ‘waterlogged’ but with care, a loaf would serve for an evening’s filtering.

But what to do with the loaf? There is only so much slightly charred toast a chap wants to eat. Then he remembered his late mother’s bread and butter pudding recipe. This he set to and made, cooking it in the oven at the side of his fire. But wise man that he was, he cooked it in a dish with a lid. Admittedly his original fear had been that the spirituous vapours driven off during cooking might be a fire hazard. But with the lid fitted, the spirit driven off by the heat couldn’t escape and eventually condensed and trickled back and soaked into the pudding.

Now there is a breakfast fit for a parcel deliveryman. With a goodly portion of bread and butter pudding to start his day, Grandash strode, whistling cheerfully, into the vilest of weather. No parcel too heavy, no road too long, he regained the brisk manner of his youth and practically danced around the city.

Indeed he came to an understanding with a younger widow who lived next door. Each evening he would make several of his bread and butter puddings and deliver all bar one of them to her. She cooked meals for workmen and she would serve his pudding as a desert. Then when Grandash arrived home from delivering his parcels, she always had a good meal to set in front of him.

Eventually, the arrangement made so much sense that they married, and only a few months later, the widow discovered that she was expecting.

Now, in his ninetieth year, Grandash is still delivering parcels, but has three daughters and a son to assist him. There may even be grandchildren to follow on in the trade. Finally, I have been invited to be present next week when he taps that special barrel.


Should you want to learn more of life in Port Naain

As a reviewer commented, “

When unavoidable circumstances meet with unfortunate events, as Tallis Steelyard could no doubt tell you, the only option is to run like hell.

However for Tallis that meant winding up on a flatboat being towed behind a steamer. His adventures include a contribution to opera, absconding with religious tomes, a friendly – if at times rather dangerous – rivalry with the crew of another flatboat, being the judge of a local flower show, nomad attacks, a well-educated mule and a mysterious ancient cult.

Jim Webster is one of those authors who makes me wish for a louder voice so more might hear about and discover his works. They are simply wonderful.

There is nothing quite like a Tallis Steelyard adventure. It has pathos, humour, danger and a uniquely engaging, secret, unidentifiable ingredient all of its own which Mr Webster must keep as close to his chest as Coca-Cola.

So if you have never been introduced to Tallis Steelyard before, this is a great place to meet him. If you know him well and have yet to take his boating adventure then delay no longer.

Either way, this is a wonderful book that will surely delight you.”

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