TIME TRAVEL 2: HAM FOR LUNCH
The ham looked magnificent; my mouth watered. I took another sip of the extraordinary wine. My host pulled an enormous knife from the block; stroked the blade with what I took to be some form of sharpener; and looked up. "Do you like the fat? I do. My wife doesn't. I'll cut it for you anyway. If you don't want it, just leave it."
I could hardly believe it. Who could afford to be so careless with food like that? You could save it to flavour a soup: there had been times when even a few strands of ham fat in hot water, perhaps with a boiled onion, would have been a feast. You could render it for frying. Surely, for that matter, the chickens would love it. I remembered times of plenty when chickens had feasted on scraps of fat. For something to say, I asked, "Do you keep chickens, my lord?"
He put down the knife and raised his hand. "Not 'my lord'. Just Roger. We can probably guess which Roger is talking to which. And no, we d0n't. We have some friends who do, over in Monts-sur-Messais. We save the scraps for them. Before he picked up the knife again, he said something in a language I did not understand, then laughed. "Difficult to translate, that one. Let's see: 'No king, no queen, no lord, no master. We'll not be fooled again!' That works, I think."
His words fairly took my breath away. All of what he said, really. Thus to be treated as an equal was extraordinary. And did they really know no-one in Moncontour who kept chickens? Surely, too, there could be no intendants here. I would not dare speak such treason in front of my closest friends, let alone in front of a stranger. Even if I felt such sentiments, which I most assuredly do not. I needed the reassurance of both the Sieur de Retournay and the curé even to report them here. They encouraged me to set down all the words that he said, as best I remember them; but so much happened in those few hours that I cannot be sure of exactly what I remember, though so much of it is seared praeternaturally in my memory.
"Are you hungry?" That was when I realized: since I had arrived, he had addressed me with the formal vous, as an equal, not informally, as a servant. Nonplussed, I did not know what to say. On the one hand, of course I was hungry. It was February, after all, and I had been working hard, and although it was hardly a famine, none of us had had quite enough to eat for some time. I had broken my fast with some soup, a thick slice of bread and an onion. Even if they had not been offering me ham fit for a prince, I was hungry. But was this not the sin of gluttony? Then I thought: no, it is not. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away: Blessed be the name of the Lord. Was it then temptation? Again, if it was, it seemed like quite a mild temptation. But would not the Prince of Darkness work that way? Once again I thought: no. They did not seem to be the slightest bit uncomfortable in church, and the lady had handed me her mother's rosary. I do not know of any way to deconsecrate a rosary, or the blessed Christ on the Cross that hangs from it.
Stuck in my dilemma, I must have paused too long, because he raised an eyebrow. Hastily I said, "My L.. Sir. Even if I were not hungry, it would be an insult to my hosts and to the Good Lord Himself to reject such ham. It is just that I feared to appear greedy; and there is always the sin of gluttony to consider."
He laughed. "I fear you will find us all gluttons in this era. As I say, it is a time of unimaginable plenty. Even so, there are always those who want more. Eat your fill, as much for our pleasure as for your own." He patted his stomach. "You can that see we like good food, and we love to share it. I know: I shall cut as much as I normally cut for myself, and put it on my plate, and you can say if you would like more or less."
The lady busied herself fetching plates from a tall cupboard, the upper doors of which were glazed. They seemed very simple, unornamented, but they were well made with a hard brown glaze. Once again I found it difficult to reconcile the simplicity of some of their possessions, and indeed the crudeness of such things as the table, with so many of the accoutrements of wealth that they seemed to take for granted: above all, of course, the books. There was even a bookcase in the kitchen, such a thing as I had never seen before and expect never to see again. Next she took a jar of cornichons from a squat white cupboard near the window, to the right of where the sink had stood before. I was amazed. It was glass, and bore a printed label not just saying "Cornichons" but also with a painting, in colour, of its contents. What really puzzled me was that you could clearly see the cornichons through the side, so what was the purpose of the label?
She said, "I'm afraid we have no butter warm," and went to the squat white cupboard again. From it she took a package rolled in gold; unwrapped it; cut the contents in half; and placed the cut half on a square dish. She re-wrapped the other half, and put it back in the cupboard from which she had taken it. I could hardly believe my eyes. Was even gold worth nothing in this world? Then I thought: gold has no value in the Kingdom of Heaven, so perhaps the world of the future is ust closer to the Kingdom of Heaven than my own.
Distracted, I had not realized quite how much ham my host was piling on his own plate. He said, "Does that look about right for you too? I'll cut some for Frances while you are thinking about it." He had cut it well, but not expertly: the Sieur's carver is much more skilled, with more even slices and cut still thinner.
It was my turn to hold up my hand: "My lord, my lord, I do not think I could eat so much!"
He laughed. "Well, try." And he went right on cutting. "Would you like wine with it? Red, white, rosé?" He gestured towards the bottle from which he had poured the wine we were drinking: "Or more of this?"
My expression must have given me away, because he laughed again and topped up my glass. I looked at it in disbelief: endless tiny streams of tiny bubbles rising from the bottom of the glass and bursting as they surfaced. Already I was beginning to feel the effects of what I had drunk, but to add water to such a wine would be a sin. I asked: "Could I also have some water? Not to mix with it," I went on hastily, "but to drink beside it?"
The lady smiled. "Good idea." She went to the cupboard with the glass front again, and pulled out three glasses. They were much coarser and simpler than the ones from which we were drinking the star-wine, but still of excllent quality. Then she went to the squat white cupboard and took out what appeared to be another bottle of wine. "No," she said. It's water. Really. Try it. If you don't like it, we can always use flat water."
I did not understand her, but I smiled and nodded anyway. Then I gasped as she poured out a glass of water. It was as full of tiny bubbles as the star-wine. She gestured. "Try it."
Although it was clearly water, not wine, it was so unfamiliar and heady that it might as well have been wine. Then I remembered: someone had once told me that there was a spring somewhere, down in the south or perhaps in the mountains, where the water came out like this. After the first few sips it really was very pleasant, and as I was drinking it mainly in order not to get drunk, I said, "This is wonderful. Where does it come from?"
She smiled again. "I'm not sure. Somewhere south of here. In the mountains, maybe. We just buy it."
Suddenly the enormity of my situation struck me again. There were shops that sold water? Did you have to buy it? Could you no longer draw it from the well? For that matter, was the well still there? Then another incongruity struck me. For all that it was cold outside, the room was much warmer than I would have expected, the more so given that I could see no fire and smell no smoke. The water, however, was much cooler. Perhaps there was some link between the squat white cupboard and the outside, so things in it stayed colder. No, that could not be the answer. Our houses face due south. On a sunny day, even in winter, such a cupboard could well be warmer than the interior. Absently, I stared at the jar of cornichons. A dew had formed on it, as it does on a pewter beaker in summer when you fill it with cold water fresh from the well. It was not, then, just my imagination. The squat white cupboard must be some sort of ice-box. I knew that rich men, richer than my master, had such things, and I knew that my hosts were rich; but I could not see how, in accordance with what I know of natural science, that such a thing could be so small.
Not knowing where to start with my questions and fearing to be shown as rude as well as ignorant, I said to my hosts, "Do you no longer use the well?"
He replied, "No. Well, that is to say, not very much. The water is not very safe. That is to say, not very clean."
It was hard not to take this personally. It was certainly much cleaner than anything you could draw from the river. And, as I said, "It must be clean. I have seen newts swimming in it, and everyone knows that newts are a sign that the water is good."
My host grimaced. "Yes. Well. Never mind the newts. The top has been blocked now, and there are bats nesting in it. I am not very keen on water with bat droppings in it."
As so often, his reply raised more questions than it answered. The most obvious was, where did the people who now lived in my master's house get their water? The easiest question, I thought, was "Do you buy all your water, then? In bottles?"
He shook his head. "Not exactly." He turned to the sink behind him, and twisted a sort of cross-shaped handle on a curiously-shaped spigot. Water came rushing out. He turned the handle the other way, and the flow ceased. "The water is piped into the house.We pay a monthly fee. It is..." He paused for thought before he went on: "....cleaned before it is piped. And it is safer than water from the well. As well as much more convenient. "Here: try some." He picked up a pewter beaker that stood beside the sink, one that was very similar to the beaker in which they had served me wine when I arrived.
When I tried it, I inadvertently wrinkled my nose. It might be safe, whatever that meant, but it tasted odd and slightly unpleasant. It was nothing like as good as the water we get -- got -- out of the well. He nodded. "Now you see why we buy water. This is perfectly safe to drink, and it works fine for cooking and washing, but it does not really taste very good."
All this talk of water, and the sight of it gushing, made me uncomfortably aware that I needed to pee. Perhaps my host caught something in my expression, or perhaps he just felt the same way himself. As I have already said, I guessed that he was perhaps twenty years older than I, and old men are seldom noted for the strength of their bladders. He said, "I need a pee. Perhaps you do too?"
Although I was slightly embarrassed at the coarse way he had phrased it in front of Frances, I nodded gratefully. We both stood up, but instead of heading for the old front door, as I had thought we would, he went through the other door, the one beside it. Gesturing towards another door, straight in front, he said "Think of it as a chamber pot. The seat lifts up, by the way: that's for the ladies. Gentlemen lift the seat. You go first."
It was more like a chair than a chamber pot, but its purpose was obvious enough. I was as impressed by the absence of any smell as by the fact that it was indoors. Needless to say, I aimed very carefully! He used it after me, and when he had finished, he gestured to the door beside the one to the tiny room in which the porcelain chamber pot sat. "You can wash your hands in there. Wait: I'll show you." Before he did, I noticed that he pulled up a little button on the top of a porcelain box behind the chamber pot cum seat, and water flushed away the evidence of our usage. This explained, no doubt, the lack of smell but I wondered very much at where and how they could get so much water that they could afford to be so profligate with it.
In the room next door there was a huge bath-tub, the biggest I had ever seen, and a small basin on the opposite wall. He lifted a lever, and water began to flow from a spigot over the basin. I noticed that he did not bother to fill the basin, but washed his hands under the running water; I remembered what he had said about a time of unimaginable plenty. But I suppose that if no-one has to fetch the water from the well, profligacy is easier.
By the time we were back in the kitchen, the lady had set out the three plates with ham. And cornichons. And what looked like tiny love apples. I had heard of them, and even seen them in gardens. but I had never eaten them: I had always been told they were poisonous, so I asked if they were some new variety that was not, or whether they were some other variety of vegetable that merely looked like love apples.
She laughed. "No. They're not poisonous. People thought they were, for a long time, but they are delicious. We call them tomatoes nowadays". She plucked one up from her own plate and popped it her mouth. "Try one".
I did, and she was right. It more or less exploded between my teeth. The taste is impossible to describe: a little like a cucumber, perhaps, but not very: it was both sweeter and sharper. The texture was more like a plum, or perhaps, as it had no stone, a sort of very large thick-skinned strawberry, if strawberries were given to exploding when bitten and had its the seeds on the inside, floating in a sort of jelly. It was however very fresh. Nothing like it could be grown out of doors in Moncontour in February. They must have had enormous glasshouses.
There was also a plate of what looked like bread on the table, although it was of tiny diameter, a couple of inches, and cut in slices perhaps half an inch thick. We sat down. I waited for the master to say grace, but he merely reached for his glass. I was shocked. I could only conclude that he was as disconcerted at our situation as I, for all that he appeared to be handling it better. As tactfully as I could, I said, "May I say grace, my lord? I was once a novice at..." I could not go on. The memory was still too raw.
"Of course. Of course. Please. We would be honoured."
They bowed their heads and I said the shortest grace I know, the one we used when we were novices working in the fields. We had been young and hungry and impatient, after all, may God forgive our sometimes perfunctory piety. Then, taking my cue from the gentleman, I reached for my glass and raised it. We exchanged smiles.
I had to watch very carefully to see how they ate. I did not want to expose my lack of manners, and besides, how might manners have changed in three hundred years? There was a round-tipped knife and and a fork beside each plate, and another round-tipped knife beside the butter. The forks were curiously made, with four prongs instead of three and a curve to the prongs.
They took a piece of bread each. So did I. Then the lady helped herself to quite a large piece of butter and put it on the side of her plate. Roger gestured to me to do the same. I did, but took rather less. Roger took rather more. I was surprised to see the lady spread butter on her bread, but Roger did not. Instead, he cut a piece of ham, using his knife and fork; spread a little butter on it; and folding it neatly on his fork with his knife, conveyed it to his mouth. Slightly clumsily, I did the same thing.
It was extraordinary. The ham tasted even better than it looked. We have always raised good pigs around Moncontour, but our hams are normally spiced and smoked. This was neither. It was a sort of Aristotelian essence of ham. Once in my life, in Paris, I had eaten something similar but I never expected to have anything as good again. The man who had given it to me was very rich, and had a huge library, even bigger than my hosts', and he was fascinated by recipe books: he even had a copy of Apicius which (he said) had been set in type and printed at the expense of a friend of his. The Romans, he told me, had written that the best hams in the world were made in the Pyrenees, and as far as he could see, they were right. Twice a year he would have hams brought up by post-coach; a privilege he was afforded, apparently, by the King himself after His Majesty had tried some at his house, and commanded that he be given two. A side-benefit of the King's favour, he smiled, was that he was excused having to spend too much time at court; the King was happy to have him continue his researches on his own estates and in Paris. I have heard it said that he may have been the first man to grow a pineapple in France, though I am not sure this is true. Be that as it may, this ham was if anything even better than the ones that he and the king ate.
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Text copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2016