A banquet for the queen
This post is part of the on-going Summer Banquet Blog Hop hosted by Maria Grace, ably assisted by David Pilling. The theme of the hop is food – preferably food from the period the participating authors write about, which should result in quite the smorgasbord of dishes. I therefore recommend you to visit the other participating blogs (listed right at the end) and whet your appetites. And why not enter my giveaway while you’re at it? But first my little contribution…
Picture a chilly spring day in 1649. Queen Kristina of Sweden is on progress, and as she and her party cross the country she stops at whatever manor is close at hand for food and bed – sometimes only for food. Somewhere halfway between Stockholm and Köping is a little manor, a rather humble place. The present master has a fancy title but not much more, and while the manor adequately supports him and his family that’s about as far as it goes. The old stone house faces a little lake, and the last weeks of sunshine have convinced the shrubs and trees to produce budding leaves, draping a green haze over winter bare branches. Flowering coltsfoot stand like little suns along the ditches and if you look closely under the trees you might find the odd, shy anemone.
From the lake comes the honking of geese, the sun has just cleared the eastern horizon and tottering on her clogs, Maja makes her way down to the lake, carrying a basket of steaming linen. And so, dear reader, the stage is set…
Maja was on her knees, rinsing the laundry for the third time, when she heard the housekeeper, Fru Märta, yelling her name. Maja got to her feet, rather unsteadily, and stuck her ice cold hands in her armpits. This early in April the lake was still rimmed with ice, and hours of dunking the master’s shirts and the mistress’ longsleeved shifts in the water had resulted in throbbing nails and reddened skin.
“Maja! Get over here. NOW!”
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Maja muttered and set off in a long-legged trot. She smoothed at her clothes as she went, retrieved her cap from the apron pocket, re-braided her hair and tucked it all out of sight before entering the manor’s enclosed yard.
“Where have you been?”
“The moment I turn my back, off you go. I won’t have it girl, you hear?”
“Silence!” thundered Fru Märta. The slap caught Maja unaware, and she staggered back a couple of paces. “We have guests,” hissed Fru Märta. “Important guests.” She twisted her hands. “Lord help me! A banquet to arrange and all I have to help me is this… this slut… Bah!”
“I’m not a slut,” Maja said – quietly. It was her mother who was the slut, or so Maja was told. She wouldn’t know, never having met the woman. All her life she’d lived here, for sixteen years she’d been at Fru Märta’s beck and call, regaled with stories of how her mother had seduced the baron’s eldest son and then tried to hide her shame by placing her newborn baby in the woods to die.
“Lucky for you old Per came along when he did,” Fru Märta would say.
Maja wasn’t so sure; maybe it would have been better to die an unknowing babe than to live under Fru Märta’s thumb – as she seemed destined to do for the rest of her life. Whatever the case, Maja’s mother was hanged for her sins, while the baron’s son went on to marry and inherit the title. Now and then it struck Maja that the present lord of the manor was her father, that the lordling and his sisters were her siblings, but these were notions she kept very much to herself, as voicing them out loud would lead to a severe beating.
“Don’t just stand there girl! Think! What do I put on the table to feed the queen?”
“What? You’re deaf as well as stupid? I just told you; the master, God help him, has been requested to serve the royal party dinner – today!”
“Oh…” Maja sucked in her lower lip. This was not good, not good at all. After a long and cold winter the storing sheds were nearly empty. As far as she recalled there was a barrel of salted pork, two smoked legs of lamb, three stone jars with pickled tongue and… Oh yes; the dried ducks.
“At least two dozen guests,” Fru Märta moaned.
Oh dear; Maja thought so hard her head ached. In a nearby shrub a thrush chirped, and a couple of sparrows were squabbling by the gutter.
“Birds,” Maja said.”Would Her Highness eat birds?”
“Birds?” Märta scowled. “Everyone eats birds! And it’s not Her Highness, you fool, it’s Her Majesty.”
“It is?” Maja thought Her Highness sounded better – more powerful, like. “Have Per set up his nets, if he does that now he should catch a dozen or so, don’t you think? The stable lads can help him chase the birds into the nets. And you can braise them whole and serve them with your cinnamon sauce – the one the master likes.”
“Hmm,” said Fru Märta, tapping her foot. “That’s one dish.”
Maja looked in the direction of the henhouse. “A hen or two?” she suggested.
“A hen? Are you daft? Now that they’re back to laying you want me to kill them off? Stupid, stupid girl!”
“But the roosters – there’s five or six left.”
“Roosters, you say?” Fru Märta pinched her mouth together. “Yes… I could serve up the heads on a separate platter, have them standing up. Fitting, don’t you think? Crowned birds for a crowned head.” She cackled at her own jest, broke off to scowl. “Well go on then! You have roosters to wring and pluck. And then there’s the lamb to slice, and the duck – what do I do with the duck? Oh yes, prunes and hazelnuts.” Fru Märta bustled off, yelling for Per. Maja set off for the henhouse.
By noon, the household was swaying on their feet. The mistress had been so flustered she’d spilled her breakfast beer all over her best gown, and for an hour panic had been absolute as Maja rushed from the kitchen to the great hall, to the master’s bedroom, alternating between basting birds, sewing the mistress into her second best bodice and sweeping the worst of the dust from the floor of the hall. No one used the hall as it was cold and dark, but it was by far the grandest room in the house, and the master had ordered the grooms to use the best furniture from other parts of the house to ensure it was adequately adorned.
The table required six men to carry it, and placed around it were the six high-backed chairs the master’s father had brought back as spoils of war twenty years ago. From Poland, Fru Märta had told Maja once, which was why they were so excessively decorated, the armrests ending in carved talons, the backrests crowned with two-headed eagles. The embroidered tapestry that normally belonged in the master’s bedroom was taken outside, shaken carefully and hung opposite the huge fireplace in the hall. Logs were carried in, a fire was lit and Fru Märta opened all the doors wide to air out the lingering smell of mould and dead mice.
The best linen was brought out and even if it was a bit yellow Maja was sure no one would notice – not in the dark hall. Spoons were polished, knives were set out, and Lisen, the child in charge of the pigs, had been set to scrub the pewter platters with sand. The master unlocked his coffer and brought out the silver goblets and matching pitchers – more spoils of war – and to the side he stacked his six books, because everyone knew the queen was a learned and well-read woman.
Once adequately dressed, the mistress busied herself with exchanging the tallow candles for the precious wax candles she kept locked away in one of her chests and to further sweeten the room she sprinkled the floor with crushed cloves and cardamom, with sprigs of dried lavender and sage.
“There,” Fru Märta said, sinking down to sit on the single chair in the kitchen. The oak table was laden with food. On the master’s silver plate stood the six rooster heads, beaks agape as if they were still crowing. In the round pewter bowl that was so heavy it took a man to carry it lay eight and twenty thrushes – well, some of them were sparrows, but no one would notice – swimming in the pungent cinnamon sauce for which Fru Märta was justly famous. The ducks lay side by side decorated with finely chopped prunes and hazelnuts, the smoked legs of lamb had been sliced so thin each sliver of meat was near on transparent – “to fill out the plate, you fool,” Fru Märta had said – and bubbling on a large pot over the fire was the last of the cabbage and the salted pork.
“Not good enough for the queen,” Märta snorted when Maja asked how Fru Märta intended to serve this dish.“But she has servants, doesn’t she?”
It was Maja’s personal opinion that the cabbage and pork smelled the best, but then what would she know, she’d never tasted duck – or lamb – and her head still rang after Fru Märta’s rap with the wooden spoon when she’d caught Maja trying to steal a sliver.
The headless roosters had been stuffed with sage and wrinkled winter apples before being roasted, and Maja had to hand it to Fru Märta that she’d done a right god job in plating the birds, decorating them with an assortment of feathers and dried fruit. The pickled tongue had been sliced, enhanced with ground allspice and was served on a bed of stewed nettles that had been picked behind the privy. Maja hoped no one would eat of them as she hadn’t had the time to only pick the tender shoots.
“There’s no bread,” Fru Märta said.
“Oh, woe to me! Dear Lord, how have I displeased you that you burdened me with this girl? What are you, a newt? There must be bread on the table!”
“There isn’t any,” Maja said.
“Fix it! Now!”
“No buts! I must see to the beer.” Fru Märta rose to her feet. “And if you don’t sort it, I swear I’ll have you tasting the rod, you hear? Or maybe I’ll have the master turn you out, useless creature that you are.” With that she was gone.
Maja looked in the flour bin and there was at most three pound left.
“Think, think, think,” she told herself. In a bowl on the table was the blood from the roosters, and if she remembered rightly there was still some hot water in the small pot. In a matter of moments she was whisking water and blood together, adding the flour bit by bit. The resulting dough was soft and warm, and she kneaded it quickly, shaping it into six rounded loaves that she flattened with her hand. She found a skillet and a piece of lard and soon the kitchen smelled of warm bloodbread.
Märta inspected the bread and gave a curt nod. “Good.”
Maja beamed and curtsied. She had a bed for some nights longer.
There was a call from up the lane. “They’re coming, they’re coming!”
“Quick, quick!” Märta rose to her feet. “We must carry it all in to the hall – now! And don’t forget the cheese,” she threw over her shoulder as she rushed off to oversee the presentation of her dishes.
Per ran. Maja ran. Lisen ran.
The master ran – but not with the food, rather to greet his royal guest. The mistress didn’t run, she waddled, being greatbellied with child.
At last they were done. Fru Märta used a taper to light the wax candles and stood back, nodding with satisfaction. In pride of place were the thrushes, the rooster heads looked eerily lifelike in the shadowy interior of the hall, and to the side was the cheese – a bit mouldy here and there, but Maja thought she’d cut most of it off – and the bread. The roasted birds glistened with fat, the duck and the lamb were surrounded by pitchers of beer and wine, and the tongue had been further decorated by some hastily crushed sprigs of thyme.
In the yard the commotion was such that Maja hastened to the window to take a peek. So many horses, and dogs, and men at arms! The master was bowing and bowing, the mistress had sunk into a curtsey and seemed incapable of rising out of it, and in the middle of all this chaos stood the young queen, shaking down voluminous silk skirts over her riding boots.
“She looks like a man!” Maja said. Fru Märta came to stand beside her.
“She does,” she agreed, “poor woman, it can’t be easy to face the world with a nose like that.”
“Fru Märta!” Maja gasped. She looked at the queen, in a long, dark coat and her hair unbound. Like a mane, Maja reflected when the queen took off her hat and shook out her curls. She even carried a sword, which made Maja widen her eyes even more. A sash decorated the queen’s chest, a long plume was affixed to her hat, and even from here Maja could see the silvered tassels that decorated the riding gloves in dark red leather.
“It’s not right,” muttered Fru Märta. “A woman should look like a woman and dress like a woman, no matter that she’s the queen.”
“But she’s the king as well,” Maja said, “she reigns alone.”
“Pfft! You just wait until they’ve found her a husband! She’ll be so busy breeding, she’ll hand over the crown to him. As she should; a woman is incapable of ruling a country and soon enough we’ll have a real king again, not a wench that rides astride.” With that Fru Märta sailed off, telling Maja not to dawdle, there was plenty of work left to do in the kitchen.
The April afternoon was shifting into blue dusk when the mistress appeared in the kitchen.
“You did well,” she said, nodding at Fru Märta.
“Thank you mistress,” Fru Märta said, inclining her head no more.
“Is…” The mistress looked about, taking in the empty platters. “Are there no left overs?”
“No mistress,” Fru Märta said. She sighed and shook her head. “Not as much as a rooster’s wing, mistress. All of it gone.”
“And in our sheds? Surely there must be..”
Fru Märta shook her head again, eyeing the mistress with some disdain. Maja knew for a fact Fru Märta considered the mistress a puff-head, a vain woman with none of the skills required to run the household. A good mistress would know, down to the last smoked kipper, what she had in her stores.
“Nothing?” The mistress spread her hands over her protruding belly. “But how…”
“There’s beer,” Maja offered.
“The ground elder has come up,” Fru Märta added.”And there’s some rice, I think.” She moved close enough to place a hand on the mistress’ arm. “We’ll live,” she said.
The mistress backed away and nodded, biting down on her lower lip. “We’ll live,” she repeated and escaped the kitchen.
Märta chuckled and sat down. “Silly woman. Bring me some of the smoked lamb, will you? And don’t forget the beer!”
At last Maja had her first taste of smoked lamb. She was not much impressed, thinking that cabbage and salted pork was much tastier. But she didn’t say so, nodding eagerly when Märta asked her if she wanted more.
That night Maja ate like a queen – for the first and last time in her life.
I am giving away an e-book version of my latest release, The Prodigal Son. To enter, please leave a comment in which you tell me which of the dishes above you would never, ever eat and what your favourite cake is. Don’t forget to leave your e-mail so that I can contact you.
Blog tour participants
Of course you must set the stomach juices flowing by visiting the blogs of all the other participants. Who knows; you might end up with a new favourite recipe!
- Random Bits of Fascination (Maria Grace)
- Pillings Writing Corner (David Pilling)
- Anna Belfrage
- Debra Brown
- Lauren Gilbert
- Gillian Bagwell
- Julie K. Rose
- Donna Russo Morin
- Regina Jeffers
- Shauna Roberts
- Tinney S. Heath
- Grace Elliot
- Diane Scott Lewis
- Ginger Myrick
- Helen Hollick
- Heather Domin
- Margaret Skea
- Yves Fey
- JL Oakley
- Shannon Winslow
- Evangeline Holland
- Cora Lee
- Laura Purcell
- P. O. Dixon
- E.M. Powell
- Sharon Lathan
- Sally Smith O’Rourke
- Allison Bruning
- Violet Bedford
- Sue Millard
- Kim Rendfeld