Jacques is telling it…

Steam pours from the kitchen door and the frosty air swirls with the aroma of roast pork. Stepping inside, I find brother Anselm stooping over a sizzling pan, a rasher of bacon dangling from his mouth.

‘That looks tasty!’

He panics and flaps his withered arms:

‘Oh! Oh! Bless my soul! I didn’t see you there… Hmm… Yes very tasty. I was just sampling the abbot’s breakfast. He likes his bacon sloppy, not crunchy – and these rashers are quite perfect.’

He removes the pan from the stove, gripping the long handle with his armpit and chin. Then he turns to me and sighs:

‘Now, what can I do for you brother Lazarus? Can’t you see I’m busy?’

‘Father Odo sent me. I’ve come to collect some fat.’

‘Fat? Ah yes, your daily task. Fat, fat, and more fat! I’ve been collecting fat all my life; fat on the hips; fat on the belly; and fat on the arse; not to mention the hog fat in that pot…’

‘What pot?’

‘Are you blind? The pot at your feet.’

I look down and see a pot of lard with cakes of mould blooming on top:

‘What’s it for? Dipping bread?’

‘Dipping bread? Upon my soul, you can’t eat that! That fat is so rank and putrid, ’tis good for one thing only.’

‘Which is?’

‘Boots. The snows are deep but boots daubed in fat keep our feet warm and dry. Take it to the warming house and melt it on the fire. But don’t let it boil. We don’t want you going up in flames. Understood?’

‘Yes brother.’

‘You will find the boots drying on a rack against the far wall. Rub the fat into the uppers of each boot, paying special attention to the stitches.’

‘Very good then. I will daub them well.’

‘Make sure you do. Now off you go…’

Just then father Odo glares round the door:

‘What’s all this chatter? Breaking the sacred silence!’

‘Forgive me father – but I was just instructing brother Lazarus on how to daub boots.’

‘I hope you weren’t giving our novitiate meat.’

‘Oh no father! I can’t even comprehend how you would think such a thing. This pork is for the abbot.’

‘I might have guessed,’ tuts Odo, shaking his head.

‘It does smell good though, doesn’t it?’ beams Anselm. ‘Cut from our finest sow, salted myself last year. Do you remember Eglantine? She was such a lusty strong limbed beast, with a penchant for cabbage hearts. It made me weep to slit her throat: she squealed and thrashed for two whole minutes. Alas, she did not deserve her ghastly end. I swear, she feared Death like any man. But by god, she’s tasty! Her loins are most succulent, besmoked with vapours, all tender and sweet.’

Odo wags a finger:

‘If I catch you eating meat brother…’

‘Me father?’ blushes Anselm.

‘Remember: the flesh of four footed animals corrupts the soul.’

‘I am well familiar with the regulations and mystifications of the Rule,’ says Anselm.

‘Mystifications?’ retorts Odo ‘And just what do you mean by that?’

The cook burps then says:

‘What I mean is, I would turn my spit of hog roast until kingdom come, but I would never let one morsel pass my lips – lest I was at Death’s door.’

‘Alas, your wide girth betrays you, brother Anselm.’

‘Brother Hique is fatter than me, father.’

‘You and Hique are thick as thieves when it comes to pilfering meat. Last year you ate a whole goose between you. Do you think I’ve forgotten? You can’t cook a sausage without guzzling it like a wolf.’

‘I don’t know what you mean, father.’

‘Don’t deny it. Why, you’d scoff that pot of fat given half the chance.’

‘By the Virgin! I’d never let a pot of fat come between my belly and the brethren’s feet. That mouldy lard is only fit for boots. But Lazarus thought it looked tasty.’

‘Did he indeed?’

‘No I didn’t father.’

‘Yes he did. He wants it for dipping bread.’

Odo shudders:

‘Dipping bread? Ugh! Disgusting! Well, I’m sure brother Lazarus knows better than that – don’t you Lazarus?’

‘Yes father.’

Odo claps his hands:

‘Well don’t just stand there boy; take your pot of fat and get daubing. Do you know where the warming house is?’

‘Yes father – down the south alley on the right.’

‘Make haste then.’

‘Right away father –’

Taking the pot, I turn to leave then stop on the step and ask:

‘Er, father Odo, when will you be instructing me in reading and writing? If I do not learn Latin, I shall be content to loose my head.’

‘Oh!’ chirps Odo. ‘Shall you indeed!’

Anselm leers with delight, his tongue poking from his mouth and wobbling in the air. Odo looks me up and down, a wry smile coming to his lips. Then he says:

‘Loose your head Lazarus? And just how do you propose to daub boots without one?’

‘I couldn’t do it father.’

‘Nor anything else, for that matter. You should be content to keep your head and polish boots.’

‘But I want to learn Latin father.’

‘Humility is the beginning of wisdom, Lazarus. Or do you think yourself too good for polishing boots?’

‘No father.’

‘But you would rather loose your head? Obtruncari? [To be beheaded]. Not that it matters: all the scholars I ever met were completely headless anyway. But since you ask, I will tutor you in Spring.’

‘Spring? But that’s three moons away!’

‘You are far too eager to exchange that pot of fat for a book. Patience is a virtue Lazarus. Is it not, brother Anselm?’

‘Oh yes father,’ fawns the cook. ‘A virtue indeed, that’s what patience is. Like making a fine sauce. You can’t rush a sauce; you have to stir it slowly on a gentle heat, or it will spoil. I am quite lost in my understanding how anyone can thicken sauce without a good deal of patience. A knotty lump here, a knotty lump there, and the whole condiment is ruined, lest, of course, it be sieved and strained. But there is another way of removing knotty lumps: whisking. Now, I hear you ask, how do I whisk out knotty lumps with these withered hands? Well, I lug out my whisk like this, and shove a stick up the handle, like this – see? Then I can reach the pan with ease. But a very impatient whisk it is, for ’oft it scolds me: “Beat quicker brother Anselm, lest those knotty lumps escape us!” Well my poor withered hands can only go so fast. But that impatient whisk, it makes a cuckold of me! And what takes a minute with healthy arms takes ten with withered. That’s how patient brother Anselm is; and that is why my gizzard-gravy is the most delicious suck-sauce gravy in the world. Oh yes, look at these shelves – they are full of patient sauces; green sauce; white sauce; shallot and mustard; chive and onion; blackberry and wine; cherry and honey; turnip and pear…’

Odo holds up his hand:

‘Yes, yes, all right brother, you needn’t torture my stomach. The abbot’s indulgent appetite does nothing to inspire me. All a monk requires is gruel…’

‘Ah yes, but even gruel requires patience. A good cook knows all about patience… Cooking without patience is like throwing a pot without a wheel; like spinning without a spindle; like flaying oats without a cane; like squeezing tits without a pail. To wit, a cook shall be very much disgraced if he has none – er, patience, that is…’

Odo chuckles then turns like an owl:

‘You still here Lazarus?’ He claps his hands: ‘Get to work! Chop! Chop!’

I dart out the door, sliding on the ice as I scurry down the alley.

Copyright (c) Nicholas Shea 2008.

Image credit: ‘Pig In A Pen’ by Kim Newberg [License: CC0 Public Domain].