I. At the beginning of the reign of Her Serenity Edrehasivaran IX
Zhenelo slipped through through the single entry point to the Suncat Room, the tiny, cozy sitting room that had been built in the middle of her grandfather’s reign. Her nohecharei waited patiently—or at least they worked hard to appear so—just outside, in the simple labyrinth entry that allowed even an emperor a feeling of privacy. The samovar atop the tea-table was hot, and she smelled the familiar warmth of chamomile. Her grandmother heard her enter, and turned to her with a smile.
“For you.” Csethiro held out a simply-wrapped package.
“What’s this?” asked Zhenelo, taking it. “I already received that exquisite clock from you and Grandfather…”
“That was your gift of record,” said Csethiro. “This is different. In fact, your grandfather has convinced himself that this is not a suitable gift for the occasion, but I know that it is. I have taken the decision from him lest he worry himself into an early grave.” She shook her head reprovingly, but Zhenelo could see the smile lurking on the edge of her lips.
Zhenelo took the package, swept her skirts aside, and settled into the small chair near the warmth of the samovar. She worked at the wrapping for a moment, her fingers a soft grey in contrast to the white silk of the ribbon. Inside was a worn book. She turned it over in her hands, admiring the fine binding and leatherwork that had kept it intact throughout the years, though the softening of the embossed letters indicated that it had been handled often. The letters on the cover simply said “For our Serenity,” but when she opened it, the handwritten title page read A humble cookery, for warmth and heart’s ease.
“A cookery?” Zhenelo could hardly have been more astonished if the book had been a compendium of bawdy satires. She turned over a page, and then another. Each page was different, carefully set in by hand. Many pages had an envelope or a piece of paper stitched in, and it was clear that the envelopes had been opened and read many times. “Oh, but I recognize some of these! Grandfather brought me this savory toast when I was ill all winter the year of my seventh birthday…and we had this shortbread often.”
“Those are two of Maia’s favorites.” Csethiro sat beside Zhenelo and tapped the edge of the book. “There are five pages with gilt edges—an embellishment that is my fault, I’m afraid, because those are the ones that he particularly loved, and asking the kitchens for one or the other almost always reawakens his appetite or restores his color when he falls into a bleak mood. But there are many fine entries in this little book. Keep it, and we hope that you will find your own favorites there.”
“It is a funny thing for an emperor to have,” said Zhenelo, “but I suppose typical. I shall treasure it.” She smiled.
“It is not to be shared outside of the family,” noted Csethiro. “It may be considered both an heirloom and a secret.”
“I wonder such an odd thing came to be…”
II. In the second year of the reign of His Serenity Edrehasivar VII
“Ebremis?” Csevet raised an eyebrow. He had paperwork to file; in fact, he had armfuls of it. “Is it urgent?”
Ebremis coughed. “In a manner of speaking. Could we speak privately?”
Csevet repressed a sigh and reminded himself that the kitchen master had never approached him like this before. Therefore, a matter of some import had to be troubling him. “Of course.”
Ebremis drew Csevet to the dark end of the corridor, well away from any listening ears, and where brocade drapes would prevent their voices from traveling. “Allow us to get right to the point. Our emperor has been part of this household for some eighteen months. And many things have changed during this time, but one thing has not: his Serenity fails to eat half his dinner, or he simply forgets to actually lift his spoon to his mouth, or Isheian picks up his bowl from his desk and it’s stone cold and untouched, or I—we can see that he’s eating but we can that tell he tastes nothing. How can he benefit from the restorative properties of a meal? And do my eyes deceive me, or is he getting even thinner?”
Csevet stared at Ebremis’ white moustache, which was trembling, and considered whether he had ever heard so many words at once from Ebremis, who was usually to be found either cooking or listening, or perhaps both. But then Ebremis’ last words sank in, and Csevet stiffened. “Surely I would have noti—ah, but you might be right, Ebremis.” Csevet sighed. “I suppose I ascribed it, without thinking, to our Emperor’s increased exercise.”
Ebremis harrumphed. Csevet reddened, unable to restrain his ears from twitching. “The lessons, Ebremis. Fencing, dancing, riding—all of that. But we cannot force him to eat, and everything you prepare is exquisite, so what can we do?”
“Ah! I have thought on this for weeks, and I think I have hit upon an idea. When I was granted the opportunity to interview his Serenity, he was not able to answer my questions in detail. Now, in confidence, I believe that in the past, our young emperor may not have eaten food that was prepared with his tastes in mind.” Ebremis shook his head. “In fact, I wonder if he was ever offered the chance to develop his tastes…and I confess, my first thought was to prepare a tasting of all the dishes that are best loved by the court, but—before you say anything, young man—I’m well aware that we would never be able to find a time when our emperor would be able to indulge me so. No, no. Instead, recipes.”
Csevet wanted to pinch the bridge of his nose, but he restrained himself. “Recipes?”
“Yes—with your assistance, we will consult with those who know him well, and care for him, and think on it with our hearts, and we will carefully choose recipes not calculated for their exquisite flavors, as I’ve unsuccessfully attempted thus far, but those that we think will touch him and...and bring comfort to his heart.”
“Ebremis! I was unaware that you were a poet.”
“We all have our secrets, Csevet. But will you assist me in this endeavor? I want to have it done before his birthday.”
“It’s…an unconventional present,” Csevet said slowly, taking care that his tone did not indicate disapproval.
“Well.” Ebremis raised his eyebrows pointedly. “There are many unconventional developments these days, eh? A new breeze is blowing. At any rate, it’s a small private gift only. You and I will organize it discreetly.”
“Would not Esaran be a better choice?”
“Ah, Csevet, I will allow that she has thawed a bit, but …”
Csevet was occasionally reminded that others did not view Esaran as he did. To Csevet, Esaran had begun as a stern mentor and wound up as a no-nonsense friend, but he could think of no one else who knew either of those aspects of her. Esaran would do an excellent job with such a project, he thought, but aloud he said only, “Well, I will be sure to ask her for a recipe, still.”
Ebremis shrugged, clearly unconvinced. “As you like. Here is a list of those I—we would like you to consult, both near and far. Some of them, we are afraid, will require sending a courier as rapidly as you are able. They needn’t think only of elegant dishes; we are not lacking for courtly preparations. In fact I think, perhaps, the more homely the recipe, the better its appeal. But the only stipulations are these: the recipes must be widely different from each other, so that we may be more likely to find that which pleases his palate, and they must be thoughtfully and sincerely chosen with his Serenity in mind.” Ebremis reached over Csevet's stack of paperwork and tucked the list into his jacket.
Csevet, wondering what he was getting himself into, nodded.
A flurry of couriers, countless peculiar conversations, several impromptu cooking lessons, and nearly five months later, Csevet and Ebremis stood before the oaken desk in Csevet’s quarters. Csevet laid the letter from the emperor’s aunt Ursu atop the stack of paper and parchment. That was the last to arrive, and the last to be ticked off of Ebremis’s ambitious list.
“It is a fine compendium,” said Csevet. “But what will you do with it now? I could have it neatly bound, but—”
“Yes, have it bound. The book itself will be a humble birthday offering—but there is a more important step that is yet to come. Esheian is my accomplice in this matter,” said Ebremis, with an air of satisfaction. “When one of these dishes is included in a meal, she will serve it herself, and she will catch his ear and whisper to him whose recipe it is.”
Csevet nodded slowly. “In truth, it may work. It is not in his nature to ignore that.”
“With luck, it will cause him to pay attention to his dinner long enough to awaken his palate, restore his appetite, and if I may say so without being accused of poetry, touch his heart.”
III. At the beginning of Her Serenity Edrehasivaran IX’s reign
Zhenelo clapped, like the small child she used to be, before she could stop herself. “Do you truly think that’s how it happened?”
“Something like that,” said Csethiro. “Who knows—without this book, you might not even be here!” She laughed, but then fell silent. Zhenelo watched as Csethiro stood and paced the room. She would never be able to match her grandmother’s elegance, Zhenelo thought to herself. But at least she had taken to the sword-fighting lessons, which had given her some measure of grace in addition to the ability to wield a blade. Mindful of her posture, she straightened in her seat.
Csethiro turned and caught Zhenelo’s amber eyes with her own vivid blue ones. “Zhenelo, my heart. What we are really saying to you with this gift is to remember to keep your body and soul well-nourished, and to most highly treasure the gifts that others make to you of their time and love. Maia could have been consumed by his title, but he was not, and we do not want you to be, either.” She leaned over and kissed the top of Zhenelo’s head.
Zhenelo felt tears springing to her eyes but blinked them away. She forgot about her posture for a moment and rested her head against Csethiro's skirts. “Thank you,” she said. “I will remember it.”
IV. Table of contents
(Csevet’s note: We apologize for the erratic nature of the titles, alphabetization, and formality herein. Ultimately, because there are no rules for such a document, we must confess that we gave up and used names as written.)
- Csevet Aisava ~ Custard with pine mushrooms and maidenhair-tree nuts
- Cala Athmaza ~ Fried sweet potatoes in sugar syrup with sesame; soft bean curd with black vinegar
- Kiru Athmaza ~ Shortbread flavored with chamomile; restorative sweet sorcho with ginger and broken rice
- Avris ~ Almond-paste sweets
- Deret Beshelar ~ Savory toast
- Thara Celehar ~ Roasted tea with cinnamon rice-flour triangles
- Csethiro ~ Buckwheat crepes with sausages, eggs, and mushrooms, or with cream and berries
- Ebremis ~ Roasted onion soup with bread and cheese; baked custard with plums; velvet curry
- Echelo Esaran & Oshet ~ Hot chocolate in the Barizhan manner
- Esha ~ Hot corn fritters
- Arbelan D. ~ Mulled wine
- Idra, Ino, & Mireän ~ Our favorite fried dumplings with farmer’s cheese
- Vedero Drazhin ~ Dreaming Lady cordial
- Gormened Household ~ Vegetables fried in golden batter
- Mer Halezho - Casserole of potato with shallots and cheeses
- Isheian ~ Winter stew with sorcho
- Marquess Lanthevel ~ Butterscotch-pumpkin hand pies
- Nemer ~ Steamed buns with roasted pork and pickled greens; spiced crunchy broadbeans
- Captain & Merrem Orthema ~ Soup with hot preserved cabbage and beancurd
- Ursu Perenched ~ Salad of fresh-caught fish, chopped, with nuts and hot bean paste
- Captain Shaleän ~ Salted and grilled mackerel with lemon and butter
- Telimezh ~ Sponge cake with bergamot
- Thiriän Danivin ~ Fish pie with salmon, cod, and smoked haddock
- Captain Vizhenka ~ Garlic preserved in rice bran
- Nadeian Vizhenka ~ Stone-pot rice with mountain vegetables
V. Excerpts: His Serenity Edrehasivar VII’s favorites and various attached notes
Csevet will not leave me be until I have fulfilled his behest, so: I have enclosed a recipe for the hot chocolate drink favored by the Barizhan Court, but in truth, the difficult work was done by Oshet, whose imperfect recollection formed the basis of it. (If you are wondering why the gardener requested use of one of the kitchens last week, I hope this sets your mind at ease, and furthermore, I hope that he did not leave it dirty or in disarray.) This drink is warming even in the coldest winter.
— Echelo Esaran
Recipe for hot chocolate in the Barizhan manner
Take one hundred fine cacao beans, two hot peppers (you may substitute black pepper if necessary), one handful of anise, one vanilla pod, two ounces of cinnamon (dry and grind it), or one ounce of nutmegs (dry and beat them), twelve good almonds or filberts, one pound of loaf sugar, and as much achiote as will make it the color of brick. Put all of them together into a pot on a hot fire, and boil them together. If you have the proper implements, including a molinet and a fine porcelain chocolate-pot, pour the hot chocolate into the chocolate-pot. Open the cap upon its hinge and insert the molinet fiercely, to make a pleasing froth. If you do not have a molinet or a chocolate-pot, you may mix it as well as you can, and then pour the chocolate into cups, choosing large ones well-made and with thick walls. Pour no more than one-third the height of the cups, and then froth the chocolate with a whisk of bamboo or what-ever suitable implement you may find at hand.
Enclosed are two recipes, one very simple—hardly a recipe at all— and restorative chiefly to the body (sweet sorcho has little alcohol, and is suitable even for children when they are ill) and the other more involved, but—I hope—restorative to the soul and enticing to anyone who is fond of chamomile.
— Kiru Athmaza
Recipe for shortbread flavored with chamomile
Put into a basin six ounces of pastry flour, four ounces of butter (soft), and two ounces of sugar. With your finger-tips, mix them all together till such a time as the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Now add one teaspoon of fine dried chamomile leaves. Add a few drops of vanilla or rosewater, such as you like, but not so much as to overpower the chamomile. Use the palms of your hands to spread and gather the dough; repeat this procedure until a lump of dough can be formed. If the dough will not form, sprinkle it with a few drops of water or chamomile tea and knead it again. Let the lump of dough rest within the basin, in a cool place with a cover, for half of one hour. You may then press it into a decorated mold, or if you do not wish to do so, you may turn out the dough onto a floured board and press it into a disk about the width of one finger. Mark off eight portions, put it on a baking-pan, and bake it in a warm oven for thirty minutes (depending upon your fire and the thickness of your dough). Let not the shortbread burn or turn brown, but bake it merely till it is firm to the touch and a pleasing light golden color. Note: These serve very well with hot, sweet tea.
(There is no note with the following recipe, but there is a careful, hand-tinted drawing of every step of the recipe, followed by a full-page illustration of a bowl of stew with steam arising)
Recipe for winter stew with sorcho (dictated by Isheian to Csevet)
Peel and chop two pounds of potatoes. I think baking potatoes are nicer because they become soft and crumbly, but boiling potatoes will look prettier. Take a thin cutlet of beef or pork, about six ounces, and roughly chop it. Slice one medium onion and chop a piece of fresh ginger about the size of your thumb. Fry the onion and the ginger in a pot with a little oil, then put in the meat and cook it till it is browned. Put in the potatoes and cook them for a little while, then put in enough dried-fish stock (the kind made with kelp and dried skipjack) to cover everything. Add six tablespoons of sugar and four tablespoons of sorcho, choosing your favored balance of the sweet and syrupy cooking sorcho and the thin drinking sorcho. Add as much fermented bean sauce as you like, then a little dark toasted sesame oil if you have it. Boil it all together, putting a drop lid into the pot once the water is boiling fiercely. Simmer it over a fire that is not too hot, until the soup reduces well and the potatoes become pleasantly soft and golden. Before serving, stir everything in the pot, and put some chopped green scallions atop.
We are agreeing to write this after extensive persuasion on the part of Csevet Aisava, although the more that we write, the more convinced we are that we have only an inadequate and inappropriate contribution to make. HOWEVER, we foolishly promised, so we must fulfill our promise. Although we tried to think of a more proper contribution, in truth, only one idea came to mind: the savory toast that our mother made us when we were a child and too poorly, in body or spirit, to eat. Even now, we have to confess that we think of it fondly. We apologize sincerely for our impropriety and…no! I cannot possibly do this— (Csevet’s note: At this point Cala seized the note from Beshelar, who was attempting to set it aflame, and conveyed it to us. Therefore, it is unfinished, but as far as we are concerned, it is still complete.)
Recipe for savory toast (courtesy of Deret Beshelar’s mother)
Put two tablespoons of best butter in a saucepan on a moderate flame. As your butter melts, stir in two tablespoons of ordinary flour, then keep it cooking well—stirring it occasionally—until the mixture turns golden-brown and delightfully aromatic, some three to five minutes or thereabouts. Then add one tablespoon of powdered mustard and one-half teaspoon of hot chili powder (ground), though you may add more or less of each as you like. Add a small mug of a strong dark ale and two or so tablespoons of savory sauce, and whisk them in until the mixture is of a whole color and texture. Lower the heat by moving the saucepan or reducing the flame, and add one whole pound of a good medium-hard, sharp cheese (or several cheeses), grated roughly, and stir until smooth. Remove the saucepan from the fire entirely and pour the mixture into a casserole dish or any other broad container and leave it until it is well set. Now take several pieces of lightly toasted bread and spread the mixture upon’t thickly. Put into a very hot oven until the top becomes bubbly and the toast edges become crisp but not burnt. Be sure to eat it straight away.
We know that you have no great love for alcohol, but we have oft enjoyed this drink on a cold night while looking at the stars, and it is our hope that you will as well. It may be made more simply or more elaborately, and is suitable for formal dining with the addition of the silver and gold flakes. May our Lady of Stars always grant clarity to you.
— Vedero Drazhin
Recipe for Dreaming Lady cordial
You may use around ten pounds of fresh sour cherries in summer, or around five pounds of preserved ones. For fresh cherries, first pit them and cut them in half, and put them in a bowl. Secondly, press and mash the cherries in order to extract the maximum amount of juice. Thirdly, use a large strainer with fine mesh and take a sturdy spoon to press the fruit through the strainer, resulting in about eight cups of cherry juice. (You may employ the mashed cherries in another dish such as a roast or pudding.) If your cherries are preserved, first drain the juice into another bowl and then halve and press the cherries, putting the reserved juice back together with the pressed juice upon completion. Fourthly, combine the juice with four cups of finest brandy and three cups or more of loaf sugar in a one-gallon glass jar with a lid. Put the lit on’t and put in the coolest place available, such as an ice chest or a cold stream, for the full passage of a day, taking care to occasionally stir or gently shake the jar. Fifthly, bring just two cups of the juice in a pot to simmer over a medium flame, tasting and adding more sugar as you like. Add two cinnamon sticks (roughly broken), a few whole cloves (we prefer three), and one piece of fresh whole nutmeg, then let it simmer while covered for about five minutes. Take it off of the flame and allow it to cool. Strain again and discard the spices or use them for mulled wine. Sixthly, take this spiced juice to the large jar and recombine it with the rest of the juice. Now you must cover it with the lid again, but loosely, and leave it be for no less than two weeks, in a cool place such as a cellar or at least not near the kitchen fires, and remember to occasionally shake the jar a little.
Finally, you may serve the cordial—do not heat it, simply pour it into cordial glasses and serve, adding a pinch of gold and silver flakes to honor Our Lady if you wish. You must keep the remaining cordial in a cold place, although we personally recommend gathering enough friends to help you finish it at once.