There was once a fishing village where a man named Will lived alone in a cottage. He used to live with his father, a stern man whose introverted and standoffish ways his son had the misfortune of inheriting. The old man died, leaving a son who lived on a small inheritance, and what fish he could pulled into his boat. The village itself was small, a few dozen wooden houses.
One night, a stranger named Hannibal Lecter came to his door with a letter of recommendation from one of Will‘s few friends, Alana Bloom, who had moved away to France some years ago. He was a refugee from the fighting in Paris that had left his house burned and his place of work closed. According to the letter, he was a man of many talents, especially cooking.
Will was brusque. “I can not afford to pay you and you would find my company dull and miserable after having been in a city like Paris.”
“I only need room and board,” said Hannibal. “May I come in?”
After a few seconds of hesitation, Will gave a curt nod and stepped back away from the door. “I am not an easy man to live with. If you desire to leave, I will neither stop nor blame you.”
Will had to admit that the man had talent when it came to baking rye bread and making sausage and pate. Even simple dinners of fish and potatoes had an extra flavor they did not have before. “I heard that the French cooked well but this is really very good,” he said after a satisfying Saturday lunch.
Hannibal chuckled. “The truth is that I am not French.”
Will frowned. “But Alana’s letter said you were from Paris.”
“That is true. However, I was not born there.”
“So, that is why your accent sounded so unusual.”
“I was born in Lithuania but I moved to the city when I was thirteen.”
“I have read Alana’s letters about the troubles there. I hope that someday you can go back home.”
“You wish me to go so much?”
“No, I . . . Surely, you must be homesick.”
Hannibal merely shook his head. “Home is a state of mind. Besides, the Paris of my heart probably only exists in my memories now.”
Will watched as Hannibal wrote another letter in his elegant and extravagant script. He knew that it was going to be one to be sent with a painting. Occasionally, Hannibal would paint one and send it to their mutual friend to sell. This one was a landscape that showed the isolated beauty of the world around them. He knew that Hannibal painted not only for enjoyment but to supplement the amount of money Will set aside for their food.
“You don’t have to,” said Will at the time. “I mean you don’t have to spend it on that.”
“I want to,” said Hannibal. “I desire it. Do you even know the meaning?”
“Of the word desire.”
Will turned away. “I know that one can desire but that it doesn’t mean that one’s desire will ever be returned or fulfilled. It is a useless thing.”
“Austerity is a thankless thing, a tortuous way to take pride that one has chosen to eat only gruel instead of nature‘s bounty. To withhold pleasure from oneself seems to me, a sin.”
“It’s not austerity if gruel is all there is.”
“Even gruel can be well-flavored in the proper hands.”
It was fall when the letter came. “Is something wrong?” said Will. It was rare that Hannibal showed any sort of astonishment.
“I asked Alana to buy me a lottery ticket on a whim. It turns out that I have won.”
“Oh, how much?”
Will gasped. “That is a lot of money.” Enough money to go home, he thought.
“If you do not mind, I would like to treat you to a real French dinner. I have some contacts who can ship me all the things I need. I can well afford it. Invite some friends over.”
“You know that I don’t really have friends around here . . . Other than you that is.”
“I am honored to be included in such rare company. In that case, I shall make dinner for just the two of us.”
Will watched nervously as he saw all the boxes Hannibal brought into the house. He saw a variety of wine bottles, jars full of mysterious ingredients, and meats come into his house. Occasionally, he would try to sneak a peak into some of the containers only to have his hand slapped by Hannibal, who went out of his way to discourage him. There was even specially ordered silverware, stemware and plates for the feast.
“I don’t even know what half of these things are.”
“You will,” said Hannibal mildly.
“I . . .” The truth was that he did not want to eat any of these things if it meant that it was a farewell dinner. He could continue to live on fish and potatoes if it meant that he would be eating them with him. But he did not know how to say it. He wanted to tell Hannibal that he had come to treasure the other man’s company but his tongue failed him. Besides, Hannibal looked so happy, how could he even try to keep him from going home?
Will came back to the house after being shooed away by Hannibal, who told him to come back after sunset. When he entered the dining room, he saw that the dinner table had a new linen tablecloth and two silver candlesticks with two lit candles. Alongside the dinner table was a small table with several bottles. Hannibal’s eyes seemed to shine as he took the label, dipped it into the tureen and poured soup into two bowls. “It is Potage a la Tortue, a green turtle soup. Every dish will be paired with a wine that brings out the best in the dish. The little glass next to your hand has Amontillado sherry.”
Despite Will’s sadness at the thought of Hannibal leaving, he could not fault the soup nor the sherry. “I have never tasted anything like this.”
His compliment brought a smile to Hannibal’s face.
After Will finished his soup, Hannibal brought in another dish. “This is Blinis Demidoff, buckwheat cakes with caviar and sour cream.” He opened a bottle of Veueve Cliquot Champagne. “I think you will find this a worthy pairing.”
Will was agog at the luxury of the food. “I can’t . . . This is too . . .”
“If you don’t eat, it will all go to waste . . . And I shall think you don‘t like it.”
Will silently cursed him for effective use of emotional blackmail.
The next dish was something Will had never seen before. “What is this?”
“It is partially deboned quail stuffed with truffles and foie gras in homemade duck-fat pastry with a fig and Madeira sauce. The name of the dish is Cailles en Sarcophage.”
“You must think I’m quite the bumpkin because I don‘t know what half the things you mentioned are.”
“Ignorance is an easily remedied fault as long as one is willing to overcome it. But for now, the first thing you must learn about this is how they taste.”
As Will let the rich juices of the dish flow over his tongue, he realized how much Hannibal must esteem him for him to have gone to this much trouble. “How did you make this?”
“While I marinated the quail in the liquor, I created the little puff pastry shells. I had to go outside for it to be cold enough to create perfectly since the kitchen was too hot for such delicate work. While I roasted the birds, I made the sauce so it would be ready to be put together once they were ready to be put together.” Hannibal poured him a glass of Clos de Vougeot Pinot Noir. “And this goes well with that.”
“I shall blame you if my head hurts the next morning.”
“As long as you eat, the effects will not be too severe.”
Will laughed. He laughed even harder when the next course was an endive salad.
“I don’t see anything humorous about salad. It’s a palate cleanser,” said Hannibal. “The next course needs to be appreciated without the taste of the previous course in one’s mouth.”
After Will had finished eating his last leaf of the crisp and slightly bitter vegetable, Hannibal presented him with a dessert. “This is a Savarin au Rhum avec des Figues et Fruit Glacee, a rum sponge cake with figs and candied cherries, which I have decided to pair with Champagne. After you are done, I will serve us both some coffee.”
Of course by this time, Will was not surprised when Hannibal proceeded to pour some Louis XIII de Remy Martin cognac in their coffee. Despite the fact that he had eaten a substantive dinner, he felt a buzz course through his body, a loosening of his control over his emotions. It made him lose his usual tense sourness and if he was not mistaken, it had worked a similar magic on Hannibal, the expression on his face softening to the point of vulnerability.
“How did you learn to cook like this?” said Will.
Hannibal stared moodily into the flame of one of the candles. “I used to be the head cook of a restaurant Café Anglais.”
“It must have been a magnificent restaurant.”
“You could go home and open it again with the money you won. There is no way that it could fail but if you insist on going . . . I will miss you so much.” Will hated himself for feeling so maudlin.
Hannibal scoffed. “What are you talking about? I spent it all on this dinner.”
Will was about to protest that it was ridiculous but Hannibal’s expression showed that it was no joke. “How . . . Why would you do that?”
“Because I am an artist and I wanted to create my art for an audience I wanted to appreciate it. There is nothing in Paris for me. I no longer have family there and I‘ve come to think of this place as home.”
Will took Hannibal’s hands and kissed the fingertips that had made so many things for him during the past year before Hannibal got up and used those hands to pull him out of his chair to give him a kiss.