Prosatio Silban and the Tournament Palatine

THE SCULLERY MISTRESS HELD A brimful cup to Prosatio Silban’s waiting lips; he sipped, swallowed, and paused.

“It is good that I am blindfolded,” he said with a triumphant smile, “or else I’d see the nutmeg before tasting it.”

“That would defeat the purpose of this experibent,” Plerus Barja chided. “You are supposed to tell be what else is id this dish.”

Prosatio Silban nodded. “Egg yolk, cream, milk, cane-sugar, egg whites, vanilla, sweetbark. And of course, the nutmeg. In exactly that ratio.”

“Unbelievable,” said the scullery mistress.

“I bow to your expertise,” said Plerus Barja.

“May I remove the blindfold?”

“Please.”

The Cook For Any Price untied the scarf that bound his eyes. Warm sunlight washed his client’s capacious kitchen, illuminating (among other things) a collection of cook- and serving-ware in various stages of employment. On the stove, a pot of yava-destined water was coming to the boil; the scullery mistress excused herself while the other two continued conversing.

“Do you feel ready?” asked Plerus Barja.

“Ah. I ab still idcapacitated. I ab, however, happy that you will be participatig od by behalf.”

“As ready as I could be on such short notice,” Prosatio Silban answered, and took an involuntary step back. “And about that – how is your head-cold?”

“Ah. I ab still idcapacitated. I ab, however, happy that you will be participatig od by behalf.”

“Of course. With what else may I please you, head-cold or no?”

Plerus Barja grinned. “Odly to prevail,” he said.

Their conversation concerned one of epicurean Pormaris’ most celebrated annual events: the Tournament Palatine, held at that city’s famed Archive of Gastronomic Artifice and drawing amateur and professional gourmets from all over the Uulian Commonwell. Prosatio Silban had agreed to represent Sir Plerus Barja, one of his most loyal and steady clients, who had rendered himself ineligible due to an unfortunate encounter with a spirit of ill-health. The field was open to anyone who could put up the requisite entry fee, with the winner earning the coveted Golden Spoon as well as a bottle of aged duliac from the Archive’s well-stocked cellar.

Came the morrow, Pormaris was abuzz with eager excitement. The Tournament was housed in one of the massive building’s larger halls, and the great room’s gallery was crowded with the sort of audience one would expect at an event such as this: writers, scullery workers, cookery students, home-cooks, house-chefs, food merchants, snack vendors, gastronomes, gourmands, gluttons, tasters, nobles, gentry, dilettantes, farmers, husbandrists, friends, onlookers, hungry beggars and aspiring pickpockets. The anticipatory atmosphere could be cut with a bench-scraper.

As a mercenary cook, Prosatio Silban lived for these moments. There may be no greater measure of a civilization than how it conducts itself at table, he quoted to himself as he ascended the three marble steps to the proscenium and took his place with the nine other contenders. These included a noble’s nervous house-chef, a boorish wine merchant, a specialty victualer, a jaded Heir Second, a famous cookbook authoress, a well-known restaurateur, a longtime waitron, an enthusiastic pungentine grower, and a renowned ivory-sculptress. All were seated at a long, laden groaning-board with a tiny brass bell at each place-setting; the event’s three supervisory judges were seated at a smaller table next to a large gong. Also on stage was the immense warming-chest which held the evening’s to-be-identifieds. Conversation dropped to a reverent hush as the Ranking Culinarian raised a hand for silence.

“Welcome to this year’s Tournament Palatine, whose goal is to search out and reward the most educated palate in the Commonwell,” he said. “Our challengers will be blindfolded, and each served one simultaneous sample per round. Once they have tasted it, they must ring the bell in front of them and declare the dish’s name and ingredients. If they cannot, they must leave their table. This process will continue until only one contestant remains – that is to say, this year’s champion! Are there any questions from challengers or audience members?”

“What happens to the rest of the food?” asked one of the beggars, provoking self-conscious titters.

“What happens to the rest of the food?” asked one of the beggars, provoking self-conscious titters.

“It will be divided amongst yourselves, as will the proceeds from our entry fees,” said the Ranking Culinarian. “One of the Archive’s more important missions is to feed the foodless, as I am sure you know.

“Any other questions? None? Then let us commence in the name of Scofi, Goddess of Culinary Inspiration. Participants, please affix your blindfolds.” Once they had done so, he sounded the gong; and the Tournament began.

The first round was almost too easy. Cloudlike, steamed poultry-dumplings, though not quite the Uulian national dish, were common enough for all contestants to recognize. The second round featured a paste of lovingly tended goose-liver, soft onions, chopped pistachios, hard-cooked egg, and allspice; the first expellee was the sculptress, who misidentified the nut component as cashews. “I always make that mistake,” she said as she excused herself.

Third up was a savory tartlet near-bursting with six varieties of wild mushrooms. The Heir Second rang in first, but mistook the pastry’s fat-element: what he thought was rich lard was, in fact, oil of olives imported from the faraway isle of Azonei. “A novice’s error, m’Lord,” said the wine merchant with a disingenuous smile. “You truly ought to travel more.”

Two others dropped from the ranks with dish number four: boiled wheat-threads swimming in a simple sauce of meat-tomatoes, garlic, onions, sailor’s-cap mushrooms, salt-fish and a small amount of flaked sugar. The grower missed the anchovy and sweetener and said instead “simple salt and crystallized molasses;” the merchant misidentified the noodles as buckwheat rather than whole wheat. “Serves me right for gloating,” quoth he.

The actual Uulian national dish – “Leisurely Eggs,” a somewhat loose but ingredient-packed scramble – was portioned out for the six remaining rivals. That number fell to five as the victualer, who had rung in first, correctly detected twelve of its constituent parts but mistook the duck-egg base for chicken eggs. He stalked off the stage, muttering dark musings about the Ranking Culinarian’s mother.

At issue was an unpretentious lentil stew cooked with coconut milk and ginger.

The house-chef was the next to remove himself. At issue was an unpretentious lentil stew cooked with coconut milk and ginger. He noted all three of these, as well as most of the other ingredients, but failed to distinguish the subtle flavor of purple saffron. The authoress offered unheeded words of comfort as he slunk away.

At this point, only the authoress, restaurateur, waitron, and Prosatio Silban remained. Two dishes later – a well-seasoned fidget-hen confit, and broiled slices of sweet rosemary bread topped with sheep-cheese and savory tomato preserves – the field had narrowed to two.

“This next dish may be one of the most tricky,” announced one of the judges, as the fragrant portions were presented to Prosatio Silban and the waitron.

The cook immediately rang his bell, thoughts roiling as he tasted the loaded forkful. Beef, yes – but what else? Broth, stout, molasses, salt, and…and…oh no. He felt a tickle in his throat, and a sneeze began to work its insidious way from his nostrils to his chest.

“Master Cook? Your analysis, please?”

“It is ‘Carbonaceous Beef.’ It contains…well, beef. Beef broth. Dark stout. Molasses. Sweet onion. Stinkbulb. Salt.” he said, drawing out each word with a rueful smile. “And … and … annnd …’choo! Oh! Damn Plerus Barja’s damnable cold!”

Adolescent giggling erupted from the gallery. “Please, Master Cook,” the Ranking Culinarian admonished. “Do set a better example for our youthful members. Waitron?”

She grinned. “I believe the ingredient missed by my opponent,” she said with a note of pride, “was a dash of…cider vinegar.”

The gong sounded, but was almost drowned by the audience’s wild applause.

Prosatio Silban removed his blindfold as the Ranking Culinarian handed to the blushing waitron, one arm aloft in victory, the Golden Spoon and a large dusty bottle. The cook stood up, stretched his legs, and walked over.

“Most hearty congratulations,” he said with a bow. “If I were to be bested by someone, I had hoped it would be you.”

She cocked her head. “Why?”

“Because waitrons are, perhaps, the least-appreciated hospitality workers in Uulian society. You perform a delicate balance between demanding cooks and a demanding public. It is past time your trade was so recognized; may your triumph tonight highlight your importance.”

The championess curtsied. “Thank you for your kind words,” she said.

“I mean them. Good cooks are made, but good waitrons are born. May you practice with skill – and in peace.”

(If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction. And if you want them all (so far) in one easy-to-read package, here’s the e-book!)

2 comments for “Prosatio Silban and the Tournament Palatine

  1. Betty
    2021.07.29 at 0753

    Loved reading this.

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