‘A truly compelling read with a shocking climax. Well written and incredibly descriptive, the author of this particular work has clearly done homework about the field of gastronomy to produce a wonderful and memorable read.’
'I was going to say a brilliant debut novel, but it needs no qualification. A brilliant novel, full stop.'
When a group of food-obsessed academics at Oxford University form a secret dining society, they happily devote themselves to investigating exotic and forgotten culinary treasures. Until a dish is suggested that takes them all by surprise.
Professor Arthur Plantagenet has been told he has a serious heart problem and decides that his death should not be in vain. He sets out his bizarre plan in a will, that on his death, tests the loyalty of his closest friends, the remaining members of this exclusive dining society.
A dead Japanese diplomat, police arrests and charges of grave robbing. These are just some of the challenges these culinary explorers must overcome in tackling gastronomy’s ultimate taboo: cannibalism.
|Publisher:||Legend Times Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)|
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The Reluctant Cannibals
By Ian Flitcroft
Legend Press LtdCopyright © 2013 Ian Flitcroft
All rights reserved.
Trinity Term 1969
It took two men to lift the dismembered carcass. The departure of its copper coffin was met with a brief but respectful silence. Respect that derived from the fact that it contained the mortal remains of what was undoubtedly the largest turbot ever to grace a dining table in Oxford. Once the moment had passed, the room began to fill again with the sound of conversation. Augustus Bloom discreetly turned his head towards the ear of his distinguished guest, Takeshi Tokoro.
'You're up next. Do you want me to introduce you?' Dr Bloom whispered.
Mr Tokoro declined the offer with an almost imperceptible shake of his head. He then rose to his feet and stood motionless, waiting for silence. The others around the table appeared not to notice him as he remained quietly erect, with a posture no European could ever match. He had an austere dignity, but his slim five-foot-four- inch frame lacked the physical presence of his fellow diners. Apart from Dr Bloom, the other guests continued their animated conversations, not through disrespect but culinary enthusiasm; egged on it must be said by a particularly fine wine, a 1959 Condrieu. The shadow faculty of gastronomic science and their guests were barely halfway through the dinner but it was already clear that this was a night to be remembered. The sea urchin and fennel en papillote with its sublime, caramelised vermouth sauce had proved a magnificent success as a first course, but even this great dish had been eclipsed by the turbot – a recipe taken straight from the pages of the great man himself, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. A turbot of implausible proportion had been cooked whole in a copper fish kettle of even greater scale; poached with vegetables in a white wine and cream stock. By the time the fish was cooked, the sauce had transformed itself into a perfect chowder. Fillets of the turbot were served on a bed of spinach with the chowder presented to each person in a small silver salver to universal acclaim.
Augustus glared across the table, trying to catch the eye of the chaplain, Charles Pinker, who was being uncharacteristically talkative. With each passing second, Augustus felt an increasing sense of frustration. Mr Tokoro, accustomed to immediate deference due to his status within the diplomatic service, showed no hint of any such emotion. Augustus nervously fiddled with his cutlery. Tapping a glass with a spoon, the traditional method of calling the table to order, would certainly have worked, but Augustus held back for fear that Mr Tokoro might not appreciate the gesture. After a few more agonising seconds, he caught the eye of Charles Pinker across the table who correctly interpreted the impassioned, almost gymnastic movements of Dr Bloom's eyebrows. A discreet cough and tap of the elbow to his neighbour sent a signal that slowly spread around the table until the last man still talking, Professor Arthur Plantagenet, finally realised he was holding forth amidst the silence.
Mr Tokoro gave a slow and solemn bow. In an instant he turned the tables on his audience who tried to cover the embarrassment of their discourtesy by variously nodding and leaning forward in stilted half-bows.
'Distinguished Gentlemen,' said Mr Tokoro. 'I have the honour of bringing to you a national treasure of Japanese cuisine: Fugu- chiri.' Then, with perfectly timed theatricality, he clapped his hands. This was a cue to Gerald, the senior common room steward, to open the doors for Mr Tokoro's Japanese chef who, in contrast to Mr Tokoro, had the dimensions of a sumo wrestler. He walked in carrying a large wooden chopping board on which twelve small fish had been laid out. A table was carried in behind him and placed in the recess of the large bay window. This was followed by a large copper pot and a spirit burner, which were placed at one end of the table.
The chef placed his chopping board down on the table and from his apron produced an impressive set of wood handled knives, whose metal blades bore the swirling pattern of a medieval Damascene sword. He then set to work removing the skin and filleting the fish with extraordinary speed and deftness. Mr Tokoro was the first to rise from his seat and walk over to inspect the process at closer quarters. The precedent having been set, the others quickly followed him. When it came to the last fish, Mr Tokoro said a few words in Japanese to the chef who, with a deferential bow, stood back from the table and handed the knife to him. Mr Tokoro was clearly skilled with the knife but not to the same level as his chef. He removed the fins and skin with great speed but was more hesitant on the internal organs. He neatly excised the liver and intestines in a manner that appeared to meet the chef's approval, but in removing the ovaries he sliced through the edge of one of them and left it attached to the flesh. The only person who noticed his mistake could not remark on this dangerous oversight. The social rules that have defined Japan's society for centuries prevented the chef from passing comment, or taking any action that might have shown up a failure on the part of Mr Tokoro. The chef stepped forward, keenly aware Mr Tokoro was still closely observing him, and knowing there was no escape from his master's mistake. Without any flicker of emotion on his face, he placed all the fish fillets into the copper pan along with the light vegetable stock that had been brought back to the boil.
There was great excitement in the anticipation and discussion of these little fish when they were finally served. Sadly the actual consumption created less impact. The light broth was subtle and delighted Mr Tokoro, but seemed lost on Western palates used to richer food. The flesh of the fish itself was almost too delicate and the flavour an ephemeral mist that barely registered on the taste buds compared to what had come before. It was Mr Tokoro who raised the last piece to his mouth, with the mixture of triumph and sadness that greets the end of a fine dish. It was the very last fillet he had prepared. He washed it down with the fine white Burgundy that had been picked to accompany this course. He normally preferred sake but had to acknowledge the superior subtlety of the Nuits St Georges.
It was not until the seaweed ice cream that Mr Tokoro felt the first erratic beat in his chest. The perspiration that appeared on his brow was initially merely an imperceptible moistening. His lips felt peculiar but he put that down to the coldness of the ice cream. After a reassuring sequence of regular beats, Mr Tokoro's heart fell into a syncopated rhythm that made him draw a deep breath, or at least try to. He raised his chin to take in air but his diaphragm sat motionless on top of his distended stomach. There were no outward signs of any problem until his fork fell onto the table, his fingers losing their power of grip.
Mr Tokoro went to rise from his chair. He started the movement easily enough but after he had elevated barely an inch, his body rebelled and refused to move further. He held this position for a second until gravity conquered his failing muscles. He slid to the floor, his weight dragging the tablecloth as he fell, bringing with him an array of cutlery and wine glasses. Indeed, if it hadn't been for Arthur Plantagenet's fast reactions, an almost half-full glass of Nuits St Georges would have been lost too. Mr Tokoro, his mouth opening and closing in a silent and ironic parody of the creature he had just eaten, looked up at the equally stricken face of his host, Augustus Bloom. It is true that Dr Augustus Bloom was in possession of a medical degree, but it was obtained with little in the way of practical experience and his years in academia had dulled whatever limited resuscitation skills he had ever possessed. Augustus Bloom, his own heart racing from panic, fell to his knees and, for want of anything better to do, cradled Mr Tokoro's head in his hands.
'For Christ's sake will someone call an ambulance,' Augustus shouted.
Gerald, the senior common room steward, who might have been expected to be the first to respond, stood rooted to the spot with a look of complete terror on his face. Mr Tokoro's mouth continued to open and close silently for another few seconds and then stopped.
'Gerald, you heard the man. Go and get Potts to call an ambulance,' said Dr McIntyre.
Arthur Plantagenet was the only person in the room to remain quite calm. He emptied his wine glass and murmured to no-one in particular,
'What a bloody marvellous way to die.'CHAPTER 2
Michaelmas Term 1969
The new academic year of 1969 started in October with the reassuring inevitability of the rising sun. On that first morning its weak rays were valiantly trying to warm the chilled, golden stone walls of St Jerome's. The last geranium blooms of the year graced the window boxes of the quadrangle, though their tired foliage showed that the exuberance of summer was long gone. It would be hard to imagine a scene of greater calm or serenity. Certainly there were no hints of the drama that had occurred at the end of the previous term; in fact it had barely been mentioned outside the confines of the college walls. Death was no stranger to the shadow faculty of gastronomic science. Two of their members had died in previous years, though under less dramatic circumstances and certainly not during one of their dinners. These two deaths had given rise to the shadow faculty's alternative title: the declining dining society. At least on this occasion it was a guest who had died so their numbers had not suffered a further depletion. Of course it had devastated Mr Tokoro's family and caused a degree of consternation within diplomatic circles, but, beyond that, the death of Mr Tokoro had created barely a ripple within the college or the world outside.
The day was Monday of noughth week, so named because it came a week before the official start of term, which is, reasonably enough, called first week. For Mr Potts, the head porter, these were the last precious moments of peace before the college was re- invaded by the noisy legion of students. During the quiet summer months, Mr Percival Potts had been practising his peculiar art of sleeping upright, a skill part innate and part honed during his years on guard duty in the army. In this finely poised state he could ignore all ordinary sounds and background voices, but if a question were put to him he could in an instant wake up and, without otherwise moving a muscle, feign an excusable touch of deafness with the words 'Sorry, sir, didn't quite catch that.' This remarkable ability was concealed by his black bowler hat, which was perpetually tilted down at an angle that was finely judged to hide his eyes from anyone presenting themselves to the porter's lodge. It is true that a dwarf or small child might have been able to rumble Potts' secret, but dwarves and children were rarely, if ever, seen in the lodge of St Jerome's College.
On this particular day an unexpected and unwelcome noise entered the head porter's ears, insinuating itself into his dreams. The sound was certainly not human, so there was no imperative to wake, but neither was it an everyday noise. The scuttling noise grew louder and, in the increasingly distressed imagination of Potts' dream, more rat-like. Salvation burst through the door of the porter's lodge in the substantial form of Dr Hamish McIntyre.
'Morning Potts. Now where are these squills?'
Potts, still troubled by dissolving images of rats, found that his normally poised response on waking was shortened to something rather less coherent.
'Er, wha, sir?'
'Squills, Potts. The canocchie del mare you so skilfully procured.'
Guided by the increasingly frenetic scratching noise, McIntyre's eyes alighted on his precious delivery. He grasped the package and within seconds was gazing admiringly at the curious crustaceans.
'Oh, them.' It was with some relief that Potts identified the source of the strange sounds from his dreams.
'Glorious little creatures, aren't they?' said McIntyre proudly.
Even allowing for the typical English sentimentality when it came to animals, Potts felt that Dr McIntyre's description of these creatures was generous in the extreme. If Potts had been a more educated man he might have described these creatures as ugly trilobites. In the absence of all but the most basic education, he offered a description that was as simple as it was accurate.
'Look like ugly great earwigs to me, sir.'
'Well, we're all God's creatures, Potts, and while they're not the prettiest, I dare say they're tastier than you or I.'
Hamish McIntyre slipped out of the porter's lodge with remarkable grace for a man of his girth and disappeared around the corner into Old Quad, chattering to his reluctantly captive audience of crustaceans.
Just as McIntyre and his squills stepped into Old Quad, Augustus Bloom disappeared from it; a small door off a narrow passageway clicked shut to mark his departure from the crisp morning light. He descended into a gloom alleviated only by a rather sad and dim bulb overhead. This was nevertheless a great improvement over the hand-held paraffin lamp that Bloom had experienced on his first trip into this subterranean universe many years ago. It was not that Bloom was exceptionally ancient (he had barely turned forty), but rather that St Jerome's was proud of the fact that it was the last college in Oxford to electrify its wine cellars. On reaching the bottom of the stairs, in keeping with college tradition, he nodded in thankful acknowledgement to a small bronze bust of the first bursar of the college for his foresight in planning a college that had cellars twice the size of the buildings above.
In addition to the size of the wine cellars at St Jerome's, the college also boasted the oldest wine cellar ghost. In years gone by every college seemed to have ghosts in their cellars. Many a ghost has been born from the lack of light and a nervous but imaginative disposition. With sufficient illumination even the most creative mind is less prone to such flights of fancy. The arrival of the electric bulb had accordingly banished most of Oxford's cellar ghosts. St Jerome's ghost, the Reverend Hieronymus Bloch, proved to be much more tenacious. Reverend Bloch was the college's first chaplain who had, according to college lore, gone to the cellars during a dinner in search of a particularly fine port sometime towards the end of 1752 and had never been seen again in the flesh. Shortly after this he started appearing at regular intervals within the confines of the cellars, apparently still searching for the elusive bottle.
Over the years Bloch became bolder, with more frequent apparitions. He was considered as no more than an entertaining diversion, until one particularly disreputable cellar steward in the 1930's had incurred Bloch's wrath by stealing some of the finest bottles of wine and selling them on through a well-established, if equally disreputable, wine merchant in London. Justice came not from the Oxford constabulary but mysteriously one night when the unfortunate man's skull was broken with a bottle of Château d'Yquem 1921. No-one in St Jerome's doubted Bloch's involvement in this crime. Nor were they surprised that with Bloch's assistance, this bottle of precious nectar had miraculously proved to be stronger than the steward's skull. The bottle was found alongside the corpse, the label heavily bloodstained but the wine otherwise intact.
There are those who condemn wine decanters as an affectation but this event admirably proved their worth, allowing the same bottle to be the splendid finale of a Master's Dinner in 1955. The '21 vintage d'Yquem had turned out to be a jewel of the century. All the more rare because of a late spring frost that year. It was served without a murmur of disquiet from a fine crystal decanter. A beautiful golden colour with an orange blossom nose and a symphonic blend of flavours to follow – walnut, banana, grapefruit – unified by a thread of lavender running through it all. Meanwhile the bloodstained murder weapon lay safely out of sight in the college kitchen.
Despite such stories the cellars were Augustus Bloom's favourite place. Hieronymus Bloch's murderous reputation ensured that Bloom was unlikely to be disturbed during his visits and he felt sure that his devotion to oenology would protect him from the Reverend's wrath. Augustus came here to think, be inspired and to escape. Add to that the beneficial physiological effects of a fine Claret and one can easily see the appeal of the cellars for Augustus. They were also an important part of his research. Dr Augustus Bloom, in his role as medical tutor, was a leading figure in the investigation of the French Paradox. This is the curious injustice that allows the French to eat, drink and smoke more than the rest of Europe and yet have healthier hearts and longer lives.
Excerpted from The Reluctant Cannibals by Ian Flitcroft. Copyright © 2013 Ian Flitcroft. Excerpted by permission of Legend Press Ltd.
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