I woke up to find a chicken staring at me from its lifeless eye.
I lay still, trying to figure things out. I was on the floor of a room filled with food. Wreaths of onions and garlic hung from the rafters, baskets overflowing with fruit and vegetables were piled all around and I was lying next to what seemed to be the poultry shelf.
I sat up gingerly, my body hurt all over and my head felt like it was being hammered on the inside. I was dressed in some weird long gown and a ribbon tied box lay at my feet.
I was still trying to make sense of myself and my surroundings when a door behind me opened and a laughing voice called out.
“Here she is, the boulanger’s daughter. She is having a nap in the larder.”
Boulanger? Someone was calling me the baker’s daughter in strange sounding French. I closed my eyes as the pounding continued in my head.
News excerpt, September 11 2017, Paris
Ramon Berenguer, CEO of Cémoi Chocolates, today announced the launch of a new type of chocolate- Ruby Chocolate. This is the fourth type of chocolate after dark, milk and white.
Berenguer said that the unveiling of the new product will happen at a special ceremony hosted at Castle Baux in Provence. The medieval castle has been in the Berenguer family for centuries. He also announced that Sophie Pascale, the world famous pâtissière, will be creating a degustation dessert menu using the new chocolate, for the VIP guests.
Castle Baux, Provence, France
My grand-maman always said chocolate was the food of the devil. Anything which tasted so decadent had to have some evil in it, she was wont to muse, whilst munching on a handful of bonbons. I thought of her fondly as I poured out chocolate chips in a bowl. It was exciting to be the first one working with a new culinary invention, and I was already in love with the subtle fruity, yet tart, flavours of this ruby chocolate.
I rested the glass bowl over a pan of water, waiting for the numbers on the thermometer to drop down to 28.5o. Tempering of chocolate was an art that demanded concentration, so I was quite exasperated when Tom Higgins barged in for the fifth time that afternoon.
“Merde!” I muttered under my breathe.
“How is it going, Chef Pascale?”
“It would be going much better if I was not constantly interrupted.”
He had the grace to look ashamed.
“Apologies Mademoiselle, it is an important night. Everything must be perfect.”
Tom Higgins was the marketing director of Cémoi and effectively my employer at the moment.
I sighed as I poured out tiny cups of espresso, and demoulded a hazelnut financier for him to sample. I piped the ruby chocolate ganache on top and pushed the plate towards him.
“Sit,” I invited. “I have time for a short break.”
I downed my coffee in one gulp and pretended not to watch the always impeccable Tom Higgins almost swoon as he bit into the small cake, butter running down his chin.
“What is this thing!”
What philistines these Americans were, I thought disdainfully.
“Its an almond flour cake made with burnt butter. Nuns made it during feast days in the 16th century.”
He looked suitably impressed. “I had forgotten that you are a food historian too!”
The caffeine doing its job, I briskly gave him a quick rundown.
“The first course is the ruby and rose water macaroon followed by the light madeleines served with a raspberry jam. Then we will have the mint financiers with the ruby chocolate ganache, the cherry clafoutis with the ruby ice cream and finish off with a simple soufflé and mendiants.”
He clapped, “Bravo Mademoiselle! We were right to choose you. You have transformed our humble chocolate into these delectable goodies. And as a historian, you can certainly appreciate the story behind the creation of ruby chocolate.”
I wanted to laugh.
“You mean the tale that excavators of the castle found an unmarked grave dating back to the 12th century and in it a jewel encrusted box which contained a manuscript detailing the origins of a ruby cacao bean?”
Tom picked up my sarcastic tone easily. “You don’t believe it?”
“No, Mousier, I do not. It is a fantastic marketing ploy though, and I’m sure advance orders of the product have gone through the roof because of the romanticism attached.”
“It is not marketing, Mademoiselle! Mr. Ramon was having the castle excavated when the box was discovered. It had details of a ruby cacao, indigenous to South America. He spent a decade in its research and development. That’s why he wanted to reveal it here, in this castle. It all began here.“
This time I did burst out laughing.
“Mr. Higgins, food history is my area of expertise and I can assure you that chocolate didn’t arrive in Europe until the 16th century. I admit it’s a wonderful product but the history you attach is totally bullshit.”
The pre-dinner festivities were in full swing, the medieval theme evident in everything from banquet table to the guests’ attire.
Higgins was suddenly at my elbow, pulling me towards the administrative offices. He drowned my protests with a conspiratorial grin and unlocked a door. A small box lay on the desk, solid gold. I bent closer, running my hands over the lid and the inlaid emeralds on it. I opened it. Inside lay a stained roll of linen.
Higgins stopped my hand from pulling it out.
“It’s fragile. The CEO brought it with him for the ceremony and I just had to show it to you.”
“It’s beautiful,“ I murmured. “But I still don’t believe your tale.”
He threw back his head and guffawed. “You French women are hard to please. But here, there is something I wanted to give you.”
He handed me a box tied with ribbon and watched eagerly as I opened it. Inside lay slabs of pure ruby chocolate.
“This is the very first batch we made, not the commercial one you have been using today. I thought you might like it.”
I had it in me to smile at the poor man. He was trying so hard.
Later, I made my way back towards the kitchen. Maybe it was the exhaustion which made me lose my way. I was debating on whether to retrace my steps when I suddenly stumbled and went rolling down a flight of stairs, plunging head first down a dark hole. My scream echoed inside my ears and then suddenly there was only a dark abyss.
It had been two days since I had woken up in the larder. I had been wise enough to go along with being the baker’s daughter, sent to work in the castle kitchens, for otherwise I could not have explained my presence or my confusion. I was certainly in Castle Baux, but not a ruined one. It bustled with activity. Knights rode in everyday to visit with Comté Baux, who had just returned from the holy land, where he had apparently been fighting in the crusades. I felt manic laughter bubbling inside me. I was either in a very vivid nightmare or I had somehow really landed in the 12th century. To keep my sanity, I told myself that when I saw my grandmother again, I would tell her that I now certainly believed in her tales of fairies and goblins and multiple universes. Hell, I would even agree to believe in destiny, just to see her again.
I came out of my reverie as the cook screamed. She had scalded her hand in the soup. She beckoned me to the table where she had been rolling out the dough for the oublies- thin wafers which were served with cream and honey. They would later evolve into the modern day waffles.
“Girl, you have a good hand with pastry. Make the oublies today. The Bishop is visiting so make them special.”
I thought of Higgin’s gift, the box of ruby chocolate which had landed along with me in the 12th century.
Comté Baux was hungry and irritated but the Bishop droned on.
“You must wed the Lady Simone, Sire. As long as you are childless, the bloody Berenguer Catalans will have a stronger claim to the province.”
“I have no desire to wed that horse-faced creature, Bishop.
Bishop Sugere bit back a sharp retort. The Comté was being too clever. He would have to get a message to Raymond Berenguer. Maybe it was time to make a stronger, more permanent move. There was too much at stake.
He was still musing upon this when a page entered bearing a tray laden with roast venison. He set the platter on the wooden table and poured out the wine.
The Comté watched the Bishop in amusement as he tried to conceal his appetite. As a man of the Church, it would be unseemly to display any signs of gluttony. Yet, he had quite a rotund belly.
The venison had been consumed and a pitcher of wine emptied when the page walked in again with a tray of something strange looking. The Comté stared. It looked like crisp oublies, rolled into cones. A rosy cream filled them and there were pear halves dripping with honey next to each.
It was extraordinary. He had never tasted anything like it- certainly not in the years he had spent in Constantinople, often sampling pastry soaked in honey and nuts. This was something else altogether, something more exotic. The pink cream was playfully teasing his appetite, the intensity of its flavours bringing to life taste buds he had never known existed. Every mouthful brought forth a cascade of flavours, sweet as honey, a faint floral scent and finally a sharp fruity tang. The flesh of the pear looked as crisp and white as marble yet when he bit into it, it almost melted into his mouth.
It was hard not to bring the whole plate to his mouth and gobble down every last morsel.
He summoned the page and asked him to bring the cook who had made the wonderous dish right away.
The Bishop felt the first stirrings of disquiet when the tall girl with long red hair walked in and the Comté couldn’t stop staring at her.
“I tell you, he is bewitched!” Bishop Sugere was livid.
Raymond Berenguer didn’t say anything, letting him rant.
“He is spending hours with her in the garden, and they talk and laugh together like children! A common kitchen wench! And those things she makes with her pink paste! I tasted it Raymond, and I tell you it is the thing of the devil. It makes me forget my vows of eating simple fare!”
Raymond smiled. “You have already given me the answer to all our problems.”
Grand-maman always said that someday I would meet a man who would make me laugh like no one else. It was ironical that I should have had to go back nine hundred years to find him. He asked me where I came from and believed my answer.
“Ma Chérie Sophie, you could only have come from a different time.”
Life felt strange, yet perfect. I had no Michelin stars to win, no desserts to innovate. I was simply a girl again, with flowers in my hair, sitting under an apple tree. He hung onto my every word. I told him of my time and how the world was already changing. He laughed when I told him the earth was round and that one day everyone would fly inside metal birds. I told him about the ruby chocolate which had entwined our fates.
One day, he showed me a rolled up linen parchment.
“I have written about your ruby chocolate here. I shall write about the metal birds too”
He placed the parchment inside a gold box encrusted with emeralds. I looked at it and knew Higgins had spoken the truth.
The Bishop has accused me of being a Witch and seducing the Comté with the devil’s food. He says I must be stoned to death. Raymond Berenguer has ridden in with esquires from Paris, demanding my death, by order of the King. I am to be taken to the village square today. Everyone is frightened of me and cross themselves if I so much as glance at them.
Consciousness creeped in slowly, like the mists rolling in from the alps on an autumn day. I kept my eyes shut, willing myself to remain in oblivion for some more time.
“You are awake.”
His voice came from somewhere above me. I opened my eyes to see his sardonic grin intact whilst his left eye was swollen shut, lip bleeding and a deep gash marked his forehead. I touched the wound with a gentleness I hadn’t known I was capable of.
“You came to save me. They pelted you with rocks too.”
He caressed my forehead, not replying.
“You have played right into the Bishop’s hands!” I was almost in tears. “You know he and Berenguer have been trying to usurp your title and lands. Now they have a good excuse for throwing you in the dungeons, you saved the witch!”
He held my chin up with his finger, and looked into my eyes for a long moment.
“Sophie.” He drew out my name slowly, as if tasting it, savouring it on his tongue.
“Sophie, my precious. You appeared in my castle with your strange way of speaking and your magic chocolat. I knew not of who you were or whence you came, only that I would follow you to the ends of the world.”
I lay quietly in his arms.
“What are they going to do to us?”
He replied with a smile, “It doesn’t matter anymore.”
An obscure historical text makes note of the fact that the lands of Baux in Provence, France were handed over to the Berenguer family after the death of the last male Baux – It was rumored that the Count had been consorting with a witch and both were sentenced to death. Though not confirmed in any book, it was believed that both of them were thrown into one grave somewhere in the castle grounds, along with anything the witch had touched.
Distant family members of the Baux clan continued to challenge the Berenguer claims and their bloody history is well documented as the ‘Baussenque Wars.’
Business Insider Jan 2018
Cémoi Group has reported a significant rise in chocolate sales above the global market average, outlined in its first quarter key sales figures for fiscal 2017/18. Ruby chocolate continued to gain momentum following its 2017 launch, though experts say the disappearance of famous pastry chef, Sophie Pascale, the first chef to work with the chocolate, was a key element towards its popularity.”
Boulanger – French word for baker
Pâtissière – Female pastry chef, French
Degustation – A tasting of various foods in small portions, focusing on high culinary art
Merde – Shit, French
Comté – Count, Title of French Nobility
Oubiles – Medieval version of the waffle. Made on feast days
Team: Left to Write
Prompt: A modern invention from the 21st century gets transported to the 12th century. What happens next? Explore.
This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.
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Cover Photo By Arvind Sheke
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Par excellence dear writer… Exhilarating . . . brims with vibrant characters. The author show he/she knows a lot about passion and writes about it well. You writer, are a writers’ writer in the truest sense. Prepare to be absorbed, dazzled, mesmerized. . . . This is a passionate story which dramatically portrays the best and worst of humanity . . . It is a feast of words.
I read this piece without ever putting my phone down.
A MUST read. The writer has written a story with prose that flows like poetry. Beautiful even in tragedy.
Brilliant concept, brilliant execution of the prompt, brilliant narration, witty and excellent dialogues, perfect comic timing… par excellence in every sense.