Today my blog is host to Tallis Steelyard, jobbing poet and a creation (and possibly friend) of Jim Webster.
A nice touch with the pastry
I confess that I will often adopt a world-weary demeanour and generally give the impression that nothing surprises me. Between ourselves, people seem to expect this from a poet, especially one who is not perhaps in the first flush of youth. Apparently poets are allowed to remain romantic into their early thirties at the latest, but must then make their way down the heavily beaten track to cynical, perhaps passing through jaded on the way. But between ourselves I continue to find the world, and especially the city of Port Naain to be a fascinating place; not least because it is inhabited by some truly fascinating people.
I make my living as a jobbing poet, and will regularly perform at soirees, afternoon ‘at-homes’ and similar events. Thus I suspect that cakes and other confectionery form a larger part of my diet than they do for most folk. I must say that the fact that I still have the trim figure of my youth owes more to the irregular nature of other meals than it does to my iron discipline when faced with temptation in the form of pastry, cream and sugar.
Over the years I have eaten all sorts of pasties and similar, and frankly I have to say that the pastry I ate at Madam Dolbart’s was as good if not better than anything else I’ve ever eaten in Port Naain. Her pastry was genuinely amazing.
Now when I say ‘her pastry’ I really mean the pastry served to her guests. Madam Dolbart was a busy lady with a crowded social calendar and at least one cook. She had neither the time nor the need to make her own pastry.
Now for myself I am perfectly happy to sample the delights of my host’s table, pass generous compliments and leave it at that. It has never occurred to me that I might steal my host’s cook to ensure that I got to eat those delightful meals all the time. I notice from your expression that you’re not entirely surprised at this. ‘Given this Tallis Steelyard fellow can barely put food on the table, what would he do with a cook?’
That is not entirely kind. My honesty in this matter is grounded firmly on ethical principles, not my inability to benefit from discarding said principles.
Still there are others out there who are less upright than I am. No sooner was it accepted that Madam Dolbart had a cook with a real gift for pastry than somebody would try and steal her away.
I realise that I have to be careful with my words here. This is Port Naain, not the wilds of Uttermost Partann. Even in the less reputable suburbs of Port Naain it is exceedingly rare for desperate adventurers to throw a sack over your cook’s head and make off with her. But when it comes to luring a cook away, the ladies of Port Naain are second to none. Madam Dolbart’s cook was offered an increased salary, a more pleasant room, indeed a suite of rooms; and in one case a house of her own in the grounds. Finally, tempted beyond endurance, she succumbed. Much to the chagrin of the lady who had succeeded in her stratagem, Madam Dolbart’s cook produced merely excellent pastry. In the cook’s absence Madam Dolbart’s table continued to feature exquisite pastry.
Rumours started to fly round a certain stratum of society. The pastry was in reality prepared by the assistant cook. The pastry was the contribution of an elderly scullery maid who couldn’t cook but had a gift with pastry. It was even suggested that the pastry was made by one of the maids who learned the knack from her grandmother. Some did suggest Madam Dolbart might prepare it, but this was discounted because Madam Dolbart herself admitted that she had no culinary skills.
The result of this speculation was that it seemed that the ladies of Port Naain had declared open season on Madam Dolbart’s kitchen staff. In the course of a year, she’d found and lost four cooks, a housekeeper, three scullery maids and an upstairs maid who somebody noticed brushing flour off her pinny. The situation was beyond ridiculous, it was becoming a scandal. Cooks were applying for a position with Madam Dolbart on the assumption that they would be poached for better wages within the month. Yet throughout this period the quality of the pastry remained undiminished.
It was at this point that I bumped into Haggaty Dolbart, the husband of Madam Dolbart. I bumped into him at the Fatted Mott. This is a chop house popular with single men and tends to be frequented by clerks, lawyers and city bureaucrats. I was dining there because my lady wife Shena was dining with usurers and suchlike and fortunately I had the money to fend for myself for once.
The place was full and Haggaty recognised me and asked if I minded if he sat at my table. I made a welcoming gesture (my mouth was full) and as we ate, we talked about all manner of subjects.
Finally as he pushed his empty plate away from him he sighed.
“I enjoyed that. Eating at home has become so much of a gamble.”
I must have raised a quizzical eyebrow (a skill I practiced in my youth and have used occasionally to good effect).
Thus he continued, “I’ll arrive home from work looking for my meal and I’m never sure who the cook is or whether we’ll have one. Then no sooner do I get one trained so she cooks stuff just as I like it, she’ll up and away.”
I was sympathetic. “Must be a strain.”
He stared into his wine glass as if hoping it knew who would be cooking breakfast for him. “It is; the one consolation is that I’m guaranteed a nice pasty from time to time.”
It suddenly struck me that here was the man who could answer the question that had been nagging most of my patrons. If I could answer it, I might well find myself generously recompensed. So obviously I asked, “So who makes the pastry in your house?”
“Me.” He obviously saw the look of surprise on my face. “My grandmother insisted all her grandsons could cook, and it turns out I had a way with pastry, so I’ve kept it up.”
I asked, “So what do your staff think about it?”
“Oh they think Madam does it.”
When he left I continued to sit and ponder the situation. I didn’t think various ladies would go so far as to steal Madam Dolbart’s husband to get hold of the pastry, but frankly, knowing some of them I couldn’t be sure. There are times when it’s best to keep your mouth shut and know nothing.
It may be that you might not realise that Tallis Steelyard has just produced his second book of stories and anecdotes. This is book, ‘Tallis Steelyard, a harsh winter, and other stories,’ is available from the first of June here in the UK or here in the US.
Here's my review of the new book -
This is a collection of stories about Tallis which go to show that it’s not all drinking afternoon tea or partaking of soirees for a jobbing poet. We discover some of his early life, some of the society feuds he became entangle with, and the story of how he met his wife and acquired the boat on which they live. Great little tales!
Were Tallis less busy he’d doubtless remember to thank me, Jim Webster, for the efforts I make on his behalf. But you know what it is with someone like Tallis who is constantly in demand. So I just get on with writing his stuff down for him and from time to time making collections of his wit, wisdom and jumbled musings available for a grateful public.
Tallis does have a blog; it is apparently de rigueur now for all writers. It is available here.
Riding in on his coattail,s I’ll merely mention that my own books can be seen at Jim Webster’s Amazon page.