As it is christmas today I thought I’d share with you an extract from the book I’m writing set mainly in 1185 in England. Due to length issues this scene is now unlikely to make it into the final draft, but seeing as a I did quite a bit of research into christmas meals I thought it might be nice to share it here. Just to be clear, this is fiction. The characters are fictional. This particular scene is set in Canterbury in 1184 and features my main characters siblings Marcus and Adele de Bernier celebrating christmas, after a long journey, with two family friends: merchant Peter de Vere and his wife Ela. Along with Peter’s noble cousin Gerbert de Clancy, the men he brought with him and other unnamed guests.
Once they had both paid their respects to Becket and prayed to him for success on their journey, Marcus led the way out of the cathedral past the church of St Mary’s of Queningate. As they walked back along the crisp Canterbury streets Adele watched everyone attired in their finery returning to their houses for Christmas feasts. She noticed the greenery that decked some of the houses and the feeling of festive warmth in the air as the wealthy of Canterbury vied to be the best dressed and the most splendid. She spared a thought for Joan and Emma, wondering what they would be doing to celebrate. Adele was glad to reach the de Vere’s house but she was tired and really wanted to just go and rest. She knew she couldn’t disappoint Peter and Ela though, so she painted a smile on her face and followed Marcus to the main hall for the Christmas feast. She sighed in appreciation at the roaring fire and settled down at the same table as their hosts. Adele was delighted to be able to spend more time with Ela and Peter, both of whom she was very genuinely fond of. Unfortunately this also meant that they shared a table with Gerbert de Clancy. Adele was seated next to him and being the only female on the table to whom he was unrelated she was the recipient of his wine sodden confidences and his clumsy attempts at seduction, but she had to pretend to be impressed. The food made up for it a little because Ela had spared no effort. Peter de Vere’s merchant contacts were evident in the quality of the offerings. The wine was Poitivan, brought across the narrow sea by an Aquitanian merchant friend of Peter’s. Adele soon discovered that if she plied Gerbert de Clancy with as much of it as possible he didn’t talk to her so much because he was too busy trying to sit upright.
Marcus watched Adele deal adeptly with Gerbert de Clancy, finished off his goose and turned his attention to a sublime chicken dish in which the chicken glowed golden from being rubbed with saffron. He sighed appreciatively as the chicken melted on his tongue. He looked around in delight at what was to come. This was a meal about wealth and prestige. The centerpiece of which was a boar’s head that was ceremoniously being carried in. It still looked menacing even in death and Marcus just knew that the stew made from the rest of the boar would be tender and delectable, so he licked his lips in anticipation. He watched a little apprehensively as the servers handed Peter the boar’s head on its great dish and Peter presented it ceremoniously to Gerbert de Clancy as the highest ranking guest, but as Marcus had feared he was too drunk to do more than just goggle at it in surprise. Just as Marcus was about to do something the servants stepped in adroitly and moved it carefully and quickly back in front of Peter. Crisis averted, Marcus settled back in his seat, his face warm from the fire and his stomach replete with wonderful food. Everything was all right in his world in that moment.
Finally de Clancy left Adele alone to boast drunkenly to the man on his right and Ela leant over and whispered to her. “There was no way we could have fed all of this lot,” she gestured at de Clancy’s men who were singing bawdy songs and quaffing the wine like it was cheap ale, “if it hadn’t been for de Clancy’s mother. Matilda is Peter’s half-sister and a good woman. When she found out her son was intending to foist himself on us for the Christmas season she made sure she sent one of her own cooks ahead of him along with two more of her own people and a supply of food.” She paused a moment, giving a signal to a server. “The cook she sent is an expert in subtleties.” As the spectacular sweets were carried in she added. “It’s almost worth putting up with de Clancy to have them.”
There was a hush in the hall, even de Clancy’s drunken retainers quieted, as three subtleties were carried in. As Adele admired the beautiful recreations of the nativity made in marchpane she couldn’t help but agree with Ela’s sentiments. Their beauty almost outweighed de Clancy’s oafishness. Then de Clancy knocked his wine over so it seeped onto her skirts and onto the rushes and suddenly she wasn’t so sure. She carefully wrung the ends of her skirts out, pushed away de Clancy’s clumsy attempts at an apology and, thanking God that her gown was the dark red of good wine and wouldn’t show the stain, returned her attention to the subtleties. The first was the Annunciation, with the Arch Angel Gabriel greeting the Virgin Mary with an Ave, the second was the shepherds watching their flock as the angel appeared to them, and the third, and the largest, was in the stable with Jesus watched over by Mary, Joseph, the animals, the shepherds and the wise men. There was applause and then they all settled down to eat. No one touched the subtleties because, although they were edible, they were so spectacular. Everyone turned their attention to the wafers, cakes and frumenty of which there were plenty. As they began to eat the sweets a singer came in with a harp and started a ballad. Adele was just settling in to what she recognised as the beginnings of Gormond and Isembart when it was interrupted by Gerbert de Clancy passing out face first into his bowl of frumenty. The singer waited as the only two reasonably sober men in the hall, Peter and Marcus, carried him out to his chamber. When the song was finished and dancing was about to begin Marcus and Adele pleaded fatigue and finally retired to their chambers.
Happy Christmas everyone.