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This was first posted on Silk Screen Views.
PART SIX – COOKING FOR HOBBITS
As they left Tamsyn’s room, Perry pointed to the door next to hers. “That’s my bedroom.” She thought he might be trying to tell her something, but then he pointed to the door after it. “Izzy sleeps there, and Tulia there.” That was a door on the opposite side.
“Where are they?” Tamsyn asked.
Perry shrugged. “Probably with my nephew and niece. You’ll see them all at dinner.”
Radagast didn’t look like he had awoken or even moved, so they left him and returned to the kitchen. Esme turned to look at them when they came in and Tamsyn caught a small smile on the woman’s face before she turned away again. She glanced at her dress to see if it maybe looked a little dishevelled, but she could see nothing out of the ordinary.
“Can I maybe help you with anything, Esme?” she offered, and the woman gave her a wide smile.
“That’s very kind of you, dear. I would appreciate some help,” she said. “Peregrin, darling, go help your father will you? He’s outside chopping wood. Tamsyn and I will have a chat while we’re sorting dinner.”
Perry gave Tamsyn a look that said ‘you’re in for it now’, but she gave him a reassuring smile and waved him outside. She noted that he had suddenly become a darling rather than an impossible boy, and steeled herself for what she was expecting to be a one-person cross-examination from Esme now that the two of them were alone.
Sure enough, the door had barely latched behind him or Esme said, “He’s a good lad really, but are you sure he hasn’t been any trouble to you?”
“Not at all, he’s been a perfect gentleman,” Tamsyn stated again, then couldn’t resist adding, “you say it as if you were expecting him to cause problems?”
“Well…” Esme said, blushing. “He can be a bit… boisterous sometimes.” She rummaged with a pan and stirred a pot or two until she had gathered her poise again, then muttered, “Right, that’s the stew for tomorrow luncheon. Now, what to eat tonight?”
“Do you have any pork cutlets?” Tamsyn asked innocently. “I do so like pork cutlets.”
Esme gave her a surprised look. “I’m sure we have, they’re Peregrin’s favourite,” she said. “What would you like with that?”
Tamsyn was about to say ‘green beans and roast potatoes’, but then thought better of it. There was no need to overdo it. “Anything really,” she said instead. “I don’t know what you have, I wouldn’t want to ask for anything awkward.”
Esme pondered for a second, then opened a cupboard and took out a large, open-woven basket. “Here,” she said, holding it out to Tamsyn. “Why don’t you go look in the vegetable garden and see what we have left? Fresh is always nicest. It’s out the door and to the right, you can’t miss it.”
Tamsyn nodded. “Do you want me to fill this?”
“Yes please, my dear. And thank you so much for helping me, you really are a darling. Off you go, I’ll find some cutlets.” She patted Tamsyn’s shoulder fondly, then ambled towards the corridor.
As she walked out the door, Tamsyn felt a stab of guilt for leading the woman on like that. Much as she liked Perry, there was no chance of them ever getting married; she didn’t belong here after all. The thought saddened her for some reason, but she shrugged it off and went to find the vegetables.
The vegetable garden turned out to be very large, and she walked through it for at least five minutes before she finally found a stand of green beans, which luckily looked full enough to fill her basket.
As she started picking she heard the sound of an axe hitting wood, and peered through the stalks to see Perry hard at work. Although the day was on the chilly side, he had taken off his shirt and his skin was shining with sweat, his hair plastered to his face. Tamsyn swallowed as she saw the play of muscles in his back and shoulders when he lifted the axe, then swung it down hard, splitting the log on the stump in one blow. He did seem to have a slender build, though she had not seen any other hobbit men to compare him with, but she could see that he was strong and no stranger to hard work.
She watched for a few moments more, but then a sense of voyeurism overtook her, and she guiltily went back to picking beans before rushing back to the kitchen as soon as her basket was full.
“Here you go, Esme,” she said, placing it on the work top. “Do you have another container? I thought I’d maybe make a salad while you work on the rest of the food.”
“In that cupboard over there, dear. That’s a lovely idea.” Esme gave her a warm smile, and Tamsyn mentally tallied another brownie point on her ledger.
They chatted as they worked, with Esme continuing her none-too-subtle probing of Tamsyn’s thoughts on her son, until Tamsyn suddenly registered the amount of food Esme was preparing.
“How many are coming to dinner?” she asked.
“Twelve, if we count Adalgrim and little Eglantine.”
Tamsyn considered. “Do you mind if I have a peek in your larder to see if I can contribute anything else? Just one salad is hardly going to feed twelve.”
“Oh, I’m sure there’ll be plenty, but help yourself,” Esme said, her face now beaming. It made Tamsyn glad that she liked cooking; if she’d been unable to so much as boil an egg, Esme would probably have had her thrown out as a freak.
In the larder she found everyday basics such as butter, flour and sugar, but also large cured hams hanging from the rafters, big round cheeses on shelves, and baskets full of vegetables stored in the cool recesses at the back. Apart from that she found a few things she would never have expected to see in the Shire, such as aubergines and a large slab of chocolate, though the latter looked like it had been there a while and was hoarded carefully. The larder was twice as big as Esme’s kitchen, and that itself was large enough to accommodate the great dinner table, which Tamsyn had estimated could easily sit fifteen, or twenty at a push.
She loaded her arms full of aubergines, onions and a chunk of cheese, then went back to look behind the door she had seen in the back. It turned out to be the meat larder, full of salted pork, jerked beef and even a few fresh braising steaks. It wasn’t quite beef mince, but if she cut them up small enough she was sure they would suffice. If Esme would let her have them, of course.
Esme would, and Tamsyn dashed back into the vegetable garden for more tomatoes and a good handful of parsley, ducked back into the pantry for cream, eggs and garlic, and at the last moment decided to also grab some flour, sugar and butter.
When she was finally back in the kitchen again, surrounded by a mountain of ingredients, Esme looked at her with a mixture of admiration and pride. “Bullroarer’s Belly, my dear, the boys will be delighted with what you’re going to cook up, I’m sure!” she stated. “I didn’t think you’d have cooked for so many before, what with your family being small.”
Tamsyn grinned nervously. “Truth said, I haven’t, but I’ve found that in cooking it’s not so much about the exact quantities, as long as whatever comes out tastes well enough. I’m sure I’ll be okay.”
She turned around to set to work, and was taken completely by surprise when Esme ambled over, turned her around and gave her a resounding kiss on either cheek. “You’re a gem, my dear,” she said, still beaming. She looked as if she wanted to say something else, but thought better of it and returned to her gravy, bubbling away on the stove.
Tamsyn had expected Esme to interfere, but to her surprise and delight the woman was interested, but left her to do her cooking on her own. Perry appeared to have a rare gem of a mother who was doting but not stifling. Except when her eldest gets himself into trouble again, I suspect, she thought with a little smile.
Esme vacated a corner of her great iron stove, and Tamsyn nervously wiped her sweaty hands on the apron she had borrowed. This was the moment of truth: cutting up things to cook them was one thing, but preparing them on a wood-fired, cast-iron stove was something else altogether.
She fried the beef with the onions, tomatoes, garlic and parsley, and in a separate pan managed to roast the sliced aubergines. At her request, Esme produced a large, deep roasting tray, and Tamsyn carefully layered the beef mixture and the aubergines under her prospective mother-in-law’s interested eye. She topped it all off with a mix of cream, grated cheese and eggs, and placed the whole in the big oven in the wall, which also ran on wood. As long as she managed not to let it burn, it should be a serviceable moussaka.
That taken care of, she took nearly equal parts of flour, butter and sugar and made a thick, stodgy dough which she pressed into a large, flat baking tin and covered with beaten egg. Buttercake was a favourite sweet of hers, ever since she had overseen a building project in the Netherlands, where it originated. It was rich and sweet, and Tamsyn couldn’t think of anything more hobbit-like.
As she nervously hovered around the oven, intent on not letting her contribution to dinner burn, she asked Esme about her dishes and watched with interest when the woman added a variety of herbs and spices to her pork cutlets, in addition to the fruit Perry had mentioned, until the whole gave off a smell that made her mouth water.
“Well, between us I think we’ve conjured up a dinner worthy of a king, my dear,” Esme said with satisfaction when Tamsyn removed the moussaka and buttercake, and found both to be perfect.
“Or a Thain,” Tamsyn said with a smile, and Esme gave her shoulder a fond squeeze.
“Ahh, a girl like you is wasted in the Westmarch,” she said ruefully. Whether Esme really meant that or whether she was just looking fore Perry to finally settle down with someone Tamsyn didn’t know, but she felt an unexpected squeeze around her heart nonetheless. She felt at home, she realised.
“Would you go find Peregrin please?” Esme asked, interrupting her thoughts. “I think it’s about time to lay the table.”
“I don’t mind doing that, Esme,” Tamsyn said, but the woman shook her head.
“Peregrin knows where everything is, my dear, and you don’t. Plus he can go fetch his brothers and sisters when he’s done.”
Tamsyn nodded and went outside, heading towards where she had seen Perry cut wood earlier. Instead she found him closer by, just as he ducked his head into the rain butt. He proceeded to sponge off his torso with a wet flannel, and Tamsyn couldn’t help but stare at the thatch of hair that covered his well-defined chest. It narrowed down into a black line that disappeared into his low-slung trousers, and she found that it took very little effort to imagine what he would look like naked.
Just at that moment he spotted her, and he stopped in mid-motion. Tamsyn looked away, a blush creeping onto her cheeks, and she said, “Um, your mother would, um, like you to lay the table.”
When no immediate response was forthcoming she glanced back at him, and found him giving her a warm, slightly teasing smile. “I’ll be there in a moment,” he said. “Pass me that towel, will you?”
She tore her eyes away from him to look where he pointed, and handed it to him. “So I’ll, um, see you inside,” she stammered, taking a last look at his bare chest before almost fleeing back inside. After all the leers she had had from men, it would be hypocritical of her to just stand there and leer at Perry, much as she would like to.
He entered the kitchen only moments after her, now decently dressed in his wide, lace-up shirt, though he hadn’t tucked it back in yet. He looked nothing short of dashing, and Tamsyn spent ten minutes glancing at him surreptitiously. She only stopped when she noticed that while she was watching Perry, Esme was watching her with a small, secretive smile on her face that made another blush creep to her cheeks.
Perry winked at her when he left the kitchen, and Tamsyn hastened to help Esme with putting the food on the table, a nervous lump in her stomach about meeting the rest of Perry’s family.
Will dinner be an ordeal? Find out in part seven!