Close to Cheddar Gorge
Home of famous cheese making
In 1992 I had just arrived in the USA from China where I had been working for almost 4 years. I had started to work for a hotel group with about 4 properties in the Twin Cities area. Not long after starting, the city of St. Paul, Minnesota was the venue of an exhibit of the Titanic. My hotel was one of the sponsoring hotels. As part of the promotion we invited corporate accounts to a special reception and a chance to visit the Titanic exhibit. The reception menu was replicated from the first class menu served to the passengers aboard the maiden voyage. I saved a copy of the promotional material which was printed for the occasion. The material featured the two vessels of the White Star Line; the SS Olympic and the RMS Titanic. On the reverse side was the celebrated menu. I used the various dishes served to cook up the following poem.
The title of the poem recalls the original film made in Black and white with the title “A Night to Remember” starring Kenneth More and Honor Blackman which was released about July 1958. The RMS Titanic sank 105 years ago on April 14th, 1912.
A BITE TO REMEMBER
The night we remember,
When the Titanic sank deep down
First Class passengers were dining,
Like a night out on the town
Their dinner on that fateful night
First oysters a la Russe
Canapés à l’amiral
And then a sherbet mousse
Second course of soups
One came from the Volga
Cream of barley in a bowl
And too, consommé Olga
Third course served was from the sea
Not brought in a terrine
Poached salmon on a gilded plate
With sauce of mousseline
Fourth course were the entrées
With filet mignons Lili
Or chicken Lyonnaise
And vegetable marrow farci
Fifth course they call removes
With lamb and sauce of mint
And duck with Calvados,
Just a little hint
These were paired with veggies
Healthy garden fare
Spuds, carrots, minted pea timbales
All of them were there.
To clean the palette sixth, was served
Punch Romaine or sorbet
The choices two but simple
You only had to say
Seventh course was roasted squab
On a bed of wilted cress
Exquisite dining for the price
You could not ask for less
Eighth course was a salad
With champagne Vinaigrette
This was such a tasty dish
Whoever could forget?
The ninth course was a cold dish
Of Pâté de Foie Gras
Goose livers all the way from France
Where food is Ooh la la!
Comes now course number ten
Peaches in chartreuse jelly
Waldorf pudding, chocolate eclairs
Watch out for your belly
Of fruit and cheese.
By now more food
Is one tight squeeze
And finally a bourbon tasting
Best to sip it slow
And on that note I’ll say farewell
This was a fine last supper of some who rest below.
As we strolled through the garden, Mr. Graves pointed to a small walled recess. A pergola covered with Bougainvillea, stood over a bench, a wrought-iron arm chair and a matching round table. I say wrought-iron for want of a better word. All the furniture had a dull green patina.
But I digress.
G: Shall we sit awhile? After we had settled ourselves, he reached above his right shoulder and a bell sounded. Very soon a plumpish lady appeared.
G: Mrs. De Luna, I know you are busy preparing our evening comestibles, but please, bring a bottle of the Varela and a plate of sardines.
We sat in silence, enjoying the evening air. I could hear sounds of traffic in the town.
Graves waited until his housekeeper had served us before continuing.
G: As I was saying, I am really a poet. I have devoted a lot of my life to getting it right. Of course, not everybody agreed with me. But that’s life I suppose.
My mind wandered slightly. I found myself thinking could it be really true that I was sitting with someone who had had a love affair with Siegfried Sassoon.
Graves poured some more sherry commenting, “Not a bad stuff, this Varela. What do you think?”
Without waiting for my reply he continued.
G: I have a confession. I could not always sit here in the garden like this.
I was wondering, why ever not. But, before I had chance to voice what I was thinking he continued.
G: After the being wounded at the battle of the Somme, I could not stand strong odors of gas or even the scent of flowers. I feel better nowadays. I even like the sardines. Ha ha, he laughed, how about you?
Being something of a novice at this kind of life I thought that the sherry and sardines went well together; quite tasty in fact!
Sitting with Graves chatting like this, brought to mind the old saying: that when a wise man speaks it’s because he has something to say. When a foolish man peaks it’s because he has to say something. I held my tongue for fear of revealing my inadequacy chatting casually with such a man of learning.
Graves had been an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers and had had the title of honorary Welshman bestowed as a result of eating a leak before his assembled regiment on the feast of St. David, the patron saint of Wales. He wasn’t Welsh by birth. No, he was born in Wimbledon in Surrey about 10 miles south of the city of London. He was related in fact to a German noble family that went by the name of von Ranke. This fact got him into a lot of trouble during his school days; but that’s another story.
A gong sounded in the house.
G: Our dinner is ready. Let’s see what Mrs. De Luna has prepared today. I heard she was down at the fish market so we might be in for a treat.
We sat down to a splendid meal a chilled cucumber soup with bitter melon, Basque style fillet of sole, paella with clams and shrimp, chorizo, chicken and squid on a bed of saffron rice with diced Romano tomatoes. The tapas we had eaten in the garden had sharpened my appetite; I was hungry. The dishes were all arranged nicely in the center of the table. We were expected to help ourselves.
G: Here, try some of this. I think you’ll like it; goes well with the fish and the clams for that matter. It’s from Catalonia and has become one of my standbys when I have guests for dinner. I poured the wine and handed back the bottle.
As we spooned our soup I asked Graves what he meant by an historical grammar of poetic myth. He explained.
G: Many people tend to take poetry at face value and what’s more they miss the deeper meaning that the poet is conveying. This had a root back in medieval times when court poets were asked to entertain, by the re-telling of ancient stories, they purposely garbled most of their work. They did this for several reasons. Some of their stories contained secrets which they did their best to conceal. Also, many heresies were contained in their works for which they did not want the prying eyes or in this case ears of the burgeoning church to discover. You understand, much of their work had already survived the invasion of Ireland by the Vikings and what wasn’t burned or otherwise destroyed by the marauding Danes was both rare and precious. On top of this, the court poets regarded their masters as illiterate morons. They approached their work with caution however, in order not to bite the hand that fed them.
The garlic sauce accompanying the sole was light and did not overpower the fish is the slightest way.
G: So you see, there are questions which by now are probably long forgotten but for any one with the inclination to pursue a mystery they could start with some questions: Who cleft the devil’s foot? What secret was woven into the Gordian knot? Why did Jehovah create trees and grass before he created the sun moon and stars? Where will wisdom be found? The answers lie hidden in poetry. I’ve spent a life-time looking.
G: have some more of the paella Mrs. De Luna will be pleased.
Graves continued: You have to know that these court poets spent at last three years in apprenticeship learning several hundred traditional stories by heart and often as many as one hundred and fifty different cypher alphabets. They were indeed a very elite class of people. No wonder they held their illiterate masters in tacit contempt. The alphabets they mastered were not the simple ABC’s that we have nowadays. No sir, they included both finger and tree Oghams, which have long fallen into disuse.
The ancient bards brought all sorts of hidden knowledge with them in their travel from court to court. Then slowly as the years passed and Christianity took hold, sympathetic magic and pagan ceremonies were forgotten. Times changed.