Original fiction by Michael J. DeLuca
First published in the Winter 2011 edition of Solander magazine – copyright remains with the author.
Michael J. DeLuca came to “The Gourmands” through rather over-close readings of Brillat-Savarin, Larousse Gastronomique and The Princess Bride; he brews beer, bakes bread, hunts mushrooms and grows tomatoes in addition to writing fiction, but would hesitate to call himself anything like a gastronome. His fiction, usually more speculative than historical, has appeared in Onirismes, Interfictions, Shroud and Apex, and his blog can be found at michaeljdeluca.com. He grew up in Boston.
In the fog that curled between the dock of the Basilica San Giorgio Maggiore and the estuary isle, de Borose detected the savory waftings of a soup–creamy and rich, with lemon and chive–a welcome comfort, though strictly speaking at odds with the season. Savarin, his sous, must have preceded him.
The oars, wrapped in cheesecloth, bumped gently in the locks. A gull cried. The rowboat’s prow dug into mud, and de Borose laid a steadying hand on the basket balanced in the bow. He raised the lid briefly, shifting the loaf of pain de levain to conceal it more fully beneath the covered platter. Cradling the basket to his breast, he clambered out onto the moist clay of the isle.
A hovel decayed among the remains of a garden, the ghosts of herbs here, savory and thyme, there once a trellis of some waste grape or other, now a few rotting lengths of barnacled wood and a stretch of tidal grass. A stained pedestal table stood on a patio, atop which a tureen, tightly covered, wrapped in terrycloth, nonetheless poured forth that scent so evocative of a December déjeuner. There were no chairs.
De Borose approached the table, setting down his basket. The capricious mist revealed Savarin’s angular figure squatting in the grass, a crust of moistened baguette in his left hand, his right cupped to mimic the shape of an absent copita.
“Manners. Manners, Savarin–you couldn’t wait?”
“Keep your voice down. Sound carries here–a moment ago I heard a pair of fishermen passing Punto Sabbioni, talking of the murders. It was as though they were sitting beside me.” He shivered. “Trust an innocent to arrange such a delicate meal in a place so exposed.”
“Innocent? I thought this tête-à-tête your idea, not Cellini’s.”
Savarin pried a fragment of crust from his sneer. “And to think, here I believed it your own.”
De Borose allowed a laugh. “Perhaps it was.” He took a place by the eaves of the hovel, pulling close his oilskin cape–against the damp, and so its collar might shield anything his expression should betray. “What was the matter of these anglers’ discussion?”
“Why, the poisonings–what else? The one raised a question as to the popular surmise that the sweetbreads were the course that killed Cardinal Bonsignore and his guests. The other pointed to the poached sole served earlier in the fatal feast.” A sour smile. “The Cardinal’s partiality to whitefish was well-known.”
“Their concern for the welfare of their trade clouds their judgment,” said de Borose, waving a hand. “Justified–but unfounded. My sole is beyond suspicion. You above all, Savarin, know my standards. Even the subtlest poison imparts flavor. Any introduction of a toxin, however undetectable, would constitute adulteration. No dish of mine goes to table prepared with less than perfection. If these fishermen were indeed within earshot, you might have done me the courtesy of assuring them as much–as I’ve been obliged to do a dozen times in as many parlors.”
Savarin made a sympathetic moue, popped the last of the crust between expressive lips. “More’s the pity, anyone in your place would say the same.”
“That, Savarin, is why I brought us here. It was you who accused me of naiveté.”
“For all our sakes, chef, I hope to find myself mistaken.”
Cellini arrived in a ramshackle dinghy which he anchored a stone’s throw from the island, obliging them to take the rowboat to collect him. There was a considerable delay while he arranged some clinking objects out of sight below the waterline before he produced a damp, bulging sack and consented to hoist it, along with his broad-bellied bulk, across the gunwale.
“An observer,” said de Borose, “might surmise you harbored some reservation about joining us.”
“The product of an unclean conscience?” put in Savarin.
Cellini blanched; his step aboard was clumsy. The rowboat rocked, and de Borose gave brief thought to letting him tip into the Laguna Venetia before offering a steadying hand.
When all three were assembled at table, Cellini, with sleight-of-hand worthy of a magician, produced a corkscrew out of thin air, then withdrew from his sack three glasses and a bottle brown with age. He thumbed dust from the label.
Savarin’s pickled scowl fell from his face.
“A de la Frontera ‘seventy-five,” breathed de Borose. “Your reputation, sommelier, does not disappoint.”
Cellini’s moustache twitched. “If I judge correctly the tenor of this repast, it is no time for thrift.” He poured, generously, though his hands shook.
Though the color was mahogany rich as an emperor’s robe, the nose a beguilement of molasses, oak and plum, Cellini devoted more time to these preliminaries than de Borose judged strictly necessary, given the damp breeze and insufficient light. He cleared his dry throat with a rattle.
“Must I be the first?” asked Cellini, frowning. “The bottle was sealed, the dust undisturbed–you both observed. Rarely in the history of the world have such connoisseurs looked so ill at the prospect of sharing a drink so sublime.”
“A cork,” said Savarin, “may be pierced with a syringe.”
A cormorant ululated in the grasses. De Borose set down his wine.
Cellini bristled. “You gentlemen insult me. The idea that I–”
“Yes, yes,” cut in Savarin with a curl of his lip. “To poison would impugn the integrity of your calling. De Borose has already rendered that uninspired argument on his own behalf. There’s no cause to take offense–we all know why we’re here.”
A tendril of soot-scented wind rippled the tablecloth and the corners of their coats; each man reached instinctively to steady his glass, but no one moved to break the impasse–until at last de Borose’s thirst outswelled his caution. “Permitted one more glass of wine in your life, Savarin, could you object to a de la Frontera ‘seventy-five?”
“The Cardinal,” said Savarin, “was never offered opportunity to ruminate along such lines.”
De Borose licked his lips. “Perhaps in the course of this meal we’ll establish whether he deserved it. But look at it this way: though his choice of wine may, on that occasion, have determined the course of his fate, we who make good taste our living face such stakes every time we touch our lips to glass. Therefore to let this sherry go unsavored would amount to as great a crime as murder.”
“On that,” said Savarin, inhaling, “I believe I can defer.”
“A toast, gentlemen? A toast. To the poisoner.”
“All at once, then. Now–”
Over the water from the direction of St. Mark’s, a brass band lurched at half-tempo through some patriotic march, tinny and dull in the fog–no doubt an ill-chosen elegy. As de Borose and Savarin refilled each other’s glasses, the cathedral bell tolled one.
“It appears… we are not poisoned?” Savarin’s sallow cheeks glowed warm with color.
“Then to business.” De Borose tipped a last thin stream from the bottle to top off his glass. “The tide swells, and time is an omnivore.”
Savarin uncovered the tureen, and they stood hunched over the salt-stained table, basking in the ephemeral warmth, the comforting fatty and citrus aromas while the channel winds rolled past and the chill seeped up through their feet. Savarin made an exaggerated show of slurping the broth to demonstrate its unadulterated state; with effort, de Borose resisted commenting upon his manners.
In Cellini’s large fingers, steadier now, one of Savarin’s rolls split apart with a crackle. “Must we, then, yield to the popular assumption that one of us is the killer? Did no other cook in the city bear His Eminence a grudge? Is it not possible the deaths were accidental–the result of spoiled food or contamination?”
De Borose shook his head. “You only demonstrate your ignorance of the finer machinations of Venice’s culinary elite. These deaths constitute a blemish on our city to shadow the bickerings of Paris and Rome. The Cardinal’s Annunciation feast represented the sum of a year’s preparation by every servant of the culinary arts, however illustrious or humble. An accident would be as bad as murder–worse. Venice as a whole would suffer, and we, the architects of the feast, would endure worse in the public eye than might the true culprit in the dungeons of the Viceroy.”
Savarin cracked a leer, flecks of green cress in his teeth. “Particularly since the Viceroy bore Bonsignore as much ill will as any.”
“Then the Cardinal was not well-loved,” said Cellini, “despite his generosity?”
“The man was a poseur.” said Savarin, “You must have experienced it yourself, even in your brief time at this post. You’d be pressed to find a gourmand who didn’t despise and resent him. He wouldn’t know a de la Frontera from vinegar with his neck to the razor. His palate was as refined as a block of salt. And his conversation–mon dieu–he peppered his speech with the most tiresome and offensive of bons mots.”
“Surely a demonstration drips from your tongue,” said de Borose dryly.
“‘Never trust a skinny chef,'” snarled Savarin. “He said it every time I served him–as though this witticism could somehow endear him to me, rather than constituting an insult to my craft and profession.”
“For one so quick with accusations, Savarin,” said de Borose, “it’s refreshing to see you incriminate yourself with equal ease.”
“I make no secret–yes, I hated him. But I didn’t poison him. His death would only–will only–result in that tiny pretender to empire appointing some other drooling military bumpkin to his place. If Bonsignore was His Imperial Majesty’s first choice, can I but blanch at the prospect of his second?”
“Le diable familier,” said Cellini, shuffling his moustache. “A reasonable opinion. And you, de Borose? Had you reason to wish the Cardinal dead?”
“I objected to his manner–his lack of it–and to his taste. But fool that he was, he made a boon patron, easily influenced, free with the Church’s wealth. It was he who elevated me, and Savarin after me, when old Lucantonio died in his sleep.”
“The poor old master,” sighed Savarin, looking off into the fog, where somewhere a gondolier sang faintly the part of Leporello from the feast scene in Don Giovanni. “His dearest desire was to die at table. The Cardinal was given a worthier end than he deserved.”
“I too,” admitted Cellini, “owe His late Eminence a part of my success–I had not known him long enough to judge his taste in wine, but I shall do his memory the courtesy of assuming it as refined as he desired me to believe. Which leaves us, gentlemen, where we began: none of us had motive sufficient to kill him. Are we gathered on this time-forsaken isle, jumping at the clink of glass and shivering in the wind, neither out of fear for our lives nor suspicion of guilt, but mere concern for our careers? The reasoning strikes me as flawed.”
“Does it?” De Borose spun the last drop of sherry in his glass and inhaled. “You mean to say, having once drunk the finest that nature, god and man working in concert have to offer, you would forsake the opportunity to partake of it again? Then I say you don’t deserve the reputation you’ve worked to achieve. Somehow I doubt the wine list available before the scaffold would satisfy.”
Cellini lifted his unfashionable hat, smoothed the furrow from his bald pate, replaced it.
De Borose gripped the table’s edge, knuckles tightening. “Signore, I must confess I find your reticence both dishonest and uncouth.”
“You’ve hardly touched your soup,” put in Savarin. “Eat. It’s getting cold.”
Cellini dipped his spoon, lifted it to his lips. He swallowed, eyes closed. His moustache curled.
“You flatter me,” said Savarin. He waved a hand. “Understandable, given your position–but not undeserved. A proprietary blend of spices including lemongrass and truffle oil. Only your reputation permits you the pleasure. Without it, you’d toil a year to earn enough for such a dish. You may trust that no such delicacies are served to prisoners of the state.”
Cellini ate with careful precision until his spoon scraped the bottom of the bowl. With half a roll, he swept up the last ribbon of soup and devoured it. He wiped a creamy droplet of broth from his moustache with the corner of a cloth. “I concede it,” he admitted. “I love what I do.”
De Borose relaxed his fingers. “Then in order to preserve your career, someone at this table must take the fall. The public expects it. The sooner we may feed them roast of sacrificial lamb, the sooner we shall be permitted to enjoy a meal again in peace and without fear.”
“Am I to infer,” said Cellini, “that guilt or innocence is without bearing in this matter?”
Waves lapped against the patio and the hovel’s seaward wall, splashing the tips of the three gourmands’ boots, pulling crumbled mortar and stray breadcrumbs away over half-submerged grasses towards the sea. Cellini’s dinghy rocked, its spoon-handle mast wagging accusation at the heavens.
“The city sinks,” muttered Savarin. “We three sink more swiftly.”
“By the savour of your discourse, Savarin,” returned de Borose, “one would think that we’d been drinking bitters, dining on endive and unleavened bread.”
“Whereas yours–and his–are the speech of self-satisfied men who believe themselves above reproach. It is this attitude to which I object. The killer implicated all of us; I would prefer he suffer for it. But I also believe each of us is as capable of lying as of poison. De Borose I know well enough to swear it. You, Signore Cellini, remain unknown to me–yet I find your gentle manner unconvincing. In other words, I see no means short of confession–or another round of killing–by which the true culprit may be revealed.”
“Yet we must have a patsy,” said de Borose. “One of us must go to the block.”
“Who, then?” asked Cellini quietly. “How are we to choose?”
“At last, we come to the meat.” De Borose laced his fingers behind him, stretching shoulders tight from rowing. From the depths of his basket, he drew forth the covered platter. He made room on the table, shoving Savarin’s tureen unceremoniously aside. “If you’ll permit me a moment to explain, I believe I possess the solution to our dilemma.”
Cellini caught the empty sherry bottle as it wobbled. Tucking it into his sack, he produced a second bottle, then a third, a fourth. The corkscrew reappeared in his fingers. “Forgive me–all unknowing your selection, I settled on a surplus of variety.”
De Borose let out a modest laugh. “I don’t know about you, Savarin, but I find myself appreciating our sommelier more and more.”
Savarin thrust forth his empty glass.
A boatswain’s whistle shrilled through the gray to seaward. Savarin indicated with his fork the shape of a topsail cutting free of the fog, lithe figures climbing on the yard. The gourmands waited, silent, waves licking at their ankles, until this phantom faded from sight. Then de Borose lifted the platter’s lid.
“Sweetbreads,” uttered Savarin.
“With brain and morels,” said de Borose. “Imagine these the offal of our common vanquished foe–in a pear glaze, with a touch of pâté de foie gras over a mushroom risotto.”
“The meal that killed the Cardinal.” With a deft gesture, Cellini opened a bottle of red–a Sangiovese. “My apologies for lack of foresight–I have neglected to include an Amarone.”
“My pear glaze?” shrieked Savarin.
“I didn’t steal your recipe, if that’s what you imply–I reconstructed it. I won’t always have you as my sous, Savarin–I must learn to do things on my own. Nor is there call to be obtuse, Signore Cellini. Only the most acrid of poisons acts so swiftly as to kill a man from hand to mouth. Even a palate as unsubtle as the Cardinal’s would surely have detected it. No, the fatal dish came in an earlier course–the soup, perhaps–or one of the wines. I simply thought sweetbreads might pose an edifying test.” He set forth a trio of plates marked with the crest of the Cardinal’s house, then drew a carving knife. “Surely your mouths must water at the scent as does mine–but who can eat it?”
Savarin refilled his glass to brimming.
“I fail to see what this will prove,” said Cellini, “unless the dish is poisoned.”
“It will demonstrate to me, by your willingness to eat and the pleasure or displeasure you take in the act, whether one of you–or both–is the poisoner. I’ve explained that the sweetbreads couldn’t have killed him. Therefore your reaction must be purely visceral–a matter of stomach, uninfluenced by the higher functions of intelligence. It is this phenomenon which makes gastronomy the purest form of art: unlike the tongue, the taste buds are incapable of falsehood. Mark it, Savarin–a truly great chef is as skilled a judge of character as of cuisine. The Cardinal could pretend to culture well enough to fool Napoleon, yet he had but to refuse a taste of mascarpone before I knew he was a fraud.”
Savarin hissed a laugh. “Forgive me, chef, if I overstep my station, but experience impels me to dissent with your estimation of your skill. This is absurd.”
De Borose ground his teeth, but controlled himself. “Savarin has never had the head for wine.”
“And what if,” said Cellini, “in your objective estimation, both of us prove innocent?”
“I sincerely doubt that possibility–but you are welcome to observe my own reaction. Humor me, monsieurs–if you’re innocent of the Cardinal’s blood, you have nothing to fear.”
“You first,” said Savarin.
De Borose loaded his plate. He unwrapped the pain de levain from the depths of his basket and tore out a hunk, which he moistened with a splash of wine before consuming it with calm deliberation. Then he sliced into a sweetbread, dredged it through the sauce and began to eat in earnest.
A gull descended from the fog to perch on the roof of the hovel, swiveling its head to eye the platter. Others followed, keening.
Savarin spooned onto his plate a few mouthfuls of risotto, a lump of brain, and the smallest slice of sweetbread. He bowed to Cellini, raising his glass. “Your taste in wines, sir, is without peer. It has been a true pleasure.” He turned to de Borose. “Working with you, chef, has never failed to pose a challenge. I appreciate all you have taught me, both of food and of the cruel and heartless nature of this world.” He drank.
“These dramatics do you no credit,” warned de Borose. “You embarrass yourself.”
“I die well, at least,” said Savarin. “I thank you gentlemen for that.” He took a few carefully apportioned bites, drank deeply again.
The gulls chattered. One of them flapped from the roof to the barnacled heap of waterlogged wood that may once have been a garden fence, from there to the corner of the patio.
Cellini set down his fork. He took a half-step back from the table. “I must refuse.”
De Borose’s hand paused on the knife. He leaned over the plate, heat rushing to his face. “Are you certain you won’t simply taste it? I have sampled your excellent wines. I tasted Savarin’s fine soup. Am I not due the same courtesy? I’m sure you’ll find my dish a revelation.”
“No doubt,” said Cellini. “But I am certain.”
“If you refuse to eat my sweetbreads,” pressed de Borose, “if you really insist on humiliating me in front a member of my staff by denying me the professional courtesy of sampling a dish I made myself–then I must conclude either that it is your intention to insult and dishonor me–in which case, though it pains me, I must consider you an enemy henceforth–or that your action is motivated by guilt over your complicity in the Cardinal’s death–in which case I consider it my duty to deliver you to the authorities.”
The fork slipped from Savarin’s fingers. He touched a hand to his cheek. “Don’t. Don’t do what he asks, Cellini. I am poisoned–I feel it in my blood.”
“Enough,” snapped de Borose, “or I shall give you something to whine about.”
“I do not jest.” Savarin swayed on his feet, placed a palm on the table. He made effort to top off his glass, but seemed to lack the precision; wine spilled over the rim, dripped from the table’s edge. “To die at table, at the pinnacle of one’s career–it’s as I’d always hoped. Petronius himself couldn’t have arranged it better! Poor old Master Lucantonio deserved this more than I… but I flatter myself I am worthier than that insolent Cardinal.” He caught up the glass in a clumsy fist and sipped noisily, swishing the wine across his palate, making rapturous noises in his throat. “Can’t imagine a finer accompaniment to poison–don’t miss the Amarone at all.” He took up his soiled fork, made to spear another sweetbread from the platter. Cellini snatched it from his fingers. This intercession was sufficient to unbalance Savarin; he toppled sideways. His wine glass shattered on the stones, causing the nearest gull to retreat to the remnants of the fence.
“Impossible!” cried de Borose. “It couldn’t be the sweetbreads, not so quickly. Something else must have….” He took up the carving-knife from his plate and lurched around the table towards Cellini–but his stride was unbalanced. He halted after a few steps, arms extended to steady himself, gazing with dull astonishment at his own feet. “You–the wine–what have you done, Cellini?”
Cellini circled, gripping the edge of the table, stumbling slightly over the prone form of Savarin, but keeping the table’s stone bulk between himself and de Borose. His moustache curled. “I trust I may conclude from your reactions that neither of you had before tasted a de la Frontera of that particular vintage?”
“Murderer!” roared de Borose, clutching for Cellini across the table, managing only to soil his lapels in the sweetbreads’ pear-and-foie-gras glaze. “Poison!”
“There is no excuse for violence–you’ll find the negative effects are strictly temporary, far outweighed by the pleasures of imbibing. It loosens the tongue, incapacitates, no more. I must admit I took a calculated risk that two such accomplished connoisseurs would never have heard the secret–I feared my ruse had failed when I first revealed the label. Afterwards, of course, you gentlemen finished the bottle between you.”
The knife clattered from de Borose’s hand, and he devoted what remained of his manual dexterity to keeping himself upright. “What…secret,” he uttered, spittle flying on his lips.
With care, Cellini poured himself a splash of the Sangiovese, displaying symptoms of tipsiness himself. “A privileged understanding, not often shared with those outside the trade–but under the circumstances…. In the growing season of ‘seventy-five, the grapes of Jerez fell prey to a rare species of mold unique to that region. Far from ruining the wine, the presence of this mold introduced a pleasurable distinctiveness and depth largely responsible for the fame of that vintage–though the irony of its origin contributes not a little, as well as the fact that the sherry, when drunk in quantity, produces a harmless narcotic effect–though not insignificant, as I’m sure you can attest.”
A quiet gurgling from beneath the table induced Cellini to stoop, grasp Savarin’s prone form by the wrists, and drag him half-upright against the hovel to prevent him drowning in the rising tide. A particularly audacious gull seized this opportunity to dive at the table, snatching a morsel of brain.
Cellini hastened to cover the platter. “Now, Monsieur de Borose, I believe I have aptly demonstrated the flaw in your reasoning. I am no poisoner. You claimed the innocent would have nothing to fear; on the contrary, the innocent men at this repast endured the greatest risk, since only a poisoner could be expected to wield poison in his own defense. You needed a patsy–why not two? With two prominent suspects out of the way, you had but to attest to our disappearance as evidence of our guilt. The method of poison–one undetectable even by the most discerning gastronome–you had already perfected. The mastery of it was wasted on your victim–but it remained a matter of professional pride. Indeed, perhaps you looked forward to this opportunity to test it on palates more refined?
“Which leaves only the matter of the means by which you could ingest your own poisoned sweetbreads and remain unaffected–an antidote.” Cellini reached across de Borose’s plate for the loaf of pain de levain. He sniffed the crumb, wrinkled his nose. He took the loaf to Savarin, tore off a manageable hunk and placed it in his hands. “I suspect it will savor rather of chalk, but you’ll live to eat and drink again–if that’s what you wish.”
Savarin lifted the bread to his mouth and chewed. Cellini tipped a glass to his lips.
De Borose’s legs gave out beneath him, and he fell into a heap among the breakers.
“What–what will you do?”
A particularly strong wave crossed the island, bending the grasses in its wake. The rowboat came dislodged and drifted on its mooring; Cellini waded, shin-deep now, to collect it. Of the several gulls that had descended to the ground, a few were swept away, bobbing; the rest flapped airborne again before settling down atop the table to pick at the leavings.
“Speak, Cellini,” begged de Borose, kneeling, battered by the surf. “Tell me my fate.”
Cellini dragged the rowboat to the hovel and, draping one of Savarin’s arms across his rounded shoulders, helped him to climb aboard. He retrieved Savarin’s bundle and the sopping sack of wines.
“I could tolerate his lack of taste,” said de Borose. “I owed him my position. I even thought his ministry halfway passable. It was his slovenliness at table, his utter lack of tact or manner, that I couldn’t stand. The man salted his meat without tasting it. He blathered while he chewed. He seemed to prefer soiling a cassock at every meal to risking the slightest contamination of his napkin. But the final straw–the minnow that collapsed the fishmonger’s cart–was when I caught him adding a lump of carpaccio to the cache he’d been accumulating for weeks among the roots of a potted palm: the rotting remains of those delicacies which had failed to suit his bland tastes.” Cold foam splashed over his collar and trickled down his throat, mitigating the warmth of the sherry and the fine food in his stomach. “Surely you can appreciate that. Savarin–you understand.”
Cellini fought the gulls to rescue from the table the unopened bottle of white. He performed again that skilled sleight-of-hand with the corkscrew, placed a glass in one of de Borose’s hands and filled it. “A Sauternes. And did I not see….” He dug momentarily in Savarin’s bundle and came up with two wedges of cheese.
“I wouldn’t….” Savarin smiled weakly, resting his lolling head against the rowboat’s flank. “I’d keep well away from that Roquefort, Signore–if you value your life. Try the brie.”
Cellini cut a piece from the brie, sampled it, handed what remained to de Borose. “Perhaps, chef, it was the particular history of this unnamed isle that prompted you to choose it as the site for our repast. Were you aware that, before the advent of Monsieur Guillotin’s humane invention, condemned men were once chained to this very table and allowed to be drowned by the tide? We have no shackles…but given your condition, I expect they won’t be needed. I only hope you may recover the dexterity to taste that fine cheese before the end.”
Replacing the cork of the Sauternes, he loaded it into the boat, then with great care pulled himself aboard. He arranged himself upon the seat and fixed the oars.
“Savarin!” called de Borose, as the rowboat faded into fog in the direction of Cellini’s anchored dinghy. “My sweetbreads…they were…delicious, were they not? Worthy of old Lucantonio? Savarin?”
Savarin’s voice came unsteady but clear from the gray. “I thought the foie gras a bit overmuch. You should have left my glaze alone.”
“Liar!” called de Borose. “It was a masterpiece.”
A seagull settled on his knee.