It’s Christmas Eve, the tree is up, the wine is poured and the mince pies are nestling on the plate, which can only mean one thing – time for more seasonal mayhem and devilry from one of our wonderful Crime Cymru authors. To mark the occasion, Thorne Moore tempts us with a succulent taste of Christmas dinner… although it’s never going to be that straightforward. This is Crime Cymru after all.
CHEF’S SPECIAL by Thorne Moore
A scream split the dusty air. Aunt Fi came at me, waving a newspaper, her mouth open in horror.
‘Have you seen it? There. There! What am I to do? How can I compete with that?’
I lowered the paperchain I had been attempting to hook across the ceiling and took the paper from her, trying to absorb the import of the story spread across the entire sheet. “White Horse Follows its Christmas Star.” Beneath the headline was a picture of The White Horse Inn, the adjoining filling station strategically masked by a huge Christmas tree and its proud owners, Frank and Shelly Thorpe, embracing their new chef, in his blinding whites, along with a sub-heading. “Local hostelry acquires Michelin star talent for Christmas.”
‘Ah,’ I said, immediately understanding the reason for the scream. My Aunt Fi had been left in sole ownership of the Cock and Bull on the death of Uncle Bill, and had done her innocent best, with my help, to convert a hopelessly unaspiring ale house into a business with a faint hope of warding off the bailiffs. We had thrown out the spittoons, the greasy bar stools, the sour beers flatter than a Dutch polder and thinner than a footballer’s WAG and had brought in upholstery, hanging baskets, continental lagers and FOOD.
‘People expect to eat as well as drink, these days,’ I had explained. The business was important to me, so I was happy to act as chief business adviser, after my uncle’s death. It was partly out of concern for poor Fi, but I admit it was even more out of a concern for my own future. If it kept afloat or, even better, managed to thrive, the Cock and Bull would, with any luck, be mine. My mother, in revenge for my father’s elopement with a pneumatic twenty-year-old, had sold up the family home and was spending the proceeds on luxury cruises and toy-boy masseurs. My childless aunt’s pub was now my only hope of an inheritance.
So, on my advice, Fi had invested in good steel catering equipment and hired a chef, Derek, an anaemic waif called Elly to clear up around him, and a pretty Pole, Magda, to serve the customers. Business improved just enough to see the takings edge up from rock bottom.
And now this. The White Horse had been another no-hope swill-saloon half a mile down the road, until the Thorpes had bought it and turned it round in much the same manner as the Cock and Bull. We were running neck and neck until the Thorpes had upped the game with this move. As Fi said, how were we possibly to compete with this underhand gambit?
‘Sit down,’ I said, pushing her into a chair and pouring her a brandy. ‘We’ll get through this, I promise.’ Easy to say. My plans for wringing the most out of Christmas – a laughing Santa at the door, a karaoke night and free nuts on the counter – now seemed hopelessly inadequate. Even sticking turkey on the menu was a lost cause in the face of a Michelin star. But I refused to surrender. ‘All it takes is a bit of imagination, Fi. Gastro pub, that’s what we’ll be. We’ll run rings round the Thorpes and their snooty star. We’ll be famous world-wide for originality and flair.’
My aunt looked up at me with tears of despair and uttered the one word, ‘Derek.’
Yes. No escaping it. There was the rub: Derek our chef. I used the term ‘chef’ in its loosest sense. He had the gear, it was true. He knew how to tie an apron, and he had honed to perfection his one culinary skill, the switching on and off of the deep-fat fryer. If he had other skills, he kept them well hidden behind a burly façade of foul-mouthed, slovenly pig-headedness. Not matter what I or Fi suggested by way of additions to the menu, if it wasn’t deep-fried, with chips, Derek didn’t want to know. Christmas was around the corner and we all knew how the turkeys I had ordered would finish up.
Until now, we had rested secure in the depressingly universal appeal of cod and chips, sausage and chips, chicken and chips, and just chips. By dint of installing a microwave round the corner by the bar where Derek couldn’t see it, I had managed to add pie and chips to the selection, and I stood ready with a bowl of garnish so every plate went out with a spoonful of shredded iceberg and half a tomato, but that was it. I had been planning to have some ready-cooked brussel sprouts and carrots on hand, to garnish the deep-fried turkey and chips in the Christmas week that was almost upon us, but that was no longer going to be nearly enough. Somehow, we would have to persuade Derek to move up onto an altogether higher plane. That, or let him go, and letting him go wasn’t really an option as he was bigger than all of us put together.
‘Leave Derek to me,’ I said, oozing fake confidence to ward off my aunt’s total melt-down. ‘We’ll hold a kitchen council.’
So we did. I tried to chair it.
‘Get out of my kitchen,’ said Derek. He used three times as many words, but I am being polite.
‘We have to face up to this challenge,’ I insisted, as he hurled his bulk past me, towards the sink, nearly knocking me off my stool. ‘We have to find a theme, a niche market, aim for originality here. Don’t you agree, Elly?’
By way of response, Elly gave a terrified squeak, because Derek had turned to glower at her.
‘Of course we must,’ said Magda. ‘You want originality? I do Polish food, yes. I do bigos with sauerkraut, I do czernina with duck blood, I do Kaszanka with pig lungs. Yes?’
‘Um,’ I said.
‘No,’ said Derek. Actually what he said was ‘What the * no * Polish * * in my * kitchen. * off.’
‘I’m thinking Gastro Pub,’ I said.
‘Gastro, my *’ said Derek. ‘I’m doing fish’n’chips, sausage’n’chips and chicken’n’chips, so * live with it.’
‘We won’t live with it though, Derek. Can’t you see? If we don’t compete with The White Horse this Christmas, the Cock and Bull won’t survive to see the new year, and we’ll all be out of a job.’
‘* that,’ said Derek. ‘I’ll get another job elsewhere.’
‘Easy for you, with your exceptional skills, but think about Elly and Magda.’
Elly gave a sob.
‘Girls,’ Derek leered. ‘What are they worried about? They can always get their tits out and go on the game.’
‘You say that, I kill you,’ said Magda.
I kept my temper with difficulty. ‘I don’t want any of us to lose our jobs. I don’t want my aunt to lose this pub. We have to change the menu. I shall sort it out, I shall order the ingredients, and I shall announce, in the Herald, that one week from today, we shall have our grand Christmas relaunch.’
‘Like *,’ said Derek.
There was nothing for it but to stick to my guns and pray that Derek would finally rise to the challenge. I perused Larousse. I searched for alternative menus on-line, I sneaked into rival pubs and restaurants to spy on the competition, I ordered ingredients by the crateload. Geese as well as the turkeys, venison steaks, lobster, turbot, wild boar sausages, scallops, duck breasts, salsify, lemon grass, avocados, tomatillos… I constructed a menu for our opening night that would put the White Horse’s equine nose totally out of joint.
We were to launch on the Saturday, precisely one week before Christmas Day and Twenty-four hours before The White Horse Christmas launch. On Friday night, as we cleared up from our last evening on the old menu, we swept the decks, and then I dragged Derek back from the bar where he had been raiding the optics. I laid the new menu before him and showed him the ingredients, now laid out in colourful, mouth-watering display, on the preparation table.
‘This is it, Derek. This what we are doing from tomorrow. The recipes are all there and you are going to do wonders with them.’
‘* that,’ said Derek.
‘No point fighting it,’ I said. ‘I have kidnapped all the sausages, cod pieces and chicken quarters, and the frozen chips are in the bin. It will be this, or nothing.’
‘I’m not * working with that * *,” said Derek.
‘But they’re beautiful ingredients, Derek. Art in food form. Look at them. Drink in the colour, savour the juiciness, be inspired. I know you can do it.’
‘* that,’ snorted Derek and stormed out, slamming the door.
‘He’ll calm down,’ I said confidently. Elly and Magda looked unconvinced as they stowed the display back into fridges and larders. As unconvinced as I felt, but I’d binned the chips. Surely he’d have to comply.
The next morning, we were in early to prepare for the big event. The pub was to remain closed until our grand evening launch, to which I had invited every local dignitary and a dozen food critics. Magda, Elly and I worked on arranging tables, sorting flowers and polishing cutlery, before we tramped into the kitchen to prepare for Derek’s inevitably sullen arrival. If he found everything in full swing, ingredients already prepared, what could he do but surrender?
Unfortunately, surrender wasn’t a word in Derek’s colourful vocabulary. For the one and only time in his life, he had prised himself out of bed before noon – six hours before, and he was already at work. He was standing over the deep fryer.
‘Oh,’ said Elly, drawn straight to the bins, which were bulging with assorted greenery, everything from samphire to summer savory. Heart thumping, I marched to the fridges and flung them open. Empty. Magda was pointing meaningful at the fryer, from which arose the oily aroma of deep-fried venison steaks, wild boar sausages, lobster…
Elly stepped up to look, hands to her mouth. Derek shoved her back, roughly, and she collided with an open cupboard door, with a painful squeal.
I screamed in rage.
‘You * expect me to cook this * *, so I’m * cooking it. You got a problem?’ Gleeful in his triumphant defiance, he slapped Magda on the backside and when she turned in fury to face him, he grabbed her bountiful breast. ‘Lovely tits, darling.’
Derek had never made use of them, but we had equipped the kitchen with an excellent set of carbon steel knives. More than enough for one each, which explains how four, rather than three, blades sliced through Derek’s blubbery flesh and hit home in his vital organs. I’m not sure who used two. Probably Magda, who has always struck me as more Latin than Polish. It is certain that all three of us, swept up by the heightened emotions of the moment, did the deed, but I cannot say for sure which of us struck the fatal blow. I imagine, that is a very important point, in legal terms, but I might be wrong.
We stood, panting with rage and shock, around the mountainous body of the late Derek and the rapidly spreading pool of his blood.
Elly was the first to find her voice. ‘Oh! Oh! What have I done? Oh no! I didn’t mean it. I don’t want to go to prison!’
‘Not prison!’ said Magda. ‘Not for this fat pig. I say we shove him in the river. Who knows? Maybe the fish stab him, yes?’
‘Never mind Derek!’ I said, aghast. ‘What about our opening night? Everyone’s invited.’
‘So we open,’ Magda shrugged. ‘Stick him in the chill room. We cook.’
‘Yes, but cook what? The beef and venison and goose and turbot, everything! He’s destroyed it all!’
‘The vegetables are all right, I think,’ piped up Elly. ‘We cleaned the bins last night.’
‘Yes, but the meat. He’s ruined all the meat. What can we serve that…’
We looked again at Derek on the floor. Magda pulled out the four knives and thoughtfully perused the full range. Cook’s knives, paring knife, boning knife, fillet knife, palette knife, cleaver. I looked at the sharpening steel, and the mincer. Elly looked at the massive stock pots.
‘Anyone seen Derek this morning?’ I asked. ‘Well, if he can’t be bothered to turn up for work, we’ll just have to manage without him.’
I have to say, the evening went fantastically well. Crackers were pulled, carols were sung, wine and beer consumed in quantity, but most importantly the food was a triumph. The diners were hugely appreciative and promised us some excellent reviews. We were utterly exhausted by the end of the day, of course, but it had all been so worth it. I am a culinary genius. I’d never realised it until then, having restricted my efforts to boiling the odd egg, but in the face of a crisis, my true vocation burst forth. It’s amazing how different and varied you can make the same thing taste, with the addition of herbs, spices, soy sauce and exotic fruits. The fish options were a problem, but with the help of Thai fish sauce and a stray tin of pilchards, we managed to produce a range of spicy griddled cakes and titbits in tempura that seemed to pass muster.
An exciting by-product, which we offered as mementos of the evening, at a reasonably modest price, was the thyme and sage scented salt fat, derived exclusively from the rare, indeed virtually unknown, black-backed Marsh Goose of the Dovey estuary. It flew from the shelves, some diners buying two or three pots, for fear of not being able to find it again, although we assured them we had a plentiful supply. Our stock pot also excelled.
‘Congratulations on a triumphant evening,’ said the Mayor, shaking my aunt’s hand enthusiastically, as she fluttered in disbelief at the sudden rise in our fortunes. ‘Is the chef at hand? I want to compliment him in person.’
‘Alas.’ I stepped in, hurriedly. ‘It’s very sad, but we were just on the point of opening when he received a phone call, summoning him to his grandmother’s bedside in New Zealand.’ I squeezed Aunt Fi’s hand as she gaped in consternation. ‘He was so torn, but I assured him we’d cope. We’d serve up his dishes as if he were here in the flesh.’
‘Well you’ve certainly done him proud,’ said the Mayor, patting his stomach.
I smiled modestly. ‘And I shall let him know how much his contribution was appreciated. You won’t believe how much he put into this evening’s dishes.’
‘I don’t doubt it. Pass on my compliments, when you can.’ He steered me to one side and contrived to whisper in my ear while appearing to pat me on the back. ‘My wife will never forgive me for saying it, but the Christmas dinner she serves up is always next to inedible. So don’t be surprised if I come knocking secretly on your kitchen door on Christmas night, in hope of another nibble or two. Scrumptious! Utterly scrumptious. If this doesn’t earn you a Michelin star, I don’t know what will. Tell your chef I thought the goose liver pâté with brandy was perfection, and the rump steak with the black pudding garnish was to die for.’
‘Ah, yes, the liver, the steak, the black pudding. They really are Derek to a T. In fact, everything tonight was a Chef’s Special.’ I eyed the mayor with a newly acquired connoisseur’s eye and an entrepreneurial concern for the new year’s business. He was a large man. Very firm of flesh and full of possibilities. I smiled. ‘You just slip through the door any time, Mr Mayor, and we’ll be ready for you. Merry Christmas.’
And so ends our season of Christmas stories. We hope that Thorne’s story and all our festive tales have whetted your appetite for the feast ahead. As Christmas beckons and as 2020 comes to an end… finally, on behalf of all our authors, we’d like to wish you all a Merry Christmas in the hope of a very much better new year for us all. We’ll see you again in 2021.