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The Royal Taste Tester

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A taste tester lists the pros and cons of the most overlooked job in the royal retinue

Patrick Moody
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The Royal Taste Tester

To be a royal taste tester is to dance with death at every breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Not a dance, really, when you’re sitting in a nice, comfy chair in the dining hall, but you catch my drift. When people find out what I do, the question is usually “how does one get such a job?” After all, when you chalk up the risk vs. benefit analysis, it’s really not a bad gig. Plenty of people would kill for it. Getting paid to gob on cheese and parfaits and chocolate mousse? Please. The gallons of spiced wine and mead aren’t bad, either. Not to mention the pork roasts and seared salmon and game hens. Get some battered potato dumplings with the right honey drizzle…

But I digress.

The answer is threefold. First, you must have an iron stomach. Not that you should have a huge gut, per se (it’s not uncommon for a taster to be bursting out of his breeches), but it needs to be strong enough to handle a six course meal three times a day without fail. Most guests pass on a lot of the offerings. A taster gets no such luxury. The gullet is made for stuffing, after all…

Can’t say that rule applied to Malin the Maladjusted. Never heard of a man with a more delicate stomach. Ate like a bird, and when he did, could never handle anything spicier than milk. It wasn’t uncommon for Malin to excuse himself before the third course was out, knocking over dukes and duchesses on his mad dash to the privy.

Second: you must not fear death. After all, the taste tester is the last line of defense. It’s our duty to take the hit (proverbial or literal) for our Lord Protector, in case the cook (or assassin, in most cases) has been a little liberal with the poison. People always worry about a king getting killed on the battlefield. Ha! Sure, a king could die that way. But not every king is a glory hound nut job who charges the front lines swinging a sword like a pompous oaf. Some kings are more cowardly than others. Some prefer to stay behind their castle walls in comfort. Those kings aren’t much fun for the history books, but believe you me, they’re the smartest. They’re the ones who live long enough to read a history book.

Wyman the Weak-Kneed wasn’t much for bravery. The poor sap had to be tied to his chair when he tested his king’s dishes. The very sight of the food would send him into a panic, so the household guard had to blindfold him just so he could get through the meal without fainting. Needless to say, dinner in that castle was never a casual affair. I heard they had a padded room in one of the towers to keep him when he caught a case of the fits.

Third: You must love food. Now this one may seem a bit obvious, but when I say ‘love food’, I mean know the ins and outs of every meal. That’s ingredients, taste, presentation, pairings…the whole lot. It’s knowing every herb and spice, every broth and batter. Heaven help the taster who can’t tell parsley from sage. Looking for poison’s not all we do. The king relies on us for everything when it comes to food. “No, m’lord, this wine won’t go with that duck. It’s too sweet. You need a darker, oakier vintage, m’lord. Yes, m’lord, the cheese is fine. No, no, no, the blue lines mean that it’s old. You won’t catch plague, m’lord.” That sort of thing. A taster must live and breathe cuisine. If something on that plate looks fishy, something other than fish, of course, it’s our job to notice.

This wasn’t a problem for Hylan the Hoggish. The way he ate, it’s a wonder there was ever any left to go around. Greedy as the day is long, and with an appetite to match, he ran the cooks ragged in that castle. His king actually lost weight during his reign. He’d get the crusts, if he was lucky. Even got stabbed once, trying to reach past Hylan for a second helping of rump roast. Oh, Hylan loved his food. Poisoned soup finally did him in. Legend has it the king was surprised he didn’t finish the entire bowl before he fell into it face-first.

The taster also serves as a dinner companion to his lordship. After all, they need someone to laugh and scoff at the jester with, and queens are quickly bored with jesters. I’ve served a handful of kings in my time. Some of them trusted me with their deepest secrets. After all, I risked my own life day in and day out for theirs, so you can imagine the confidence they placed in me. Most I’ve tasted for have been level headed. I’ve only served a few warmongering ones. These, I quickly came to find, didn’t care so much for pomp and circumstance. It was all meat off the bone and ale, which they commanded I throw back with them in copious amounts. In all my years, I can safely say that these were the most difficult men to serve. The food was fine to test. Nothing fancy, usually plenty of muttonchops and venison haunches and bacon-strips. The drink, though…Let’s just say many a feast lasted well into the next morning. The hangovers…those lasted a few days longer.

Now there’s a little known fourth rule that I don’t usually include in my answer to the above question, mostly because it’s a little too ‘doom and gloom’ for friendly conversation. A taste tester must also be loyal. Loyalty to one’s king is paramount. After all, if a tester isn’t loyal to the king he’s tasting for, who’s to say he won’t point out the fact that the salad dressing’s been spiked with a healthy dollop of hemlock? (Hemlock’s poison, by the way, so don’t go chewing on your shrubbery out back. Just ask Socrates. He’s in the history books, I think). I’ve heard plenty of stories about testers who’ve been bribed to ‘looked the other way’ as their lord choked on a tampered turkey leg. It happens more often than you think.

Take Leland the Lovey-Dovey, a renowned taster from the next kingdom over. Offed his king to make off with his daughter. Princesses are good for a tryst, I suppose, but when it comes to wife material, they’re hardly willing to give up the castles and carriages and gowns. Well, Leland learned that the hard way. The affair didn’t last long, and when it ended, the castle guards locked him away for good. I saw that princess once. Not worth the dungeon, if you ask me.

Taste testing’s serious business. There’s a lot riding on those first few fork-fulls. Every meal is show time, but not every one is a big, fancy feast. Not as glamorous as that, I’m afraid. No, I’ve stood watch over bleary-eyed breakfasts, hasty lunches, quick snacks, and, yes, the occasional formal festivity. Don’t kid yourself, though. It’s not the size of the meal that matters. Even the smallest morsel can be deadly. Say the king fancies himself a handful of grapes at three in the morning. Guess what? As the tester, you’d better be ready to head on up there in your pajamas and pluck one from the bushel. Last thing you’d want is the king croaking on your watch. I’ve seen plenty of tasters face the hangman’s noose just because they couldn’t be bothered getting up in the middle of the night.

No matter the hour, the kitchen is a mob: a hot, bustling room chock filled with hectic servers, overworked scullions, and panic-stricken chefs (who, I might add, are all stark-raving mad). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked through a kitchen and been scalded with a boiling hot bowl of stew, or poked in the face with a serving skewer of fowl, or slipped and fell on a pile of steaming fish guts haphazardly chucked in the corner.

While the dining hall itself may be a place of eloquence, grace, and beauty, the kitchen below is a whirlwind of grime and smoke and toil. The scraps aren’t bad though, and if you play your cards right, there’s always scraps. Just a matter of sweet-talking the right handmaiden. Judging from the size of my gut, I think I’ve sweet-talked one too many. Surprised my teeth aren’t riddled with cavities.

There’s a certain pride that goes along with being a taster. For starters, you always get a seat at the big table, right next to the king. When the servers bring out the dishes, it’s always you who gets the first crack at them. They saunter out nervously from the kitchens, arms heavy with pewter pots and pans, all steaming fresh from the ovens. Then the cupbearers file in, deftly clutching the casks of ale, the decanters brimming with every shade of spiced wine (a personal favorite).

Once it’s all laid out on the table, all eyes fall on you. A hush falls over the room as you grab your gold-plated fork from the sheath on your belt. The lords and ladies all look on in bated breath as you stab the prongs into that first piece. The room is silent as you lift it up to your nose. You sniff. Eyebrows raise. A damsel gasps. An empty stomach growls. A pin could drop.

If it passes the shnoz test, you lower the fork to your mouth. The eyes of the dinner guests widen as you smile, nod to the king, and shovel it in.

The first chew is always the worst. Your heart stops. You can never taste anything that first chomp. There’s too much nerves. Now the entire hall is fixed on you. The king looks on gravely, watching your every move, reading your face like a book. You chew again. Your tongue is an explosion of sensation, every taste bud hard at work. Like a machine, you go through the list of ingredients. If you’re good enough, you can name every single one on the spot. By the seventh or eighth chew, if nothing tastes out of the ordinary, you swallow. Then you sit back and wait. Most poison is instant. If it’s there, it shouldn’t take very long. A good assassin knows that time is of the essence. If after a few minutes your stomach doesn’t feel like it’s about to explode and your skin doesn’t turn yellow, you nod, ushering the server to carve up the rest for the guests.

Now, repeat that about twelve times without keeling over like a dying toad, and you, my friend, have successfully taste tested your first royal banquet.

Then the good part: You lean back in your chair, and a feeling of relief washes over you; a calm like you’ve never felt in your life. Death is evaded, for another day at least. And all you had to do was sit, chew, sip, chug, nibble and slurp.

There’s not much glory in it, I’ll give you that. It’s not as flashy as trotting out onto a battlefield with a steed and a mace, facing a hail of arrows and a horde of barbarians, but there’s really not too much difference when you get down to it. Lives are still on the line, even if there’s cakes and crumpets and a troubadour plucking a lute in the corner. Worst-case scenario is you croak from a bad biscuit.

But I’ll tell you what: the halls I’ve had the pleasure of dining in? I could think of worse ways to go. Only one suffering is the tailor. My breeches need adjusting more often than not.

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