New 44 Scotland Street Chapter 25: Roger’s Porcini Soup

Now, sitting outside their house at Nine Mile Burn, looking out towards the blue folds of the Lammermuir Hills in the distance, they finished their anniversary glass of champagne together with a gentle touching of empty glasses.

Friday, 11th September 2020, 7:30 am

Returning to the kitchen, they found that James had finished putting the boys to bed and was peering into a pot that Elspeth had left warming on the side of the range.

“Sorry,” he said. “I can’t resist finding out what’s for dinner – and I think I know what this is.”

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It was the first course – the one that Elspeth had not mentioned to Matthew when he had guessed the rack of lamb and the apple pie.

“Roger’s Porcini Soup,” she said. “From …”

“From one of Mary Contini’s books,” supplied James. “Yes, I know the recipe.”

“Roger is Roger Collins,” Elspeth explained to Matthew. “He and Judith McClure are friends of Domenica and Angus, I think. He writes books on Medieval Spain and the Papacy, but he’s also a famous cook.”

James sniffed at the soup. “I love porcini to bits,” he said. “They’re the only mushroom I’d go out of my way for.”

“What about chanterelles?” said Matthew. “Porcini are delicious, but so are chanterelles.”

They sat down at the table.

“It’s very kind of you to invite me,” said James. “I mean, I know it’s your anniversary dinner and everything and I could very easily have gone into town. Or even into Peebles.”

“Nonsense,” said Matthew. “You live here. You’re the au pair. And we wanted you, anyway.”

“Matthew’s right,” said Elspeth. “You come with the house, so to speak.”

They laughed. Elspeth served the soup.

“The boys went straight to sleep,” said James. “I read to them, as per usual, but I could see them struggling to keep their eyes open. They’ve had a very physical day. They spent hours on the flying fox I rigged up for them. And then we went on a bear hunt in the rhododendrons. For ages.”

“The hunting instinct,” said Elspeth, a note of regret in her voice.

“I’m afraid that’s the way boys are,” Matthew said. “We can try to put them in touch with their feminine side, but nature, when all is said and done, tends to reassert itself.”

James looked doubtful. “I think you can do a lot to make people grow up non-violent. I was never allowed to play with toy guns, for example. And I don’t like guns as a result.”

“You never played Cowboys and Indians?” asked Matthew.

James looked blank. “Cowboys and Indians?”

“You see,” said Elspeth, who had returned to the table with the soup tureen. “That’s completely gone. At least here. I don’t know if boys still play it in Arizona or New Mexico, or places like that.”

“Perhaps they have a modernised version,” suggested Matthew. “A modernised version where the cowboys lose.”

Elspeth smiled. “Called Retribution?”

“I remember playing Chase the Dentist when I was small,” observed James, sniffing again at his soup. “Gorgeous. What a soup!”

“I know that game,” said Elspeth. “Its rules are very simple, I think. One person is the dentist and the rest all run after him.”

“And what about British Bulldog?” asked Matthew.

“A Unionist game,” said James.

Matthew grinned. “Possibly.” He paused, as he remembered another game of his childhood. “Of course, there’s Bonnie Prince Charlie. One person goes off and hides – preferably in the heather – and then everybody looks for him. It’s quite simple. When you find him you shout Jacobite! and then it’s somebody else’s turn. I played that. We were living in Moray Place in those days. We played it in the Moray Place Gardens.”

“Before the nudists took over?” asked Elspeth.

James looked puzzled. “Nudists? What nudists?”

“The Association of Scottish Nudists has its headquarters down there,” explained Matthew. “You often see them in the Moray Place Gardens.”

“How odd,” said James. He looked thoughtful. “Why do people take off their clothes?”

“It’s to do with being natural,” said Matthew. “It’s a whole philosophy. They call themselves naturists. It’s to do with feeling at one with nature and the elements.”

“That’s why Scottish nudists have such a thin time,” said Elspeth. “It must be great being a naturist in the South of France or Greece, or somewhere like that. It’s another matter here in Scotland.”

“Not for me,” said James, with a slight shiver.

“Well, British Bulldog is safer,” said Elspeth with a smile.

“My uncle taught me to play that,” said James.

Elspeth glanced at him. “Your uncle the …”

“Yes, the Duke,” said James. “Yes. He showed me and my friends how to play it. I distinctly remember. It was on the lawn at Single Malt House.”

Matthew reached out to pour the wine. “I haven’t seen your uncle recently. There was that business with the flying boat. I hope he’s all right.”

“He got over that,” said James. “He was hirpling for a while, but he was all right.”

“Good,” said Elspeth. “The whole thing was ridiculous. It could have ended far worse.”

They finished their soup. Then, while Elspeth was taking the rack of lamb out of the oven, Matthew said to James, “There’s something I wanted to talk to you about, James.”

James looked at him expectantly.

“It’s the future,” said Matthew.

“It’s all right,” said James. “I won’t stay forever.”

“No,” said Matthew. “We don’t want to get rid of you. Anything but. In fact, we were rather hoping that you would stay for another year – maybe even two. You’re in no hurry to go to uni, you said.”

“No. Not really. I want to go eventually, but I want a bit of a break from education.”

Matthew agreed. “I can understand that. I think you can get far more out of university if you go a bit later.” He fiddled with his fork. “I was wondering whether you might be able to help me in a new business I have a stake in.”

James waited.

“There’s a coffee bar run by a woman called Big Lou. She’s great. I’m now her business partner and I want to get somebody in to help her expand what she offers. She does bacon rolls at present, but that’s about it. You’re so good in the kitchen …”

James interrupted him. “Yes,” he said. “Yes. Count me in.”

“It would be part-time,” said Matthew. “You’d still do some looking after the boys. But we’d get you an assistant here, so to speak. We thought if we got an au pair girl from somewhere like Denmark, she could help Elspeth while you’re working at Big Lou’s. You’d divide your time.”

“Let’s get her tomorrow,” said James.

Matthew sat back in his chair. He was glad the conversation had gone so well. “I take it that’s a yes.”

“I already said yes,” said James. “In so many words. So take it as an underlining of the first yes.”

“Good,” said Matthew.

Then James said, “Actually, there was something I wanted to talk to you about. It’s my uncle. Something odd is going on.”

Mathew listened, and James told him. When the young man had finished, Elspeth, who had begun to carve the rack of lamb, put down her knife. “But that’s seriously worrying, James,” she said. “What are you going to do?”

James shrugged. “I’m only eighteen,” he said. “And when you’re eighteen, you sometimes run out of ideas.”

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