8 December, 1328
One of the favourite haunts of the Rakehells was a tavern with exquisite fare known as La Pentola – ‘The Cookpot’. Through its narrow half-door and large interior portal were wide rooms with long polished tables that would quickly be heaped with delicious foods.
The story of its founding was made to amuse Cesco. One of the palace’s former cooks had departed in a fit of pique during that week when Cangrande had played at being dead and Mastino had the running of the palace. Insults to his person, the cook could have endured. But insults to his food, never. So, leaving his son to continue in the palace, Antonio Gioco departed in a fit of temper.
He did not travel far, just a few streets away, around the corner of the Piazza delle Erbe, to an inn with an invidious reputation that happened to be run by his wife’s cousin. And here Antonio began cooking furiously. Within weeks the place’s reputation had changed. It now drew monied but common folk, those who had never dined at the palace and wanted to taste creations invented for the Scaligeri.
No fool, the cousin-in-law, Mondadori, quickly altered the nature of his establishment. La Pentola was no longer a mere trader’s post and feeding trough for traveling merchants. The Cookpot was now a destination for travelers and locals wishing to eat noble foods.
Mondadori was afeared, after Cangrande’s miraculous resurrection, that his cousin’s husband would return to the palace. Certainly Cangrande asked. But it seemed the elder Gioco enjoyed being his own man, not tied to the vagaries of a lord’s whims.
Business got an even more impressive boost some months later. There was a dish Cangrande particularly favoured, based on Hebrew cuisine, a baked onion salad. Though the younger Gioco did his best, he could not recreate the dish as it had been made at the hands of his father. So one day, to the astonishment of those within and without, the Scaliger had strode into the inn, sat himself at a trestle table, and commanded a bowl of it.
From that moment onwards, La Pentola had to turn business away. Gioco introduced the people to Golden Morsels, those sugared bread delights that so fascinated the nobility. He offered lamb, duck, and boar in sauces that lingered in the memory, making the mouth water. He taught the trick of reversing a fish so the fat was rendered, leaving only the flavour. The costs of the spices and meats were huge, yes. But Mondadori was able to command magnificent sums – there was no price too high for someone wishing to eat as well as the Prince.
In three years, the place had undergone a transformation. It was now well-lit and clean (the latter allowing the former), and decorated with magnificently carved tables and stools of the darkest hue, so brown they were almost black. They had been able to pay for a new façade, the banded red brick and cream marble that was so much the Veronese style.
It was still an inn, attracting all types. This last month it had been filled to bursting for the wedding of Verona’s heir, and the ongoing revelry had hardly slackened their demand. When the heir himself appeared this evening, carting a sack and looking for food for himself and his companions, Mondadori was hard-pressed to find space for them.
To his relief, Cesco grinned at him. “While we wait, I’ll just pop into the kitchens and say hello to Antonio.” And, his satchel over his shoulder, he vanished around the corner and down the stairs, into the kitchens built into the ancient Roman ruins beneath the building.
The rest of the young men (some of them not so young), stamped their feet free of snow and clapped their arms. It was an unusually cold winter, and the snow had come early and lay heavily over the ground. Most of the time you could just sweep the light dusting away. But not this year, when the Adige had a thin skein of ice across it and little children were able to fashion snowballs for the first time in their lives.
Clearly the Rakehells, as they were coming to be known, had spent the day in some active sport out-of-doors. They were covered in snow, blue of nose and red of cheek. Some Mondadori knew well – the Bonaventura twins, Petruchio and Hortensio; the Nogarola brothers Detto and Valentino; Cangrande’s bastard sons Bartolomeo and Ziliberto; and Prince Rupert, nephew of the Holy Roman Emperor, some of whose party were still lodged here.
Others he knew only by their reputations. Fabio Scolari and Yuri Castorani, the hawk and the bear, adult mercenaries in Verona’s employ, whiling away their winter sporting and cavorting with Verona’s heir. The little sour-faced blond lad was obviously the young Capulletto boy, Thibault, who so often sparred with his uncle. And the last pair were Paduan by their accents, and possibly the eldest after Yuri and Fabio. The red-haired one had to be Signor Benedick. Which made the other one with the calm voice, happy face, and liquid eyes Salvatore.
Cesco returned just as a table was cleared, the previous occupants chivvied to their rooms with an extra helping of wine. Still carrying his satchel, Cesco plopped himself down in the midst of the party and made idle talk until the wine, bread, and cheese had been served. “Don’t be gluttons with the bread,” he warned. “I’ve seen what Gioco’s cooking tonight, and we may never move again.”
“This,” barked Yuri, “from a lad thin as a whippet.”
“That would be a fine name for him,” agreed Fabio. “Isn’t whippet a smallish breed of greyhound?”
“A bastardized breed,” agreed Yuri.
“The bastard of a bastard,” chortled Thibault.
Cesco snorted. “That jest is so old, I wonder it hasn’t turned to vinegar.”
“Or piss,” said Petruchio sourly.
“Oh, my dear brother was quite inventive. He discovered that if you take a platter outside in this weather and urinate into it, you will soon have a sheet of frozen urine.”
“That can be slid under locked doors,” added Hortensio, chortling. His twin smacked him across the back of his head. There were gravely amused looks all around as everyone eyed the fellows they lived with suspiciously.
“Speaking of terrible ideas,” said Salvatore, pointing, “Ser Francesco, you should send that back to the kitchens. It’s gone bad.”
The loaf of bread he was indicating was dark and hard, less inviting than the flaky warm bread along the rest of the table. Cesco glanced at it, then drew it closer. “It is dark as my heart, and somehow I will choke it down.” He clapped his hands. “Well, I'm certain you’re all desperate to know why I’ve asked you here. The fact of the matter is this – I have need of you all, my friends! The Capitano has deputed me to oversee the Christmas revels!”
“That’s like asking Lucifer to oversee a Christening,” laughed Cesco’s half-brother Barto.
“Or a tart to run a nunnery,” opined his other half-brother Berto.
“Two sides of a coin, those two,” muttered young Petruchio.
“Obverse and Reverse,” chortled his twin, Hortensio.
“Quiet, dunce, or they’ll use those names on us!”
“Speaking of coins, Obverse,” said Cesco (Petruchio rolled his eyes heavenward), “I’m to be given the dies for the minting of new coins. I’ve decided to have my own made. Any suggestions?”
They all bandied about ideas, roaring more loudly with each progressively foul suggestion. It was only when the image of a greyhound killing a hare while tupping a goat was floated that they had to rein in their creativity – because the food had arrived.
There was Apple Muse, boiled apples in almond milk and honey; there was a delicious platter of fawn-meat in a light applesauce; and a favourite of every true Veronese, boiled meats in Pearà sauce. A thick winter dish combining day-old bread, butter, marrow from the osso buco bone, meat broth, cheese, nutmeg, and a heavy dose of black pepper.
In a season of feasts and revels, this was perhaps not the most lavish table set. But it was sumptuous, and the intimacy and simplicity of the place combined with the lack of ceremony to make it a thoroughly enjoyable meal.
“Better than anything you’d get at La Rosa Colta,” said Detto softly.
Cesco arched an eyebrow his cousin’s way. “Not anything.”
It would have been perfect left there, but several men had to add their wit, and there were many jokes about fish. Blushing, Detto deflected the jests by turning to Cesco. “So, cos, what are these Christmas chores you need our help with?”
“Well first, I was thinking of decorating the Advent Sunday trees with these apples,” said Cesco, dumping the contents of his satchel onto the long table. They were deeply red, hard and crisp to look at, and had the table not been replete with apple dishes already, they would have been devoured at once.
“What’s special about these apples?” demanded Yuri suspiciously, lifting one.
“They’re magic apples,” said Cesco. Everyone laughed, knowing the old joke. Detto blushed again. “No, truly they’re from the Garden of Eden. One bite and you will have the knowledge of good and evil.”
Yuri stared at his, then slowly put it down. “I do not trust you, I.”
Cesco grinned. “With good cause.”
The moment the apple was still, it rattled and fell over. “Jesus!” cried Yuri, jumping backwards. The laughter was stifled by rattles coming from the rest of the apples, which were twitching and quivering on the table. One apple started to roll towards Prince Rupert, who speared it to the table with his knife. That stopped its approach, but not the rattle within. Noting the butt of the apple was not quite flush, he tugged at it. A beetle shot forth, darting off the edge of the table towards the shadowy back stairs.
“See?” said Cesco lightly. “The knowledge of Good and Evil. Good without, evil within.”
“Ser Francesco!” cried Mondadori, blanching in dismay as he ran over to collect the other rattling apples. “We cannot have beetles in the kitchen!”
“Oh come!” retorted Cesco. “Where do you think I got him?”
Several people in the inn eyed their dishes askance, unsure if he was joking. Mondadori rushed from one to the next, assuring them he was.
“Obverse! Reverse!” Cesco snapped his fingers at the Bonaventura twins, who winced, realizing the names had stuck. “I have a task that can only be performed by you.” Their eyes became warily eager. “I need you to sit down and recount, word for word, you parents’ best fights. I have a mind to pen a Nativity play, but with the Virgin and her husband as Kate and Petruchio.”
The table might have shattered into pieces, so loud was the roar of laughter that shook it. Embracing the task, the twins rose at once to portray the Saviour’s parents as their famously combative parents. Petruchio played his namesake, Hortensio their shrewish mother.
“If you don’t like the ass, woman, dismount, and I’ll take my ease! These boots are murdering me!”
“Good! I had them made just for that purpose. And I never said I didn’t like my mount.”
“You complained of the ass!”
“I was speaking of you!”
“You adore my ass.”
“Yes yes, the ass that launched a thousand ships. But though the ass is admirable, the ass that wears it is abominable. How much longer must I bear it.”
“‘Tis I that bears it.”
“My swollen belly proves you a liar.”
“Look, he said we may refuge in that manger.”
“I may refuse my refuge. A mangier manger there never was.”
“You’ll manage that manger, then, to make it less mangy.”
“Oh, I’m to clean, am I? What, is the divine child supposed to wait until I’m done tidying up?”
“Hardly! If he’s divine, he can pop out and help with the sweeping!”
“You mock his divinity?”
“Not at all. I mock myself for falling prey to such a tale. ‘O, I love you, Guiseppe, I truly do. Don’t mind I’m pregnant. The baby belongs to the Lord.’ Which lord, I ask. Because if it’s that nobleman with the fancy camel up the road—”
“I’d never fancy his camel as much as I fancy your ass, dear.”
Howls, tears, fists pounding the table. They carried on through the birth, responding as much to the heckling Rakehells as to each other. At last the Savior was born, portrayed by Cesco crawling out from between Hortensio’s legs and proclaiming, “Here I am! Where are my gifts?”
Yuri, Fabio, and Salvatore played the three wise men, offering gifts of lint, dust, and spit. They sang scandalous versions of Jacopone da Todi’s Christmas rounds, shocking the ears of some other guests but gaining the approval of even more. They danced and cavorted, flapping their arms and clapping their hands, singing until their voices creaked and croaked.
“Bring me some water,” cried Cesco, coughing from too much mirth. “And in that fine glass vessel!”
Mondadori looked stricken. The Cookpot’s glass pitcher, made in the Holy Land, was a truly treasured piece. Yet he could not deny Verona’s heir.
He was relieved to see when he returned that the table was more ordered, with Cesco returned to his seat and the others gathered around.
“So, here I am, the Savior at table surrounded by my twelve closest friends. I seemed to have aged prematurely, leaping from birth to Last Supper in a single night. And I haven’t even performed any miracles!”
“Loaves and fishes!” shouted Barto and Berto, still hungry.
“Not if we’re starting with that loaf,” sneered Thibault, pointing at the untouched dark loaf beside Cesco.
“And wait until we’re at La Rosa Colta to multiply the fishes!” added Yuri loudly.
“Are you planning to raise the dead?” asked Salvatore.
“Or walk on water?” snorted Rupert.
“No no. For my first miracle, I shall turn water to wine!”
“You mean wine to urine!” shouted Benedick.
“We needn’t see you do it, though,” added Thibault wryly.
Cesco plucked up a chunk of unbroken bread that had been sitting by him, untouched through the meal. He tore it in half over the clear pitcher, so that chunks of it fell to disturb the water. “Take. Eat. This is my body—”
“Then your body’s a corpse,” mused Fabio, staring at the bread.
Cesco frowned. “Fine.” He dropped the butt of bread he was holding into the pitcher.
“If that’s your body,” laughed young Petruchio, “then you’re planning to walk on water after all!”
They were chortling and teasing when suddenly Berto shouted, “Look!”
Amazed, the watching Rakehells saw the water turn cloudy, growing darker and darker until the liquid was unmistakably the colour of wine.
“Cesco, what did you—?”
“How did you—?”
“What in Heaven’s name—?”
Cesco waited for their amazed gasps and questions to end. Then he poured from the pitcher into each other their cups. “This is my wine. You are my apostles.” He gazed around at them. “I wonder which of you will betray me.” He let that linger for a time, then grinned. “But until we find out, bottoms up!”
Some time later, after Cesco had made Benedick pay for the meal from a borrowed purse and everyone prepared to depart for their next bit of sport, Detto drew near his cousin. “How did you do it?”
He would not answer anyone else. But for his childhood playmate, Cesco could not resist a teasing answer. “How do you think?”
“It was the bread. But how?”
“Simplicity itself. Yesterday I soaked the bread in wine, then let it dry. When we arrived, I went downstairs and asked Gioco to help me set up my ‘miracle’.”
Detto grinned. “Well done. For a moment they were convinced. I think Thibault still is.”
Cesco laughed. “He thinks I’m divine now, does he?”
“Infernal, more like.”
“Either will do.” Shrugging, Cesco wrapped an arm about his cousin’s shoulders as the pair of them headed for the door. “Thank Gioco, will you, Mondadori? And thanks for the use of your pitcher. It was – miraculous!”
Thinking the real miracle was that the glass vessel had survived, Mondadori waved them out. “Glad to be of service, my lord. You and your twelve apostles are welcome any time.”
There was an unforeseen effect. The story spread swiftly that night – of the playacting, the singing, and the ‘miracle’. Some recognized it for what it was, others scoffed or crossed themselves. But some believed. People began to come to the inn, hoping to find the twelve new apostles there.
Mondadori was a businessman. As with Gioco, he knew a good thing when he saw it. Within two days, he’d commissioned a new sign to hang above his door, effectively renaming his inn: 12 Apostoli.