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Chapter 71 – New Year’s Eve in Aitheria
Berthold came shortly before sunset, as promised.
His wife, Helmina was with him. Berthold, who was carrying a large sack, wasn’t showing his usual rugged expression. Instead, it was full of affection as he tended to his pregnant wife while entering Izakaya Nobu through the sliding door.
「I’m in your care today, Shinobu-chan.」
「Sure, Taisho is also waiting inside.」
While welcoming Berthold and his wife, Shinobu squinted at the setting winter sun.
Inns & Stables Street had been dyed pure white due to the snow that had been falling since midnight yesterday until noon of today. The reflected light was dazzling. There was less traffic during New Year’s Eve, so the fallen snow was left to melt undisturbed.
「There’s only you and Taisho, Shinobu-chan?」
Berthold asked while pulling out a chair for Helmina.
「Yeah. The shop isn’t open today anyway. Eva-chan and Hans are at home, and Leontaine-san is going to a celebration held by the hometown association.」
A hometown association was a benefit society for people who had come from far-away places. There were a lot of people who, like Leontaine, had left their hometown for Aitheria, where business was more prosperous. These people would form a hometown association with a company as its centre to help support each other’s daily lives.
The association’s main services were lending or borrowing money and renting houses, but it was customary for their members to gather on New Year’s Eve with their hometown dishes. Leontaine was participating in the hometown association formed by the people from the southern part of the Empire, and she had been enthusiastic to make her special dish today.
「Is that so? Then I might have brought too much.」
Berthold dropped the sack on his shoulder and took out a bundle of wooden bark. The smell of delicious cheese drifted from within.
「This is cheese (käse) delivered from home. We have made fondue with this for many generations.」
Berthold, the company commander of the sentry corps, had come from a region of steep mountains. The area’s main exports were mercenaries and dairy products, and Shinobu had heard about the flavor of the cheese that they took pride in.
「I have never eaten cheese fondue before. Have you, Helmina-san?」
「I also have not. Even though we received the cheese from his hometown, we were only going to eat it during New Year’s Eve.」
Helmina started giggling. Her cheeks had gotten noticeably rounder than they were during the time she worked at Nobu. Even though her stomach didn’t have an obvious
bulge yet, the atmosphere around a woman probably changed when she was carrying a new life.
「Berthold-san, here are the ingredients you asked for.」
Nobuyuki came out from the back of the store with plenty of ingredients.
It ranged from sausages and thick slices of ham to baguettes, pre-cooked vegetables and blanched seafood like shrimps and shellfish.
「Excellent, excellent. As expected of Taisho. Now then, shall we begin the preparations?」
Berthold took out a pot from the sack and placed it on top of the gas stove, which had been prepared earlier. Berthold smiled suggestively as the carved cheese entered the pot.
「Berthold-san, what are you going to do from here?」
「Since the cheese will burn like this, I’ll add alcohol and stretch it out.」
「Are you adding wine?」
「If it were an ordinary cheese fondue, then sure. But, our fondue is a little different.」
He took out an old-fashioned earthenware pot. The moment he opened the lid, a faint floral smell drifted in Nobu.
「It’s a liquor called Zakuruschwasser. It’s brewed from the fruits of flowers that bloom in spring, and it’s the best for fondues.」
When Shinobu heard ‘flowers that bloom in spring’, she recalled a sight from the previous year.
Pale pink flowers that looked like sakura and were planted around Aitheria had been in full bloom. She was certain that Eva had said the flower was called zakuru.
「You can make liquor from that flower’s fruits? 」
「It’s unheard of in Aitheria or the surrounding regions of Sachnussenburg. It’s probably a custom only found in the mountains.」
While agreeing that it was a local brew of alcohol, Shinobu helped in the preparation for the cheese fondue.
Nobuyuki was well-prepared for the cheese fondue, and he brought out long forks from nowhere. He had probably guessed today’s menu from the list of ingredients requested by Berthold.
When the pot of cheese began to warm, an amazing smell began to drift around the shop.
「During winter, we always ate preserved food, so everyone decided to splurge on a feast during New Year’s Eve.」
「Everyone, you say?」
「To put it simply, our forefathers decided to enjoy their hardened bread and meat as much as they could. It caught on unexpectedly, so it ended up really becoming a feast.」
Although he spoke as if ridiculing himself, Berthold wore a somewhat proud expression. Even though he was far away, it seemed that he loved his hometown.
「Speaking of which, Leontaine said that she would be frying ham and mushrooms for the hometown association’s party.」
Nobuyuki spoke to himself while slicing the thick bacon into bite sized pieces.
「Is that also a way to enjoy preserved food like cheese fondue?」
「Probably. The way it was coated and fried like a fritter looked delicious.」
It seemed that there were various traditions depending on the area.
While Nobuyuki stared at the pot while thinking that the osechi ryori served during New Year’s also originated from preserved foods, the cheese cooked perfectly. The simmering sounds also stimulated their appetites.
「It should be good any time now, right?!」
「Yeah, it’s probably ready any time n…」
Shinobu stabbed a piece of baguette with a fondue fork before Berthold managed to finish his sentence, but the other three people did not move.
When she looked at the situation while returning the baguette to its original spot in the pot, Helmina and Berthold seemed to be quietly reciting some prayers.
「…I thank thee, the three pillars of divinity, the Sun God, the Moon God, and Moon Goddess, for blessing us with thy bounties again this year. I pray that we may receive thy bounties next year as well.」
Although it was a very informal prayer, Shinobu felt embarrassed and felt her cheeks flush upon hearing it.
Since the employees served the customers normally in Izakaya Nobu, she tended to forget that they still had their own traditions. It was never good to be neglectful.
It had been a year since the shop opened, but there were still many things to learn.
「Now then, let’s eat.」
Once Berthold’s and Helmina’s prayers were over, everyone picked up their forks on Nobuyuki’s cue.
Each of them dipped their favourite ingredient into the cheese and brought it to their mouth.
Shinobu didn’t know anything about the kind of cheese that Berthold had brought, but it seemed to be on the salty side. The slightly strong taste mixed with the taste of the ingredients to create an exquisite flavour.
It seemed that it was the right choice not to add any seasonings to this kind of cheese. The fact that the depth of the flavors increased after adding in a little of the sweet liquor made it irresistible.
「Isn’t it delicious?」
Berthold smiled, showing his teeth, while chivalrously dishing out the ingredients so that Helmina could easily pick them up with her fork. It was most certainly his prized possession.
「It’s really tasty.」
「We might even add it to Nobu’s menu too.」
It may have been unnecessary to say, but Shinobu was thinking about how to make this cheese fondue a dish that would suit Izakaya Nobu. Nobuyuki was thinking the same, from what she could tell from his
from his expression.
Since Berthold’s fruit wine wasn’t obtainable, they had to make do with something else. What fruit wine would be a good substitute? Or should they change the cheese and adjust the flavour themselves? Better yet, if they changed the cheese, it might turn out interesting if they mix sake with it.
Even while she mulled over brand names in her head, her hands did not stop.
The orthodox taste with baguette was good, but the strong taste of the meat did not lose out to the cheese, and it was delicious too.
It was already common knowledge that seafood paired well with cheese. It was as if two lovers had reunited; they were in total harmony in her mouth. If it was like that, she might be able to eat even more.
All of a sudden, Nobuyuki leapt into the kitchen. Just when they thought he had finished eating, he reappeared with a portable stove and oil, along with a plastic supermarket bag.
「What’s the matter, Taisho? Isn’t that…the mochi that we received from Tonohara-san?」
Tonohara, Nobuyuki’s teacher in Ryotei Yukitsuna, had delivered the mochi yesterday. In Yukitsuna, they used round mochi (maru-mochi), but the ones brought by Tonohara were Kanto-styled, where they were cut into rectangles (kiri-mochi). He had discussed how to eat the mochi at length with Nobuyuki, as it had been obtained through much difficulty.
「Shinobu-chan, you better be prepared.」
Nobuyuki said something incomprehensible as he cut the mochi into bite-sized pieces and pounded them with oil.
It was okaki.
After that, Nobuyuki began to fry the okaki on the spot.
「Taisho, no! That’s too dangerous!」
He was intending to make the okaki into an ingredient for the fondue.
It was truly a dangerous encounter, especially since this cheese tasted stronger than those available in Japan. It might not even pair up well with the okaki.
Nobuyuki handed the first piece of freshly fried okaki to Shinobu respectfully.
She swallowed her saliva.
Just for tonight, she did not care about her calorie intake.
She stabbed the deep fried okaki with her fork, and dipped it into the sea of cheese. The mochi intertwined with the cheese.
The other three attentively watched with bated breaths as Shinobu slowly brought the fork to her mouth.
There were no words to describe it.
As expected, it was delicious. It was irresistibly blissful.
When they saw Shinobu nod quietly, Nobuyuki started frying the next batch of okaki.
「Both of you are quite close huh, Taisho and Shinobu-chan.」
Berthold muttered unexpectedly. Helmina also nodded while bringing a while bringing a piece of broccoli to her mouth.
「I-is that so?」
「Yeah, very very close. Having someone like you looking after this shop, Hans is a lucky guy.」
Even though the story spread to unexpected places, Berthold was still Hans’ former boss. He had not said anything directly to Hans, but he must have worried a lot.
「Taisho, that guy, is he doing well?」
Nobuyuki scratched his chin with his finger.
「I can’t say anything yet, since the only jobs he has done so far are serving dishes and chores. But…」
「He had a good expression. He will make a good cook.」
「Is that so…a good expression, huh?」
A sense of relief and loneliness could be felt in Berthold’s words.
「If he was not cut out for this, I would have been willing to take him back into the sentinel corps at any time.」
「Is that so?」
Nobuyuki looked a little surprised. He had been a chef ever since he graduated from high school. Perhaps for a chef who had just started their training, there were moments where they thought of reverting to their original path.
「Of course, only if he agrees.」
「Is the sentinel corps understaffed?」
Berthold smiled and shook his head at Shinobu’s question.
「I am not so tactless as to bring back chicks who have left their nest, even if we’re short of hands. However, Hans was a cut above the rest as a guard, so I thought it was regrettable.」
「Is that so?」
Shinobu understood clearly that he was loved. She knew that kind of appeal well. It had probably not been a fickle decision to aim to become a chef on Hans’s part.
「Anyhow, I’m relieved. Please take care of Hans from now on.」
The ‘Demon’ Berthold didn’t need to bow his head, as Nobuyuki and Shinobu already regarded Hans as part of Izakaya Nobu. There was no reason to reject Hans.
「Yes, leave him to us. We’ll train him up to be a fine chef.」
Shinobu put her hand on her chest, and Berthold and Helmina laughed out loud.
「I hope next year will be a good year.」
Berthold muttered while scraping up the remaining cheese at the bottom of the pot with a baguette.
「It will, dear.」
Nobuyuki and Shinobu quietly watched as Helmina held Berthold’s shoulder while saying that.
They could hear the sound of a bell coming from the centre of Aitheria, signaling the coming of the New Year.
It was the bell in the cathedral by the sandbank.
Snow began to fall again, wrapping up the passing year.
The lights in Izakaya Nobu continued glowing as the night wore on.