Paradis, sometime after Kiyomi’s visit
“Get to work, lazy bones!” Eren said, tossing a dishrag in Jean’s direction.
“What? Been busting my ass all morning fixing them decaying storm shutters!” Jean protested indignantly as he swatted the rug away, demanding instead, “What have you done, turd face?”
“Ta-daa,” the titan shifter announced in response, hands held palms up toward the kitchen sink. It shone like polished silver, scrubbed so clean you could see your face clearly reflected on it.
Jean peered into the shiny sink, and even he had to admit he was impressed. When they arrived at the house yesterday the sink was a disgusting mess, covered in mildew and heaven knows what other kinds of yucky organisms. “Wow,” he said, “how’d you get it so clean?”
“This did the trick,” revealed Eren, dangling a packet of white powder in front of his friend’s face.
With a raised brow, he looked at it curiously. “What kind of sorcerer’s ingredient is that?”
“Dunno. Got if from Captain Levi. Says it works all the time. He’s right, as usual.”
Just about done with packing up the kitchen utensils he’d brought with him, Nicolo turned and said, “Give it to me.” He pinched a small amount between his fingers, sniffed the contents before laughing, “It’s just sodium bicarbonate, commonly known as baking soda!”
“Really? What else can it do?”
“Well, aside from being a cleaning agent it’s also used as a leavening agent—”
“Leavening?” Jean interrupted.
“A raising agent. When you bake bread you add it to doughs and batters to soften up and lighten the mixture. Both your mothers used it a lot, I’m sure, but you probably weren’t paying attention.”
Just then Sasha walked in, a tool belt around her waist, looking for her canteen. “You guys all done now? Am almost finished with the gutters.” She had been up on the roof ridding the gutters of dead leaves and small animals.
“Yeah, we should be able to set out by three,” Nicolo replied, smiling as he put an arm around her shoulder, steering her to the sink. “Look what Eren did.”
Mikasa, clutching a pail of water as she entered through the backdoor, found the four huddled around the sink.
“What’s going on?” she asked. She had been pumping water outside, having cleaned up the large iron stove. All it needed was one final wipe down and it’d be good as new.
Jean motioned for her to come over, putting an arm around her waist. “See how awesome we look,” he said, encouraging her to peer into the impromptu mirror.
She gazed down at the reflection of five grimy faces with disheveled hair and laughed softly, “I think we all need a bath!”
As if on cue, Connie entered the kitchen and announced, “Armin and I are done with the tarp. Time to bathe in the lake!”
It was that time of year when the weather wasn’t too cold, and all seven of them gladly jumped into the waters’ depths. The warm, early summer day was perfect for skinny dipping.
Half an hour later, the two girls were playing under a small waterfall upstream, with Connie and Armin sunbathing on one of the rocks in the middle of the lake. Jean, Eren and Nicolo were stretched out on the wooden pier, drying themselves under the sun.
Connie glanced at them from his rock perch. “Glad you guys are spending your liberty helping me out here once again,” he conveyed to Armin. “Really appreciate it.”
“No worries,” Armin answered sleepily, giving him a small smile. “I like coming here. So nice and quiet and peaceful.”
They were at Ragako village, Connie’s place of birth, arriving the day before to continue building the awning structure over his house. His titanized mother was still lying on top of the ruins, with her gigantic head and disproportionately small arms and legs. Even if pure titans weren’t supposed to feel physical pain, it seemed cruel to let the sun and snow and rain pelt her day and night.
Connie got permission from Hange to build a wooden frame around the house and stretch out a tarpaulin on top. His friends all volunteered to help. Military personnel got two days of liberty every fortnight, so here they were in Ragako.
His former neighbor, Anna Martens, allowed him to use her parents’ house as his base of operations while he built the scaffolding. He grew up with the Martens, Annie having babysat him as a child. She went off to marry a tailor in the neighboring town.
When the village was titanized, Connie’s mother was inside the house, with her younger children at the village school. Anna’s parents had been a few miles down the road tending to their farm. She never saw them again.
After the horrifying incident, the town was considered to be cursed, and quickly became a ghost village. That’s why it was so quiet here these days: there was no one around except for a few stray dogs, curious deer, every now and then a wandering lynx, a brown bear, a wolverine.
Anna’s conditions for free use of the house was that they clean up after themselves, and do minor repairs as they saw fit. So during liberty, Connie and his friends would usually spend the first day working on the structure around his house, and the following day cleaning and fixing up Anna’s house, before having a dip in the lake and going back to the officers’ quarters.
This time Sasha invited Nicolo to come with them. It so happened his day off coincided with hers. He thought it would be nice to get to know her friends better, and impress them with his cooking skills.
Plus, Connie promised his mother’s garden had zucchini, tomatoes and other vegetables ready for harvest. The sole surviving Springer tried his best to weed and maintain the fence around the plots for the sake of his mother. Mrs Springer used to take pride in her vegetable garden, and he wanted to keep it up for when she recovered.
“Why don’t you invite Nicolo over next time?” he’d suggested to Sasha. “Country air might do him good. Always cooped up in the capital cooking chow for them fat, chain-smoking MPs must be hard on the lungs.”
It had never occurred to her before. She thought it was a wonderful idea.
“You can teach us proper cooking,” Sasha had said to Nicolo. “We could learn a lot from you.”
And learn they did. The soldiers took turns being his sous chefs, and he taught them how a few sprigs of rosemary or a teaspoon of honey could turn plain fare into something delectable. For dinner he decided to exhibit the best of Marleyan cuisine. Sasha and her friends, armed with a shopping list he made, had gone to the market early in the morning, just before they set out for the village with bags of vegetables, meat and fish in tow.
The meal they were served that night was the best any of them had ever had. For starters he served up super-crisp courgette fritti, finger-thick but not soggy.
“Can’t believe these zukes are from Mum’s garden,” Connie noted as he chewed slowly, eyes closed in wonder.
“They’re miraculous, Nico,” Sasha said with a big smile.
“They actually taste like courgette,” Jean remarked, impressed with the texture as well as the side of garlicky aioli, so frothy and wild and matching perfectly with the vegetables. “Made the dip yourself?”
“Of course,” was Nicolo’s response. “Nothing tastes better than fresh, bespoke mayonnaise.”
Next he served them diamonds of mackerel, perfectly sliced. They still had their skins on, and were cured to a salty-sour sensation, topped with grassy olive oil and one red chili disc each.
“Can’t believe fish tastes this good,” Eren said, mopping up the juices with pieces of golden-crusted focaccia.
“Don’t tell me you baked the bread yourself?” Connie asked, tearing at the flatbread, marveling at its rich, chewy texture and crisp, salty crust.
“Yep. Woke up at four in the morning,” Nicolo replied. “Freshly baked just for you guys.”
“Wow,” they piped in unison, laughing delightedly at their good fortune.
“Vitello tonnato,” their chef announced as he served them each a plate of carpaccio-red, thinly sliced veal, “with tuna and anchovy sauce, and a side of caperberries, caramelised onion and garden rocket.”
Armin stared at the translucent petals of onion and remarked, “Looks too good to eat.”
Jean swallowed a forkful and was all praise. “Looks great and tastes even better. Just perfect!”
“It’s like being in one of those high end restaurants no one can afford!” Connie said in awe.
What followed was a decadent pasta dish, a bowl of tagliatelle with a creamy sauce of roasted garlic and pieces of slow-cooked rabbit combined with finely grated parmesan.
Chewing thoughtfully and savouring the dish, Eren marveled at the bulbs cooked to a sultry combination of sweetness and funkiness. “How’d you learn to cook this good?”
Laughing, Nicolo replied, “Well, I went to a well-regarded culinary school for a year. After that I apprenticed at a masterchef’s flagship restaurant, and then climbed my way to head chef at one of his smaller joints. I better be good!”
“You’re better than good,” Sasha stated confidently, already in culinary heaven with all the different flavours and textures of the meal. “You’re the absolute best!”
“Amen to that!” Connie agreed, having mopped up every drop of sauce.
After that there was saltimbocca, thinly sliced pork wrapped with prosciutto, accented with fried-to-a-crisp sage leaves, over a pile of rainbow chard, brought together by a silky smooth carrot purée.
“It’s so soft and velvety,” Mikasa noted in awe.
“Deep and encouraging,” said Jean to Nicolo. “What are you trying to aim for with this choice of menu?”
“Well, since I wanted you guys to have a taste of the best of my country’s cuisine, I’d call it elevated Marleyan cooking: something classy yet earthy at the same time.”
“It’s divine, Nico,” praised Sasha. “Worthy of a love letter.”
“So good I’m out of words,” Connie said.
“I finally know what culinary art means,” was Armin’s assessment.
“That’s a great way to put it,” approved Jean.
“Makes me glad you came all the way from Marley,” said Mikasa.
“Makes me glad I’m alive,” Eren grinned at the much-praised chef.
Nicolo smiled delightedly at the compliments they heaped on him. “Wait till you try the dessert!”
Seven very happy young people went to bed that night. They’d all chipped in to buy the ingredients for their meals, and deemed it worth every penny.
The omelette Nicolo cooked this morning was a huge hit, too, incredibly fluffy with a rich flavour, a melt-in-your-mouth sensation. All he had on hand were eggs and some cream. How could he whip up something this nice, at a nondescript house in the boondocks?
“It’s like eating a delicious cloud,” Jean said, his grin conveying his full approval.
While they were cleaning up Mikasa had whispered to Nicolo, “Can you teach me how to cook that omelette? Jean likes them, you see… Maybe I could cook it for him someday… if it’s something an ordinary person can cook, that is…” She was coloring a little as she spoke.
“Sure, anyone can do it!” Nicolo had exclaimed, noting the cute blush on her face. “It’s really easy, as long as you’re patient.”
At the pier, the girls finally came over to join the boys, and Connie swam over to join them. Only Armin was left sprawled on the rock, sleeping soundly, dreaming of Annie stepping out of her crystal and saying, “Yes, of course I’ll marry you.”
Mikasa and Sasha sat back-to-back, their legs stretched out. The pier was wide enough so that the boys could use their laps as pillows, positioning themselves on either side. Eren and Jean shared Mikasa’s lap, while Connie and Nicolo rested their heads on Sasha’s.
With his eyes closed, Eren broached, “Hey Nicolo, you should open your own restaurant. You’re simply that good.”
“Haha, if only it were that easy!” Nicolo replied amiably, unconvinced. “Thanks for the thought, though.”
A restaurant of his own, imagine that!
But he was basically a prisoner on the island. Before he was dragged here kicking and screaming, he was a rising star in the Marleyan culinary world. He used to have a future. But now all he did was cook for the corrupt high ranking military officers of Paradis. While he earned a meagre salary, it would take years and years before he could afford his own place, let alone be allowed to leave his military servitude.
Besides, he was too good a chef none of the generals would ever let him go. Not to mention the fact that no one on the island would lease real estate to a Marleyan. The kitchen of which he was head chef was Eldian-owned and managed. Going independent was next to unthinkable.
“Eren’s right, Nico,” Sasha followed up. “You’re the best chef in the entire world!”
He gazed up at her face, so fresh and pretty. She was his biggest cheerleader, his most loyal fan. One of the frustrations he faced as head chef of the restaurant in the capital was the fact that he spent an inordinate amount of time arguing with the Eldian owner about things like menus and courses and pricing, and about running a restaurant in general. He had his own ideas, and being young and creative, he wanted to experiment.
But grizzled Mr Fischer wouldn’t have it: he demanded traditional Marleyan cuisine, those old-fashioned, comfortable culinary mainstays from hundreds, nay, thousands of years ago, and that was that. The crusty curmudgeon didn’t like anything “with a twist” or “avant-garde” or “experimental.”
Yet the drive to invent his own creations he couldn’t bin, so after work Nicolo spent time making up bold and plucky dishes. His main taste tester was, of course, Sasha. She was wonderful: hyper enthusiastic, generous, kind, and so adventurous with food she would eat anything at least once. Whatever fear there was in him to not bend the rules vanished into thin air as soon as he saw the rhapsodic look on her face.
Imagine being in full control of your very own restaurant! The joy, the possibilities, the adventure… But then a big black crow cawed in the distance and he was brought back to earth. The responsibilities, the risks, the uncertainties… He had to get real.
“Logistics are simply too difficult. I work five days a week near the military HQ in the capital, but moonlighting on the side for only two days wouldn’t be enough to establish myself. Plus, there’s real estate, building a kitching, hiring staff… Could never afford it.”
“You just might,” Eren revealed, mysteriously.
Thank you so much for reading! Please take a moment to share a thought or two in the comment section below. Your comments give me life and are a real source of encouragement. xoxo – hana
The full-course meal cooked by Nicolo in this chapter is based on the menu at Emilia, a restaurant in London, as described by Jay Rayner in his review Emilia, Bond Street: ‘Some of London’s best Italian food’ (Guardian Online, 30 June 2019).