Rubbing her fingers over the spotless, shiny worktop Emily longed for history to repeat itself. She gazed out of the wide, low window, unique to the kitchen of Ashfield Park. To the kitchen staff the window was sited high in the wall, but it passed unnoticed by visitors making their grand arrival to the estate as from the perspective of the front entrance it lay at ground level. Emily watched her father descend the pyramid of steps and speed down the artistically designed driveway and she let her mind blur the historic account of events from Amelia’s diary with her own anticipation of the day ahead. The toaster popped and she deftly flicked out two slices catching them on a plate before scraping over some butter and topping them with grilled tomatoes.
“Where’s the Worcestershire Sauce, Bee?” she demanded disappearing into the large pantry.
“Ask for it by its proper name of ‘White Man’s Soy Sauce’ Miss Emily, and you know I will direct you to it straightaway,” scolded the diminutive family cook with an indulgent chuckle. Without waiting for the corrected request, however, she presented Emily with a brown streaked bottle to enliven her breakfast.
Taking the sauce, Emily smiled fondly at Bee and internally acknowledged how patient she had always been. Generations of the family had spent hidden hours in the kitchen scraping bowls after Bee had finished with them or being allowed to create their own versions of her specialities. None of the names they had invented could ever match the lilt of Otak-Otak or Babi Hong, the language of her own people. The pungent smells of chilli & garlic would be forever linked to Bee and this place. Emily doubted she would ever taste quite the same Roti Babi or coconut pancakes – even in the place she was leaving for.
She recalled Bee’s excitement when a distant cousin had visited, bringing a crate of ingredients unique to Nonya cooking and not available in Europe. Emily had not turned ten and was mesmerised by the reverence that their old cook had given to that crate. And she remembered the scents of unknown spices and the strange crinkly textures of dried roots and leaves. Bee’s tears had started on unwrapping a packet of wizened Black Cloud Fungus and changed to sobs as she discovered dried longans and then deeply inhaled from a small jar of torch ginger flowers. Since that time the ingredients of Bee’s childhood had become more readily available here and at a time when her contemporaries might have been settling into retirement homes Bee’s creativity flourished and Ashfield’s reputation was enhanced by every meal served there. Emily’s father had hosted a financial advisor’s meeting and attendees were unanimous that no local restaurant could match the standard of the seafood served at Ashfield, particularly the Ikan Chuan Chuan. Her mother’s yoga class had enthused over the Nonya Satay Ayam and the avocado mousse.
Bee was a Peranakan or Straits born Chinese, and married young in Singapore. Her husband, Tong, was the cook employed by Emily’s Great Grandfather, an international banker. On inheriting Ashfield, Charles was keen to build on the family reputation for exotic dining so brought Tong and Bee home with him along with their food, known as Nonya cuisine. Tong did not thrive in England and died only a few years later, but Bee took his place in the kitchen and continued to cook for the household although she must be in her late eighties. Bee’s two daughters occasionally assisted her in preparing for large occasions and her greatest pride was when her grandson and student, Yeun Cheong, worked beside her. He had developed a passion for the fusion food of her people – influenced by the Malays, Indonesians, Indians, Thai and Portuguese – and dreamt of owning his own restaurant in London where he would create marinades and stir fries and pickles that the world would lust after.
Finishing her toast Emily dropped off the kitchen counter and poured strong, black coffee into her favourite mug. As she sat back up on her perch she thought of Amelia who must have sat in the same spot two centuries before. Emily had taken the opportunity to read her distant aunt’s diaries when she had visited that branch of the family tree in Pennsylvania last June. Considering how many years had passed Emily had been surprised at how many little descriptions of Ashfield remained so recognisable today. The kitchen window was one, and from the description in her diary Amelia must have sat in that exact spot swinging her legs and watching the surgeon operate on her brother.
The Tenth day of May in the year of our Lord Eighteen Hundred
My dear brother Henry had fought in the fourth fierce battle against the Tiger of Mysore and was now lately returned, a hero. He had sustained the most awful injury to his sword bearing arm and was requiring fresh bandages daily. Our mother’s physician administered potions, but to no avail and today father had sent for a ship’s surgeon whom he had heard was of good reputation. Lacking official qualifications he did not approach the main entrance, but was ushered into the domestic regions and I took myself down to those quarters to witness events. Being unfamiliar with that environment my senses had to adjust to the odours and sights usually discreet to our eyes. I allowed myself a seat on the scarred oak bench where numerous banquets had been prepared and could spy the footmen scurrying around the carriages arriving at the grand entrance by means of a wide, but not high, window. I noted that this had been designed to allow the staff to observe the activities of the big house and aid the punctuality of their attendance on our guests.
The Ship’s Surgeon was of the most striking appearance. Tall and swarthy with the darkest brown eyes. He carried a small canvas bag packed with his tools and set this down on the floor next to various gamebirds that the gamekeeper had deposited from an early morning foray. The surgeon’s name was Mr Frederick Sutherland and he appeared to take the utmost care of Henry’s wounds. He lanced the swelling and let it drip freely onto the floor in an area which I presume was more accustomed to butchery preparations as it appeared well stained. Henry flinched with each cut, but Mr Sutherland had such a calm air that we were all quite engrossed by the activity. I had to steal myself when I realised even the Cookie Boy, whom Henry had brought back from India with him, had stopped his activity to watch the spectacle. My attention fell on him only momentarily while Mr Sutherland stopped to sharpen his knife on the kitchen leather and my nostrils were filled with the strong, red spices that he was grinding with great intensity.
Mr Sutherland says he will return tomorrow and I am going to ask Mother if he can stay to nuncheon if his visit falls between the hours of breakfast and dinner.
The Eleventh day of May in the year of our Lord Eighteen Hundred
Mr Frederick Sutherland returned today and attended Henry’s arm in the same manner. Mother refused to invite him to sit with us for nuncheon, but I implored the cook to give him a large helping of kedgeree left over from breakfast and I noted he has the most exquisite table manners despite not being seated at the dining table.
The Third day of June in the year of our Lord Eighteen Hundred
I have eloped with Mr Frederick Sutherland. We have scarce exchanged many words together and my family have said they will disown me if I choose to marry a man with no family connections nor prestige, but I now know what it is to be in love and I do not care for the things they care for. If I never enter a house by means of the front door again I will accept my lot knowing that I can be in the arms of Mr Frederick Sutherland.
We travelled to Portsmouth and were married forthwith. The morrow we sail for the Americas and I am the happiest woman in the kingdom.
There was an extensive collection of diaries kept in an historic trunk and Emily had read every word. Amelia and Frederick had prospered in America and spawned generations of venerated medical individuals including a Surgeon General. The climate and lifestyle obviously suited them as they lived to very old age, crossing the Atlantic to visit their homeland in 1850. Two generations had passed at Ashfield by then and Amelia and Frederick were welcomed in the grand front entrance and dined on the best cuisine.
Emily inhaled the scent of the kitchen deeply and slipped off the counter for the final time. Nearly crushing Bee in an unexpected embrace she rushed out of the door into the early summer sunshine. The elderly cook stayed in the doorway as Miss Emily tore down the driveway in her flashy, red car and wondered what all the fuss was about today.
Late that afternoon Emily craftily parked at the long kitchen window obscuring any view Bee might have of events. She jumped out of the car as Yeun Cheung shyly slid out of the passenger door. Tall and slim he grasped her left hand almost causing her to wince as the new tiny diamond pressed into her pinkie. They climbed the steps together and Emily yanked on the wrought iron bell pull as she had done so often in childhood games. Inside her head she could hear it rattle in the old scullery and would be relayed to her mother’s sitting room. She knew exactly how her mother would be sitting with her London Gin and tiny dish of seven olives with the silver cocktail stick. It would all be ‘Just so’ like a Kipling account.
Emily thought she could identify the scents of tamarind and lemon grass wafting from the kitchen. She held her breath as her mother’s shadow fell on the door and wondered if they would be invited in.