Of Cheese Toast and Ghosts


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There is a well recognized adage – never deny an Englishman his Cheese Toast. Ever. It seems that Lord Byron was no exception to this rule. Somewhere in the massive quantity of luggage that he had hauled with him to Lake Geneva, he managed to find a small space to wedge this beautiful toasting fork that now lay in front of the fire. I wasn’t surprised. Lord Byron was an unapologetic over-packer. Overloaded with a vast quantity of must-have paraphernalia, his carriage chronically broke down as it made its way across Europe on the way to Lake Geneva. Apparently, you can take Lord Byron out of England, but couldn’t take England out of Byron – he needed his Cheese Toast.

And now this long-handled fork rested upon a trivet in front of the low flames and was quietly toasting a small, skewered piece of bread a delectable golden brown. It seemed a cozy choice for the poets to eat while listening to ghost stories.

A wedge of cheese (Raclette, I believe) sat nearby, softening to an optimal consistency. The melted side of the cheese closest to the fire would be scraped off and spread over the toast. Perfection in its simplicity. A decanter of Sack, or Sherry, rested close at hand as an excellent partner for the cheese. Alas, this charming treat had been completely forgotten when the group made their way upstairs to their beds.

It was hard to pass up such a delicious morsel, but I was curious to see what was in the room next door. I turned my back to the fire and made my way to the hall.

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Fantasmagoriana

WP-Book3As I turned to leave the room on my way to Lord Byron’s study, my eyes drifted across the crowded library floor. So this unruly scene before me was the notorious origin of Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein – extraordinary, messy, but remarkable never-the-less.

Lying on the carpet near the fire was the book Fantasmagoriana. Known to the British as The Tales of the Dead, Lord Byron had been reading from it earlier to entertain his guests. This was a classic book of Gothic horror stories and undoubtedly one of the terrifying sources of Mary’s dreams occurring upstairs at this very moment.

The small but potent book lay there with its binding broken, no doubt trampled on in haste by Byron himself as he dashed to help his friend Percy Shelley. Mr. Shelley had bolted from the room in a terrified state after hallucinating that Mary’s chest had metamorphosed into two eyes staring at him.

I picked up the book and read the epigraph, “Falsis terrorizes implet” – Horace.  A rough translation from the Latin would be “he fills his (head) with imagined terrors”. That Roman could not have written a more prescient description of this evening’s events.

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The fire crackled. My eyes shifted, what was that resting on the hearth…?

Meanwhile Back at the Buffet…

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It was still a dark and stormy night.

With my foodie instincts on high alert, I reached the sideboard at last! What had this small group of five English free-thinking writers eaten tonight? The candles were burning low, but I was able to see what I had traveled there for.

Interesting…, it appeared that the Napoleonic wars and the cold weather caused by the eruption of Mt. Tambora had little effect on with what Lord Byron entertained his guests, with one exception. I had hoped to find Fraise du Bois, but alas, no alpine woodland strawberries to be seen.

The fierce weather outside could not distract me from a glorious cheesy smell wafting up from a plate of rather innocent looking little puff pastries. Their aroma was braver than their appearance – mummmm, no mistaking the pungent, savory smell of Gruyere cheese. The cook wisely used plenty of it in baking them. They appeared to be Petits Choux Ramecains, a particularly delicious edible in the early 19th century.

Also sharing the table were plates of Sweetmeat and Jam tartlets, sliced ham, dried apricots, candied ginger and Gateaux Madeleines. Unfortunately, several plates were emptied of what they had once held, sigh.

So despite war, cold temperatures and stormy weather, Byron was still able to be a generous host. The rather simple cold buffet offerings looked to be inspired by a French chef cooking for an English nobleman plagued with a prodigious amount of debt. Not surprising, Geneva was only recently liberated from French control and Lord Byron was an enthusiastic Napoleon groupie. His private horse carriage was custom-made to duplicate one of Napoleon’s.

I noticed an abundance of sweets and only one choice of meat offered – unusual for a typical late-night meal during this overtly carnivorous period. It may be that the chef was mindful of the guest’s proclivities – Percy Shelley had a weakness for sweets and was also a vocal vegetarian. The choice still appeared limited though, perhaps due to Byron’s avoidance of eating with his guests? He remained exceedingly fixated on the degree of rotundity of his waist.

Had Byron eaten earlier? I think I will take a peek in his private writing room next door for any indication.