Setting sail with Perugia’s Ports of Call 

The cooks are in the kitchen practicing a sea shanty while the servers deliver a first course of Voluptuous Little Pies, Short Bastards and Toasted Cheese. In the dining room a man reads an excerpt from The Wine-Dark Sea by Patrick O’Brian.

“‘Yowl, yowl, yowl,’ he said to his mate on hearing the familiar sounds. ‘They are at it again. I have a mind to put ratsbane in their toasted cheese.’”

I’m the only one at the table who doesn’t know what ratsbane is. When the conversation shifts to foc’sle maintenance, I’m really lost. Ratsbane, of course, is rat poison. And I soon learn that the foc’sle (fock-sul) is where animals are kept, providing the ship’s crew with eggs, milk and meat while they’re at sea.

I’m at the final installment of Perugia’s Literary Cooking Series, in which five-course meals are designed around the work of noteworthy authors. Tonight’s meal is a treatment of historical novelist Patrick O’Brian, whose 23 novels describe the adventures of British Navy Captain Jack Aubry. Captain Aubry’s many clashes with Napoleon’s navy took him around the world. All the while, Aubry’s tall orders never got in the way of epic meals, both on board and in port.

“Lucky Jack,” as he was often called, had a formidable palate and was happiest when served his favorite foods. But while the delicacies served on his ship were his familiar favorites, on this night at Perugia the menu consisted largely of foods Aubry was served in exotic ports of call. In the books, these dishes sometimes included items that many of us might prefer to avoid.

Indeed, there were many O’Brian aficionados in the room who justly feared that by indulging in the cuisine Captain Jack was served in exotic ports they might be getting in over their culinary heads. But as we embarked upon our journey, Perugia founder Ray Risho gave the group an introduction addressing these concerns.

“This evening’s menu does not include the following from the O’Brian repertoire,” promised Ray: “Albatross, maggots, camel calf seethed with almonds, edible dogs, eagle, human stew a la Poulani, pickled seal, boiled guano, rats in onion sauce, ring-tailed apes, sea slugs, sheep’s eyes, smoked and pickled human hands.” Back in the kitchen, Ray looks 20 years his junior as he captains the spirited kitchen crew, whirling and spinning out the halibut with anchovy sauce.

Meanwhile, in the dining room, the guests prepare for each course with an O’Brian reading relevant to the dish about to be served.

“The worn lines eased out of Jack Aubrey’s face, a rosy glow replaced the unhealthy grey; he seemed to fill his uniform again. ‘How much better a man feels when mixed with halibut and a leg of mutton and roebuck,’ he said.”

Chef Boy Ari, for one, certainly felt better after mixing with that halibut. Marinated and baked, it was then served with an explosive anchovy sauce that put the big, wide ocean back into the flesh of that big, flat fish.

The cooks came out and sang their sea shanty. The guests, already lubed with three courses’ worth of wine accompaniments, heartily joined the chorus:

“We’ll rant and we’ll roar, like true British sailors/We’ll rant and we’ll roar all on the salt sea/Until we strike soundings in the channel of England/From Ushant to Sisly ’tis thirty-five leagues.”

Back in the kitchen, I’m using face muscles I didn’t even know I had, working to contain the rising pool of saliva in my mouth. “Don’t drool on the main course,” I keep telling myself, as the able-bodied crew plates 25 portions of roast leg of lamb stuffed with bright yellow saffron rice pudding—a replica of the meal served to Captain Jack by the Bey of Mesenteron, on the Turkish side of the Ionian sea.

In the dining room, bowed heads receive the penultimate reading of the night:

“…we all reached out and took lumps with our fingers, unless it was very soft, when we used our spoons. One of the dishes was a roasted lamb with a pudding of bright yellow rice in its belly, and the Bey seized it by the legs, tearing it very neatly to pieces for us.”

Sadly, Perugia is preparing for a major transition, as Captain Ray and his wife, Susie, prepare to retire from the restaurant business and their sons Sam and Abe move toward other endeavors. The restaurant is for sale. Nobody knows exactly when the sun will set on the good ship Perugia, but the final three “Ports of Call” international dining events have already been slated, as follows:

October 27: Cuisine of Kashmir
November 17: Jewish cuisine of Northern Greece
December 7, 8: Italian Christmas Dinner, the Feast of Seven Fishes.

The evening concluded with a dessert of pear baked in its own personal pastry crust and served with custard, mint and cinnamon syrup. I’ve no doubt that had he been with us, Lucky Jack would have proposed a toast to Captain Ray.

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