The kingdom was ruled somewhat wisely and somewhat well by King Rudolph.
King Rudolph had three daughters and no sons. This was a sore point for him and that we never hear of the mother in this story is probably a reflection that she was dead or so side-lined by her failure to produce a male heir that she hardy existed, even to her daughters.
Each daughter was beautiful, intelligent and wise and King Rudolph, who felt a pressure to decide on his successor, did not know how to make a choice. In the end he made a decision that was true to form: which ever daughter gave him the most beautiful and valuable gift would be appointed heir to the throne. Helena, Athena and Anna begged him to find another way of deciding, but he dismissed their anxieties and discomfort and insisted they each produce their gift.
Anna, the youngest, had always spent her spare time in the kitchen. She loved the aromas that permeated its warm air. She liked to explore the different tastes that the combination of ingredients produced. She loved to wander in the kitchen garden and see the fruit and vegetables grow and mature. The king would have been horrified of course, but she made sure he didn’t know, which was easy because he was not really interested in anything that did not concern him directly. Anna and the chief cook were good friends. Indeed, the cook was a guide to her, teaching her about life through the art of cooking.
Anna thought of the kitchen as the heart of the palace. It was like a central station that processed all that nurtured the royal family, their courtiers, visitors and servants. Tradesmen and peasants relied on their relationship to the kitchen. She watched as bags of salt arrived and knew how the salt was used and how food would taste if there was too much or too little in the preparation of a dish.
She also knew the value of soil – that natural substance that can be turned into containers for salt, vessels for fluids and platters for food. Anna watched as the potters turned their different clays into porcelain, ironware and terracotta, each used for their own unique properties.
On the day that the king had appointed as the gift-giving day, the princesses sat together with their neatly wrapped gifts in the throne room.
Helena, the first and oldest, approached the king at his signal. She had thought her gift through carefully. She knew the value of clothes, the importance of having clothing that would be functional as well as proclaim status.
The king unwrapped the gift of a cloak, dyed a deep purple and embroidered in fine silk to reveal the landscape and riches of the kingdom. The collar was of ermine, reflecting the good husbandry of the farmers. This was a cloak that proclaimed the wearer’s status and would also protect him. King Rudolph was lost for words and gazed in rapt wonder at it for some time.
Eventually he beckoned to his second daughter, Athena, who, true to her name was as beautiful and as intelligent as any godess. Like Helena she had thought deeply about her gift.
The gift was so large and heavy it could not be lifted and the king had to step down from his throne to unwrap it at her feet. Under normal circumstances he would have had a temper tantrum but he was too curious to bother.
As he unwrapped it, the work of art that she had created was slowly revealed – a silver cage that held a tiny bird made of the finest beaten gold. The bird sat in a tree made of paper thin glass and jewels in a landscape that was modelled to reveal the kingdom and every animal or fish or bird that lived therein.
Once more the king was struck dumb by the ingenuity of his daughters and realised that their gifts were unlikely to help him to make his decision. He understood that the two older girls were highly attuned to the kingdom and respected and honoured the people and the environment within which they lived. What would the youngest daughter produce? – she whom he had always regarded as the wisest, most intelligent and beautiful. He beckoned her surprised that she seemed almost empty handed.
She stood in front of him and opened her hand and smiled as she showed him what it concealed. Nested in her palm was a small porcelain bowl, so finely made it was translucent. In it lay salt with a finely crafted salt spoon lying within. The salt crystals glittered and caught the sun’s rays and it almost looked as if she held a light within her hand.
The king’s jaw dropped. His mind spun as he tried to find words. Finally he burst out as he swiped his hand across the gift which flew from Anna’s hand.
“What is this?”
“Salt, my lord.”
“Salt in a bowl, and not very much of it.”
“There is plenty where it came from.”
“In a porcelain bowl – no gold, silver or jewels.”
“The spoon, my lord, is of fine silver.”
She looked to the ground where on the black marble the shattered porcelain mixed with the salt and where the tiny spoon glinted in the sunlight. The king struck with his hand. Anna reeled back and her astonished sisters ran to her aid.
“Leave her!” roared the king.
“But father she is hurt.”
“As am I! Go!” He ordered Anna. “Go and never let me know you. You are no daughter of mine. Leave this place immediately. And,” he turned to the two older girls, “you will suffer the same fate if you speak another word to her or of her.”
Anna stumbled from the room. She ran to where she knew she would find comfort and help. She sought the wisdom of the cook.
“I cannot stay here,” she cried, “and must leave forthwith. But where do I go and how do I survive?”
“You are clever and not without skills. I will recommend you to my friend, the innkeeper. He will give you employment in his kitchen. It will be a lowly position until you prove your worth. Now change into this dress and I shall pack a bag with necessities.”
For a woman used to fine linens and silks, the coarse cotton and wool took some getting used to as did the heavy boots and hard work of a scullery maid in a busy kitchen. But over time she became accustomed to her changed circumstances and, being quick and intelligent as well as a natural cook, she worked her way up through the kitchen hierarchy to chief cook.
Because she was also creative with a fine palate and an eye to presentation, the inn became renowned throughout the kingdom. The king even heard of it and when the old palace cook became ill and frail, he poached her from the innkeeper even though Anna demanded a salary beyond what he normally paid. He blustered but was advised in no uncertain terms that this cook was well aware of her worth.
Helena was to be married to an emperor from a distant land. Naturally her wedding party had to be the best. It was her farewell and, of course, had to reflect her father’s wealth and superiority.
Anna planned the meal at every level, taking into account Helena’s taste preferences as well as that of her groom and his entourage.
After each dish had been tasted and declared delicious and safe for everyone, the guests and the king could finally settle to the meal before them. The king took his first mouthful. He spluttered. He could not believe what he tasted. The dish was not quite right; something was lacking. He tasted another dish before him and then another: each revealed the same lack of flavour. His temper, as you can imagine, became worse and worse as he rejected each dish and wondered what his guests would think of him. They on the other hand, to his surprise, appeared to be enjoying their meals. This angered him even more. He swept his hand through the dishes in front of him and they fell to the ground, the food spilling onto the floor, splashing against the feet of the footmen and even onto the shoes and clothes of the guests sitting nearest him. Everyone froze and gazed at the king in amazement.
“Bring me the cook.”
Helena blushed a deep red, mortified that her father displayed such lack of control in front of the guests. She apologised to her husband who she could see was wondering what sort of family he had married into. The king was oblivious to the guests’ discomfort and embarrassment.
Anna arrived. “You summoned me, Your Majesty?”
“What is the meaning of this?” The king pointed to the floor.
“I have no idea. Did someone knock them from the table?”
“How dare you speak to me like this? How dare you present food like this?”
“This is food carefully cooked, taking everyone’s preferences into account.” She gestured to the array of dishes left on the table, the aromas of each rising from the steaming bowls and platters, titillating the taste buds.
“But it is not salted.”
“Only yours, Your Majesty.”
“According to your preference. And alongside each dish there was a bowl of salt that you ignored.”
The king referred to his guests for judgement of their dishes. One and all, they praised their meals.
“How dare you decide my preference!”
“I did not. You did. When a gift of salt was given to you, you threw it down to the ground along with the dish, finely crafted from clay. I assumed that neither salt nor clay is to you taste. I only aim to please.” She curtsied.
The king looked closely at the woman in front of him. He gasped. “You,” he exclaimed, “a lowly cook!”
“Hardly. I am renowned in all the land and you yourself ordered me to your kitchen. How did you think I would survive when you banished me with nothing to sustain me because I gave you a gift I thought precious and you considered base?”
“I have regretted that and wished you to return. I did not know where you were.”
“You did not look for me despite your power and wealth,” she said sadly.
The king looked at her and then at his guests who were clearly intrigued. He saw the doubt in everyone’s eyes and that they were reassessing him, not very kindly. Many had wondered what had happened to the youngest princess, but since the older sisters had been forbidden to talk about her and there had been no other witnesses to her banishment, nobody knew. Helena and Athena had over time turned away from their father regardless of how hard he had tried to win back their favour with gifts and banquets. He had been rather lonely and now realised that he would be lonelier.
“Now,” said Anna, “I am afraid you have wasted all your food and will have to watch others enjoy theirs.” In the past King Rudolph would have protested vigorously and loudly, but instead he invited his guests to eat heartily and apologised that he had interrupted their appetites.
The princess stepped back and returned to the kitchen. The guests returned to their meal and the king was left to his thoughts.
Some years later, during which time Anna was restored to her position but not he to his, the king died. He had still not decided on a successor, so the kingdom fell to his daughters. They ruled conjointly, wisely and well, understanding that the health and wealth of a kingdom came from land, sea, its environment and all that lived in it whether man, woman, child, animal, bird, fish or plant.