Page count: 272 (329 in the translation)
Publication year: 2002
Format: Print, translated into Finnish as Maistaja
Publisher: Plume, Penguin Group
In the Finnish edition, the author on the cover is Ugo DiFonte, although the copyright is for Elbling.
According to the prologue someone sent this old manuscript to Elbling who then translated it from 16th century Italian to English and published it. It’s the life story of the peasant Ugo DiFonte who is writing five years after he became the local Duke’s food taster.
Ugo DiFonte starts the tale as a small boy in 1534 Corsoli in Italy. He’s born into a dirt-poor peasant family in the middle of the plague and witnesses his mother’s suicide. His father and older brother treat him badly; he has to do all the most unpleasant work and therefore he tries to go out herding the family’s sheep as often as he can. He’s also deliberately given less food than his brother and his father says that Ugo isn’t his son.
At the age of fourteen, Ugo leaves his home. His brother refuses to give him even a few sheep to start his own flock. Soon, he sees a girl for the first time and promptly falls in love with her. Elisabetta’s father hires Ugo to his farm in exchange for food and lodging. After a few years, Ugo and Elisabetta get married. She becomes pregnant and dies giving birth to Miranda.
Ugo and Miranda are desperately poor but still manage to be happy until a famine during which they didn’t eat anything for days. Then Corsoli’s Duke Federico Bassillione DiVinelli’s hunting party gallops through Ugo’s small garden. The Duke almost kills Ugo but instead an old hunter says that Ugo can take Lucca’s place. Ugo is desperate to save his eleven years old daughter and he agrees without knowing what Lucca’s job was.
Ugo and Miranda are taken to the Duke’s palace and there Ugo is shown his job rather brutally. On the courtyard he watches when the Duke cuts off a man’s tongue. Later, he finds out that the unfortunate man was Lucca, the previous food taster. Then he tries to refuse the job but it’s too late. The Duke forces him to taste the food. After that, he and Miranda are part of the court.
The court is small and there’s not much intrigue going on. The Duke is married but prefers to use whores and his wife resents that, of course. However, the food taster is rather seen as the Duke’s dog and not in a position to further his own lot in life. One young man, Tommaso, works in the kitchen. He promises to be Ugo’s eyes and ears there in exchange of a marriage contract with Miranda. Reluctantly Ugo agrees to marry her to Tommaso when she’s fifteen. Ugo is hoping that many things will change during the years and that he wouldn’t have to honor their arrangement.
Ugo tries his best to raise his daughter, and succeeds almost too well: she starts to resent him, their poverty, and her lowly position as the food taster’s daughter. She grows more beautiful every day and many young men are wooing her.
Ugo adapts quickly to his new life at court. The change from a starving peasant to a food taster is staggering. However, even though he can now taste magnificent foods he can’t enjoy them because he’s constantly afraid of being poisoned.
Ugo is also a very religious man. He prays almost constantly guidance from God and every event is apparently a message from Him. On the other hand, he curses a lot.
Some words here and there have been left in Italian (I presume, I don’t know any Italian) which is an interesting stylistic choice. Some are the curse words Ugo uses more often such as potta (which unfortunately means a bed pan in Finnish). Some I presume to be other words such as contadino and castello. This is hardly ever done in Finnish because we have a lot of translated works and the idea is to make them as idiomatically Finnish as possible. Only a few books are translated into English each year. I presume that the effect here is to bring attention to the presumed translated status of the book.
There a huge difference between the starving peasants, and the Duke and his court who seem to be eating several different kinds of meat on every meal. When Ugo goes to the court and is forced to taste veal as his first food, he remembers that before that he’s only eaten meat twice before in his life.
Ugo makes a point to describe foods offered at feasts. While some of them sound delicious, there are also foods I wouldn’t eat (calf’s brains, for example). However, he provides a list of ingredients to a serving only a few times. After all, he’s not a cook. His main worry is if he’s going to survive the meal or not, and that Miranda should have a good life.
The characters here are very human. The Duke is sometimes cruel and kills people who annoy him. Yet, he’s been raised to do that. He has no idea how the peasants truly live. Most of the people around him are trying to please him and therefore either survive or get more for themselves. Only one of them seems to care about the peasants, and only because if they tax the peasants too much, they will die and who will then pay for the upper classes meals?
Most of the people who we see here in the Duke’s court are not nobles themselves. There’s an astronomer, the fool, the cook, the scribe and so on. In fact, we see more about the lives of the servants than the upper class. Ugo isn’t really interested in mingling with the upper class. Even his romantic interest is a servant.
Ugo isn’t paid as such. Apparently, he works for food and board. He knows that he’s poor and without the duke he would be nothing. There’s no other job or profession he could go to.
There’s no adventure or mystery to solve here. Just Ugo writing down things that he finds worth telling about. Near the end the writing style changes when Ugo is writing things down every evening. This makes the story more immediate and was a good way to end the story.