Princess Eugenia was not really the princess that her parents would have liked her to be. Her hair was straight and brown, she was not tall, or elegant, or graceful. She couldn’t curtsy without falling over. Her favourite thing in all the world, instead of dancing or playing the harp, was cooking.
Whenever her mother, the queen, wanted her to try on a new gown or practise her French, she was sure to be in the kitchen. Whenever her father, the king, was searching for her to meet the Prime Minister or open a new school or a hospital, the first place he would look for her was the kitchen.
More than anything, the princess loved cooking for other people, stirring and mixing and chopping and baking. She was always begging the cook to show her how to make pavlova or shepherd’s pie or caramel tarts. All the scullery maids and the kitchen hands called her Jenny.
One day, her mother said, “Now, Jenny – I mean, Eugenia, it’s time to give up this nonsense. Princesses don’t cook. They have cooks and chefs and under-chefs and pastry-chefs and kitchen maids to do all that for them. You are a princess, and you must dress and act like a princess.”
Jenny hung her head. “Yes, mother,” she said.
Her mother said, “Now take off that apron and brush the flour out of your hair. Prince Brian from the Far Distant Isles is coming to visit you. His parents want him to find a suitable bride and settle down.”
Jenny’s heart quailed. Every time she had to meet a prince who was looking for a bride, something always went wrong.
Her mother sighed. “If Prince Brian were to choose you, it would make me the happiest mother in the world. But there’s Princess Dillis, with her long, golden hair, and Princess Zita, who plays the mandolin and sings like a bird. You have such a beautiful, loving nature, but only someone who can see into the heart will discover that.”
Jenny brushed her hair and put on her most elegant gown, then she took it off again because it had butter on the front, and she put on her second-best gown instead. She sighed as she looked in the mirror and wiped the honey off her chin. “Who would ever pick me?” she said.
There was the sound of horses and carriages and dogs outside. Princess Jenny ran to the Grand Drawing Room, ready to meet the prince. A great many handsome young men in velvet and fine linen entered and bowed very elegantly to Princess Jenny and all her ladies-in-waiting. The most handsome of all had shining black hair swept back over his head, and teeth so white that his smile was like a lighting flash.
He walked up to the prettiest of Jenny’s ladies-in-waiting and bowed over her hand. “Your Highness,” he said, “never have I beheld such a lovely face. You are truly a princess beyond compare.”
The ladies-in-waiting all looked at each other and looked at Jenny. She thought how embarrassed the prince was going to be when he found out he had made a mistake, and then she thought, “It doesn’t matter – I would never marry such a man, anyway.” So she held her skirts and curtsied with all the other ladies-in-waiting, only toppling over a little bit, and didn’t say a word.
The prince and the pretty lady-in-waiting, Lady Azara, sat side by side on a couch covered in yellow silk. The servants carried in trays with crystal glasses of wine and pomegranate juice, and cakes and tarts and sandwiches with their crusts cut off. Straight away, Jenny noticed that the pastry on the jam tarts was overdone, and the Belgian sponge fingers were soggy. “Oh no!” she thought. “Something must be wrong in the kitchen!” Very quietly, she picked up the tray with the tarts and the plate of sponge fingers and slipped out.
She ran to the kitchen to find everything in an uproar. “A rat!” squeaked the cook. “A rat ran into the kitchen! The chef has fainted, the scullery maids all ran into the larder and locked the door, and all the under-chefs took off their aprons and went home!”
“This will never do,” Jenny said. She looked at the mess everywhere, dirty dishes in the sink and smoke pouring out of the oven, and took charge. “Minnie, unlock the larder and tell the scullery maids to start washing up immediately. Dan, fetch me the biggest bowl and the flour and the butter.” She wiped down the benches, and set to work.
She whisked the eggs and made perfectly risen sponge fingers. Then she made the lightest pastry you can imagine and made beautiful jam tarts. Everything was in and out of the oven in a trice. “There,” she said, wiping her face and getting jam on her ear, “tell the servants to carry these up to the drawing room, please.”
She put all the bowls and spoons in the sink and made some fresh cucumber sandwiches for the chef and the under-chefs, and a nice cup of tea for the cook.
Then she noticed that there was a man she hadn’t seen before, standing in the kitchen. “I came to see where these wonderful pastries and perfect sponge fingers came from,” he said. He bowed very nicely and said, “My name is Lord Tramel, man-at-arms to Prince Brian.”
Jenny curtsied, holding onto the table. She said, “Everyone calls me Jenny.” Lord Tramel wasn’t young or handsome, and his hair had a thin patch on top, but Jenny knew at once that he had a good, kind heart. “Would you like me to make something for you?” she asked.
“I was wondering… what I’d like most of all is a bowl of soup,” he said.
‘Soup?” Jenny said. “Chicken, leek and potato, or onion?”
“Pea soup,” Lord Tramel said, “if it’s not too much trouble.”
“Of course,” Jenny said. She set to work, chopping onions, and melting butter, and shelling peas. Before long there was a pot of glowing green soup bubbling on the stove. Jenny tasted the soup carefully and added a pinch of salt and a sprinkle of chopped chervil and a swirl of cream. Then she poured some into a bowl and gave it to Lord Tramel.
It was absolutely delicious. Tramel had a second bowl and he would have had a third except he didn’t think it would be polite. He and Jenny talked for hours, while Jenny made girdle cakes and apricot squares and chocolate eclairs, and they tasted them together. Then a messenger came down from the Grand Drawing Room to say that the prince was ready to go.
Tramel stood and offered his hand to Jenny. “I know you are the true princess,” he said. “For now, I am only Lord Tramel, heir to the fifth kingdom, but one day I will be king. I could wish for nothing better than to rule with you by my side. You cook with your heart as well as your hands, so everything you make feeds the soul as well as the body.”
Jenny took his hand, smiling. “But how did you know that I am truly the princess?” she asked.
Tramel smiled back at her. “My mother has always told me that only a true princess can make a really good pea soup,” he said. So they were married, and lived happily together, mostly in the kitchen, for the rest of their days.
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