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Title: An Unexpected Yule Bounty
Frodo closed the front door to Bag End and glanced out the frosted panes of his window. He watched as the carriage carried his Bolger cousins away, and hoped they'd have a safe journey home to Budgeford. They had been visiting for nearly a week, and while he found Fatty and young Estella delightful company, their parents could be wearing. Rosamunda was a Great Smials Took, and was far too taken with the latest gossip and fashions while Odovacar was hardly a scintillating conversationalist, his favorite topic being the weather and trade. Even then he was taciturn; after all he spent most of his time saying "yes, dear" to his wife. Frodo winced; he knew his thoughts were unkind. But he was not feeling particularly charitable to the elder Bolgers--they had spent most of the previous evening trying to persuade Frodo not to make his annual Yule visit to "the wilds of Buckland" as they put it. Odovacar was terrified of the River, and Rosamunda considered the Brandybucks to be outsiders and barely civilised. Frodo had firmly reminded them that Buckland was his childhood home, which quieted Odovacar, but simply turned Rosamunda to reminding him of his parents' "tragic end".
But now they were gone, though he'd miss Fatty and Estella at least, and he had much to do and only two days to do it before he left for Buckland. He began by making a list as he ate a quick second breakfast; tea and toast and some of the porridge left from first breakfast. He'd have something light for elevenses as well, perhaps some fruit and some of the seedcake he had left from tea the day before.
He could have used Sam's help, but the Gamgees had all decided to go to Underhill for the holiday as his sister May had presented the Gaffer with a new granddaughter. Thankfully, Sam had done quite a bit before he left, one of which was to gather the holly trimmings for the wreath on Bag End's front door. Although, like Bilbo, Frodo went to Brandy Hall for Yule, he also followed his cousin's tradition of leaving a cheery wreath which would remain fresh until his return. He also had his gifts for his neighbours: a moderately sized ham for each household on the Hill (another tradition from Bilbo and from his father Bungo before him), and small bags of sweetened nuts for the children. Most of his neighbours would be coming to him with their own offerings to pass along before he left, but some, such as the Widow Rumble, might find the trek uphill a trial. He would take their gifts down in person.
There were of course, the usual tasks of the household, as well as his packing. And he would have to think of what to do with the perishables in his larder before going away. Usually he sent the milk and so forth down to Number 3, but since the Gamgees were away, he'd have to think of someone else.
He got up and began the task of washing up, and decided to begin by dusting the mantelpiece in the front room, smiling as he recalled Bilbo always saying one should always do that first, in case any travelling Dwarves had left any correspondence there. As he methodically made his way about the smial, picking up this or that, he thought of his coming holiday. Brandy Hall at Yuletide always seemed almost a magical place, filled with the laughter of children and the embraces of loved ones. Aunt Esme always saw to it that his favourite dishes were on the table and he could look forward to going out with the adults who took the little ones on the expeditions to collect the greenery for decking the Hall. There would feasting and music and dancing, and he would take his turn in the big armchair by the hearth in the main parlour telling tales of an evening to the youngsters.
As he took a pause to take his elevenses, he pondered which stories to tell. For the youngest of faunts there were always "Tip and Tulip" tales, and for the slightly older, the more humorous and light-hearted parts of Bilbo's adventures went over well. Once the youngest went to bed, he could bring out the more detailed stories the older ones all called for, such as the encounter with Gollum or the fight with the spiders of Mirkwood. But he also liked to bring in a story they'd never heard before, perhaps one of the old Elven tales or a bit of history from the old kingdom. While no one expected the King to come back, it was a good thing to remind hobbits that there once had been a kingdom and a King who had watched over hobbits and the Shire as well as the other parts. He'd have to brush up on some of those stories before he left.
Just as he finished brushing away the seedcake crumbs and took the last bite of his apple with cheese, he heard a rapping at the door. He rose to go answer; it was likely that it was one of the neighbours bringing a Yule gift for the Master of the Hill. He'd yet to bring up the hams from the cold cellar! Well, they could come in and have a cup of tea and give him the chance to bring it up.
It was young Till Twofoot, Daddy Twofoot's grandson, carrying a rather large basket. The child was about Pippin's age, but lacking Pippin's boundless energy. He blushed at the sight of Frodo opening the door; he'd seldom had encounters with the gentry, as Frodo could tell from his whispering stammer.
"G-good morn to ye, M-mr. Frodo." He looked down at his feet.
Frodo bent over slightly. "Good morn to you, as well, Till. What errand brings you up to Bag End today?" he asked in a kindly tone.
Brought to mind of his task, Till dared to look up at the Master of the Hill. "Me granddaddy sent me up with this for you, and he says to tell you Good Yule and Happy New Year, seeing as you're to be gone away during the season and all." He delivered his message quickly, and somewhat louder than a whisper. He held the basket out and then looked down at his toes again.
Curiously, Frodo took the offering. Usually the old fellow sent him a bottle of his homebrew. He opened the basket and his eyes grew wide. "Fresh mushrooms? This time of year? My stars! How?"
Till tugged on his sleeve, and Frodo bent over and Till whispered in his ear: "He grew 'em on a rotten log in the cellar. But don't tell, 'specially Sam. He don't want the Gaffer to know."
Frodo chuckled. There was a friendly rivalry between Daddy Twofoot and Gaffer Gamgee, and he could see that the old hobbit would wish to be one up on his friend. But growing mushrooms in a cellar! Who would have thought it?
"Come in, Till! I've something for you to take back down the Hill." The lad's eyes widened in surprise at the invitation, but obediently stepped into the front hall. Frodo divested him of his jacket and scarf as the child wiped his feet upon the mat. He took the items and hung them on one of the hooks by the door. "There! I've been told that's the very hook that held the hood of Balin the Dwarf, when the Dwarves came to have tea with Bilbo many years ago!"
Till's brown eyes grew huge, and his jaw dropped. "The very same?"
"Yes, indeed!" He led his young visitor to the kitchen and handed him a couple of gingersnaps Sam had given him before the Gamgees left, and went down to the cellar to fetch up one of the hams. He also took some of the bags of nuts from the shelf.
"Let's see, there's Till, and two brothers and a sister, so four." He brought them out to the kitchen, where the child was finishing his second gingersnap. He didn't gobble it down as Pippin or Merry or Sam would have, but nibbled it very slowly, as if he meant to make the treat last. As he licked the last crumbs from his fingers, he glanced up to see Frodo. His shyness seemed to have evaporated.
"Thankee, Mr. Frodo! Those were good--I smelled 'em when Sam and Marigold was a-baking 'em t' other day."
Frodo grinned at him. "You are welcome, Till! Tell me, are your family expecting you to come straight home?"
"No, sir! Me mam said as I could play after, and to come home when I was hungry."
"Would you be able to help with some things then? I will pay you a penny, and feed you lunch if you can give me a hand with some things."
"A whole PENNY?" the child exclaimed, nearly overcome by the thought of such wealth.
"Indeed," Frodo replied, thinking to himself of the child's amazement if he gave him a silver instead of a copper. He could share that with his whole family and still have a copper for himself.
Till nodded enthusiastically. "What do you need me to do?"
"Well, first of all, let's put these mushrooms away, and then pack this ham in the basket and..." he held up one of the bags "...these are for you and your sibs, a bag for each of you."
Frodo took down a large bowl from the cupboard, and the two of them carefully placed the mushrooms into the bowl. He noticed that they were pretty clean, with only a bit of compost clinging to them here or there. He filled the bowl to heaping, and decided on what he would make for lunch.
Once that was done, Frodo had the lad help him bring the rest of the hams up, so they would be available for him to distribute later. Till assisted him to hang the wreath Sam had made, and then helped Frodo finish his cleaning of the smial. He fetched Frodo's travelling blanket and pack from one of the mathom rooms, and as Frodo filled his pack, he sent Till to stoke up the fire in the kitchen.
With most of his tasks for the day finished, Frodo soon joined the lad there. "Well, Till, you've done a fine job in the kitchen, I see. Would you like to help me make our lunch?"
Till's eyes lit up. "Oh yes, Mr. Frodo! Me mam's taught me how to do lots of things in the kitchen. I can make a breakfast fry-up almost all by myself!"
"That's good to hear, lad." He handed the child a large tin bowl. "I need some things fetched from the larder: a knob of butter, an onion, and some sprigs of thyme and rosemary. The herbs hang beneath the shelf where you will also find the onions, they are on the left, within your reach. And then down to the cold cellar, where you'll find a crock of nicely soured cream--it's the smaller blue one on the second shelf to your right. And just above that is a glass jar of broth. Do you think you can handle all that in one trip without breaking anything?"
Till nodded. "This is a big bowl. But if I'm not sure I can make two trips just as easy."
"You are a wise lad. Why, you know my cousin Pippin, who's your age would have been on the way without listening to all my instructions, and then having to shout back up at me when he could not remember what to fetch."
The lad grinned. "That's sounds like my brother Tip--he's always in a powerful hurry to do everything!" He started towards the larder, and then stopped. "What are we having, Mr. Frodo?"
Frodo winked at him. "What else but mushroom soup?"
Till made a little squeaking noise. "Mushroom soup!" He bounced about a little, and then stopped, looking abashed. "I'm sorry, Mr. Frodo. I didn't mean to forget my manners."
Frodo shook his head in amusement. The lad was shyer than Sam, and apparently quite well drilled in what was "proper". "That's all right, Till. I take it you like mushroom soup?"
He laughed at the vigorous nod that was the reply. "Well, when you get back up here, do you know how to clean mushrooms?"
"Very gently, mam says." Till headed into the larder and soon returned the tin bowl filled with all the things Frodo had requested.
Taking a small damp cloth, Frodo handed it to Till, along with the mushrooms he'd set aside for the soup, and the lad began to carefully wipe off the bits of compost.
While Till had been in the larder, Frodo had put a small cast iron spider* onto the hearth to heat. Now he peeled and chopped the onion, and then put a knob of butter into the spider to melt. He threw in the onion, and while it cooked he took the mushrooms Till had cleaned and gave them a rough chop and tossed them in with the butter as well.
He allowed Till to mince the herbs, once he was sure the child knew how to use a knife. He poured the broth and herbs in with the onion and mushrooms and allowed it all to simmer for a while. As it cooked he sliced a couple of pieces of dark bread and he and Till used the toasting forks to toast it.
Once the soup was cooked, Frodo forced it through a sieve into a small pot, which he put back before the fire, and stirred in the sour cream. Finally, he put each piece of the toast into a bowl and ladled the soup in.
The two sat down at the kitchen table with the soup and cups of tea, as Frodo gently questioned the lad. He'd known Daddy Twofoot all his life, but the old hobbit's son and his family had only recently moved back to Hobbiton to stay with him. Till was not quite as talkative as even Sam, but Frodo learned quite a bit. In return, he told the lad a bit about Buckland and Yule in Brandy Hall.
They finished the meal, and Till helped Frodo with the washing up. Frodo loaded Till's now empty basket with the ham and the bags of nuts, and led him to the door. "Ah, one more thing," he said, "I almost forgot!"
He stuck his hand in his pocket and brought out a silver penny.
Till froze. Frodo waited for the child to take it from his hand, but Till wasn't moving.
"Till, aren't you going to take your penny?"
He was back to whispering and stammering. "M-Mr. Frodo? That penny's silver!"
"Yes, Till, I know. I'm all out of coppers." He reached down and took the lad's hand and put the silver penny there. "You give that to your mother; she can get it changed, and give you back a copper. And then she can take care of the rest of it, if you want to share it with your family."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." His eyes were round as saucers, and he touched his forehead. "And thank you for the soup and everything."
"You are welcome, lad. Off you go, now, and you have a Good Yule and a Happy New Year, you and your family!'
"Yes, sir!" He turned then and took two steps, and then turned back "Sam said you were splendid, sir, and well, I-I reckon he's right" he blushed furiously, and trotted off as quickly as he could with his laden basket.
Frodo watched him as he passed through the gate and down the lane. The youngster really had been useful, and good company as well. Now he could spend the rest of the day and tomorrow giving out his gifts, and be ready to leave at first light the day after. He was planning to hire a trap from The Ivy Bush stable. Soon he'd be in Buckland and seeing his kin once more.
He went back in, whistling "No Shorter Now Will Grow the Days". He really loved this time of year. And fresh mushrooms in Foreyule? Who would have thought it?
*A spider is what a cast iron skillet with feet is called. It can set easily on a hearth.
Frodo's Herbed Mushroom Soup
3 Tbsp. Butter 1 small onion chopped 1 lb. white mushrooms chopped 3 1/2 c. vegetable stock 3 Tbsp. finely minced herbs* 2/3 c. sour cream Salt and pepper to taste
1. Melt half the butter in a pan; sauté the onion until soft and translucent. Add the remaining butter and stir in the mushrooms until they brown nicely.
2. Stir in the stock and herbs, and bring to a boil, and simmer about 20 minutes. Use an immersion blender, or transfer to a processor or blender, and process until smooth. (Or use Frodo's method and force through a ricer or a sieve.)
3. Return soup to the pan, stir the sour cream and season to taste, reheating gently. Place a piece of crisp buttered toast (preferably a dark bread)** in the bottom of a warmed bowl, and ladle the soup over it. Serve immediately.
*I find the best way to mince herbs is to use kitchen shears to snip them coarsely into a small condiment dish, and then use the tips of the shears to mince them finely. With this dish, I'd probably use thyme, rosemary, maybe tarragon, and parsley. Or I might use only one herb.
**I like a dark rye, or a hearty multi-grain for this
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