Adventure ideas can come from anywhere: this one comes from a podcast I was listening to. A farmer in South Africa mentioned that because his orchards are in the mountains, his apples ripen two weeks earlier than everyone else’s, and this gives him a price premium. Seasonal fruit is a brilliant as treasure, because it needs your characters to do things immediately to secure its value.
Back when we were writing the China book, which fell through, one of my favourite plot hooks was the melon bandits. To explain, in the west of China they grew melons. These are dried for export, but they are particularly valuable fresh, at the start of the season, in the capital city. So carts of precious melons come the mountain passes, and bandits try to hijack them.
I love the idea of this. It’s treasure that smells wonderful, looks wonderful, and that you can share as a snacks at the table. I love the idea of a team of men, inching though a jagged valley, risking their life for fruit so expensive they don’t dare eat it. I love the idea of bands of people hiding in the dark, trying to steal succulent orbs that they fence in the cities to noblemen, through a secret network of black-market greengrocers.
Now of course these don’t need to be Chinese musk melons: you could make the same scenario fit pretty much anywhere mythic Europe. It can be difficult for modern readers to grasp how extreme seasonality is in the food supply of medieval Europe, partially because we have refrigeration and partially because we have international transhipped produce. Even simple things use to be seasonal. The BLT sandwich, for example, used to mark the start of the tomato season, because tomatoes used to be seasonal. Now they can be deep frozen and colored whenever people want to take them out of storage. That’s why you can have a BLT would it be like.
In Mythic Europe winter is a season of dietary monotony. It’s season you eat things like smoked meat, pickled vegetables, brewed grain, and fermented dairy products. This is not just because you prefer the flavor: it’s one way to get food to last through the winter. This is also the idea behind certain types of pie making, and preserves like jam. It lets you spread the season of abundance into the season with this it just the fresh produce. That’s why the person who has the first fruits of the season is paid such an enormous amount because this pent up demand is almost a madness, caused by being forced to stay in your house due to inclement weather for months. This is also why Christmas is so riotous in some areas of Europe.
A second plot idea that struck me considering this. When I was very young, I saw a Christmas movie that didn’t make sense to me, about a knight with miraculous Christmas cherries. I thought all the fuss that these people were making over a basket of Christmas cherries was a little bit extraordinary, because I have cherries every Christmas. I’m an Australian and cherries (because they’re vaguely like holly berries and are plentiful in summer) are extremely popular as a Christmas food.
I now know it was based on Sir Cleges and the Christmas Cherries, a medieval story in which a generous knight drives himself to penury by giving his money away to the various people who need it. He and his wife are praying to God, who sends a miracle by making their tree provide cherries in the middle of winter. Cleges takes the cherries to Uther Pendragon, a friend of his from the good old days who is the king of Britain, in the hope that his friend will forgive whatever has transpired between them, then assist with his finances.
When Cleges arrives at court, people are shocked that he has these cherries. To get past the first guard he has to agree to give one third of whatever he is given for the cherries. Then to get past the kings chamberlain, Cleges again has to give up one third of whatever he’s given for the cherries. Of course, when he meets the steward, the same deal is struck. When Cleges finally sees the king, Uther asks “What can I give you for this magnificent gift?” and Cleges answers “Twelve strokes with my staff”. When the servants come to collect, Cleges beats them. Uther takes him aside says”Yyou’re not allowed to beat up my servants.” Cleges explains: Uther replies “I’m not giving you the following for the cherries. Have some lands and gold. Promise not to give it all away because generosity is foolish.” Well he doesn’t actually say that but that’s the implication. Cleges goes back to his castle in Cardiff and lives happily for many years.
Now if your magi heard cherries had suddenly appeared in the middle of winter the obvious question would be “Is this something that God has done, or is this just faeries?” You’d go and have a look, to see whether the cherries contain Creo vis. If they do, you can actually steal them and use some of the cherries to create more natural cherries, so that no-one misses the ones you steal. The old Creo bait and switch.
The other alternative is that your character is the character finds the cherries and wants to deliver them to the king as a gift so that you get a reciprocal gift. You have to find your way through the court politics to allow that, and you need to do quickly because otherwise the cherries will sour. I don’t even know if that happens to European cherries. In Australia, because it’s warmer, cherries left on their own for too long go mouldy.
Thinking about the story, one thing that I was profoundly struck by is that Europeans don’t eat mangoes at Christmas. Australians have a mango season which, in the far north of the state that I live in, acts as a sort of social season. Those of you who are from temperate climates are used to the idea that there are four seasons. Different aboriginal groups in Australia had as many as 20, depending on which resources were available at various times. In north Queensland there are 3 seasons: hot, wet and winter, which takes about a month. Mango season delineates the time around Christmas.
Mango season is also associated with a socially bound psychiatric condition called “going troppo”. It leads to Australians acting like drunkards even though they’re sober. Speaking as a person who has never gone tropo, I have to say that living in the northern part of my state during this season is about as much fun as being the designated driver, in a night club, for three straight months. But enough of my problems this leads to the third of the plot hooks I thought of.
During mango season in Australia it is traditional that the first case of mangoes be auctioned. Proceeds of this auction go to charity. There is a great deal of social cachet, amongst the people in the areas that produce mangoes, for paying far too much for this case of mangoes. Sometimes this case goes for tens of thousands of dollars. Individual mangoes from these trays then become gifts “Have a thousand dollar mango!” In many cases, the farmer that produces the first tray of mangoes is the same person who purchases the first tray through the auction process.
In Mythic Europe you could have a similar system where an order of monks (for example) arranges a charitable auction of the first fruits of a particular harvest. Local merchant families in a town compete to be the purchasers, to improve the social cachet. This could be particularly important for magicians who use a family of puppets to act is their intermediary nobles.
So just as a quick recap. The seasonality of food in mythic Europe causes its price to fluctuate remarkably. This can lead to land based piracy for things like musk melons, it can lead to kings giving manors for a bowl of cherries and it can spark contests between noble families, for something as simple as a tray of apples.