Saturday, March 28, 2015

Making Cheese In Szügy

In a way, it seems silly to be writing about a place where I didn't make cheese, rather than about my time with Noémi, when I did make cheese. On the other hand, I still haven't written about my month with Laetitia in France almost two years ago, or at least not about specifically about her and her goat dairy. And I haven't written up my official blog post on doing the stage chez Bergeras either, though I spent 10 months with them, making (and eating) ham and other porky products. All three posts/possibly-potential-future-articles-for-commercial-sale are on my ever-lengthening "to do" list, along with "finish researching and contacting people at the places where Mom and John (and maybe Helen) and I are going to be traveling in May." Not to mention the other 153,000 words I have yet to write for my current project. Good thing it's raining today, and will continue to do so for the next five days, so I won't be tempted to go out and explore instead of sitting here with a computer on my lap.

Anyway. Cheese, in Hungary, that I did not make. It was made by Rita Cservenák, who runs a home-based operation with her husband György Mihály, who to me looks exactly like Attila the Hun, or Genghis Khan perhaps, as Noémi said when she was translating my comment. Which I made after György had left the room, to be polite (though I don't think he speaks English), and which I hoped wouldn't offend anyone, but everyone was laughing. With, I hope, though perhaps at ... Rita makes the cheese, and György takes care of the handful of cows across the courtyard. Their promotional brochure says "Apa nagyszerűen ért a jószágokhoz,s gondoskodik a tej minőségéről. Persze, ha anyának a kezében tej van, akkor már hadd varázsoljon: joghurtot, sajtot, vajat, és mindenféle tejterméket." which Google translates as "Dad had great for the good, and ensures the quality of the milk. Of course, if the milk is in the hands of the Mother, you've let Conjure: yogurt, cheese, butter, and all kinds of dairy products." Rita conjures up several types of cheese, from fresh to smoked to aged, and even blue. Like Noémi, she's eager to experiment, and asked me for several of the recipes I'd brought with me from France.

Noémi and I had left Gyúró before 8am in order to arrive in Szügy for the lunch Rita had invited us to. Szügy is in the northeast part of Hungary, about a four-hour drive from Gyúró and just a few kilometers from the Slovakian border, in Nógrád county. The weather was misty and near-drizzly, so I didn't see much of the scenery, but it was still fairly flat, though with more low rolling wooded hills than the region south of Budapest. There was another woman at the house when we arrived, who introduced herself as Boglárka Barsi, "Bogi for short, but you can call me 'Buttercup' if you like," she said to me (boglárka is Hungarian for "buttercup," as I later learned, though at first I just took that statement as proof of Bogi's definitely well-developed sense of humor).

Bogi speaks fluent English, as well as her native Hungarian, and her French is as good as mine; she speaks one or two other languages as well, if I remember correctly. It was wonderful to have her there, because she was able to translate as Rita talked, giving Noémi a welcome break from that taxing chore, and also giving her the opportunity to talk to Rita about cheese and other subjects - they hadn't met before, but it was interesting to see how much they had in common. For instance, they're both intensely proud of Hungary and Hungarian traditions. "Hungary brought us underpants," I was told at one point. In fact, I was informed, Hungarians invented many things that may or may not be credited to them by the wider world, like the helicopter, the ball-point pen, and vitamin C (or at least the discovery of it). I laughed and said that I'd had the same conversation with my Scottish relatives, who say that it was a Scotsman who invented half the things we enjoy today. "Ah, yes, Scotland," they said. "They're a proud people, too."

Rita had made honey-roasted pork and root vegetables and porcini mushrooms, and boiled potatoes that she mashed with olive oil for me, and butter for everyone else. We started out with a clear broth in which she'd boiled more vegetables and some ham for flavoring, and when Rita heard that I like pickles, she brought out two different kinds, both homemade: sour-sweet pickled cucumbers, and sweet-sour pickled plums.

Rita used to make her cheese in the kitchen, but not too long ago she built a separate cheeseroom, repurposing a space that used to be a studio apartment sort of arrangement for (I believe) her mother, or perhaps it was György's mother. I wasn't taking notes (bad photoblogger!) but I was tasting cheese, very small nibbles of it anyway. The aged cheese was good, and she has a nice strain of blue going, and I like the way she ties small strands of mozzarella around the tops of her burrata pouches, though I'm not sure I'd take the time to do that, myself. As Noémi discovered, I'm not very good at making burrata in the first place, or at milking by hand. I'd be willing to practice to get better at both, but will have to build up my finger strength first. Typing is not a muscle-building exercise, for all that my fingers are flying eight hours a day, these days.

Dug into the earth underneath the main house is a low cool cellar where Rita stores root vegetables, and where she now ages her cheese. Part of the renovation process included in the development of the pedagogical farm at Noémi and Géza's place will be a similar structure, partly in the ground and partly above ground, so that Noémi has the right environment for doing aged cheeses. I'm looking forward to seeing pictures of that, and I hope to get back to Gyúró some day and see it for myself.

It was a lovely day, full of laughter and cheese (and chickens). I do so enjoy meeting people who are so passionate about what they do, and full of energy to experiment and to improve the quality of their product, and share what they know. Rita and I are connected on Facebook now, so I'll be able to keep in touch and see how those new cheeses turned out, and whether she was able to recreate the double-cream brie-style cheese she swooned over in France on a visit a few years ago, and which I identified as a sort of Brillat-Savarin. Noémi is sending me regular updates on the new cheeses we tried (some of which didn't work at all, unfortunately) and she's got high hopes for the Belval-type washed-rind cheese that didn't quite work out the first time, but which she'll probably make work the next time. I like the thought that I'm bringing new ideas to cheesemakers, and being a sort of conduit for helping spread useful tips and information from country to country, like sharing Laetitia's use of whey as a starter culture for her goat cheeses, which Noémi is now doing. I hope I can continue to be an ambassador of cheese in the future. I hope I can figure out a way to make a living at it, in fact. Which reminds me - I still haven't sent out my cheesy CV. Another thing that's on the "to do" list, which I must do next week. Maybe there will be chickens in my future, too. There's a rooster in the neighborhood here somewhere, in the midst of all these blocky concrete buildings, but I miss the sound of the goats and the fresh country air. On the other hand, it's awfully nice to have all of those grilled-chicken stands just a few steps away ...

Friday, March 27, 2015

Tram #49, Bartók Béla út, Budapest

The first time I went in to Budapest, I took the shiny metro line #4 from the Kelenföldi vasútállomás, the Kelenföld train station in the southwest corner of Budapest where many of the local and international rail services terminate, under the Danube to the Central Market Hall. Then I found a tram line that also terminates at the rail station, the #49 that goes through older neighborhoods and modern(er) blocky concrete districts, across the river and up through the business district. I took that by preference both coming and going for the rest of my visits, though once, after spending too much time (and money) at the market, I ran down the stairs to the metro instead, so that I wouldn't miss the train home.

I prefer the trams, because they're above ground, and I get to look at people and places along the way. There are more stops, and it's a slower trip, but in general I wasn't in a rush. I could look out at the people walking along the street or waiting for a bus, and wonder about their lives. I could look at the signs and the graffiti, neither of which I understood. My Hungarian vocabulary doesn't exceed a dozen words or so, but it came in handy this morning; I was cooking cabbage to eat with scrambled eggs, and Srdjan asked me what smelled so good, but when I replied "cabbage" he didn't know the word. I made a round shape with my hands, said it was a green vegetable that was often pickled, and that the word for it in Hungarian is káposzta. "Ah, kupus," he said. And now I know a word in Serbian, too.

Many people speak English here, and with those who don't, I'm finding that smiles and sign language work pretty well, for the most part. I need to learn some essentials, though: hello, goodbye, please, thank you. I'm not even going to try to learn the numbers, but wait to get the cashier's ticket before fumbling out my clump of bills and jangle of coins, just as I did in Hungary. I did learn how to say hello and goodbye there, though that was always confusing to my English-oriented ears. "Hello" is halló, but "hi" is szia, pronounced "see ya." And you also say both halló and szia when you leave, or are ending a telephone conversation, though "goodbye" is viszlát, which you only say when you're leaving physically.

In Serbian, the word zdravo appears to also have the dual function of hello/goodbye; hvala is "thank you," and molim is "please," but molim is also how you say "hello" when you're answering the telephone. And I'm pretty sure some of the people I'm speaking to are responding in Russian, because I think one of the shopkeepers said do svidaniya as I left, the other day. Though it might have been doviđenja. Ya ne govoryu po-russki, so I think I'd better memorize the phrase ne razumem as well. The Serbian-to-English translation isn't always clear either. When someone says "thank you for your help" (as I have done frequently this week) a common reply in English is, or was, "not at all" - which in Serbian is also translated as "nothing." "Thanks, bye!" I say as I leave the store with whatever it is I've purchased, and "Nothing!" they cheerfully respond.

Tram #49 follows the tracks laid down at the end of the 19th century, from Kelenföld to Deák Ferenc tér, up Bartók Béla út to Szent Gellért tér at the western bank of the Danube, then across the bridge and past the market, curving north along Múzeum krt where the National Museum is, the site of the 1848 revolutionary gathering where Sándor Petőfi first declaimed his "National Song." Perhaps next time I'll make it into the museum. The tram stops at the Astoria metro station at Rákóczi út, and then continues to the end of the line along what is now Károly krt to Erzsébet tér, a large open public garden that I didn't really explore. I found a store to buy postcards there on one trip, and later it was an easy walk back to the Astoria intersection to buy my bus ticket to Serbia.

There are no trams left in Niš, but there are several bus lines. The city's so small I've been walking everywhere, and I doubt I'll need to get on a bus until I go to Niška Banja, the spa town a few miles to the southeast. The trams used to run there, too. I don't know if the 5th-century Roman (and later Turkish) baths are still in operation, but there's a facility there where for about $2 I can use the pool (if it's open), for $25 I could get a one-day "antistress" treatment package, and for $32 a "Royal" massage and a facial massage. I never made it into the thermal baths in Budapest, so I think I'll have to take advantage of the facilities here, especially after all this typing. And speaking of typing, it's time to start work again, after this quick non-work break to catch up on my photoblogging. Vidimo se kasniјe!

This is an interesting site run by a "tram-spotter" with more information on the Budapest tram network, one of the earliest established in Europe and still one of the largest in the world.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Budapest To Niš

Be careful what you ask for ...

There was a bit more adventure than I expected in yesterday's trip from Budapest to Niš, though it all turned out well. After I said goodbye to the goats and the girls yesterday morning, Géza and Noémi took me to the main international bus station on the southeast edge of Budapest, where people were lined up waiting to go to places like Vienna and Krakow, Hamburg and Amsterdam. I went to stand #7 as instructed, where there were a few other people waiting for the southbound bus. When the travel agent arrived, she said that since there were only three of us scheduled, we weren't going to be taking a bus, but a car, and shortly a car pulled up; the driver unloaded some cardboard boxes, then shoehorned our luggage into the back and us passengers into the front. I hugged Noémi goodbye, wedged my knees in behind the driver's seat, and we set off.

And then we stopped again, in a deserted Tesco parking lot (the superstores are closed on Sundays), where we waited for about 10 minutes for someone to come by with a package to go to Serbia, or at least that's what I understood from one of the other passengers, who spoke some English. Mysterious package wedged into the little space remaining, we headed for the highway south, on the road to Serbia at last.

And then we stopped again. This time, it was because we were pulled over by the police. Apparently one or both of the taillights was out, or something, and the driver was explaining that the battery was low and not working well. I'm not sure he spoke Hungarian very well, and he had his passport out and the police were calling things in on the radio. I was afraid they were directing us to a nearby garage to get the battery replaced, but they let us get back on the highway after about 15 minutes. Unfortunately, they probably should have had us go to a garage (if there was even one open on a Sunday) because after half an hour driving, the battery died, and we stopped again. The driver pulled a spare battery out of the back and that got us going for another twenty minutes or so, before the battery died again. A passing motorist pulled over to jump-start the car, and that got us to the next gas station, where we waited for an hour or so while the driver wandered around asking people if they had a battery, or something - the passenger with some English couldn't explain, and the other passenger was a deaf Hungarian (I think) woman who probably had even less idea than I did what was going on. We finally got jump-started again, and made it another few kilometers down the road before the battery died once more.

This time the driver pulled out a yellow safety vest and started pushing us down the road, while the deaf woman and I sat in the back seat and the other passenger steered the car down the verge, occasionally turning the key, which made the car jump and shudder, though not start. Finally, a car full of young men pulled over, and they towed us slowly to the border, which fortunately was only about 40 kilometers away at that point. The hour and a half trip from Budapest to the Hungarian-Serbian border took approximately four and a half hours, and I was a bit worried that I wouldn't get to Niš until midnight. However, they had a bus waiting for us on the Serbian side, whose driver was laughing as he used his notepad to capture a video of our ignominious arrival.

The bus driver started a movie shortly after we set off, but as the sound was off and it was subtitled in Greek I wasn't paying much attention at first, until I noticed how weird the movie was, and started trying to figure it out. Tom Hanks playing some sort of tribal savage who also appears to be friends with a woman from the future, and who is haunted by a dead guy in a top hat? A bunch of Asian robot fast-food waitresses from possibly the same future? A slave ship in the 1800s, a gay piano player in what looks like the 1920s, an author in present-day London who attends a cocktail party in a high-rise apartment during which someone throws someone else off the balcony and who later appears to have telephone conversations with a younger version of himself before breaking out of a rest home run by a sadistic nurse? At some point I thought "This must be 'Cloud Atlas' because it is seriously weird, but I think I would like to watch it again, in English this time." Now that I'm online again, I checked and yes, Tom Hanks, and yes everything else pretty much, although the waitresses are genetically engineered, not robots. Seems kind of intimidating as a book, though maybe it's actually easier to follow, when you can keep flipping back to look up details.

The bus made a few more stops, though not due to battery trouble, thank god. Once, we pulled into a McDonald's parking lot, and an old man handed an IKEA-style recycled plastic bag to the driver, before getting back into his car and driving off. Somewhere between Novi Sad and Belgrade we drove into a lay-by that ran next to a fairly scary-looking tumbledown neighborhood, and picked up another passenger, though I couldn't see anything that looked like a bus stop sign. We got to Belgrade after dark, so I didn't see anything of that city, although I liked the bridges over the Danube.

After picking up another handful of passengers, we continued south and east towards Niš. My ham-and-quince-paste sandwiches were long gone, so I was glad that we stopped at a service station/rest area an hour or so later. I'd changed my forint to dinar at the border (except for a 500-forint note I just discovered, after having tried to give it to a shopkeeper this morning; I'll have to send that back to Noémi) so I was able to buy a healthy dinner of apple juice and potato chips. There was a fast-foody sort of place there, but I wasn't up to trying to decipher ingredients, plus I wasn't sure if anyone would notice if I hadn't gotten back on the bus when it started up again.

It was a relief to pull up to the bus station in Niš and see Srdjan and his wife Gabriela, who own and run Hostel Centar-StreetLife. It was very nice of them to meet me there, and help me get my bags back to the hostel and up the stairs to this room, my home for the next six weeks. Although it's just a block or so off the main road going through the center of this small city (pop. 200,000 or so, depending on which suburbs you include) it's very quiet. I plan on doing a lot of walking, when I'm not working. There are regular bus lines, but from the center of the city (where the hostel is) it's only 3 miles in any direction to get to the city limits, and Srdjan also has a bicycle I can use to get to the places that are farther away.

I bought some mandarin oranges at one of the greengrocers' around the corner this morning, and asked if I could also have one of the wooden fruit crates, which they gave me. I ripped off the top two slats on the long sides, flipped it over, and now have a small lap desk that I've put my computer on as I sit on my bed, pillows propped behind me against the wall, the sun shining in through the skylight, my mouse on a folded-up blanket beside me. I have a lot of work to do, and probably shouldn't even be taking this time to blather on about nothing, but I'm procrastinating a bit, I think. I'd rather be out in the sun, looking for the park that I tried to find earlier, but I need to get started researching kefir and kombucha, the two topics on which I have agreed to write 160,000 words over the next month. So I'll be good and work now for a few hours, and then take a walk before dinner. The weather's supposed to turn cloudy and rainy by Wednesday, so I won't be so tempted to sightsee. Okay. Work! Talk to you later.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Onward To The Next Adventure

At the entrance to the Merchant Adventurer's Hall, which has been standing in the center of York, England since the middle of the 14th century, there's an 1850 painted carving of the society's coat of arms that reads "God grant us good fortune." Modern French (and modern English) now use the definition of "adventure" rather than "fortune," but I like to think of those long-ago voyagers as asking for something interesting, something new, something unexpected and wonderful. That's what I hope for, on my adventures, and I'm always finding it - though sometimes I have to look more carefully than usual.

My stay in Hungary has been interesting and wonderful, with only a small semi-unexpected glitch in the form of surgery, from which I believe I'm now fully recovered, thanks, except for not really wanting to lift heavy things and getting tired more quickly than normal. I'll ask the bus driver to load and unload my bags tomorrow, and a nice man named Srdjan is going to meet me at the bus station in Niš to help me get them to the hostel. As my six weeks there will be largely devoted to earning money through writing, I am not sure how many opportunities I'll have to look for adventure, but I'm sure it will find me just the same. Simply being in another country - Serbia! I never thought I'd end up in Serbia - is adventure enough, not to mention the fact that I'll be dealing with an entirely new alphabet. Of course, since I don't speak Serbian, which alphabet they use is irrelevant, at least to me.

A new language! New food and drink to taste and enjoy! New people to meet and friends to make! New parks to walk in, and new trams to hop on and off, and new sights to see! And six weeks to do it in, too, although given how quickly these weeks in Hungary have gone by, I'm sure it won't be long enough. But long or short, it starts today. Onward to the next adventure!

"When you wake up in the morning, Pooh," said Piglet at last, "what's the first thing you say to yourself?"
"What's for breakfast?" said Pooh. "What do you say, Piglet?"
"I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting to-day?" said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully.
"It's the same thing," he said.
          - from "Winnie-the-Pooh" by A. A. Milne (1926)

Saturday, March 21, 2015

A Heap Of Stones

Almost 25 years ago, the first free election in Hungary was held after the collapse of the communist dictatorship by which the former Soviet Union controlled the country. Prior to that, the short-lived second Kingdom of Hungary (under regent Miklós Horthy) continued the also-dictatorial conditions Hungarians had been protesting against during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, during which the only other free election was held, a hundred and fifty years earler. Before that, the absolute monarchies of the noble houses of Hungary and then Austria controlled the land and the people: Árpád, Anjou (a little French influence there), Hunyadi, Zápolya, Hapsburg. Elections have been held regularly since 1990, of course, but as in most other countries the ruling parties have changed over time. In that parliamentary election on March 24, 1990, there were four parties that got the most support, according to Wikipedia. Between them, the Hungarian Democratic Forum, the Alliance of Free Democrats, the Independent Smallholder's Party, and the Hungarian Socialist Party received two-thirds of the votes cast and 333 of the 386 seats. The Fidesz party, then a small anti-communist group popular with students, held 21 seats, and was also a proponent of democratic, liberal ideals. Today, Fidesz is the ruling party in Hungary, but it's no longer liberal; since 1994 it has embraced conservative theories, and the original leaders have split off and formed their own group. In 1998 Viktor Orbán became the head of Fidesz, and he's been there ever since, as the party has gone more and more towards nationalism, state control, and intervention. The Orbán government has been in the news recently because of its move towards closer ties with Russia, such as a nuclear power plant deal that just got shot down by the European Commission. While a majority in Hungary want to stay in the European Union, Orbán doesn't hesitate to express his opinion that the EU is crumbling and that more authoritarian systems form a more stable society. "We are sailing under a Western flag, though an Eastern wind is blowing in the world economy," he is quoted as saying on a blog called The Orange Files: Notes on the End of Liberal Democracy in Hungary.

Orbán is not popular for many reasons, including last year's erection of a World War II monument commemorating the occupation of Hungary by Germany. I happened to walk by this monument a few weeks ago; it's at the southern end of Freedom Square (Szabadság tér), at the north end of which I had been indulging in weak coffee and forbidden pastry. Construction of the monument was actually completed in the middle of the night, as trucks brought in the statue under armed police escort, hoping to avoid the protesters. There were no protesters on the site the drizzly day I walked by, but only an increasingly large collection of stones and memorabilia highlighting the less than passive role played by the Hungarian government at the time in the matter of the Jews, the concentration camps, and deportation in general. The Orange Files has another of Orbán's quotes on the subject. "The way I see it," he said in April 2014, "we Hungarians have done everything we could do. We asked for forgiveness even though we know that the crime of collaboration with the perpetrators of genocide is unforgivable. We have given reparations even though we know that what took place is irreparable. At the same time, we will not recognize responsibility that does not apply to us." The people protesting the existence of the monument in Freedom Square say that it downplays the role that Hungary played in the Holocaust. Though you can't really see it in my picture, the statue is of a large eagle (Germany) swooping down menacingly on the defenseless Archangel Gabriel (Hungary). The then-government's part in the matter was not exactly angelic, say the protesters, who leave rocks and photographs and other bits of broken lives, representing the over 430,000 Hungarian Jews who were deported.

More active protest was on display last week, during the scheduled parades and ceremonies marking Hungarian National Day. People were marching against what they see as a corrupt regime, one with worryingly close ties to Russia instead of Western Europe. In an echo of the 1848 "12 Points" document presented to the representative of the Hapsburgs, today's revolutionaries have developed and submitted a referendum with 19 points to the National Election Office. Among other things, they want political transparency, a restoration of the public pension system, elimination of state-imposed fees on roads and tobacco, and a focus on education and culture. They are also angry at the fact that Viktor Orbán wants to move his office from the Parliament building on the east side of the river to the UNESCO World Heritage Site on the western bank, Buda Castle. It would take a great deal of money to restore all of the grounds and buildings there to habitable and modern state, but many people suspect that Orbán sees himself as an imperial-class ruler, and that he wants the regal surroundings to prove it - though it won't give him any more credibility with the Hungarian people in this respect, as the castle (palace) was built by the Hapsburgs and has no connection with the true Hungarian kings like Stephen I. Currently the National Széchényi Library and the National Art Gallery are located in the palace, two more places to visit on my "next time" list, unless it has been turned into a Kremlin-on-the-Danube, of course.

On my first visit to Budapest, I happened to be walking by the Parliament building just as the daily flag-raising ceremony started. Led by two soldiers armed with rifles, four others marched stiffly to the beat of a drum towards the flagpole, then solemnly pulled it up to flap wetly in the damp air as the trumpeter played a brief tune. The four unarmed soldiers turn around and marched quickly but formally back towards the musicians while the two armed guards took their position on either side of the flagpole, looked at each other, and simultaneously went into "parade rest" position facing the building. Formality ended for the others as they met up by the steps, and they laughed and chatted as they walked back inside.

Because I was walking around in the grey misty weather, and in a section of town with less than its fair share of architecturally-interesting buildings, I had not very optimistic first impression of Budapest. Fortunately my second visit, in bright sunshine and through some of the older parts of town, turned that around. (I'm trying to get all of my Hungary posts up before I leave for Serbia, but I don't know if I'll have time to write about that second visit until next week, though I have collected and cleaned up the photos for it.) I didn't go inside the Parliament building, but they offer English-language tours starting at 10am, and I could have seen lots of statues and paintings, and the gold-and-velvet chambers of the assembly halls. I also could have seen the coronation crown of Stephen I, and perhaps next time I will, when I have more time to explore the city and its history.

UPDATE: After I published this post yesterday, Noémi asked me what the American opinion was of Viktor Orbán, because she was curious about where I'd found the information behind what I'd written. I told her that (to my embarrassment, as I don't pay much attention to politics other than what hits the headlines) until I was surfing around looking for information on the Budapest protests and the Freedom Square monument, I didn't even know the name of the Hungarian Prime Minister, much less what people in America thought about him. She told me that in fact Orbán is very popular, that he has done a lot to protect Hungary from things the EU wants to impose, and that the older people speaking against him, especially in the media, are often ex-communists who don't like him. And that the younger people are ones who just want an easy life, to enjoy the "benefits" of Western European influences (video games, television, beer) instead of working hard, working with their hands, working the land to keep Hungary self-sufficient and not dependent on foreign imports. "Did you read my blog post?" she asked. We talked a while longer about Orbán's connections to Russia, and Noémi said that Orbán has two choices: submitting to the EU, which is a bad choice; or allying with Russia, which is a worse choice. No matter which one he makes, she says, there will be people who complain about it.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Goat (A Kecske)

In these last few days here in Gyúró I've gone up to the barn several times, just to watch the goats. Sometimes I've taken them bits of lettuce trimmings, or the rest of a bag of oatmeal I didn't get around to eating. When I take my camera out, they come up and nose at it, attracted by the sound of the lens, perhaps? Or the focus-light (or whatever the technical term is) when and if it flashes? Or perhaps simply an inborn sense that they were born to be in the spotlight, descendants and devotees of the great god Pan, featured in art and mythology and literature. Although Noémi buys cow's milk to make most of her cheese, especially in the winter months when the goats are dry, it's the goat's-milk cheeses that have been the most popular, the most requested. As a country, Hungary is just starting out - or re-starting, perhaps, as the United States did back in the 1980s - on the road to bring back traditional cheeses, and making space for traditional cheesemakers in the market. The people around the country who make cheese are also working on expanding the list of Hungarian cheeses by incorporating techniques from other countries, mostly France and Italy, though as I have found, not all of the recipes work here. The concept of terroir holds true in this territory, and Noémi and I have been adjusting recipes as we go along, and adapting French techniques to local milk and local conditions.

The ancestors of modern goats likely came from the Carpathian mountains, arcing from the center of what is now Slovakia east and south to modern-day Romania, but the former Austro-Hungarian Empire encompassed most of that region, and the ancestors of today's Hungarian peoples were at least in part goat-herders as well as horse-herders. However, the goat was associated with peasants and poverty back at the beginning of the 19th century, and over the course of the next 100 years, goat-tending fell out of favor; with fewer goats, there was less goat cheese, and since even in France most of the now-famous goat cheeses were often only regionally available, there would not have been many examples headed east in the shipments of Brie and other cow's cheese from Paris to Vienna. Goats have been relegated to a lesser role for too long, but they are throwing off their historical burdens here as elsewhere, and a growing number of people are (re)discovering the delights of goats themselves, as well as the milk, cheese, meat, and other products that come from them.

And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord's lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.
(Leviticus 16:7-10)
The Hungarian Sheep and Goat Dairying Public Utility Association took part in last year's European Regional Council on Goats, and there may be more government support for small breeders and locally-based dairies, or at least I hope so. As in France, and the United States, there are piles and piles of paperwork to fill out, collect, save, and produce at the request of whatever official happens to want them at any given moment, so it's not always easy to get started in the dairying or cheesemaking business here, even if there is a market.

The Völgy Vidék Közösség (Valley Rural Community) sponsors a Hungarian version of the "Route des Fromages" you find all over France, and Noémi is on it. She's also on a Budapest-to-Balaton bike trail that's widely publicized, and hopes that there will be many people stopping by the farm this summer, now that the work on the new pedagogical farm is well underway.
Nem sétál vele, hanem viszi. A bot máris elvált tőle, külön állott. Ez fájhatott az ifjúnak, sőt egészen fölizgathatta, olyannyira, hogy egyes kósza gondolatát hangosan fejezte ki. Például:
       - Adieu, kecske!
       - Isten veled, szép ezüst kecske!
       - Nem tudom, nem tudom!
I will be sad to leave the goats behind, just as the young man in Bródy Sándor's book Az ezüst kecske (literally "The silver goat" but translated as "The Medic" when made into the 1916 film of the same name for which I can find almost no information, other than that it exists, or existed) was sad to give up his silver-headed walking stick, pawning it for ready cash. Google has a hard time translating Hungarian in to English, so I've no idea what the plot is, though it appears to involve revolution and food and family relationships and love and alcohol, so it seems fairly typically Hungarian. And at the beginning of the last chapter, Google translates the first sentence as "A lot of time wandering," which also speaks to the history of Hungary, and to my own history as well - and my future, at least for the next few months. I don't know (nem tudom) what road I'll be following after the first of August, but I'm sure it will lead somewhere interesting. The road always has, before, and I've followed it willingly, though I too have had to give things up.

One thing that must be given up in a farm-centered life, at least if you're practical (and carnivorous), is any squeamishness about raising, and killing, animals for meat. After six weeks of watching goat kids be born, and take their first tottery steps towards the udder, helped along with nudges of a maternal nose; after seeing them get stronger and bolder, running out away from the shelter of their mother's side and back again; after spending long stretches of time just watching them leap and butt heads and kick friskily from one side of the corral to the other, it was a little odd to eat one the other night. The only kid I really could identify out of the crowd was the young buck kid we'd bottle-fed after his mother took a dislike to him shortly after birth. He had weak back legs, made weaker by the fact that she'd kicked him away at one point, and when he was first brought into the house we laughed every time he'd slip on the tiled floor, each leg pointing in a different compass direction. Gradually he got stronger, and now he's out in the pen, sharp little horns adding to his cheeky nature, eating hay like the big goats, but still running up at the sound of a human voice, which in his limited experience and until recently has almost always meant a blue bottle full of warm milk. When Noémi told me that she'd asked Géza to cull one of the kids for roasting on Wednesday, I said, "It's not the cheeky kid, is it? Because I would still eat him, but I'd feel bad about it." She assured me that no, it would be one of the other kids, because Panna and Dia were also attached to that kid, and they'd never forgive her. Of course, they'll have to forgive her at some point, because at some point, cheeky kid will become a plate of roasted kid cheeks. But not this week.

A Wolf saw a Goat feeding at the summit of a steep precipice, where he had no chance of reaching her. He called to her and earnestly begged her to come lower down, lest she fall by some mishap; and he added that the meadows lay where he was standing, and that the herbage was most tender. She replied, "No, my friend, it is not for the pasture that you invite me, but for yourself, who are in want of food."
- Aesop
At no point in my stay in Hungary with the Baranyis have I been in want of food. Noémi is an excellent cook, and she has been very generous with her extremely limited free time in cooking things she thinks I'd like, or traditional specialties she'd like me to try. She roasted half of the kid (the forelegs and neck) with garlic and mushrooms and spices and a drizzle of ketchup until it was sliding off the bones. "Can you eat a whole leg?" she asked me, serving spoon poised. Oh, yes. No doubt about that. I'd made a cucumber salad in the Hungarian style, or at least the style of my Hungarian grandmother, though the slices weren't as paper-thin as she would have liked. Tossed with salt and left to drain for a bit, the cucumber gets tender-crunchy; mixed with slivers of red onion and a bit of local bell pepper, with a dash of vinegar, it was a good contrast to the butter-soft milk-fed kid.

Besides doing much of the cooking, Noémi has also brought me home-canned peaches and eggplant spread from the market, introduced me to pálinka and seasoned cured lard, and picked up gluten-free bread and coconut-rice milk for me at the grocery store each week. I've been spoiled, frankly, and bare-bones living in the youth hostel, cooking for myself, will be a rude awakening after living as a lotus-eater since the beginning of February.

But leave I must, moving on to the next adventure. I hope that my medical adventures are over for the time being, though I am thinking of checking out dental prices in Serbia, and getting my teeth cleaned. Might as well have another set of people with sharp objects coming at me speaking words I don't understand, as long as it's cheap ...

I'll miss the goats, and I'll miss making cheese. This time with Noémi has helped confirm my belief that I am happiest when I am making cheese with people, and I will do my best to make sure that cheesemaking is part of my future, somehow, somewhere. But first, it's Serbia and what will probably be nearly constant work on a large freelance project, which will fill my travel fund coffers as it drains away my energy and free time; I've calculated it to be, at a minimum, a 240-hour project, and that's all six weeks at 40 hours a week. "What did you see in Serbia?" they'll ask me. "My computer screen," I'll answer. Well, maybe this will just teach me how to research and write articles really, really efficiently. I'll need plenty of goat meat to keep me going, though.

This answered my end, and in about a year and a half I had a flock of about twelve goats, kids and all; and in two years more I had three-and-forty, besides several that I took and killed for my food ... But this was not all; for now I not only had goat's flesh to feed on when I pleased, but milk too - a thing which, indeed, in the beginning, I did not so much as think of, and which, when it came into my thoughts, was really an agreeable surprise, for now I set up my dairy, and had sometimes a gallon or two of milk in a day ... What a table was here spread for me in the wilderness, where I saw nothing at first but to perish for hunger!
- from "Robinson Crusoe" by Daniel Defoe (1660–1731)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Central Market Hall, Budapest

I like to have a goal when I wander around a new city, and I like it even more when food is the goal.

The first time I went into Budapest (with a nervous Dia who was hoping she wouldn't have to translate anything for me in the train stations) it was very early in the morning, because I went when Dia left for school, before 6:30am. As a result, I was hours too early for travel agencies to be open - I'd gone in to find out about that bus to Serbia - and so I decided that my first stop would be at the Nagycsarnok, or "Great Hall," also called the Központi Vásárcsarnok, "Central Market Hall." It's at the southern end of central Budapest, and for almost hundred and twenty years (the market was built in 1897) people have been buying and selling fresh and preserved foods there. Some of the stalls are definitely focused on the tourist trade, with embroidered bags of paprika and aprons printed with recipes for gulyásleves. But while there were lots of tourists there, two-thirds of the people seemed to be locals.

There weren't many people when I got there, but it was just past 7:30am and not even all of the stalls were open at that hour. I took the opportunity to scope out the market, noting things that I wanted to return to buy, wishing for the umpteenth time that I'd learned some Hungarian before coming here, and looking for a place to get a bite to eat and some coffee.
The only place I saw that morning was a coffee stand, and I didn't want to drink coffee without eating something. There is a restaurant on the upper floor, however, called Fakanál. I think it's open for breakfast, but it didn't look open, so I went on my way. But when I went back for my second visit to Budapest, I had lunch there, and enjoyed some authentic gypsy music, along with all the other tourists. The upper floor, or rather the second-story walkway around the perimeter, is all about the tourists.

I was dubious about the authenticity of the music when the first piece they played was something like "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" (it wasn't that, but I don't remember what it was). As soon as I heard the first bars, I started laughing and shaking my head, and the violinist looked over at me and grinned as if he knew what I was thinking. The other songs were more appropriate to the venue, though I was the only one who clapped after each piece. On the other hand, when I walked by the restaurant a few days ago there was a large crowd clapping and shouting as the fiddle wailed, so maybe it was just a quiet group the day I was there.

The older man was using mallets to play what I thought was an open piano (à la John Cage) but it turned out to be a cimbalom, a traditional Hungarian instrument that, around the time the Central Market Hall was built, had just come into prominence on the formal concert stage, far from its folk-music roots.

The souvenirs and knick-knacks in the stalls that line both sides of the upper walkway might have gotten more of my attention if there hadn't been so many people around on that second midafternoon visit. It was nearly impossible to stop long enough to look at things, with people pressing up behind to get past, or to look at the same things. And I don't really need another apron. Some of the embroidery was very nice, but I don't honestly know whether it was local (or from Hungary at least) or mass-produced in China, as I didn't stop to look at any tags. Some of the finer work - the more expensive cross-stitched patterns in blue and black and red - was probably handmade here, but I've never really known what to do with a table runner, no matter how pretty. A limited budget and an even more limited space in my bags means that even if I am tempted by something, I generally don't buy it. Unless it's edible, of course.

As it was February (and then March, on my second visit) there was a fairly limited selection of local produce, but someone is growing tomatoes and cucumbers and peppers in greenhouses somewhere in Hungary. Potatoes, radishes (both black and white), kohlrabi, and carrots are in season and easily found at the shops here in the village, and there was a good supply at the Budapest market as well. The hall is divided into sections: the front and center area has baked goods, dairy products, meats (both cured and fresh), and tourist-focused stalls with paprika and wine and other Hungarian specialties; along the sides are stalls where you'll find fruits and vegetables.

There were several stalls dedicated to all things paprika. Tins and bags of dried paprika in several strengths from mild to hot, decorated containers to keep your paprika in and tiny spoons to get it out again (though here in the Baranyi kitchen it's generally added by the heaping tablespoon, and more than one), and tubes of the puréed pepper paste called "Red Gold" here in Hungary. There's one in the refrigerator here, but I only used it once, as it's about 18% salt.

Because I have a large bag of farmer's market paprika to fit into my suitcase for Mom, I didn't get any of the decorated tins, though I may regret that if they stop me at the Serbian border and question the presence of a sack of unmarked mysterious red powder. Maybe I'll ask Noémi to make me up an official-looking label for the bag.
The shining piles of speckled dried beans were so lovely that I made a mental note to buy some on my way back, and so I did, a whole kilo of them. Noémi cooked them for a salad with sweet onion and vinegar, and they were delicious - a cranberry bean sort of shelling bean, but I don't know the exact variety. Or varieties, rather. I'd love to find a source for them back in the United States. If they weren't so heavy, and if I didn't know that there's no way in hell I could get them past customs, I would have bought some beans to take back and grow myself. Or, since it's probable that I won't end up in a place with a garden, to give to Mom and John and to Helen and Bruce to grow in their gardens. I'll remember the taste of those beans for a long time.

With only one reusable grocery bag on me, and a long train and bus ride back home, I didn't buy as much as I wanted to. There were dozens of different types of dried salami, and tins of Hungarian goose liver paté, and jars full of pork rinds next to big slabs of unrendered pork fat. The dairy-focused stalls had a lot of yoghurt and fresh cheese, but not a wide range of aged or hard cheeses. The bakery stalls were stacking up warm rolls and hot savory pastries, and I was getting hungry. When I reached the back of the hall, I saw an escalator going down to a lower level, and coming up the escalator were tantalizing smells of vinegar and spices ... that's where the pickles are! One of the first words I learned in Hungarian was savanyúság, and I had to see what types they sold here.

Every type you might imagine, in fact. When I returned to the market that afternoon I bought some pickled cucumbers stuffed with pickled cabbage, and a double handful of what looked like cornichons but turned out to be sweetish instead of sour. I was tempted by the pickled cauliflower and fascinated by all of the different varieties of pickled pepper, some stuffed with cabbage and some left whole - there were more than several pecks at least, and that was just at the first stall. I liked the funny jars at the Smiley Pickle Shop, with their carefully-packed mix of pickles and a happy face made out of a yellow pickled pepper with peppercorn eyes and a red-pepper grin. They pack other jars with a little cutout from something like white radish or kohlrabi, and of course I bought the one with the chicken. That jar is still in the refrigerator, but I need to bring it out on Saturday and eat some of the pickles, and perhaps pack a few for the bus trip. It's going to be a long 12 hours from Budapest to Niš.

The fish sellers are on the lower level along with the pickle shops, and that's where you go to get game meat as well, deer and rabbit and duck. Upstairs on the main floor it's all pork and chicken, and beef I assume, but as that's a word I haven't learned I can't tell you whether it was there or not. I also can't tell you what types of fish were for sale, and I'm reluctant to get any clarification from Noémi as to the actual names of these fish, because I like thinking that there's a fish named "heck" and another called "pouty face" (which isn't far off; fej means "head"). But in the true spirit of journalblogging, I have given it a go, and found that "heck" is actually hekk, or hake; and "pouty" should be ponty, because that's a bin full of carp heads. I still like the first version better.

A quick calculation on the price of the tins of caviar almost led me to buy one, as it's about $45 for 120g (as compared to several hundred dollars). On the other hand, this company appears to have gone out of business in 2005, so this might be 10-year-old caviar; unlike cheese, I doubt that caviar ages well. I did see some more recent-looking tins elsewhere, but never got around to buying them, and now it's too late - no time for another trip in to Budapest. Eating caviar out of a tin while sitting in the sunshine on the banks of the Danube is now on my long list of things to do next time I am in Europe. And I do hope there's a next time, or I'll be the one with the pouty face.