Sunday, February 15, 2015

At Home In Gyúró

People have been living here since the 14th century, in this one of several small villages strung along the border between the counties of Fejér and Pest, as in Budapest, which is about a half-hour's drive to the northeast. Or half an hour by train from the town of Martonvásár, which is 15 minutes away by bus from here, and that's how I'll get into the city soon. I could take the bus all the way into Budapest but it would take much longer, though I might see interesting things on the way. Noémi and Géza's two girls, Panna and Dia, take the bus and train to Budapest for school every day, leaving the house at around 6:15am and getting back home again some time after 3:00pm. Unless they miss the bus, in which case Géza drives them to Martonvásár; on Mondays and Wednesdays, when he has to pick up the tall plastic canisters of cow's milk at a farm between here and there, he often drives them in anyway.

He picks up a loaf or two of spongy white sliced bread on the way back, mass quantities of which are eaten every day here for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I've got my own supply of gluten-free bread from Auchan, which I toast and slather with the roasted eggplant and onion spread Noémi buys from a local farmer, and top with slices of deer-meat salami, fresh cucumber, sweet pale zöldpaprika peppers, and sometimes tomatoes, if they appear. The rest of the family tops their bread with margarine and liver paste, or with the spiced spread called körözött that Noémi makes from túró, the cow's-milk cheese that's a cross between ricotta and cottage cheese in texture, and made by draining lightly-renneted curd for a day or two. She whips it with salt and fresh onion purée and mustard and enough dried and ground paprika to turn it a lovely color of orange, and it's very good. There's usually plain soft cheese on the table as well, and bits of cheeses that weren't sold at market, and a variety of purchased and homemade salami. I have my coffee (sometimes black, sometimes with the coconut-rice milk I also get at Auchan) and the Baranyis drink hot or cold tea, one Earl Grey tea bag to a tall pitcher of boiling water, with five or six heaping tablespoons of sugar and some citric acid powder stirred in. It's usually too sweet for me, but sometimes in the afternoon, in the middle of a long day in the cheese room, a small glass of cold sweet tea is exactly what I need.

Sometimes I spread my toasted bread with homemade apricot jam instead - I haven't tried the peach jam that Noémi's mother made - and pour some of my nondairy milk over the whole rolled oats I bought at Auchan, topping them with local chestnut honey. I was sorting through the different oatmeal options at the store, and when I bought the rolled oats, Géza said, "We feed that to our rabbits." At least that's what Noémi said he said; Géza doesn't speak any English, really, though he does understand some, and I am very fortunate that Noémi is there to translate. I am very fortunate to be here, with this family, who are so very kind and funny and full of love, a love that they extend to me, to my eternal gratitude.

Although the website I'm looking at does say that this area has been settled since the 14th century (at least - there are apparently traces of old Roman roads running through here), you wouldn't really know it from the houses in Gyúró. Wars and communism and change in general have left it full of fairly modern buildings, rather than the centuries-old stone granges I lived among (and in) in Agnos. This house used to be a post office, Noémi told me, but now it's a spacious home for her and her family; the three sons are all living elsewhere, at university and on their own. I've got the guest room, and a comfortable place to sleep in the lower half of a painted wooden bunkbed; there's a desk and chair for my blogging and writing, and an extra plug near the bed so that I can use my backup computer to read in the evenings, if I have the energy. The sun comes in through a glass-block window at 7:00am, which is when I get up to start my work up at the barn, or in the kitchen and cheese room, or, on my days off, at the computer.

Except for a few days of blowing snow showers, it has been dry and cold and clear since I arrived. I've taken a few walks around town, and yesterday I walked all the way to the next town of Tordas and back. There are three churches in Gyúró, and this house is framed by two of them, one of which rings the service at 7:00am and 9:00am and noon and several times in the afternoon and evening. It's my alarm clock, along with the sun. The Catholic church in town was built in the first part of the 19th century, and the Lutheran church dates back to the end of the 18th century. The Calvinist church is on the main road out of town, and I think it's under construction; I haven't been in any of the churches here. The Baranyis are devout Roman Catholic, and attend services at a church in Érd, a large town that borders the southwest District 22 of Budapest, which stretches down along the Danube (or Duna, as I now need to call it). I went to mass last Saturday night with them and understood nothing, of course; the mass was led in Hungarian, though I would have had a chance if it had been in Latin, after all of those years singing Bach and Mozart. However, I did manage to pick out the fact that the second lesson was one of Paul's epistles to the Corinthians. And I was able to use the projected text of the psalm and the hymns to practice matching letters to pronunciation, though I had no idea what the assembled letters meant.

Sometimes the village reminds me of Bethel, with dusty streets and dogs barking and broken things piled up in the yard because they might be useful again some day. Sometimes I'm more reminded of the houses in the dodgier areas of South Bend, where people are doing their best to keep the place in shape and in good repair, but where jury-rigging is the order of the day. On my way back from Tordas yesterday I passed a wire-fenced yard where an old woman was digging out weeds from her border, dressed in a headscarf and skirt and shapeless coat, her white hair framing her face. I thought of Little Grandma (who wouldn't have been caught dead with white hair) and wished I could take her picture, but I'm feeling shy, here where I can't communicate easily.

Hungarian has no relation to any of the languages I know or even have a passing familiarity with. I can't suss out meaning from things that sound similar, because nothing sounds - or looks, in the written text - even vaguely familiar. Nothing from any Romance or Germanic language is helping me here, and of course Japanese is of even less use.

The only word of Hungarian I knew before arriving was vigyázz, though I found out that I've been mispronouncing it. The "gy" isn't a "j" sound, but instead sounds like you're half-closing the J before eliding to the Y. It means "look out!" and it has been helpful, in fact, especially when the side porch was slippery with snow, and we were hauling out the buckets of whey to the barrels that go to the pig farmer down the road.

On my first foray around the four or five small shops (very small, all with a bush-Alaska variety of products for sale on the half-empty shelves) I tried to ask what a particular kind of salami was made of, as it had a horseshoe on the label, and I was curious. Not having prepared myself with the words for "pork" or even "pig" I had to resort to pushing the end of my nose up and making grunting sounds. And then later I tried to ask the woman at the post office if she had postcards, but she had no idea what I was talking about. "Postcard?" I ventured. "Posta carta? Posto carto?" She was closing up, so I didn't have time to try any other pidgin combinations, but I never would have arrived at képeslap (KAY-peh-shlap). But now I know how to say a few words: goat (kecske), boiling hot (forró), pickles (savanyúság), thank you (köszönöm). I need to figure out the numbers sooner rather than later, especially after accidentally withdrawing 100,000 forint from the ATM at the airport.

Noémi has a smartphone with translation software on it, and I pull out their tattered English-Hungarian dictionary to look things up from time to time, or zip in here to type words into Google Translate and then write them out. Her English is good, though she only really learned it a few years ago, and through creativity and mutual understanding we manage to keep the conversation going. I was in the kitchen a few minutes ago, grinding up some toasted gluten-free bread for the chicken and mushrooms she's coating with egg and cornstarch and breadcrumbs before frying in hot fat, doing my batch first before turning to the regular flour and crumb version for everyone else. Noémi was describing a dessert she'll make for me, a potato/lard/flour dough (oat flour in this case, bought at the farmer's market on Friday) that's wrapped around whole plums and then boiled like a big dumpling before being rolled in breadcrumbs and sugar. It's a good thing I expend so much energy on cheesemaking days, or I would look like a big dumpling, with all this good food. Anyway, she was explaining the spice in the dumpling, and couldn't remember the name, so she said "special tree skin." "Cinnamon," I immediately said. And that's how we cobble together the phrases throughout the day, although in the evenings when she's tired, it's harder for her to translate. Having been in the same state of bilingual brain numbness many times in France, I understand that all too well.

I'm so happy to be back with goats, and to be staying put for a while. I'll be here another five weeks, which I hope will be enough time to learn more Hungarian by heart, and to play around with new cheese recipes. Right now Noémi mainly makes farmer's cheese, a simple drained curd cheese that she sells fresh, though she coats some with wax to keep it moist. She also makes mozzarella, some of which gets turned into a type of burrata filled with túró, or flattened into a thin sheet and filled with túró mixed with chopped red onion and rolled up again. I suggested that she fill a third of the rolls with the red-orange körözött instead, and use some kind of green filling for another third, so that she could slice them and arrange them in the colors of the Hungarian flag, which might attract more customers. "That's a good idea," she said, and it worked, to my delight. She makes the rolled smoked parenica every week as well, and a soft-curd "French" cheese that gets sold fresh and milky, though she has tried letting some age and get moldy. Moldy in a good way, that is. However, she's not currently using penicillium candidum or geotrichum candidum so there's no easy way to get the true bloomy rind that she wants. But now that I'm here with my computer full of French cheese recipes and semiconfident background in hands-on cheesemaking in France, we're giving some new recipes a try. I'll let you know how they turn out.

In the sitting room there's a big oven/fireplace that heats up the space as well as a boiler full of water that gets piped around the front half of the house; the back is heated by a modern boiler and pipes. The oven/fireplace is a traditional Hungarian construction called a kalyha. It's a version of the kemence I remember reading about in Kate Seredy's "The Good Master," a book I've tried to explain to Noémi, and from which I occasionally recall a word, like puszta, the wide grasslands of eastern Hungary, some of which is now Hortobágy National Park. There are no men in pleated split pants and tall black riding boots here, beribboned hats on their heads; there are no women in heavily-embroidered skirts and dozens of petticoats, shawls draped over their arms. But there is sour cherry soup simmering in the kitchen right now, a very traditional dish, except for the soy yoghurt that Noémi just asked me for, in place of the regular yoghurt she'd normally use. She makes her own yoghurt to sell in the market, too, and the girls enjoy eating it after adding a bit of sweetness. "Do you want a bit of yoghurt with your sugar?" I asked Dia the other day, watching her pour a fifth teaspoon of sugar on the third of a cup of yoghurt in her bowl. As she doesn't speak English, it wasn't very funny, I suppose. She and Panna are learning English in school, but can speak English about as well as Leah speaks Japanese, which is not very. Dia reminds me a lot of Leah, and I think they'd get along well; they look alike, and at 13 years old Dia's love of horses, P.E., and a mainly meat-and-sugar diet recalls my niece at that age. And you'd never catch either of them sitting in a parlor doing needlework.

There is no sidewalk along the road between Gyúró and Tordas, but there wasn't that much traffic, and there was enough of a space between the pavement and the ditch that I could step aside when there were cars passing in both directions. If there was just one car, they'd veer over to the center of the road to give me some room, unlike the drivers in France, who tended to steer closer. I was wearing my light rain coat when I started, and gloves, but when I turned around in the middle of Tordas to head back, I was warm enough in the sunshine that I took both off and stuffed them in my backpack for the trip home. There are twice as many people living in Tordas as in Gyúró, and even in my brief glimpse of the town it's a hotbed of cultural activity in comparison, with a sports club and cultural center and a big manor or palace or church complex or something I can't translate, but that is now a school. One of the houses along the main road has a tall wide carved gate spanning the driveway, with a smaller door to the side, and intricate carvings everywhere. When Noémi saw the picture, she said it was erdélyi, or "from Transylvania," that the family there is not originally Hungarian. Though there have been many peoples in and out of this country, and the country's borders have changed over time, something we talk about occasionally.

The original Hungarians, whoever they were, used runes for a thousand years, and they're still used today in some places. The street sign above to the left says "Tordas" and the one on the right says "Gyúró." The runes are written right to left, and make me think of Tolkien and Vikings and the fact that the language of the Sámi, the reindeer herders in the north of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, belongs to the same family as the language of the Huns, herding their horses and cattle far to the south.

Lunch break: the sour cherry soup, served hot as a first course; fried chicken and mushrooms, with potatoes and chopped parsley, tossed with olive oil instead of butter for my sake; and pickles, always pickles - beet, hot pepper with cauliflower, and my favorite cabbage/cucumber/carrot slaw, slightly sweet and with just enough onion to make it interesting. Noémi brought some back from the market the first week I was here, and I gave her money to buy four times as much this last week, so that I wouldn't feel guilty eating the stuff by the bowlful.

I hope to learn more about the history of Hungary, and see as many of the sights as I can. We might go for a drive this afternoon, and there's a castle with some connection to Beethoven not far away, and of course there's Budapest with its thermal baths (and maybe a massage ...). Kapuvár, where my great-grandfather was born, is two hours by car to the north and west, and there's a possibility we might get there some time in the next month as well - I'd like that. But first, and foremost, there is the cheese, and after this long and lazy and food-filled Sunday, the work will start again first thing in the morning, here at home in Gyúró.


  1. That was exciting to read especially because it's about my parents! :) I'm really proud now and thankful for you writing all these stories! Hope you have a good time there and I think I can manage to go home for the weekend. :)
    Zsolt Baranyi