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 ...

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