Monday, March 16, 2015

My Homeland Cooks For Me

"Talpra magyar, hí a haza!" ("On your feet, Magyar, the homeland calls for you!") is the first line of the Nemzeti dal, the "National Song" whose lines were written as a poem by Sándor Petőfi, in support of revolution against Austria and the Hapsburgs. On March 15, 1848, this poem was chanted in the streets of Budapest, along with repeated readings of the "12 Points" document that the revolutionaries had developed, listing their demands, as the swelling crowd marched across the Danube. The first of these demands was an abolition of censorship, something they put into place even before the list was signed and ratified by the local governor, with the printing and distribution of copies of the 12 Points and of Petőfi's poem. Although the Hapsburgs were willing to go along with the 12 Points, the Hungarians weren't actually independent, though they did issue a Declaration of Independence the following year, shortly before the defeat of their army by the Austrian troops. Almost two decades of repression followed, while the Hungarian leaders worked at negotiating the compromise that eventually took effect in 1867, granting Hungary semi-autonomy within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Nemzeti dal isn't the national anthem, nor is the Szózat, which has a similar opening theme: "Hazádnak rendületlenűl légy híve, oh magyar" ("Be steadfast and faithful to your homeland, oh Magyar"). This poem was written in 1836 by Mihály Vörösmarty, who was also active in the revolutionary movement. Though not the official anthem, the first two verses of the poem are usually sung at the closing of official ceremonies, at least according to the few sources on line I can find in English. Hey, wait a minute - I have an actual Hungarian just down the hall. Maybe I'll go ask her. Hang on ... okay, she confirms that the Szózat is indeed sung at the closing, and the Himnusz, the national anthem (or "National Hymn") is sung at the beginning. This last was written by Ferenc Kölcsey, who was definitely of the revolutionary bent, but who died ten years before the 1848 uprisings.

Neither of these songs are the ones that have been ringing around the house for the last few weeks, however. In 1998 the group Kormorán (Cormorant) produced a rock opera titled (Kelj fel, Petőfi) Zúgjatok harangok, 1848 or "(Rise up, Petőfi) Zúgjatok bells, 1848." One of the songs from the opera is "Harangok dala," or "Song of the Bells," which recalls the actions of one Áron Gábor of the Székely region (south and east of here), who melted down 100 bells from village churches to make cannons to use in the war against the Hapsburgs. This is the song that has stirred patriotic spirits here in Gyúró lately, and it really is more of an inspiring call to action than the somewhat funereal settings of the other two, at least from a musical standpoint. Noémi says that Dia's favorite song comes from another rock opera, the 1983 István a király ("Stephen the King"). Google is translating its title, "Elkésett békevágy," as "Belated desire for peace."

So why am I telling you this, and what does it have to do with cooking? Because people were marching and chanting in the streets of Budapest yesterday as well, though not all of them were there just for the national holiday. I missed the local commemorative event in Gyúró, which was held on Friday, and there was too much to do here to even think about a trip in to Budapest to see the flag-raising or anything else on Sunday. Géza raised the flag here, and it's still fluttering out of the attic window, but that was about it. I didn't see flags at any other house on this street, but they might have had them up on Friday.

Noémi did uphold her country's culinary traditions, however, and in a big (and delicious) way. She made rabbit in vadászmártás, or "hunter's sauce" - fresh rabbit (I saw it being skinned myself) cooked with carrots and potatoes and parsnips and bay leaves in a stock with peppercorns and a splash of vinegar, the meat removed and set aside, the vegetables pureéd into a thick sauce with mustard and a paste of (oat) flour and sweet red paprika, and then simmered with the meat until the rabbit is completely tender. I had mine with boiled potatoes, but Noémi made kenyérgombóc (bread dumplings) for the rest of the family.

We ate it with pickled beets from the farmer's market, and it is one of the best things I have ever had. I've been eating the leftovers for pretty much every meal since. In fact, I think I'm going to go heat up the last little bit of sauce right now, and have it for dinner.
I'm back. I thought I had some potatoes left over, but I ate them for breakfast and lunch. While the rice is cooking (potatoes and rice feature heavily on the dietitian's list, which I am more-or-less following) I'll finish this post by describing the other delicious and traditional - sort of - element of last night's meal: the chocolate cake. Noémi wanted to duplicate a dobos torta for me in an entirely gluten- and dairy-free form. She did it, too, using oat flour for the cake layers and making a pastry cream out of eggs and vegetable margarine. I only had a thin slice last night, partly because the dietitian's list advises avoiding rich fatty things like pastry cream, and partly because I'd already stuffed myself with rabbit and potatoes.

She and I finished the last slice of cake this afternoon, after we got back from the hospital where I got my stitches removed (not without a few hitches) and we dropped off gift bags for the nurses on the floor (Lindt chocolate truffles and samples of Noémi's cheese), the secretary who rearranged schedules to accommodate my two-week window (cheese, fruit, truffles, coffee, and tea), and the head surgeon who authorized everything and did the operation (cheese and two bottles of good wine). Apparently getting in to the hospital a week after requesting an operation is pretty much unheard of in Hungary; Noémi tells me that if I were a Hungarian citizen, I probably would have had to wait several months, unless it was an emergency. My situation was urgent, but not critical, and I'm glad I don't have to worry about it going critical, now.

Of course, there are not enough boxes of chocolate truffles or bottles of good wine to express my thanks to Noémi for the transportation, the translation, and the moral support through all of this. When she agreed to have me come here to make cheese with her, I was hoping that I'd be able to make her life easier for a few weeks, not to complicate it insanely. I'm grateful to her and to the hospital for making it happen, though it was not at all fun while it was happening. Now I can focus on wrapping up my time here by taking pictures of the cheese and the cheese-making process. I've been too busy making the stuff for the last month to remember to take pictures of it, but I can't do much more than supervise milk heating up and stir curd right now, so it's a good time to play photoblogger. I'll go in to Budapest tomorrow to get my bus ticket south, plus some silly books at the English-language bookstore near the Opera house, and maybe I'll buy a new nightgown, since I tossed my old one (already full of holes, but now covered in iodine) into the hospital trash basket. There's a lot to do this week - no time to sit around chewing my cud.

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