Hungary Home

I took a trip this week. It was short, involved a LOT of travel but was very worth it. On Tuesday I left my house in Liverpool and travelled to Pécs in Southern Hungary to visit my aunt Klari, the last of my Dad’s siblings. I lost him in 2010, so it’s always bittersweet to go to Hungary and hear the familiar language and eat the food he used to make me here in Britain. I don’t speak Hungarian – just a few basic phrases, (though funnily enough I know ALL the food words) and my vocabulary is that of a four year old who spent a lot of time with her Nagymama (Hungarian granny) before things like school got in the way. Klari doesn’t speak much English, but as she says, we are “sympatiko” and it’s amazing how much of a sense of the Hungarian language I seem to have retained, we have long involved conversations in pidgin Maygar & English with a pair of dictionaries between us to check on the odd word or phrase that our gesticulations cannot convey.

It’s quite a hike to Pécs. I had to drive to Manchester, get a plane to Budapest, then get a three hour train to Southern Hungary. Pécs is practically at the Croatian border, following the loss of almost 2/3 of Hungary after one world war or another…

Museum Street Pécs

Museum Street Pécs

It’s an ancient university town, which has been under German and Turkish rule as well as Hungarian during its long life. It’s situated in prime wine country, and has a similar climate to Tuscany, basking in golden autumn sunshine during my visit.

 

I didn’t arrive until the evening, as I was met from the plane by my cousin Peter, who works in Budapest, arranging elaborate lunches on board river boats on the Danube. Food runs in the family. Last time I visited, he and I made a point of seeking out obscure little restaurants to try specific Hungarian specialities such as Halászleves – a spicy river fish soup that is the bouillabaisse of Hungary. This trip didn’t give me enough time to stay with him, so we made do with lunch at the Huszar restaurant near Keleti station. I had a bowl of Jókai bean soup – rich with pieces of kolbász sausage (the Hungarian equivalent of chorizo) and given extra kick by a slice of ‘erős’ (hot) pepper to dunk in the bowl yourself to add spice to suit your taste buds. We then shared a plate of

Nokedli

Nokedli

nokedli – like spatzele but smaller – made this time with added dill and ewe’s milk cheese , with fried fish in a paprika cream sauce. The gorgeously garlic heavy cucumber salad accompanying it ensured I would be safe from vampires on my train travel south…

Three hours later, on a train that was clean and cheap – £10 journey for 2nd class, which was as spacious and comfortable as that which passes for 1st class in the UK, I was met at the station and taken to my aunt’s house by another cousin. Hungarians are insanely hospitable. It’s a source of pain to them to think that you might ever be hungry. My aunt greeted me with bowls of pork and vegetable soup, followed by chocolate nut stuffed pancakes. She wasn’t taking no for an answer. I remember once arriving at her home at 2am after a late evening flight, and still being greeted with bowls of soup and cakes when all I really really wanted was my bed.

Wednesday was visit the neighbours day. But for a specific purpose. I love Hungarian food, it says home to me. I learnt to cook Hungarian food with my Dad and so it always makes me think of (and miss) him. I was packed off to Hungary for the summer when I was 12, to stay with another aunt, also now passed, who showed me how to bake Hungarian cakes and strawberry ice cream. This time, I wanted to find out how to make a real Hungarian speciality – Rétes – the paper thin pastry that rolls round a variety of fillings and is baked in the oven until crisp. Much thinner than strudel, it’s more like filo pastry and is part of the culinary legacy of the Turkish rule of Hungary during the 16th C (other things include insanely strong, thick black coffee; paprika; pale green peppers; and kefir yogurt).

One of Klari’s neighbours was making a batch of rétes and offered to show me. Anouska and Janos welcomed us into their home. Whilst Anouska toiled in the kitchen, kneading flour, water and an egg into an incredibly elastic dough that she then rested and stretched across a tablecloth until it was as thin as tissue paper;IMG_4465

making rétes

making rétes

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Janos regaled us with home-made plum pálinka (Hungarian brandy made from fruits, not dissimilar to grappa). He insisted it was good for my health to drink at least one glass. At 10am. I took notes and photos of Anouska’s work, getting steadily more out of focus as the pálinka found its way into my blood stream. I’m going to have a go at making rétes, and that will be the subject of another post.

Anouska made three types of filling

IMG_4487 IMG_4494– morello cherries with ground walnuts and cinnamon; cottage cheese with lemon and sugar; and cabbage with paprika and bacon. All completely delicious and had for lunch.

Klari and I spent the afternoon walking around the centre  of Pécs, once a walled Roman spa town, it’s built of honey glowing stone, with much of the 17th C buildings restored and used as museums.

Pécs

Pécs

IMG_4521 Pécs is where Zsolnay porcelain comes from – one of the great ceramic houses of the 19th C – creating amazing art nouveau pieces that graced the houses of the well to do around the world, and there are two museums devoted to showing off the techniques and unusual pieces the Zsolnay family created. We met up afterwards with my cousin Bondika and his family for an early supper, eaten out on a terrace on one of Pécs pedestrianised streets. I gave in half way and had half of my ridiculously huge schnitzel wrapped for the dog… I ate all my cucumber salad though.

Thursday was an early start for the 13 hour door to door trip home. Did I mention Hungarians are hospitable? Aunt Klari packed me off home with wrapped parcels of rétes; home-made chocolate salami; and three frankly anti-social sandwiches reeking joyously of garlic and paprika. A short but very sweet trip “home”.

Have a very berry autumn

I love autumn. Love the crisp mornings and smoky dusks. Love the usually fine weather during the day. Love the colours changing and the nights drawing in. Most of all, though, I love the feast that Nature provides for us in the form of berries, nuts, fungi and other fruit. For the second day running, I’ve been out for a walk and come back clutching just under a kilo of fresh blackberries.  In case you imagine me madly juggling purple handfuls, I am the sort of person who goes out for a walk with a couple of freezer bags stashed in my pocket for exactly this purpose. I know…. Seamus Heaney describes the joy of blackberrying beautifully in his poem, Blackberry Picking

“Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. ”

patch   Close up 1

This year, the abundance of berries is positively overwhelming. I live in a suburb of South Liverpool, not quite the Italian smallholding of my dreams, yet I can locate kilos of blackberries within a 10minute walk. The glory of the blackberry haul is a reason to be grateful for the moratorium on tidying up the edges of parks and cemeteries due to budget cuts. Good for us. Good for wildlife too.  If you are out blackberrying this week, remember the forager’s rule: don’t pick it all, leave plenty for others, including wildlife to enjoy.

I turned my first kilo of blackberries into blackberry curd – a variation on a theme first explored this year using the lovely strawberries from Claremont Farm (see Strawberry Delight post). I plan to ask my neighbours (nicely) for a few of their apples, and make my favourite ever crumble – Apple and Blackberry with the rest.

Recipes below:

blackb curd

Blackberry Curd

400g blackberries, rinsed in cold water to remove any occupants and well drained

Juice and zest of 1 orange

Juice and zest of 1 lemon

500g caster sugar

200g unsalted butter

300ml of beaten free range eggs (about 5)

First whizz the blackberries in a food processor to make a puree.  Add the juice and zest of the citrus fruits. In a microwavable bowl, combine the butter, sugar and blackberry mix. Heat in the microwave on full for 2 to 3 minutes until the butter has melted. Stir well and then pour in the beaten eggs. Microwave again on high, in bursts of 1 minute, stirring each time, until the mixture coats the back of a spoon (you should be able to run your finger down and leave a line). Pour the mixture through a sieve to remove the blackberry seeds, and any bits of cooked egg that may have sneaked through. Pot into hot sterilized jars and store in the fridge once cool. Use to top homemade scones, swirl into Greek style yogurt, fill a cake or just spoon onto toast.

 

Apple and Blackberry Crumble

400g blackberries, rinsed and drained

3 large cooking apples, peeled and sliced

175g demerara sugar

Topping:

175g cold unsalted butter

100g demerara sugar

100g plain flour

125g rolled or jumbo oats

Preheat oven to 200C/180C fan/400F/ GM6

Toss the apple slices, blackberries and 175g of sugar together into a large pie or lasagne dish.

Cut butter into small chunks and then use the tip of your fingers to rub it into the  topping mix of flour, oats and sugar until it all resembles breadcrumbs. Sprinkle this over the fruit in an even layer and bake for 45 minutes until the top is brown and the fruit is beginning to bubble through.

Let it cool for a few minutes, then serve with thick cream, custard or vanilla ice cream.

Celebrating the Harvest

The weather has turned slightly cooler, the fruit is ripening and the trees are starting to lose the odd lazy leaf. Autumn’s whispering in summer’s ear as the blackberries ripen and the harvest of the allotment is in full swing. I love visiting allotments –it’s a chance to peek into a secret world usually only open to those luck enough to rent a space. Every plot is different, yet somehow the same. The shape is broadly rectangular; there’s usually at least one structure – shed/ greenhouse/ fruit cage; and there’s a marvellous indiscriminate use of recycled materials to form fences and raised beds.

Sunday 18th August saw the gates of the Sefton Park allotments swung wide to welcome visitors to their open day.

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It’s a lovely space that’s provided a community resource for over 80 years to local residents. Plot holders were on site to talk about their gardens, inspire and advise about growing your own food. Live music, a Turkish BBQ, fresh ice cream and a series of tables selling produce, cakes, jams and bric a brac added a festive air.  Funds were being raised to help save Farm Terrace allotments in Watford, currently under threat of redevelopment. I made a donation and received a hand-tied bunch of fresh herbs in return. It was a great example of the community spirit allotments are famous for – a group of passionate people doing their best for another group of people at the other end of the country, who just want to keep growing. You can read more about their story here: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/gardening-blog/2013/jul/24/farm-terrace-allotments

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As the Sefton Park plot holders pointed out, what happens elsewhere, can easily happen here. The current fight to keep the Sefton Park meadows out of developers’ hands is a case in point.

Choosing an ice cream (supplied by Archers) from the Fellici cart, I set off in a light drizzle – I’m British, ice cream and days out go together, irrespective of what the weather’s doing – for a meander up and down the neatly mown paths.  The main thing that struck me was the sheer variety of edibles on offer. I spotted the feathery ferns of asparagus beds; ripening plums, pears and apples; greenhouses literally stuffed with tomatoes; artichokes; courgettes; pumpkins; salad leaves; herbs; wigwams of purple, red and green beans; raspberries & blackberries tangling along a fence; and in between, a feast for the pollinators – nasturtiums, tansy, marigolds and foxgloves.  A bed of flowering mint was abuzz with bees, and butterflies chased each other amongst the sweet peas.

 

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I spent a happy hour pottering up and down the plots, stopping to chat and admire. I came home clutching pots of purple beans, verbena and courgettes to create my own little edible space. The juxtaposition of fruit, vegetables and flowers I saw today is exactly what I’d like to have in my own garden.  Job done Sefton Park Allotments, I’m inspired.  Thank you.