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…
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 – 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;
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
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 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”.