Made in Hungary

As a country that is home to a greater number of Catholics than live in Ireland and where crafted mangers and festive exchanges add more sparkle than all the chachkies from China, Hungary celebrates Christmas in a very special way. The lights have been up for weeks, temperatures are falling in anticipation of festive snow, and since early November the sweet spicy aroma of mulled wine has been drifting irresistibly across the city from Vörösmarty Square. If I didn’t already have a nose for all things delicious and heart warming, the smell and the season could only mean one thing – Christmas markets!

Those of us who couldn’t possibly visit Adelaide without swinging by the Central markets, or contemplate the Big Apple without tasting the same in Union Square, will be marking this as a new favourite on the calendar. Everything is handmade. There are decorations strung from dried oranges, bay leaves and red chillis, tiny bundles of advent-scented packages ready to hang, little lambs spun from wool, gingerbread cookies laced with edible embroidery ( and served by a moustachioed hat lover ) and angels moulded from brass and silver. Then there are blacksmiths forging red hot artworks as you watch, shearling coats with the farmer and his furrier son standing by, and hats of every shape and colour. And yes, there is food…!

Fighting a genetic impulse to eat sweets first, coupled with the reassurance that we can always go back tomorrow, Sean and I shared a giant crispy potato latke layered with roasted pork and leek. Actually that was day two, day one was with chicken and paprika peppers. Even without the temperature hovering at six degrees, the heartiness of this new winter staple was addictively crunching towards day three. The grilled sausages and goulash-in-a-bread-bowl would just have to wait. Not so the Kürtoskalács. Hand-rolled, twirled around a well worn skewer, dusted with cinnamon sugar and then roasted over coals, this Hungarian classic is dangerously delicious. The pastry spirals off in curls of sweetness, the peeling giving as much pleasure as the tasting. And the smell! There is no bah humbug in Hungary, only dreams of Christmas present. And with even more markets assembling in front of St Stephen’s Basilica, the aromas and atmosphere will be luring true believers to generous temptation for weeks to come…

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Pumpkins and paradise

A palace of pumpkins joined the golden tradition of Hungarian architecture on Saturday night when hundreds of cheerful children brought their hand carved creations to Hero’s Square. Overseen by the Angel Gabriel (of course!) hovering atop the column of the 7 Magyar Chieftains, this normally formal space was transformed by winking, toothless pumpkins flickering around the feet of the founders. When space ran out pumpkins posed on the floor – or in a lap. It didn’t matter – this was Halloween Hungarian style. Faces were painted here and there, but it was the homemade rather than the bought variety. The invitation set the pace –  bring only a pumpkin, and three cans of non perishable food, the first to take home at the end of the night, the second to leave behind for organised sharing. There were no podiums, no police, no cordons. In fact if it wasn’t for a scary pumpkin lighting the way, the approach from the darkness of Andrassy Avenue could have fooled us into thinking it was all trick, no treat.

No treat?! Life is too short, as anyone would have agreed at Kerepesi Cemetery the following day. The celebration of life for all Saints and all Souls brought families armed with flowers and rakes and watering cans. What was already a magnificently groomed park with autumn leaves to colour and to crunch, became a garden of ethereal conversations. Like Pere Lachaise or La Recoleta, there were statues of weeping angels, roaring lions standing over graves, and grande tombstones larger than life, protecting people who were no longer present to appreciate it. But there were also fresh ribbons flagged over crosses marked from the 1956 revolution, and butterflies dancing around a nymph’s resting place. My favourite was the seat sitting opposite a headstone, so inviting I was tempted to stop for a chat. But the message of the day from Saint or Soul was channeled from a yet-to-be-occupied grave. To the left of a well kept path was an ornately floral remembrance, no doubt tended by the same person who would eventually move in next door. On a crisp autumn day in Budapest the time for talking was over, the pumpkins were done for another year, and it was time to get busy earning those wings…





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Buds, butter and bull’s blood

The best thing about living in heaven is that you really know you’re alive. As is the Hungarian empire, where a culinary coup is currently establishing a new world order. The British Bakeoff may have a touch of ( Paul ) Hollywood but here in Budapest we have budding confectioners shaping the most flavoursome of bouquets, vintage blood lines making wine that is deliciously unpronounceable – even before you take a first sip, and we have the Butter Brothers!

All things dairy hold court at markets throughout the city, with superbly salty cream cheese, silky smooth yogurt and butter… butter! The Great Market Hall sells this golden treasure out of giant tubs, so creamy it is scoopable into big glistening butterballs. Not to sound too personal. But regardless, this is where the revolution begins. It means cream the butter is an oxymoron in Hungarian cookbooks, and that bakers form part of the new guard. For the intrepid soldier of fortune, where there is butter of this splendour, there must necessarily be splendiferous pastries. Like the croissants plump with chocolate mousse or vanilla cream that create landmarks along the winding backstreets to the reigning court of The Butter Brothers. Their pastries flake like the Parisians but have the crunch of filo, crackling around succulent fillings of fresh banana & nutella, or white chocolate with fresh raspberries. Help is at hand with coffee that will start your heart as quickly as the pastries will slow it down. And the brothers even bake their own bread with free classes to show you how. Who would expect to find such generous hospitality in an adopted city? But then Budapest is full of surprises.

Bull’s blood is one of them. This blend of red wine varieties can carry the same cultural angst as Kangaroo Tail does for epicures from Down Under. But a very sophisticated wine gallery in the centre of town – appropriately called Cultivini, sets the record straight with a guided tour of tastes and terrains from all 22 wine growing regions in Hungary. A digitised dispenser will respond to your credit card and appetite, as the educator does to your taste, affecting the discovery of new varieties from vineyards as small as 2 hectares, with some wines coming from just one slope on one hill within that tiny garden. So specialised and so special. But none like the queen and the culmination of the night. After finding new favourite dry whites like Harslevelu and Furmint, the Royal Essencia from Tokay was showstoppingly divine. Numbered to indicate how many baskets of the preciously shrunken fruit were used to make one barrel of nectar, this wine not only required a gloved hand to pour, but a special glass to savour. It was indeed a little taste of heaven…


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Market nirvana

I feel like I just died and went to heaven. After two weeks in Budapest I have found the market to end all markets. An absolute treasure trove of people and produce, timeless, like encountering Van Gough’s potato eaters at the table, or at least their Hungarian cousins. In the farmer’s stalls outside the fabulous old market building of Hunyadi Square, there are old ladies with their hair twisted up in scarves, men with gnarly hands weighing fistfuls of beans, fresh unfettered food, and people waiting patiently with baskets, sharing the crisp early morning. Everyone speaks Hungarian. There is not a tourist in sight – although they must be on their way. But for now, the place is mine.

Everyone buys flowers, and I want to look like a local so I buy flowers too. And quinces, and ricotta cakes, and blushing small pears that will be perfectly ripe by the time I find a bottle of chilled Tokaj. Then there is honey that looks candied when it’s not, eggs that you buy by handing over a box for refilling, and old women selling tight bundles of parsley that probably came out of their garden this morning. There is cobbled corn, vivid red and yellow capsicums, and long pairs of sausage that look too hot even for my insatiable tastebuds. I don’t want to speak english and try to ask, it will ruin the spell. Maybe later in the day there will be people wearing sneakers trying to take a few i-pictures from the hip, but for now it’s just me and I’m relishing it. Even the woman with the pastry twists quickly diminishing from generous plastic tubs doesn’t give me away as she follows my fingers and chooses the best one. The cheese lady laughs as her hand sweeps over half the offerings and points to a cow while the other half sweeps to a goat. There are pickles and jams, the apricot so intensely orange it will light up the morning toast. I try to pack heavy on the bottom with apples and quinces and keep the pastries on the top, but there is too much, I can hardly carry the bags, and I haven’t even bought the things we actually need. There is nothing for it but to go home, unpack, and start again.

As I retrace my steps from the market, I find myself wondering why I don’t have 10 children, or why I’m not in charge of the catering for a football team, or at minimum, carbo loading for the 50,000 runners in New York’s marathon. There are so many delicious, different and divine things to eat here, Sean is going to be hard pressed to keep up. And this is only week two. I have explored the Grand Central Market and love it despite the tourists. The markets at Belvarosi Piac are just around the corner, handy. I have yet to visit the well recommended Feny Street Markets over the river, but know this will also be a treat. There can be no slowing down of the discoveries, which means I need more eaters. So if you find yourself in Budapest and hungry, you know who to call….


 

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The Magic Pudding

Canada failed the coffee test. Although the breakfasts, the bacon and the cowboys did somewhat make up for it. But the need from our commonwealth cousins was high, with craving culminating from a whirlwind 30 day travel fest. First there was the confirmation of Budapest as film base, a flash though New York, and a few precious weeks in Australia. Sean and I had one day together in Sydney, where Coogee sparkled, and the new pavilion eatery turned on whipped ricotta and rhubarb french toast along with some envious puppies, before a tourism-worthy beach walk, this time with kookaburras, breathtaking views, and the company of Bob when the Clovelly Beach pub tapped out an ice cold cider. Then there were lifetime achievement awards for friendship, celebrated in Darwin against a classic Mindle Beach sunset, and in Adelaide with a flat white at Lucia’s. Still the best coffee in the world. Then Port Lincoln and family. Gorgeous family. Tomato relish, jigsaw puzzles, upside down cake made from the CWA cookbook and walks in the scrub amidst blossom and wild peaches. Dad’s birthday. All too soon back on the plane to NYC, with four days to pack up the apartment and store the books and bikes that were too big to take to Budapest. On to Toronto for the International Film Festival. New releases, new opportunities, and sightings of Angelina Jolie. A stunning bed and breakfast in Haight Ashbury, or so it felt in the midst of the Kensington Markets. Characters and a charismatic location. Hmmmm, but the coffee situation would never work.

While the packing is finished, the mail diverted and a couple of rides left on the metro card, New York feels like a dream. This extraordinary place, constantly regenerating, challenging and full of life is about to be the city where we spent 14 years. Work, adventures, people, bakeries, markets, art, exhibitions and exhibitionists. We were at the Rockefeller Center when Obama won in 2008. We went to his inauguration. We’ve ridden our bikes ahead of the Macy’s Parade. We ate cronuts when you had to line up for two hours just to buy one. I chatted with Richard Geer and Princess Mary at Scandinavia House on Park Avenue. We met Wynton Marsalis after a concert at the Lincoln Center and saw him lead a choir of hundreds of Gospel Singers at Harlem’s Abyssinia Church. I’ve been photographed on my bike by Bill Cunningham, raised a toast to Madame Chrysler from our rooftop garden as the steely icon turned pink with the sunset, and I’ve tasted the best doughnuts in the world. So far. It’s been a lifetime, a total adventure, and now Sean and I are off to start another. We will be back, sometime, because apart from friends and the fascination, there is also pizza. And who can say no to a second slice…?!

Thank you for listening, for reading and for sharing my stories. What started as a fun venture to keep my life anecdotally connected to my family has bought me many more friends than I ever would have expected. It’s been fantastic, and it’s not over. I hope you can join me for whatever happens next, as we squeeze every drop out of every opportunity…


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Buda & Pest

The French no longer hold copyright to the croissant. Nor the Turks to thermal baths. And let’s not even talk about buttered noodles and the matriarchy of the Mediterranean. There is a place where softly spun pastry phffffs rather than flakes at the first bite. A place where only a running jump will allow you to catch a speeding escalator to the subway, where palaces are emptied of royalty but full of treasures, and where the socialists that started the process left behind people movers in perpetual motion. Not to mention some very stoic architecture. But what came before and after has been nurtured, and this means Hungary is an absolute feast of magical locations. In the week that Sean and I were dragged open-mouthed from turret to dungeon, we saw ceilings that rival the Sistine Chapel and palaces with more porcelain than the MET but open to the touch rather than walled behind glass. We saw futuristic metro stations with LED flashing platforms signaling the incoming train, and we soaked in a tub of steaming water that has been spurting out of the earth at 42*C for over 100 years. The vision, and the smell, will stay with me for some time.

The Buda side of town is quiet and majestic, fringed with green hills. It’s where you find the castle and the beautiful goddess of Gellert Hill. We saw both from a distance, while zigzagging between palaces in the Pest, searching for the perfect staircase. There were almost too many, spiraling between an overwhelming collection of guilded halls and ballrooms. So how lucky were we to have a guide, a gentle man who maneuvered us between the grand and the gorgeous, and who even took us to the countryside where we counted storks nesting home for the summer, and stopped at a farmer’s gate to buy redder than red sweet watermelon.

Budapest is an amazing city, full of surprises. Like the jazz music center that houses a collection of over 100,000 albums and cds – and the largest archive of Mahler in the world. Or the chocolate bar filled with cottage cheese and sold from the fridge. Then the chance encounter of a talented pianist mid practice in a guilded country castle, the music drawing us through the histrionic halls. Luscious afternoon teas. A car park reserved for the boss lady. Steaming baths with cool relief in just the flip of a bucket. And in a city rebuilt, a reminder of the bullets that once tore it down. But my favorite discovery was the perpetual lift, where in a deserted Blade Runner style building, the indulgent caretaker cranked on the machine just to let us go for a ride. We felt like royalty and not just because of the palaces. People were friendly and generous of spirit. I want to go back! I want to live in the Brody Apartments and ride my bike to the markets. I want to explore, to make a movie and be part of something created entirely from scratch. Location scouting is only the beginning, there is much to do. New York will survive without me. And maybe, just maybe I will survive without it. So let’s see what happens next…!



 

 

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Hungry for Hungary

The refreshing breeze that gusted over the Szabadsag Bridge from the River Danube last night made it the coolest place in town. And that wasn’t just because of the sizzling temperatures. The royally crowned rafters were perched with row upon row of happy sitters. A grandstand between the lights of Buda on one side and Pest on the other, the bridge supported the celebration of local couples sharing a bottle of wine, a meeting of the couch surfing fraternity and infatuated visitors like Sean and I, filled with the vitality of this extraordinary place. In town to scout locations for our feature film – a thriller – scheduled for shooting in late January, this town is an unexpected treasure trove of open armed hospitality. New flavors and colors, new markets (!) and new tastes. And that’s just day one. So stand by. Tomorrow we are off to scout old palaces, Turkish baths from the Ottoman Empire, and by complete contrast a champagne distillery built largely underground. A whole new adventure is in the making…

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Star Dust Diner

Dreams and drama!

If you are patient enough to wait in line for a table, or can sing the lead roles for Wicked or Hamilton well enough to score a waiter’s job at this iconic diner, then either way, keep your receipts. You may need them in court…

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10 Below

Ice-cream is a serious business at 10 Below. Forget massive tubs of colored flavors peering out from deep fridges and the anticipation of cool creamy sweetness scooped into a crunchy cone. At this little nook in the East Village, the freezers are as flat as a crepe maker, the ice-cream is made in front of your eyes, and the experience is more like unemotional performance art. Except that you get to see a show, make friends in the waiting crowd, and score an ice-cream at the end of it.

Hoping for the salted caramel of the east village ice-cream world, my request for the most popular was met with ‘number 4’. Clarifying that this was better than the Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk, and receiving a response of ‘no’, I decided to go with Cookie Monster in deference to my friend John, who built puppets for the endearing show most of his life. It was a good choice. First there was the orchestral chopping of the unsuspecting oreo, then the swooping and slathering of the mixture as it started to freeze, the practiced sliding of the ice-cream into rolls, and the presentation of the final act topped with raspberries and blueberries. The performance made it all worthwhile – that’s why people pay $7 ( before tip and taxes ) for a ticket and the show is a sellout. Oh and yes, the ice-cream was delicious!

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Cool caramel

Sedutto’s has been around for years. Squeezed into the melting intensity of first avenue on the upper east side, this hidden oasis looks more like an aged outlet for hair products than the home of an ice-cream legend. But don’t be fooled, when an ambitious pastry chef left the Waldorf Astoria nearly a hundred years ago, the packaging for his new business was the last thing on his mind. Mr Sedutto was thinking about ice-cream, Italian style, which is now not only being served exclusively on the QE2, but is saving lives in NYC on a daily basis.

Respecting President Reagan’s wisdom by signing into law that July be national ice-cream month, I thought it only proper to pursue the best options at hand. In a week of scorching temperatures and sticky humidity, the idea of 49 flavors in reasonable proximity to my easterly appointments was refreshing. Candied cones in a myriad of sizes and textures – all blessed by Zagat’s seal of distinction – were unnecessary in view of the one choice that stands alone. Salted caramel. Mint chocolate chip and ‘birthday’ did make the top 5 most popular flavors as well, and as a nod to trendiness, there were wine choices in cherry merlot and raspberry chardonnay. But when it comes to tipple time, if I was sailing on the QE2, I’d be looking for a little champagne myself…

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