Pigs might fly!

Miss Piggy has some serious competition. Who would have thought a rummaging redhead, more interested in food than fashion, or a platinum blonde, frizzed with disarming disco curls, would suddenly dethrone the muppet queen? But that’s show business for you. One day back scratch, the next day bacon! At least that was the case at the Mangalica Festival on the weekend. These extraordinary pigs have a Hungarian heritage as impressive as palinka, the home made hooch so enshrined in local culture that the EU had to exempt the tipple from taxes when the country signed up for the union. But unlike the fermentation of fruit, Mangalica pigs are fabulous for their fat! After 6 months of no-swim, no-bicycle film fanaticism, this is a creature I can feel at home with.

While foodies would have you believe the illusiveness of an olive oil industry turned Hungarians towards fat, nothing could be further from the truth. Fat is flavor. Ask any chef. Goulash thrives on it. Duck on Christmas Eve would be destitute without it. And Nana Fitz, the only woman I ever knew to keep a tin of the recycled rendering on her stove ( and send eggs swimming in it ), would suddenly be vindicated. In a similar transformation back at the Fair, a giant tub of fatty bits would eventually become crackling with the stirring persistence of a patient hand. The line for the latter grossly outweighed the curiosity for the former, in perhaps a sign of things to come.

Sausages and barbecue were the stars of the festival, but another specialty was finessed in the solitude of the sweet tent. Stretch by stretch a lone baker coaxed the pastry until it draped over the sides of his table, a giant sheet of perfect paper-like proportion. All it needed was fruit, creamy white cheese and a warm oven. The distraction of crispy strudel to casting and elusive leading men was complete, and not just for me. Miss Piggy would definitely have approved…!

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No place like home

Planes, trains and traveling irons have all featured in the happy flurry of casting and Christmas as we steam towards the new year. There is much ado. The film may be fiction, but Hungarian history is alive in the locations we are discovering along the way. Doors are opening to a world made all the more fascinating by being able to touch it, we are talking to actors we previously thought out of reach, meeting stylists and cinematographers, and finding new friends along the way. A flash flight to New York in the midst of all this movie magic give me time with older ones, along with a moment to pause between the old world and the new, and the storage unit that lays between them.

It was a strange feeling to be back in NYC. When I emerged from the subway in Manhattan it seemed somehow surprising to find the city still there. This was at once reassuring and motivating. I journeyed only with cabin bags and at the last moment decided to take our very substantial German-made iron from the limbo of storage back to Budapest. I was of course X-rayed as I passed through security, and searched at both JFK and Paris airports. Officers commented quizzically on the iron but let me take it on board nevertheless. Not so lucky was my almost empty Jurlique moisturiser, confiscated because it was a 125 ml tube, and even though there was obviously only about 20 mls left, tubes of more than 100 mls cannot be taken on board. At a time where making my appearance wrinkle free is increasingly difficult, the iron will at least work where the moisurizer no longer can.

Meanwhile in the Buda hills, the cog wheel railway transported us back further in time, gearing up for the architectural treasures that waited at the end of the line. The first location has been empty for 25 years, having survived almost a hundred years of unhealthy screams – including those of a towering WW2 siren with a spectacular view over the city that fortunately no longer needs to be alarmed. Emboldened only with graffiti, the sanatorium is a shell, filled with ghostly stories but eager for new ones. By complete contrast and restored to perfection next door is the Writer’s Villa, a magnificent art deco retreat, where Rowan Atkinson and Jennifer Lawrence enjoyed end-of-movie celebrations in recent times, and where we were most graciously invited for lunch. Our absent Dutch host, Jaap Scholten, as part of his love story with Hungarian history, wrote in Comrade Baron about the vanishing world of the Transylvanian aristocracy. His first hand interviews with spirited octogenarians record an oral history that is largely unknown, but which made relevant the story of Aurora Borealis, a magnificent film we sought out at an equally spectacular art deco cinema in central Budapest. Are there enough superlatives to describe the richness that surrounds us here?!

Mud on our boots brought us back to earth. And to the brush shop on Dob Utca where handmade brushes of various strengths make quick work of a day stomping around the heights of Buda. Although the hills seem to have come to town with the profusion of Christmas trees clustering on the street corners. This week a special forest of netted and neat little trees like pixie caps were given out to pensioners at the local market. Mostly little old ladies, they grasped the tree by the angel end and dragged it down the street behind them, equally staunchly as those offering wreaths hand-crafted with pine cones, candles and everlasting flowers – and selling for almost nothing. ( Not to mention the smoked mozzarella tree decorations… ) I wanted to follow and make sure they kerflumped their prize all the way home. We don’t have a tree – not for any other reason than we have a house full of wreaths. Who can resist those little old ladies?

With only a couple of days before Christmas, the phone is charged in anticipation of calling everyone at home in Australia. We know that friends are well and happy at home in New York. And we will be pressed and brushed and surrounded by pine and presents here at home in Budapest. Merry Christmas, many thanks for a great year of sharing stories, and here’s to much joy in 2018!

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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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