Hugs from Hungary

Apple picking is old news but good. When the Autumnal leaves were a fire of colour against sunny blue skies in mid October, Sean and I packed a picnic and rode the old Russian rattler to Pomaz just outside of Budapest. There were no guarantees of fruit, only of fun, as the picking (and the palinka) are essentially a family affair protected by language and tradition. But luck was on our side. A picturesque jaunt from the train station brought us to one man at a gate, flagged by a huge umbrella and a weighing machine. All we had to do was find the apples and carry whatever we picked back to the beginning. There were thousands of trees, and positioning ourselves in front of the weary professional pickers meant trees were laden, each apple a treasure in a chest of choice. So delicious! The crunch of the first bite was better and juicier than it would ever be again, so it was an in the moment sensation, with every apple in the 22 kilo collection, and every ensuing pie, cake and crumble, a recollection of that gorgeous day in the country.

Google can take no responsibility for getting us there. The old green trains, the HEV, that extend out from the city metro system do not show up as options in Google maps. Maybe these old Soviet-built transports are too shaky to pick up a signal. But with their moody velour upholstery and under-seat pipe heaters, the ride is an adventure in itself. So on a freezing day last week, Sean and I headed towards the Hapsburg royal retreat in Gödöllő with some wild ambitions. Our film script calls for wolves to run with the stylish but nasty femme fatale, and at the Horkai Animal Center, Zoltan had some furry actors looking to snap up a role.

Potty trained pigs, Oscar nominated deer, and wolves with their own show on the Discovery Channel are all part of Zoltan’s family. But these animals are far from circus performers – it is more like they are ‘stars’ living in a gated community that has uncompromising respect for their wildness. Most of the wolves like to work in packs, they prefer to rehearse the day before the shoot (rather than the morning of), the Alpha has made it clear he doesn’t like working with children, and they all like the catering truck to offer rabbits. Zoltan lays out these details as any good agent would, and does much more than just talk for the animals, he works with them on film sets as though it was their own idea in the first place. So calling him ‘the wolf man of Hungary’ or ‘an animal trainer’ doesn’t really fit, it is more that he is their champion. A dog will look you in the eye for acceptance and direction, Zoltan says, but not a wolf, a wolf doesn’t care, a wolf does what a wolf wants to do. No argument from me. In fact standing at one end of the field with treats in my hand so as to witness the wolves running towards me was breathtaking. They have the part! ( And I still have my hand). But the star who stole the show on the day was the baby bear that lives on the porch in front of Zoltan’s house. What an unbelievable experience. Disney and Dr Dolittle combined could not have delivered such heartwarming joy. The bear wanted to play, and hoisted himself onto a picnic table so as to be eye to eye with Sean. Under direction from Zoltan, Sean showed him his hands, patted the dog so the bear would know he was a friend, and then let the magic happen. It did, so the bear hugs I am sending from Hungary this week are real….


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A Day at the Races

Budapest gave summer a run for it’s money this year baking long hot days under lush leafage and raising one final hoorah before the first crunch of Autumn. Celebrations centered along the well heeled Andrassy, carless and carefree, with dancing troupes and music giving rhythm to the avenue bursting with people and parties. Tattooed ladies abounded but none so enthusiastic as tree toting Lydia, who’s crave-inducing spiral cut crisps guaranteed a short wait for the 20kilo limit basket ride. But there were still rides going free at the National Gallop up the road in Hero’s Square, so long as you found the horse and wore a handcrafted hat. This gorgeously named event was the culmination of many collaborators, brought to town courtesy of copious truckloads of sand and a clever conveyance around concrete and traffic lights. The Hussars also made a stand, while around the corner Heritage Days were opening doors to the past that were both enlightening and unnerving by their proximity. The archives of the security services from 1944 – 90 were real, although the dossiers we saw were not, but they nevertheless conveyed a feeling that made the joy on the street all the more embracing.

A day in the country promised to eek out the sunshine, even though the destination was a warm one and one we will return to, not least because our first attempt was thwarted cheerfully by chance. A couple of hours west of Budapest is a lake warmed by a presiding power plant, and fringed by stilted houses that appear to float romantically on the water. In the middle of summer it would be a paradise for children and landlocked Australians. The nearest town, Oroszlany, is the last stop on the train route and on a Sunday is a very lonely place. The only thing open is the petrol station, and no-one speaks English. No-one! Sean and I had an early start and were up for a walk, but the directions we had to the lake took us past a deserted coal mine, something too tempting to go past. Especially when there was a gap in the fence… The buildings were immense in their emptiness and ruin. Apple trees grew out of walls, unpicked but nevertheless bitten, and stories of back breaking work hovered around the collapsed and rusting equipment. These were archives of a different kind but carried the same forbidding feeling. Most buildings we couldn’t enter, but an open hangar with solid concrete floor, awe-inspiring and atmospheric, was a film set without a film. With the flash of possibility came the simultaneous sound of impending discovery and that was enough to encourage a rapid retracing of steps. The dogs would not have spoken english either, and even though there were no signs of dogs, we later saw signs of dogs. By then it felt like we were half way to Austria, but luckily caught the tip of the lake on the way. Apart from two children fishing on their pier, there was no-one, boats were tethered and the lakeside was peaceful. A gazebo provided a perfect picnic spot next to neatly stacked gardening tools and the last of the tomatoes. It will be a beautiful place to come back to when we don’t have to rush…

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Bread and blossom

The royal rouse to ‘let them eat cake’ was not the last time someone would lose their head over a serious miscalculation of taste. The crumbs of political commentary have been left trailing all over Budapest and while the language may be hard to swallow, the meaning is perfectly clear. The children of the 1956 uprising are on the rise again – this time with their grandchildren, their families, with winemakers, with bakers and with the courtesy and countenance that make Budapest such a happy place to live. This is an interesting time to be resident of a restless realm. The ‘Orbanised’ elections have brought record numbers of people onto streets they want to protect, streets that are already rich with culture and history. Speaking of which, in the event of a rewrite, let me set the current record straight and share some good news.

There is no shortage of bread in Budapest. The Butter Brothers rule with their roast tomato, potato and cabbage sourdough on Wednesday afternoons, but they have serious competition. A tiny family run bakery on Nagymezo Utca redefines ‘artisanal’ with breads that are different on every visit – if you get there early enough. My delicious memory of berry and poppyseed bread last Christmas has only today been surpassed by what was cheerfully translated as early Spring wild herbs – adding anticipation for what I might find when it hits 30C early next week. Kiskovasz Pekseg fold their freshly ground pesto into bread pockets or wrap with prosciutto and sesame – and this morning by contrast offered hazelnut horseshoes, a soft and sweet hybrid of bread and pastry. Oh the benefits of being an early riser! Safely out of distance on the other side of the river – well, almost, we found chestnut and sour cherry pastries last week at Pekmuhely before being distracted by the homemade chocolate shop over the road. Most dangerously convenient are the bite size cheese puffs straight out of the oven that you find all over the place, or wherever you see the sign ‘Lipoti Pekseg’. Some people translate this Hungarian word as ‘bakery’, but it could also very well mean ‘Gabrielle was here’…

The Spring uprising has brought joy as well as jousting. Vivid yellow blooms light the path to famous art deco treasures hidden in the hills, bountiful tomatoes colour rosy, red, blushing and crimson at the Feny Street markets, and the children’s railway weaves through the lilac scented hill tops above Buda to the salute of the young workers. Just when it seems a pair of sunglasses cut from an old vinyl record is the only filter for the spectacular dazzle of colour, a black and white exhibition of photographs by the French father of 6, Alain Leboile, takes over the journey. This heartwarming collection of family moments puts everything into perspective, and combined with a menu description that channels Marie-Antoinette, calms not only the stomach but the soul…

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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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