We finally said goodbye to Poland (we’ll have to go back one day, there’s so much more to see) and drove south through Slovakia to Hungary. As we were a bit behind schedule we rushed through Slovakia in a day, admiring the snowy Tatras mountains and warming ourselves up in hot springs (and some of the best saunas we’ve seen) at the fairly-tacky-but-wonderful Tatralandia resort.
It was a shame not to have longer, but this did mean more days to check out all the wonderful Hungarian food – and wine – and more time to zigzag all over the place rather than planning a sensible route. We learnt lots, but three things stick out. Firstly, the wine’s excellent. Secondly, most of Hungary’s pretty flat. OK, really flat – think East Anglia but with more moustaches. Thirdly, goulash isn’t what you think it is …
Today Barnaby set off to explore the cellars of Tokaj to find out just what makes the wine here so golden and yummy. Having studied the works of the 16th century alchemist Paracelsus, who believed the wine contained actual gold, he thought he could come to a more scientific conclusion. Probably something to do with botrytis.
But when Barnaby saw it (we wouldn’t let him actually drink it. Not after Poland) he refused to believe it was anything so unsophisticated as rotten grapes. We have bought several cases for him to continue his analysis.
Louis XIV is said to have called the sweet wines of the Tokaj region of Hungary “the wine of kings, and king of wines”, and they’ve been used as diplomatic sweeteners at the highest levels for hundreds of years. We went to find out what makes them so great, and discovered that they are still the king of wines – perhaps these days even more so than ever before. However, they now seem to be the wines of very different kinds of kings…
The puszta – the great plain – is very important to Hungarians. It may not sound very interesting to outsiders: it’s the flattest part of the country, dotted with fairly shabby isolated farms, wells, marshland and perhaps not a great deal else. But here it means more than that: it holds an important place in the Hungarian imagination and sense of national identity.
As we found out, though, it’s also a place to hear lively folk music, eat the best bread and pork fat we’ve found so far (and that’s saying a lot), and learn how to play the pig’s bladder while cracking a whip. At least, it is if you’re coordinated enough, which one of us was …
Tonight we spent the evening at Tuba Tanya, enjoying the fantastic local specialities of course, but also the Hungarian folk music and other folky activities. The band (Tuba Rózsa) were fantastic: listen to that bass sound – it’s someone rubbing a wet cloth up & down a stick attached to a skin stretched over a jug.
Barnaby has been relieved to find that Hungarians love coffee as much as he does, and serve all manner of espresso-based drinks in very upmarket cafés. Here in Eger he and Matt needed big lattes after all the wine tasting yesterday.
Barnaby supposes that the Hungarian passion for coffee must stem in some way from the presence of the Ottoman empire here some 500 years ago. The trend is so pervasive that even McDonald’s has caught on – there are ‘McCafes’ complete with Starbucks-style faux leather armchairs in every town. Barnaby is tempted to make a profound observation about imperialism, but hasn’t quite worked out what it is.
Today Barnaby made real gulyásleves while staying in a little cottage in Csongrád. Having researched what a genuine Hungarian goulash should be like, he altered Anna’s previous recipe by using a) a greater assortment of vegetables including carrot, potato, celeriac, parsley root, tomato and pepper, b) caraway and paprika, but not too much of either, c) beef rather than pork, and d) lots of water so as to make it more soupy than stewy. He has informed Anna that her previous version was more of a pörkölt or paprikás than a gulyás.
It has been brought to my attention that Spring has not yet arrived in
the UK, so any fancy ideas I have for using the Bay Area’s new array of
fruits and vegetables will largely fall on deaf ears over there for the
next few weeks. So, a hearty stew. I keep making this in enormous
batches and reheating some whenever it’s chilly in the flat, which is
most nights. My very knowledgeable friend Victoria recommends drinking
a Chilean carmenere with goulash, as it smells a little like red peppers
and paprika. Let me know if you try it out…
This recipe is an adaptation of one by Bruce Aidells, a formidable Bay Area sausage-maker and cookbook writer who knows more than a thing or two about meat. He came into school to demonstrate cutting up a pig, which we then cooked in various ways, trotters and all.
One of the changes I made to his recipe is the use of a whole bottle of wine rather than a combination of a little beer or wine and stock. This was purely for practical reasons – I’m more likely to have wine in the house than stock – and works beautifully. Hungarians are very proud of their wine-making tradition, so it also seems appropriate. I also added the fennel and lemon. Like all good stews, this one tastes even better the next day, and freezes well.
Many goulash recipes out there call for beef instead of pork, which I simply can’t understand – the porkiness seems essential to me. However, as we were to discover when travelling in Hungary, beef IS more traditional, and this recipe is perhaps more of a pörkölt or paprikás than a true gulyás– Hungarian stew classification is rather complicated to the outsider.