Boating and bourbon beer

Bourbon is the mainstay of Kentucky. It goes into everything. I’m travelling onwards laden with recipes that call for a drop or two or seven of this elixir and cannot wait to try to duplicate RB’s gobsmackingly gorgeous bourbon baked beans. But perhaps the best of all so far has been the bourbon beer – and I’m not one for the beer usually. It’s simply ale aged in old bourbon barrels. Someone was thinking outside the box.

IMG_4801 (800x600)IMG_4795 (800x600)On a Sunday morning on Nolin (pronounced as two words No/Lin) Lake, we had the place to ourselves as Saturday night’s partiers slept off their hangovers. If the music the night before was any indication, they’d be sleeping till noon. Apart from a few water-skiiers, a family of ducks, and the occasional heron, it was just the four of us. Good company indeed.

IMG_4780 (800x600)Situated inside Nolin Lake State Park, the lake itself was created as a flo0d-control back in the early 1960s. Its 5795 acres are well-suited to fishing bass, catfish, crappie, and walleye and its  shores are littered with campgrounds both serviced and primitive.It’s a feat of engineering that has  paid for itself in flood damage savings: – $82 million – versus an original cost of $14.5 million. Would that all public works were so profitable.

Right next door, sits Mammoth Cave, the largest explored cave system in the world. Discovered way back in the 1700s, its 340 miles of known passageways have fascinated millions of visitors for years.

To those who asked why were were stopping off in Kentucky, this is why! Few things come close to spending a few hours boating on a lake with some blues playing the background and some (illegal) bourbon beer on side.

Illegal? Yes. Alcohol is forbidden on all Kentucky water. And this is a state where you can’t dye a duck and sell it unless you’re selling six of them (I kid you not!). And one in which dogs are forbidden to molest passing cars. You gotta love America.



Missing mass

I like to go mass each Sunday and when in Budapest, do so religiously. Even when I travel I try to find a Catholic church and do my duty. But on occasion this proves impossible. Last Sunday, the only churches for miles were Southern Baptist, save for two others that were Methodist. I could have gone to either yet neither appealed without someone alongside me to explain what was going on.

The Church tells me that on occasions such as this, I should devote some time to prayer and reflection. Have my own mass, as it were. I prefer to find a substitute – a cemetery.

Regular readers will know that I have a fondness for cemeteries and coincidentally, there are a lot of dead people in Kentucky. Take the graveyard at the Hill Grove Missionary Baptist Church where the graves are adorned with mussel shells (a practice that has since been discouraged).

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IMG_4684 (800x600)Each grave is carpeted in green felt on top of which the shells are arranged. It used to be that the graves were decorated on major holidays but now, in this particular cemetery, the adornment is year round. It’s a blaze of colour and interestingly, while many of the tombstones were old and nearly illegible, the graves were all well-tended. I would imagine that even if those interred had no living relatives in the area, someone would make sure that the grave was kept. That’s the Kentucky way. Pride in appearance is noticeable even in how manicured the front yards are and I’d imagine that stepping out of line with the weed-whacker or failing to trim those hedges would bring down the wrath of the neighbourhood. Brings a whole new meaning to keeping up with the Joneses.

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Further up the roIMG_4828 (800x600)ad a little sits the Little Hope Cemetery. I had to laugh, if somewhat irreverently, at that one. Perhaps Great Hope might have been more appropriate, given that residents are facing eternal life. What struck me about this one was that it’s the first time I’ve seen tombstones so clearly label the family. Mother, Father, Son, Daughter, each one has its tag. Most peculiar.

IMG_4839 (800x600)IMG_4836 (800x600)Add this to the great age some of the residents lived to, given that life back in the 1800s wasn’t nearly as conducive to longevity. One tombstone even wrote out the specifics of the life that had been lived: 59 years, 9 mths, 29 days.

Another successful Sunday. The holy souls were prayed for; more than a few should have been released from purgatory. And my duties were discharged.

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Bonnetts, buggies, and shakers

When driving through parts of Kentucky, it’s not deer you need to keep an eye on but the Amish and their buggies. One of the Anabaptist denominations (which also includes Mennonites and Hutterites) the Amish are a breakaway group formed in 1693 by Jakob Amman, who figured that the Swiss Mennonites weren’t nearly as strict as they should be in their shunning of society.

IMG_4815 (800x600)The Amish began to emigrate to the USA in the eighteenth century and have since split into ‘new order’ and ‘old order’, the former accepting social change and technology, the latter holding fast to traditional ways. What stands them apart from Protestantism is the idea of adult baptism. Young people get to spend a year with ‘the English’ before deciding whether or not to join the Amish community through baptism. What stands them apart from American society at large is a reluctance to be forward, self-promoting, or to assert oneself in any way.Their group norms is largely at odds with the individualism that is central to American culture.

They don’t have churches but  instead rotate between families who open their homes and barns to the local congregation (generally of a house-able size of 75).They don’t play musical instruments (considered worldly and vain) but they do sing but in unison, though never in harmony.

IMG_4809 (600x800)Everyday life is governed by the Ordnung, an unwritten code of behaviour which is largely interpreted and enforced by the Bishop. It covers everything from child bearing to what they wear, from how they work to how they spend their weekends.

Not ones to sit idly by when someone breaks the rules, the Amish are known for their practice of shunning: An Amish person may be shunned for a variety of offenses, ranging from major moral offenses to using improper technology. In accordance with the teachings of Jakob Amman, an Amish person in good standing may not buy from, sell to, eat with or sleep with a shunned person, even if the person is one’s spouse or close relative.

IMG_4806 (800x600)For the Old order, The use of electricity is a no-no. It’s seen as the main connection to the outside world, a world full of temptation. They do have washing-machines and other ‘white goods’ that are run on propane, though. And one way to spot an Amish house is to find a plain house, painted in white, with a barn, and no electricity lines.

The list of rules would appear endless. Men must grow beards when they marry but should never have a mustache. All clothes are made at home, with no zippers. The women never cut their hair and jewelry of any kind is forbidden. There’s little problem taking photos of how they live but they don’t like photos being taken of themselves, believing that photos are graven images and thus violate the second commandment. On this note, their dolls are traditionally faceless. Set apart from the rest of the country, the Amish don’t vote or serve in the military. They don’t have social security or other types of insurance. And any sports they play are for enjoyment – competitive spirits should be kept at bay. An interesting way of life.

IMG_4861 (800x600)But not nearly as interesting perhaps as the Shakers. We went to see the Shaker museum at South Union and I am still reeling a little at what those lads got up to… or didn’t, as the case may be.

Known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, referred to as the shakers because of their ecstatic dancing,  they were celibate: they did not marry or bear children so one has to wonder who they lasted for 200 years and are still going today (one small community left in Maine). In something reminiscent of Jesus calling on his disciples to leave all their worldly goods and follow him, the Shakers left it all behind – family, property, and money –  to join ‘holy families‘  where men and women lived as brother and sister, where all property was held in common, and where each participated in the rigorous daily task of transforming the earth into heaven.

IMG_4863 (800x600)Founded by an illiterate English factory worker named Ann Lee, Mother Lee send eight pilgrims to America in 1774 to spread her gospel in the New World.  Her followers believed her to be the second coming of Christ. In 1787, coinciding with the signing of the American Constitution, Shaker women were officially bestowed with equal rights. Before the emancipation of the South, the Shakers freed their slaves and bought others out.  Their inventions are still in use today: the clothespin and the circular saw…. and they were, apparently, the first to put seeds into printed paper packets to sell! Way ahead of their time,the New Hampshire Shakers had rigged up electricity in their village while the state capital building was still burning gas.

Amazing what you learn when you visit Kentucky.

Blues and BBQ

Henderson, Kentucky, sits on the banks of the Ohio River, right across from the state of Indiana. Back in the late 1700s, one Colonel Henderson and his cronies purchased 17 000 000 acres of land from the Cherokee Indians under the Treaty of Watauga. The Virginia State Legislature voided this deal and, in return for the original $50 000 that Henderson et al. had forked over, they received  a plot of 200 000 acres. What Henderson hadn’t realised (or perhaps ignored) was that purchase of land from Native Americans was the purview of the government (the British, the governments of Virginia and North Carolina and, later, the United States, all forbade private purchase of land from Indians).

IMG_4718 (800x589)It is on part of this 200 000 acre site that the city of  Henderson now sits. And it is here, every year, that the WC Handy Blues and BBQ festival takes place. One of the largest free music festivals in the USA, it celebrates the Father of the Blues, Alabama-born William Christopher Handy. Legend has it that Handy and his crew were on their way back from the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1892 when they ran out of money. Handy headed to Evansville, Indiana, and joined a local band. When they were playing a gig one night in Henderson, he met a woman by the name of Elizabeth Price, so he stayed a while. (It never ceases to amaze me how the course of a life can be changed by a chance encounter.)

In his autobiography, he says:  I didn’t write any songs in Henderson, but it was there I realized that experiences I had had, things I had seen and heard could be set down in a kind of music characteristic of my race. There I learned to appreciate the music of my people . then the blues were born, because from that day on, I started thinking about putting my own experience down in that particular kind of music.

IMG_4710 (800x600)The week-long festival is run by the Henderson Music Preservation Society, Inc., a non-profit organisation, and attracts up to 50 000 people. This year, the visitor who had travelled furthest to get there was none other than yours truly. I won a vintage T-shirt and the subsequent interview with the local newspaper has shaved a couple of minutes off my allotted 15 minutes of fame. I await the headlines with anticipation.

The line-up included Bill Howl-N-Mad Perry, Joanne Shaw Taylor (with Blues Caravan 2013), and a new favourite of mine, CJ Wilder. And that was just the afternoon we hit Henderson.

IMG_4700 (800x600)Two things struck me: one was the sheer diversity of the audience. Everything from twinsets and pearls to biker jackets and bandanas. Every age, size, colour, creed was visible.  And as people filed in with their collapsible chairs, the sheer innovativeness of the American Leisure Industry was apparent. Some deckchairs had footrests, others had rockers; all had the perquisite cup-holder. Alcohol was contained to the bar tents, even though Henderson is not one of the 50 dry counties in Kentucky (where the sale of alcohol is forbidden or restricted). And admittedly, having a drinking area along the lines of a smoking area, took some getting used to.

IMG_4709 (800x600)While European festival-goers might prefer beer with their music, this one focused more on food. Fried food. Good ole southern BBQ. There was even a Raspberry Cheesecake Springroll on offer at the one Asian stand and a lone  Greek stand didn’t fare too well, sandwiched as it was between one selling mutton BBQ and another selling ribs. Yes, you read that right. The second thing that struck me was that down south, in this area anyway, BBQ meat is mutton! Ye gods! BBQ’d lamb, yes. But mutton?

IMG_4716 (800x691)I couldn’t bring myself to try it so we opted for the potato rose (home-made potato chips smothered in cheese) and a rack of pork ribs cooked up by Tim and Barb, which literally disintegrated on touch.

IMG_4712 (600x800)Maybe it was the blues that kept things calm. Maybe it was the lack of booze. Maybe that’s just the way things are in the South – laid back and chilled. There was no aggravation, no rowdiness, nothing other than good cheer and sunshine. As we collected our things to leave, and made our way through the masses, I was peppered by Hi Mary! and Hey, Budapest! – and was, once again struck by American hospitality and that instant familiarity that so amused me when I first set foot stateside.


2013 Grateful 29

Thursday, after an unexpected stopover in Washington DC, I called a mate in Ireland in an attempt to track down another mate in DC. I found both. The conversation was simple. ‘Hi, it’s Mary. Am in DC. Need to cadge a couch for two.’ The reply was simpler. ‘Sure. Here’s the address.’ That it had been five years since we’d last hooked up was irrelevant. That it had been more than a year since we’d spoken didn’t matter. It was as if it had been yesterday and we were simply picking up from where we’d left off. That night I met some of NQ’s mates, he met mine, and new friendships were forged.

Fast forward a few hours and we’re in Kentucky enjoying the hospitality of another mate whom I’ve not seen since 2001. We’re in pretty regular e-mail contact so inviting myself to stay wasn’t an issue. When the airports contrived to keep us away, RB said that he’d wondered whether the universe was trying to tell us to stick to e-mail or whether it was deliberately creating a difficult path to paradise. Suffice to say that we’ve arrived – in paradise. Tired, cranky, but otherwise unscathed.

IMG_4662 (800x600)RB’s house sits on 32 acres and overlooks Nolin Lake in Kentucky. He designed it himself, under the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright, and has unpacked his bottom drawer to great effect. The place is stunning. More than 300 square metres of light, air, views and a fantastic array of Alaskana are replete with the good taste, style, and elegance that so epitomise the man himself.

IMG_4664 (600x800)With columns painted to look like marble, and floors that actually are, the place is a work of love and attention to detail that encapsulates a lifetime of memories. It’s one of the most comfortable spaces I’ve ever been in and were it not for the slow Internet connection and the fact that opinionated women don’t do well in Kentucky, I’d move in tomorrow 🙂

There are houses and there are homes. There is interior design that looks like it has been designed and then there’s that wonderful piecing together of single items that just connect, each one working towards creating a feeling of togetherness. A little like life, methinks, and the variety of friendships that make up a circle of friends and reflect a life well lived.

IMG_4667 (596x800)The place is a joy of discovery, a veritable treasure hunt of perspective and taste. My favourite? The powder room. I can see a whole new use for statues now. I could even get attached to the bears.

IMG_4670 (800x592)Our homes reflect so much of who we are and what we like; how we live, and how we have lived. Opening them to others to enjoy, too, is a pleasure I know well. I never give much thought to how friends abroad might live until I get there. I never try to imagine what their places look like until I arrive. And then, it somehow all seems to fit. No two are ever the same. They might share elements that reflect a common past – in my case, both RB and I share Alaska and our respective collections reflects our length of residence. We both have a fondness for chobi carpets, too. And we even have a thing about hall space and galleries. But his space is very much his, as mine is very much mine.

IMG_4669 (800x591)This week was often difficult, trying, and downright annoying. It had ups and downs that were poles apart and the ensuing highs and lows kept the adrenaline running. As it draws to a close and I finally get to sip a mint julep on a rocker on the porch overlooking an expanse of water, in the company of good friends, I am truly grateful for the friendships I have made in my travels; for those people who have come into my life for whatever reason … and stayed. I am truly blessed.

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Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

All about attitude

Stranded in Washington’s Dulles airport last night, we waited in line at customer service hoping to be routed and still make Kentucky that night. About 12 flights had been cancelled and people were showing varying degrees of anxiety and stress, depending on their travel plans. I’m not exactly sure why anyone would think that shouting at the customer service guy would help their cause – and I was highly amused to hear a calm, measured ‘Sir, you need to let me do my job. Shouting at me won’t change the weather.’ Down the other end of the counter, another woman was asking the world how flying to another airport 90 minutes from her home would help her situation. Our chap was extremely helpful – he even let me use his phone to call a friend in DC to cadge a couch for the night. And we were rescheduled to fly this afternoon from Regan International. All okay.

indexSo we arrived at the airport today to find that US Airways had no knowledge of our booking. We weren’t on the flight. We were sent back to United where the ditziest woman ever took up our cause. As she slowly and unhurriedly hummed and hawed over our situation, I was in danger of losing my rag completely. While she was sorting us out, she was also taking phone calls and helping other customers. No such thing as focused attention. Tired, cranky, and not at my best, it was either scream at her in frustration  or cry. But then I remembered that shouting wouldn’t change the weather – or the situation. It took every single ounce of energy I had to keep smiling as I marvelled at the power of choice.

We choose our attitude – and thought it nearly killed me, I chose to swallow the bile and be nice.

A new take on traditional

Life in the ‘hood is certainly taking a turn for the better. Despite repeated warnings by all and sundry when I first moved to Budapest, I bought a flat in what’s known as the ghetto – the VIIIth district. The few blocks behind my flat are unrecognisable from what they were five years ago. The developers moved in and the place has boomed. It amuses me no end to think that right smack in the middle of it all is a kert  (garden)  bar called Grund. The boys are holding out and it, and the community garden next to it, are a sharp reminder that some things are better left untouched by progress.

But with developments like Corvin Sétány come new businesses – new restaurants, new wine bars, new shops. And while the shopping centre itself is nothing much to write home about (but then I’m not a fan of malls anyway) – I’m quite pleased to see that the culinary offer has improved dramatically.

I’ve been to Kompót Bisztró a couple of times for lunch. Simple Hungarian fare, served hot. There’s always a crowd. But until recently I’d never been there for dinner. And now that I have, I’ll be back.

That someone decided to do a new take on the traditional is obvious. Re-interpretation is the name of the game. The rather typical, if bland, furniture is broken by a round antique dining table with matching chairs always set with gleaming cutlery and sparkling glasses. This sets the tone and whispers that something in this restaurant isn’t quite as it seems.

Csaba took our order and humoured me; he let me speak what little Hungarian I have. This is a rare enough occurrence; most I’ve encountered in the Hungarian hospitality industry, when hearing my pathetic attempts at mastering their language, revert to English – either to practice theirs or to relieve the pain of listening to mine. So before ever looking at the menu, I was predisposed to liking the place.

On special that evening was the hortobágyi húsos palacsinta – a typical Hungarian pancake stuffed with meat. I’ve eaten this before but my dining companions had yet to savour the experience so I ordered for four. I was expecting the traditional flat crepe-like pancake rolled and stuffed like a carpet. Instead, we got a two-inch high square of layered meat, for all the world like a slice of cake. All the ingredients were there – but the presentation was totally different.

And other impressive thing  – one that tickled the protocol princess in me –  none of our plates were removed until all of us had finished. The staggered removal of place settings is a major irritant for me when I’m eating out and in the spirit of etiquette, I’ve been known to ask the waiter to leave my plate until my dining companion is finished. Waiting on tables is an art, one that is all too often underrated or ignored. I know. I’ve sat through enough protocol training dinners and am well-versed in what is acceptable and what is not. The waiters at Kompót are well trained. There was no reaching across the table – everyone was served from the right inasmuch as the seating allowed it. Very telling in my book.

946712-1 (800x600)Although struggling a little after the hortobágyi, we’d already ordered our mains so had little choice but to continue. Next up, we had two orders of salmon filets with cornbread, an order of boned pork knuckle, and the best schnitzel I’ve had since coming to Budapest, served with Bavarian potato salad in a hinged jam-jar. Again, all the ingredients were there – but the presentation was far from traditional.

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Dessert wasn’t looking like an option – we’d already had plenty to eat – but when I saw that they had somlói galuska (the Hungarian version of trifle) on the menu… well, that was a different story. Mind you, Csaba warn me that it wasn’t traditional. It was a new take on an old recipe. I was okay with that, seeing that the new takes so far had all been for the better. But this I didn’t finish. Yes, it was excellent, in and of itself, but it wasn’t somlói. This was taking re-interpretation to a new extreme. A mite disgruntled, I realised that I was facing the fact that my culinary issues had issues. I was just a tad too entrenched in my food thinking to enjoy the bastardisation of an old classic when a simple re-christening would have sufficed. But, in fairness, when I checked the menu again, I saw the disclaimer – it was billed as somlói-style… so what fault there was, was of my own making.

Kompót Bisztró is one to put on your list of places to eat. It’s certainly earned a place on my visitors’ tour and might even become a regular haunt, with or without visitors in tow.  Come visit the VIIIth and enjoy the rebirth of the Hungarian kitchen. You won’t be sorry.

Corvin Sétány 1/b | 1082 Budapest VIII. ker.

(Photos courtesy of Ms Charlotte Mercer)

Made for Sunday mornings

I’m quite partial to a good market. The more flea-ridden the better. I’ve travelled in search of some, sought out others, and just happened across ones like the one in Káptalantóti called Liliomkert. [And no, it had nothing to do with the fact that I can’t follow a blue arrow on a GPS or that I couldn’t find my way out of a paper bag on a good day – I prefer to think that the gods were smiling benevolently on us!]

IMG_4481 (800x600)IMG_4489 (800x578)Acres of wooden stalls with everything from a blacksmith’s forge to homemade steak seasoning, from linen tea towels to English-language novels, from wooden coat-hangers to fresh goat’s milk – it had it all. And in between the stalls were the rest areas – places to eat the bountiful food on offer or taste the different local wines on sale. A veritable mecca when it comes to markets.

IMG_4491 (600x800)I came away with a multipurpose knife thingey that promises to do wonders for my veg chopping; a cornhusk pillow that I’m hoping will guarantee that I sleep through my next trans-Atlantic crossing; and the requisite Christmas tree ornament. I left behind four fabulous wooden coat-hangers with brass knobs,  a lovely black lace scarf, and a five-litre container of carrot juice. Damage could have been done had sense not prevailed. But I’d go back there again  to spend an hour or two rummaging. It’s markets like these that make Hungary such a great place to live – you never really know what you’re going to come across next.

IMG_4499 (800x590)The previous day, just up the road near Tapolca, we’d passed what looked like a sizeable antique barn but nothing prepared us for how big it really is. Massive. Over 2200 square metres of space crammed with everything from oil paintings to china dolls, from Herend porcelain to pictures of the Sacred Heart. An Aladdin’s cave that literally tugged on the purse strings once you took that first step in side. I soooooooooooo wanted to spend some money. [And if the marketing lads could discover why – I’m convinced it’s the smell of these places that kick starts some endorphin or other – they’d be on to a winner.]

IMG_4501 (800x600)I’m in the market for some Art Deco dining chairs and while there were hundreds here, none quite suited. I’m also in the market for some china – a dinner and tea service in the same pattern – but again, nothing quite suited both taste AND pocket. Yet I was quite happy to spend the time searching for what I needed and wished, not for the first time, that I was a tall, svelte, skinny woman who could do justice to the wardrobes of vintage clothing on offer.

IMG_4507 (600x800)While I might have carried off the mink stoles, I doubt I could have squeezed a wrist, let alone a bicep through the sleeves of some of those dresses. And to think that someone actually has the job of finding this stuff! Now, there’s a career change in the offing. The place takes up three floors and has two outdoor barns as well as myriad other nooks and crannies scattered on the grounds. I could have spent all day there – and while I didn’t quite find what I was looking for, I am already a little regretful that I didn’t bag those wrought iron floor lamps – they’d have gone well in my hallway.

IMG_4509 (600x800)Pigs in china shops came to mind as I paid close attention to what my handbag was doing. One swing in the wrong direction could have proved rather expensive and seen me in the bankruptcy court. The whole experience put the longing on me to renovate again. Just give me some space and a budget and let me ferret through these types of places, mixing and matching and finding the perfect piece for a particular corner. Something that looks at home the minute you put it there. Forgive the whimsy, but that reminds me somewhat of life and relationships and that search for the perfect mate (mind you, I’m no longer convinced that such perfection ever existed in a person – as the saying goes: nobody’s perfect, but who wants to be a nobody?). Yet some people just fit better than others in our lives – despite their wear and tear and the patina that is either shining or dulled by experience. There’s that similar ‘aha’ moment when that sense of belonging, the fit, is recognised, when you find what you’ve been looking for. But as with these antique shops and their treasures, all too often the mistake we make is walking away, leaving the gem behind – thinking it might be there tomorrow or that we might find something better. Inevitably, we rarely do. I know … I’m still hankering after a pair of captain’s chairs that I walked away from in the BAV two years ago. I won’t make that mistake again… but hey, I did… those bloody floor lamps. When will I learn?

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2013 Grateful 30

Back in 2002, I was in Carlow in the Dinn Rí nightclub. This fellah with a very fla’ (read: flat!) midlands accent asked me out to dance. When the song was over, he turned to me and said in his fla’est of tones: ‘I can see by ya, dah ya like a bi’ a chocola’. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he then added: ‘jus’ like me mammy’.

Yes, I like my food and there are few things I enjoy more than a good meal in good company. Strangely though, I can get enough of eating out and prefer, more often than not, to cook for people who bring an appetite and some good conversation to the table. Last week, driving around the Balaton, I had no kitchen and had to (sigh!) resign myself to eating public fare.

Friday night, I dined with the inimitable BA at the Kővirág Panzió és Étterem in Köveskál. I was a little worried when my fish arrived that I wouldn’t have enough to eat but fortified by the ragout soup I’d had to start, there was plenty and it was all good. On Saturday, I had some more of the ragout soup, but this time at the Szent György Panzió és Étterem in Tapolca. This quaint spot next door to the Lake Cave is a warren of reasonable-sized dining rooms, one of which we had to ourselves. IMG_4406 (800x600)It wasn’t all that difficult to imagine the hands of the clock spinning in reverse,  transporting us back 20 or 30 years when the place surely had its heyday. The wine was good, the food was grand, and the service was prompt and friendly. Add to that the luxury of having a whole dining room to yourself and you start to think you’ve died and gone to restaurant heaven. Or better still, have actually gone back 20 years and are part of the upper echelons of society!

IMG_4542 (800x400)I was on a ragout frenzy at this stage and in Héviz on Sunday couldn’t pass up the boar ragout at Liget Étterem és Pizzéria as a frontrunner to the grilled trout.  Perched on a height overlooking the town, we ate to the orchestral strains of some classic music that wafted our way. It was a tad surreal trying to IMG_4539 (800x583)speak Hungarian with a mouthful of pisztráng while listening to the theme song to the Pink Panther!

I border on the obsessive when it comes to eating, particularly when I’m away. No sooner does one meal end that I mentally envision the next. It doesn’t need to be haute cuisine. It doesn’t need to be silver service and linen napkins. All I ask of food is that it delivers on its promise and fulfills whatever deep and irrational expectation I have of it.

Some people eat for the sake of eating. Other eat at every opportunity because at some stage in their lives they had nothing at all to eat and something inside them switched to permanent survival mode. I know of an holocaust survivor who is first to the table every time, regardless of what’s on offer.

On those occasions when I eat just to eat, I don’t feel satisfied. I fixate on food: if I have Thai in my head then the most luscious leg of lamb just won’t cut it. I think of only once in my life (in Rome, craving some Chinese noodles!) when the meal I finally got surpassed all cravings and expectations. Even when I’m on my own, I cook a full dinner.  I almost always eat for the pure pleasure of eating – and this week, I’m grateful that life has afforded me the luxury of being able to do so.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Bouncing off the walls

I first heard of Tapolca when I worked on Marton Laszló’s autobiography shortly after I first came to Hungary. It’s the town were he was born and where he started sculpting. Given that we were separated by a lack of language (his English was no better than my Hungarian), we communicated mainly in sign language over neat glasses of palinka, with his wife interpreting as needed when it came to the book itself. He even made me chicken soup one time I showed up to his flat with a set of reviews carrying a heavy cold. He died in 2008 and was a truly remarkable man.

Anyway, I digress. When I looked the town up on the Web, I saw that its No. 1 attraction was not the Marton Laszló Four Seasons sculpture but rather the Lake Cave.

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Open to the public for more than 100 IMG_4410years now, this series of caves stretches out 15 metres deep underneath the town. About 5 km long in total, the waters crisscross in a convoluted system that features the Lake Cave – the one I visited. The first boat trip through the cave was taken in 1937.  The air is about 90% humid and the water temperature about 20°C. The high calcium content is good for curing respiratory diseases; I obviously wasn’t down there long enough to nullify the effects of smoking 🙂 but it would be an interesting course of treatment. The 73-step descent down under was quite spectacular and for a brief moment, brought the catacombs of Malta to mind.

Mine was the last boat through that day. I had thought I’d have a partner in crime to row/paddle while I got to take some photos, but circumstances contrived to make it otherwise. So I had to multitask.

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Pretty certain that the chap helping me into my tin tub of a boat said to hang left, I did just that, but was careful not to lose sight of the couple in the boat in front of me, just in case. The water was only knee deep, so if all came to all, I was confident that I could just tow myself back to base. Mind you, this was an option I hoped I wouldn’t have to exercise. Twice I nearly lost my paddle and almost capsized in my mad grab to hold on to it.

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While I was struggling with this multitasking, I was reminded of the blond who couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time. Not alone had I to watch the roof in case I banged my head and was knocked unconscious, I had to steer the boat down the centre of the narrow channels and balance it and take photos and remember to breathe. Gum-chewing would have over-tasked a system already on the verge of burnout. At one stage, I couldn’t hear myself think as I bounced from wall to wall, my little tin boat making quite the racket as it scraped off the limestone walls, all the while I cursed an absence.

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The English-language site of the BFNP (Balaton-felvidéki National Park) calls it a ‘torturous cave system‘ and I for one agree. That limestone may look soft and pillow-like but it’s as hard as a… rock? The cave was formed in Sarmatian limestone 13.7 million years ago… get your (sore) head around that one! It was quite amazing to think that there I was, cursing like a Moore Street fishwife, beneath walls that have heard a lot worse than I could ever have come up with. And if they could talk!

I was a little disappointed afterwards that I didn’t spot any of the Phoxinus phoxinus – the small fish that live in the cave – but then I was too busy bouncing off the walls to notice.

Well worth a trip if you’re in the neighbourhood.