Many years ago, while dancing with some chap in the Dinn Rí nightclub in Carlow, he turned and paid me what I can only suppose was his idea of a compliment: ‘I can see by ya’, says he, ‘that ya like a bit of chocolate.’ When I finally found the positive in this, the song was over, the dance was over, and we were over, having never even started.
But he was right. I like my chocolate. I like my food. Eating is a joy. One of the simplest pleasures in life. And for those who don’t share my love of all things culinary, I feel for you.
Bulgarian cuisine was like one massive fish’n’meat menu with variations on the same theme. There were definite staples shared by most restaurants, with some doing them better than others. There were fish I’d never heard of – and didn’t fancy trying. And there were versions of things I ordered that didn’t come close to what I had in my head. A roasted pepper, tomato, garlic, and olive dish that I expected to be a salad turned up as a pureé. A spinach, mushroom and cheese dish showed up as mush, and I was never
curious enough to order the popular dish ‘Mish Mash’.
As in most cities, TripAdvisor has taken over. There’s a restaurant here in Budapest – Zeller Bistro – that is booked up days in advance because it’s rated in the top 3 in the city. And yes, it’s good. But there are plenty better that don’t get a look in. We ate in Vodenisata twice before we noticed it listed by Lonely Planet. And it was good. Good Eastern European cooking. And it’s not rated by Trip Advisor at all. But then, it was mainly locals. Which is always a plus.
One night, we stayed in the ‘hood and wandered through the maze of back streets overlooked by towering apartment blocks. About a mile away, on the edge of a park, beside a kids’
playground, sits Teniova Kashta – a family-run institution that has been serving massive helpings to the local populace for what seems like centuries. It’s all over the place. Inside takes about 150. Outside, on all levels, takes another 120. The size of the tables and the size of the portions speak to the tradition in Bulgaria of big groups eating out. You could get a whole stuffed roasted lamb for €150. A piglet for €135. A rabbit for €25. And then there’s the offal – livers, gizzards, tongue, tripe, even pigs ears. There are over 300 items on the menu – more choice that I usually like to have – but it made for fascinating reading. I was particularly taken with them calling a Baked Alaska dessert an omelette 🙂
I found myself imagining winning the lottery and bringing 12 of my nearest and dearest meat-eating friends to the table. What a night that would be. And isn’t that what meals were made for? None of this eating in front of the TV, or from your lap on the sofa. If you’re in company, a meal is an occasion. And indeed, even if dining alone, they can still be occasions. Think Trond Sander, in Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses. Or my visit to Croatia a while back when I dined each night with Jack Reacher. [I was quite delighted today to see that Lidl has some one-glass cans of prosecco on offer. Nothing like a few bubbles to spruce up a dinner table.]
This week though, as I land again in Budapest and read of the countless thousands flooding in to the country, thousands who have had little in the way of fine dining (or any sort of dining) for quite a while, eating has taken on a whole new perspective. And, if anything, is to be even more appreciated. This blessing came to mind:
In a world where so many are hungry,
may we eat this food with humble hearts;
in a world where so many are lonely,
May we share this friendship with joyful hearts.
Yep, this week, I am grateful that I can find such pleasure in the simple act of eating.