On the ground

When bad things happen in the world and the social media channels are clogged with news reports, photos, and tales of loss and devastation, my first thought is usually: Thank God I’m not there. This is followed almost immediately by sympathy for those who are, and in quick succession, consideration of what I can do to help.

mepal3Along with all the reports of the devastation wreaked by the earthquakes in Nepal came a veritable deluge of appeals from international aid agencies looking for money to help those who had been made homeless as a result of Mother Nature’s latest onslaught. Lacking patience and wanting to act immediately, I was tempted. All I needed to do was to give my credit card details and key in an amount. Or use PayPal. Or make a bank transfer. I could do all three. But something held me back.

I have an innate distrust of big aid agencies. I don’t doubt for a minute that they are a necessary thread in the fabric of our society; that they have a role to play in trying to mitigate the effects of natural disasters; that they are staffed with very qualified, able people who work hard on the ground to make a difference.  But…

I begrudge the 35% or so of my donation that would be spent on fundraising and administration and yet I know that marketing is necessary in order to attract more donations.  I know that for the most part, the professionals in charge deserve the salaries they receive; they’re professionals. The plush offices though – those I can’t rationalise. But it’s not just about the agencies themselves and how they operate, it’s the scale on which they do so.

I’ve heard stories of supplies being held at customs, while the plight of those affected worsened; stories of corrupt local officials who take their cut, getting rich off the generosity of some and the misery of others.  So I shy away, keeping my money until I can find someone on the ground that I can trust to spend it – all of it – in the best way possible.

Nepal1Nepal was difficult. It took me a while to track down Mr B. My friend who introduced us said she’d trust him to the very core of her DNA. And I trust her. Ergo, I trust him. He’s in the tour business, the son of a Tibetan, and lives with his family in Nepal. His staff in the villages outside Kathmandu have lost their homes; they have nowhere to live. Monsoon season is just months away and if they’re to be rehoused, they need help – fast. He described the latest quake as if ‘somebody was trying to pull our office building from its root (underground) and was going to throw it’. I cannot begin to imagine what that must be like, but I can sympathise and I can help.

nepal2It took a week of emails back and forth to get the right bank account details – the IBANs and the BICs – and then to figure out how to word the transfer so that he wouldn’t have to  pay VAT. But we sorted it. The money is en route. He wrote to ask me how I’d like him to spend it. I told him to spend it as he thought best. Who am I to tell him what needs doing?  I’m not there.  I’m living in Budapest, on the other side of the world, a city on which Mother Nature has so far cast a rather benevolent eye.

First published in the Budapest Times 29 May 2015


norbert-papp-1283247537-squareI fixate. I don’t obsess. I fixate. There is a very subtle difference in my mind, with the latter being a little more dangerous for others. Last year I discovered Papp Norbert – a Hungarian illustrator. I fell in love with a piece of his art. I went back to visit it several times and brought arty friends along for their opinion. I even went to the trouble of cajoling a friend into ‘borrowing’ it from the gallery to see if it would fit on my wall in the flat. It didn’t. It didn’t fit. It upset everything. And even though it didn’t work, I was sorely tempted to buy it anyway, knowing that some day I will move. I even thought about selling my flat and buying another one so that I could change the decor to fit. But I didn’t. And after a while, other fixations took over.


Walking by the same gallery this week (it’s on my street – so handy) I noticed that they have an exhibition of two outside artists – one of whom is my man Papp Norbert. [I say outside, because usually the work being exhibited is a mix of some professional artists and artists who use the gallery’s art therapy programme.] So I went inside. Last time I had two to choose from; this time I had a whole wall. And I was mesmerized.

I can’t quite put my finger what it is that I find so enthralling. They’re quite heavy on the gold and some look a little like frames from a comic book. I think it’s a mix of the vibrant colours and the exquisite detail. I can look and look and then come back and look again and find something I didn’t notice before. And they speak volumes.

So now I’m fixating again. A slightly smaller piece (approx 3 pens x 5 pens – you measure with what you have to hand) that would fit my hallway, were I to deviate from the existing black-and-white. I came to a dead stop in front of it because it could have been painted about me. It was like seeing my life on canvas – hopes and dreams in browns, blues, and vivid shades of orange. So I’m fixating again.  And measuring. And have emailed my contact at the gallery. Just to see.

If you’re in the neighbourhood, drop by. Üllői út 60-62 Art Brut Galéria. It’s a great little spot, doing some trojan work in art therapy. They even have open art classes on Tuesday afternoons.

The Moravcsik Foundation started in 1991 with the sole aim of contributing to the treatment and rehabilitation of psychiatric patients through art therapy. In 2005, it helped create an art therapy workshop within the nearby Psychiatric Clinic at Semmelweiss University. In 2006, the artists’ work was first introduced to the public in an effort to reshape its perception of those living with psychiatric illnesses.

[Yes, I’m quoting myself – how odd!]

And I just heard that Papp Norbert will be doing a sand animation and giving a workshop on Wednesday, 3rd June at 4pm. Details on Facebook.

And I thought I knew more…

I’m not deluded enough to think I’m qualified to talk about much of anything with any great degree of expertise. There’s lots I don’t know and lots more that I’ll never learn. I had thought though that I was better up on my chocolate.

The great Roman philosopher, Seneca, is credited with the insight: When we teach, we learn. For a few years now, I’ve been giving a semi-regular communications workshop here in Budapest. We use presentations as a medium through which to apply what’s been learned. I get to hear all sorts of stuff ranging from high-tech, mind-boggling concepts that I might vaguely understand after I’ve heard the presentation three times, to having a hedgehog as a pet. Fascinating. Mostly.

This time round, I learned a lot about a subject I had thought I was pretty familiar with. Chocolate. God knows I eat enough of it to be on more than first-name terms. But I didn’t even have the complete vocabulary needed to talk about it with any semblance of expertise.

First off, a chocolatier is not the chocolate equivalent of a sommelier. Chocolatiers make and sell chocolate. Sommeliers know their wines. An expert in chocolate is simply a chocolate expert. Duh.

These experts, when examining the product, use all five senses. I had figured on taste and perhaps smell, but not all five. And now, thanks to ZZs, I know more. And am not sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, though, and I might well be chasing him down for more than his homework, if this new-found interest he’s awakened starts to pile on the pounds.

choc1First up, sight. The chocolate has to look good. It has to be shiny and even, not dull and splodgey. I’ve seen that dull, grey-white stuff that occasionally covers chocolate that might have escaped my midnight foraging sprees, but I never knew that it was called ‘bloom‘. It could be sugar bloom, or fat bloom, but whatever it is, it’s never been bad enough for me not to eat the stuff. At least now I know what I’m eating. Perhaps my chocolate afterglow might even be described as ‘blooming’.

choc2Next up is touch. How does the chocolate feel? In all honesty, I’ve never stopped long enough to ask that question but I can see how it might be important to the experts. I can’t say I’ll remember to check next time, either.

choc3Now, the sound. When you break off a piece, the louder the ‘snap’, the higher the cocoa content. Who knew that? It’s one way to check whether the marketers are labelling the products correctly. And I’d be certainly up for a field survey. Admittedly, at some base level, I may well have recognised that Milka chocolate isn’t as loud as Lindt but it never bothered me enough to wonder why. And, of course, you’re going for a clean, straight edge – a little like broken glass.

choc 4Next, it’s the smell. And yes, this I can appreciate. I love the smell of dark chocolate. Or dark chocolate laced with orange. Or mint chocolate. Or dark chocolate laced with mind. Generally, I love the smell of chocolate  – all chocolate – as long as it’s cold. Hot chocolate makes me nauseous. It could be the milk I’m reacting too, as hot milk does the same; I prefer my chocolate smelling cold.

choc5And finally the taste. Good quality chocolate should melt on your tongue and leave an aftertaste. Not the ‘suck it out of your teeth’ aftertaste you might get from the chocolate chips in cookies, but a proper palate-ish aftertaste. This I knew. Sort of. On some base level.

Now that I’ve learned so much more about a subject I already thought I knew quite well, I’m left wondering whether my chocolate experience will change. Will I be more discerning in what I buy? Or will the cravings win out? Let’s see.

And yes, I nicked his photos. But I asked permission. I think.


Hamming to Strauss

A few years ago, I saw a clip of violinist André Rieu and the Johann Strauss Orchestra premiering a waltz written by Sir Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins was in the audience and heard his waltz being played, in public, for the first time. It was lovely to watch. I don’t know enough about music to say whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. And I certainly don’t know enough about music to debate whether, as some YouTube comments suggest, Hopkins might have borrowed a bar or two from elsewhere. But I know I liked it.

AndreTill then, I’d never heard of André Rieu, who along with his orchestra, rose to fame some 20 years ago when an unknown waltz on their recently released CD took Holland by storm and has become Holland’s unofficial second national anthem – or so he told us last week when he was in Budapest. He showed us a video of himself conducting football fans at the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam back in 2009 as they ‘sang’ the waltz.

I quite like my waltzes. I quite like classical music, even if I couldn’t tell Chopin from Bartok Bela. I’m not so keen, though, when it’s all very highbrow and everyone is taking it really seriously. Little did I know that Rieu seems to think the same. In almost pantomime fashion, some 50 or so musicians waltzed through the audience up to the stage in the half-full Papp Lázsló Stadium on Wednesday night, the ladies in their multicoloured ballgowns, the gents in their dickey-bows and tails. It looked a little like a macaroon and penguin fest.

The Platin Tenors (one of whom is Hungarian) were bloody amazing. Their version of Puccini’s Nessun Dorna was goosebumpingly great. With over ten nationalities on stage, this truly international orchestra is undeniably talented. And they all seemed to be having great craic. It was quite surreal. Serious music, with seriously talented musicians who were hamming about like Curly, Dick, and Moe.

You know that solemn atmosphere you find in the concert hall with classical music, and how it intimidates most people and keeps them away? With us, it is simply not there.

Rieu has a set piece. I’d wager that all his concerts are pretty much the same. But it was a first for me. The only other time I’d seen him was the brief YouTube clip of the Hopkins waltz. It seemed as if everyone else in the audience was on more familiar terms. Flags were flying, pictures of the man himself floated on banners through the air. And the usually timid audience I’ve come to expect in Budapest was waltzing in the aisles. Grannies and grandkids – the entire age spectrum was having a ball.

I’ve never before seen a musician who uses a translator. Rieu did. And even the banter between the two of them was comical. He spoke in English and she translated to Hungarian, never missing a beat. He does something weird with his eyes that is strangely amusing and his facial expressions hover somewhere between weird and zany. His portrait gallery on Google Images gives some indication of the many faces of the man who truly is doing his damnedest to make classical music more accessible without sacrificing his musical standards.

The hamming irritated me a little at first, but as the evening went on, and I began to realise that they all were genuinely having a blast on stage, I bought into it and thoroughly enjoyed the performance – because it was a performance. I never thought I’d see the day when I’d be encouraged to sing along to classical music. Brilliant.

Havasi Balázs, the pianist I was mad about a few years back, does the same. And you know, for those of us who grew up outside the classics and the salons, it’s lovely to see the high brows plucked a little.

Worth a night out, if he happens to be in your neighbourhood.

2015 Grateful 32

When I was younger, and a lot more innocent, I used to worry that my gay radar was a little out of kilter. Working in London in the early 2000s, one colleague I had figured for gay was straight and another I was sure was straight wasn’t. It upset me a little that I could get it so wrong until I realised what I was doing – labelling.

Both were lovely. It didn’t much matter what their sexual orientation was. It was immaterial. And yet I had subconsciously bought in to the need to classify. Back then, the discovery that someone was gay was something that was talked about, often in terms of surprise – Hey, did you know? Me? I hadn’t a clue.

I had my first open and frank conversation with a couple of lesbian friends about 20 years ago – the whole nature vs nurture debate was raging and I was curious.   I’d grown up in a predominately white, straight, Catholic society and had an innate curiosity about anyone who didn’t fit that mould. I asked questions – I’ve always asked questions – because I wanted to understand, to know more.

I wanted to know what it was like to be black in LA during the Rodney King riots; I wanted to know what it was like to be gay in Uganda where it still warrants life imprisonment; I wanted to know what it as like to be Jewish in Europe in the 1940s. I didn’t trust the books or the scientific studies  – I wanted to hear first-hand and so when I got the chance, I asked questions. And the more I learned, the more amazed I was that the nature vs nurture debate still had traction. That anyone could believe that being gay is a choice is beyond me – but that’s just my opinion.

We all have our life stories, our scripts. How we choose to tell those stories pretty much defines who we are. That some people still struggle in telling their stories, still feel the need to hide the fact that they’re gay or in a same-sex relationship, says more about society’s intolerance than it does about them. But it’s sad.

Supreme-Court-gay-marriage-11People ask where God was hiding in the camps in the 1940s; perhaps a better question might be where were the Christians hiding? I’ve been taught that mine is not to judge. I’ve been taught that everyone – everyone – is equal in God’s eyes. I’ve been taught that the first tenet on which Christianity is based is to ‘love thy neighbour’ – and that one didn’t come with any caveats like to love them if they’re Catholic, if they’re straight, if they’re solvent.

Yesterday, Ireland went out to vote on ‘gay marriage’. I read somewhere today that for every two who voted in favour, one voted against. And they I’m sure have their reasons, reasons that should be respected if democracy is to work. We are all entitled to our opinions. Much has been said on social media in the last few months. And the one post that sticks with me is a photo showing Rosa Parks sitting on a bus.

Some people ask, ‘why do gay couples need to get married when they can already have civil partnership?’ Well, that’s not equality. That’s like saying, why did Rosa Parks need to sit at the front of the bus when she could sit at the back?

Not all gay people voted Yes. Some are happy with a civil union, believing that marriage should be reserved for a mother, father, and child. Many of my friends who voted No believe this, too. And that’s fine. If you’re gay and you’d prefer a civil partnership to marriage, that’s your choice. But remember, you now have a choice.

gayFor me, that’s what the referendum was about – equality of choice. I personally don’t think abortion is right and I have issues with IVF. But I would never vote in favour of denying another woman her right to choose or castigate someone who has made a choice I wouldn’t make for myself. I’m straight. And if I want to get married, I can. I have that choice. That this choice is denied to some of my friends around the world is inconceivable.

There are 196 countries in the world and about 20 or so have legalised or are on their way to legalising same sex marriage. Not great by any means but it’s a start. I wondered about Ireland, whether we’d do it or not. Honestly,  I didn’t think it would pass. I hoped. I prayed.  I doubted. But it looks like it has. And I’m so happy about that. Now my friends have the same choice … a choice that I’ve always had. They can choose to get married. And for that, I’m truly grateful.





An oasis of flair and precision

I remember when coffee came in two forms: black or white. I also remember the caffeine tidal wave that swept the world, with the success of the US TV sitcom Friends. Lattes, cappuccinos, mochas, espressos – your choice of coffee became a personality indicator.

Goatherder 2 (800x669)My coffee consumption began with a long-term relationship with an Irish cream latte. I then moved on to a cappuccino, had a brief flirtation with a macchiato, before settling down with an espresso. Life was good. But having defined my coffee style, I was then faced with questions about the origin of my beans – Nicaraguan, Columbian, Ethiopian… would it ever stop?

Budapest, with its myriad cafés that ooze intellect, populated with a multilingual cohort of students, professionals, and retirees, is coffee heaven. But I longed for a place that would take the snobbery out of it all and not make me work for my espresso. I wanted a place that valued simplicity.

I heard about The Goat Herder, an espresso bar in Budapest’s seventh district that started grinding its beans for brewing in January this year. Within just two months of operation it had made it into the annals of Forbes. Rather than offer a global menu of beans, they choose one good one and change their choice according to the season. It’s taken me until now to go see for myself what the buzz was about.

Corinne and Dave Pruden have been coming to Budapest on and off for ten years. Their work in software sales took them around the world and as the glamour of the lofty heights of licensing palled, they found themselves increasingly complaining of boredom. Most of these conversations took place over good coffee in funky coffee houses around the world, from the UK, to Portugal, to Australia. And finally, they bit the bean.

A chance (!*?) encounter with a veterinary student in Budapest one day set them on course. About to graduate from Szent István University, he pointed out what had escaped the notice of other coffee entrepreneurs in the city. The Vet School and McDaniel College together boast a student body of 1400 students, 900 of whom are international all sharing a common language – English – and a common need – caffeine. And there wasn’t a coffee shop within frothing distance of either place. When it came to good coffee, this part of the VII district was a caffeine desert.

But it would take more than good coffee to keep those discerning caffeine-starved students coming through the doors. Where so many of Budapest’s cafés fall down is the food. Good coffee needs to be complemented by good food. Not pre-packaged sandwiches, thin soup, and plastic wraps. Good coffee deserves better.

(c) László Balkányi

(c) László Balkányi

It took the Prudens just four months to get The Goat Herder up and running. They complement each other beautifully. Corinne brings precision to the kitchen with her sweets and savouries while Dave adds the flair with his soups and pestos. Alongside their excellent coffee (currently Colombian, but soon to change to Ethiopian after the June harvest), the fare is simple, wholesome, and made with care and attention.

And there’s more.

When you are living in a foreign city, perhaps for the first time, battling with a language that is hard to understand, it’s nice to go somewhere where everyone behind the counter knows you by name. Somewhere conversations that happen today are picked up again tomorrow. Somewhere you feel at home. That’s far more nourishing that the tastiest bowl of soup, the crumbliest cookie, or the freshest cup of coffee. And when you get it all right, as the Prudens have done with their little oasis The Goat Herder, you definitely get my business.

The Goat Herder. Mon-Fri 07.30-18.30. 1078 Budapest, István utca 5

First published in the Budapest Times 22 May 2015

PS – Fab mural on the wall by a young Hungarian artist Athina


There’s more to Parma than ham and cheese

The city of Parma, without the ham and the cheese, is more than just eggs. That said, it takes a little getting used to as from first glance, it’s not the most inviting Italian city that I’ve been to. But that said, it’s a grower, and there are some serious sights to be seen.

IMG_0255 (800x600)Top of my list is the Teatro Farnese – billed as the prototype of the modern playhouse. Work started on this in the early seventeenth century and it was apparently built in just one year, although it wasn’t inaugurated for ten – something to do with changing schedules of visiting dignitaries. The stage is massive. The seats are stadium-style, and the floor space can actually be flooded for special effects. But what’s most enthralling about it is that it’s entirely made of wood. Wood everywhere. Carved, ornate wood that looks other-worldly when the sun hits it. Even the bits that look like marble are wood. I know it was purely my imagination, but I could have sworn I felt the air stirring with faint rumblings of the masses as they waited for the curtains to rise.

parma 2Next up would have to be the D’uomo – the cathedral – with its magnificent depiction of the Assumption of Our Lady painted by Correggio in the sixteenth century. And, quite surprisingly, even given how little I know about art, this gobsmackingly gorgeous piece isn’t listed among his most famous works in any of the bios I’ve read of him. And if this doesn’t rate, then the rest of his stuff must be out of this world altogether. Quite cleverly, portraits of church elders were used as the faces of prophets – no better way to a man’s wallet than through his vanity.

sun-on-christ-smallIMG_0303 (600x800)Third up would be the Baptistry. This is somewhat of an astronomical marvel. On the feast day of St John the Baptist, the sun (if there is any) hits the baptismal font in some way reminiscent of what goes on at Newgrange and other ancient sites. On various dates of the year, the sun hits certain figures  on the fresco-covered walls. Beginning on 25 March and until about 10 April, what sun there is strikes a painting of the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. All quite astonishing and once again has me asking – how, back then (it was completed in 1220) could they do so much with so little and today, with all our progressive technology, we slap up buildings that don’t stand the test of time. Mad.

And it’s not all happening inside, either. The carvings on the outside walls tell stories and are well worth taking the time to read.

IMG_0309 (800x600)IMG_0285 (800x600)IMG_0243 (800x600)It wouldn’t be this part of the world if it didn’t lay claim to a famous composer. Verdi grew up about 20 miles from the city of Parma and has been officially adopted as one of its own. There’s a massive monument to him that’s IMG_0241 (600x800)worth a look-see but bear in mind that it’s only part of the original – the rest having been ‘sacrificed to expansionism’ (?) after the War. It’s down by the rather impressive Piazza Pilotta, which is living testament to the damage done by war. What isn’t there says as  much again as what is.

I can’t quite decide why it took me a while to warm to the city. But I did. And I’d go back. It’s very walkable and has lots of surprises. Home to one of the oldest universities in Italy, it has a culture that has been earned. Perhaps it’s more a university town than a tourist mecca and perhaps it was the absence of large swathes of tourists that made it seem a little ordinary.

IMG_0236 (800x598)It was given by Pope Paul III as a gift to his illegitimate son Pier Luigi Farnese back in the day when cities were given as presents. Parts of it still have the ability to transport you back in time and have you stepping aside for imaginary horse-drawn carriages carrying ladies in hooped dresses and parasols. Definitely one to put on your list, if you’re in the vicinity.




Twins, wheels, and hammers

I lived with a chap once who would throw up at the smell of Parmesan cheese. He hated the smell. Absolutely detested it. And this was back in a day and a place where Parmesan cheese came out of a shaker, already grated.  Every time I smell it, I think of him. Weird.

De Wimmen told me once that France would be wasted on me as I didn’t drink wine, eat olives, or appreciate cheese. I’ve grown up a lot since then.

But for years, Parmesan was something I added to stuff – to pizzas, pastas, salads. It was never one of those cheeses I ate chunks of. But in Milan last year, an Italian friend introduced me to the joy that is real, aged, Parmesan, and I was converted. So much so that when I was in Parma (after seeing the Parma ham production facility) I tagged along on a study tour of a Parmesan cheese facility, one of 161 in the region.

IMG_0385 (800x600) (2)Did you know that Parmesan cheese is only made in the morning?  Milk is collected from the farms twice a day from cows who are fed an all-natural diet of grass and hay. Nothing else. [Oops… doesn’t that mean they’re locked up all the time? Or muzzled? Not good.] The evening milk is collected in the evening and left to sit overnight to let the cream rise to the top. The next morning, when the morning milk arrives, it’s added to the now-skimmed milk from the previous evening. (It takes 16 litres of milk to make 1kg of cheese.)

Some fermented whey is added to the new mix as it is heated in massive cauldron and starts to acidify it. To this is added rennet (an enzyme that comes from the stomach of a milk-fed calf or goat – who knew?). Rennet coagulates the milk and so it begins to curd.

IMG_0368 (800x600)Now, imagine the whisk in your kitchen on steroids and you might come close imagining to the massive one that cheese makers call a spino, which they use to break up the large clumps of curd into much  smaller pieces. All the while, the milk is still cooking. When it gets to a certain temperature, the heat is removed and after an hour or so all the little curds sink to the bottom – and so the cheese begins to form.

IMG_0384 (800x600)This goo is removed from the liquid using a wooden paddle and wrapped in muslin in the shape of a large wheel [I suspect I missed a step and the goo is actually put into stainless steel moulds – which I saw lying around – but I wouldn’t swear to it. Our guide had a fab handbag draped over her arm and I was a little distracted.] There is enough in each cauldron to make two wheels so they’re rather appropriately, if oddly, called twins. The twins are then literally hung out to dry – to rid themselves of excess liquid. What’s left in the cauldrons (whey) is used for the next day’s cheese and what’s not needed goes to feed the local pigs, which will soon end up as Parma ham. There’s a certain holistic something to that, don’t you think?

IMG_0369 (800x600)When a lot of the excess liquid has dripped away, the wheels are moved into round wooden forms and branded with date of birth, origin, etc. (I love this traceability stuff.) They’re turned a few times as the liquid continues to drain and the cheese is still soft. A piece of plastic with the words Parmigiano Reggianno is slotted between the cheese and the edge of the wooden frame and thus the cheese is branded – name, date and serial number. Oh if only they could talk.

IMG_0383 (800x600)These wheels are then put in tanks of sea-salted water where they sit for more than three weeks (about 25 days). While they’re here, they lose about 4% in weight with the average end weight being about 42 kg. From there it’s off to the curing room where they stay for a whole year. But they receive constant care and attention. Every 10-15 days or so, each wheel is brushed, wiped and flipped.
IMG_0401 (600x800) (2)After a year, the cheeses are tested. Each one. An in-house expert takes his hammer and taps the cheese. His trained ear can tell if there are any pockets of air or abnormalities. (Imagine that conversation in a pub – so, what do you do for a living?) And if it’s not 100%, the rind is removed and it’s striped – i.e., it gets stripes. This shows it’s a decent cheese but not IMG_0400 (800x600) (2)good enough to be branded as Parmigiano Reggianno and will retail at slightly less than the real thing. So if you’re being sold  Parmigiano Reggianno  without a rind… be careful… it ain’t the real thing. [And the rind is edible – so no more throwing it away.]

I never knew that you could invest in cheese wheels. Buy a load of them and wait 12 months in the hope that the price goes up. You rent the space at an ageing facility and sit it out.  I bought some at the facility for €13/kg. At the airport it retailed at€35. Same bloody cheese. Perhaps it’s worth looking into.

IMG_0390 (800x600) (2)IMG_0398 (800x600) (2)PS. Lactose intolerant? Apparently if the Parmigiano Reggianno  is older than 30 months, you’re good to go. It’s safe to eat.

PPS. Cheese = milk, whey, rennet. Therefore ricotta is not a cheese. Amazing what you learn.





Counterfeit ham

I’ve heard of fake Gucci bags, fake Rolex watches, fake tans, but fake hams? This was a first for me. In Parma last month, I had the chance to join a guided tour of a Parma ham facility and I jumped at it. I wanted to see just what puts the Parma into Parma ham, a brand so precious to the producers that they spend about €1 million each year on protecting it.

IMG_0321 (800x600)Parma ham as no additives. The only thing that touches it, other than human hands, is salt – rock salt. When it comes in to the facility, it is trimmed of excess fat and given that distinctive shape. It’s then stamped with its birth date – the date it entered the facility and then given a metal seal saying which slaughterhouse it came from (a little like a passport).

IMG_0328 (800x600)Not alone does it have an ideal shape, each ham has an ideal weight – about 15kg. The mind boggles. The production process takes time with each ham getting lots of personal attention in the way of salt massages. It’s salted, rinsed, cold-stored for a couple of weeks, and then salted, rinsed, and stored again. It goes from a cold phase to a warm phase (tempered) and is washed and dried and cured. Each stage can take a couple of weeks and through the whole process (which can take 6 months) it loses about 36% of its original weight.

IMG_0345 (800x600)It’s manually greased with a mix of pork fat, rice flour, and black pepper, to soften up the outside. What a job. And then it’s aged. To be a Parma ham, it has to be at least 12 months old, with 16-18 months being the most popular age. And before it gets the final stamp of approval, it’s manually controlled. It’s quickly pierced in five places with a wooden skewer which is then immediately smell-checked. This is a skill, believe me. And I can’t imagine how it works as a chat-up line. So, what do you do for a living?

IMG_0350 (800x600)Once it’s passed the in-house quality test, the powers that be are called in and if it meets with their approval, it gets the final seal of authenticity. These large hunks of ham can have as many as five seals, just in case some time down the road, they are sold as smaller pieces – if they don’t have the seal, they’re not Parma ham.

IMG_0335 (800x600)The facility I visited had a 70 000 piece capacity. The building, with its isolated elevators and clearly numbered cold storage rooms, was state of the art. The open windows in the drying room begged the question as to why. Apparently, Parma production facilities are located in a particular geographic area where the winds from the sea meet the mountain air and it’s this wind or aromatic air (the Marino wind) that gives the meat its flavour.

Retailing at about €25/kg, it has shelf life of about a year. And only the hind legs of the pig are used and those pigs are usually from North and Central Italy, not from the south or Sardinia.

I think I overdosed on it all though – as by the end of the week in Tuscany, I’d had enough. It’s only now, a month later, that I can face it again. And I’m on the lookout for fakes, ready, willing, and parmed to report any fakes

IMG_0358 (600x800).


2015 Grateful 33

It seems ages ago now, but it was only last week that I battled the rain and stood with hundreds of others, partially shielded by umbrellas, watching the wonderful Budapest Bár in action at Kobuci kert over in Buda. I’ve seen them a couple of times before, but I was still excited. And I had convinced a visiting friend to come with me, so my reputation, in a way, was on the line. I’d been banging on about them so much that they’d better be good!

When bandleader Robert Farkas put together Budapest Bár in 2007, he wanted to create a first-class ensemble that would exemplify Central European urban Gypsy music at its best, rather than what had become its commonplace kitschy-nostalgia worst. The result is a professional music group at the heart of a tight – knit collaborative miscellany of performers that transcends ethnic, musical and generational boundaries.

Budapest Bar is an intoxicating music cocktail of Gypsy virtuosity, infused with rock’n’roll energy. The wildly popular Gypsy band teams up with a rotating roster of singers drawn from the creme de la creme of the international and Hungarian rock, underground and jazz scene, swinging between the sultry and rollicking. Their repertoire stretches from Liszt through 1920s European songs to Michael Jackson covers.

We ran into a couple of other friends and spent the evening in their company. The lovely D was particularly up to date on the current happenings of the band and filled me in. Each of them plays or sings with another group and they get together on occasion for nights just like this to do the ‘oldies’ music. That must be why I like them so much.

KissTFor the seven or so years (nearly eight! where does time go?)  I’ve been in Budapest, I’ve seen posters for two other groups – Quimby and Magna Cum Laude. Seeing both of them live is high up on my list of things to do this summer (as it was last year and the year before and the year before – the road to heaven is paved with unbooked concert tickets). So when Kiss Tibi (the gorgeous guy who fronts Quimby) came on stage, I swooned alongside the rest of the ladies (and a few of the men). What a bonus.

MMiseShortly after Frenk (am a tad smitten by him, too) did his stuff, I got another surprise.  Mező Misi, him who fronts Magna Cum Laude, also appeared. And at one stage, both Misi and Tibi were on stage together. So, although I haven’t seen both groups in action, I’ve seen their front men and have had a taste of what’s to come. ‘Twas well worth a schlep on the HÉV over to Buda for that particular night out.

I’m bound and determined the the summer of 2015 in Budapest will be one to remember. It looks as if I have at least two straight months in the city without a flight to anywhere else and for that I’m grateful. Already this week, I kicked off my Summer Cultural Odyssey (a joint initiative with the inimitable ZE) with a long-promised trip to the Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum (Hungarian National Museum). And I ate, not once, but twice, as a great Vietnamese place over in Buda – Hanoi Étterem (fresh spring rolls to die for). For someone whose metaphorical baggage includes a Northside/Southside discrimination, I’m spending a lot of time on the other side of the river lately but have lived to tell the tale.

So as the temperatures rise, and work continues unabated, I’m full of good intentions to see out the summer in Budapest  – or the next two months at least. All it takes is a little planning. [Sweet Mother of Divine Jesus – did I use the P word? I must be growing up.]