Life-or-death decisions

Not once, but two or three or four times a day, I make life-or-death decisions. I decide what lives and what dies. Sometimes those decisions are easy; other times I’m crippled by indecision. Read more

2019 Grateful 34: Fields of Red

I found myself explaining recently that my summer travel would be severely curtailed as it was fruit season. The cherries, the plums, the apricots, the tomatoes – they wouldn’t look after themselves. I needed to be there to figure out what to do with them so that I could still enjoy them next year. My mate looked at me, somewhat aghast and said: Okay – who are you and what have you done with my friend? Read more

Krisztina Dávid shooting in Rio

Living on a battery: Krisztina Dávid

Eons ago, I hung out with a guy who, as a teenager, lost the use of his legs in a shooting in New York. Wrong time + wrong place + stray bullet = life in a wheelchair. Cursed as I am with a brazen curiosity, I asked more questions than considered polite when we first met. I was horribly patronising in my effusive admiration of how well he got around. He was simply living his life and there I was congratulating him for getting out and about! I cringe when I think of it. Earlier this year, I was introduced to World Shooting Para Sport (WSPS) European Champion Gold Medallist Krisztina Dávid. My admiration this time wasn’t for the fact that she gets out and about in her wheelchair but that she’s an international shooter, winner of Hungary’s first European Paralympic Gold in a sport I know nothing about. We met up last week for a chat. Read more

2019 Grateful 35: Closed borders

I’ve travelled Route 66 enough to be conscious of how towns and villages are at the mercy of those with planning power. A new highway, a new motorway, a change in public policy can be the death of a place. No doubt those who argue in favour of the change cite progress, the public good, and greater benefits as they justify their plans and decisions. Route 66, with its ghost towns, deserted gas stations, and ramshackle restaurants and bars, oozes nostalgia. People still drive the road daily. They still photograph its faded glory. They still support the occasional tourist spot or truck stop that has fought the odds and stayed open to feed their visitors.

The 420 unfinished housing estates dotting Ireland are a different story. These interrupted solutions to Ireland’s pre-crash housing issues haven’t a nuance of nostalgia. They don’t attract tourists or feature regularly in travel magazines. Today, they’re more likely to offer a public safety hazard than a photo opportunity. Writing for the Irish Times a couple of years ago, Simon Carswell described them as

an unofficial memorial to over-development, reckless lending and the failure of government policy to protect its people in a time of excess.

Strangely, neither affected me in quite the same way as the Goričan-Letenye border crossing between Croatia and Hungary. And no, not the main one on the highway, Letenye–Goričan II, but the older one, a few kilometres away, Letenye–Goričan I. From what I read, it’s only a temporary closure – between March and July this year – because of work being done on a bridge over the River Mura.  And yet I find it hard to believe. With the exception of Club 114, everything looks deserted. The post office, the gas station, the motel, the tourist information centre, the currency exchange kiosk, the bank – all skeletons of their former selves.

Letenye–Goričan I closed border

From what I gather from the Letenye town website, the motorway crossing opened in 2008. It doesn’t require a huge stretch of my imagination to see this as the death knell for the old crossing. With most of the traffic using the A3 motorway from Zagreb which morphs into the M7 motorway to Budapest, the need for the original crossing waned. I’d imagine that when it is in operation, it’s used mainly by local traffic from the neighbouring Zala County (HU),  Međimurje County (CR), and Varaždin County (CR) and at times has been limited to residents of these counties only.

Googl eimage of the Letenye–Goričan I closed border crossing

Google’s satellite image shows the now empty bus parking lots. The aerial view says that some thought went into the planning but when it outlived its usefulness, that was that. We had come off the road to eat at the well-reviewed lakeside Zelengaj restaurant but it was closed for a wedding. Club 114 was our nearest option. It looked closed, too, but not for a wedding. The menu was extensive, testament to the variety of palates that once supped at its tables but as our selections were met with the Croatian equivalent of sorry, not available today, it seemed that the selection had shrunk. We both ordered Wienerschnitzel and the two lads who came in after us got the same. It’s been a while since I’ve seen as good a synopsis.

We sat outside, taking advantage of the break in the unseasonably cold weather we’ve been having. It was like eating dinner in a ghost town. All we needed was the tumbleweed. Inside, two long tables were set as if for a wedding. And from the fussing the couple were doing with positioning the cutlery, it seemed as if guests were expected at any moment. It all added to the surrealness. Time seemed to have taken on new meaning.

wedding table set at Club 114We’d gone to Zagreb to drop off some friends as they made their way back to Australia, the long way around. The 24 hours we’d been away felt like a week. Our last supper in Croatia was as strange a one as I’ve had in while. Facing a border we couldn’t cross, we made our way back to the motorway and did as everyone else was doing: we got in line and waited. Hungary is in the Schengen. Croatia isn’t. Hence the delay. We got lucky. Even with just one lane open, it took little more than half an hour to cross. Friends travelling back from Serbia the same day had to make do with a 3-hour hold-up. It’s not high season yet. That’s when the fun really starts.

While I’m a great proponent of personal space, I have mixed feelings about borders. I like the sense of travelling between countries. I like to see the lines I cross. But I don’t like the bureaucracy that comes with it. It saddens me to see how much of rural life survives at the behest of planners and their ilk who have the greater good in mind when they make their decisions. The voice of the many is louder than the voice of the few. From the billboards and posters still in place, someone once had great plans for the area, plans which seem to have largely come to nothing. Although maybe I’m going it an injustice and perhaps Goričan warrants further exploration.

Make no mistake, I like the convenience offered by motorways if I’m on a fast track from A to B. But I also value the back roads, the old highways, the Route 66 equivalents that run across this region. I don’t want to see them die a slow death, starved of sustenance. Just as I will pay more for my washing-up liquid in the village shop because I want to keep the option of being able to shop there, every now and then I’ll take the low road, the back road, and spend my money at places like Club 114 – we might have been half the business they had that day and they won’t get rich from what we left on the table, but if that wedding table was set more in hope than in reality, I like to think that I contributed, just a little, to keeping the dream alive for another day.

This week, I’m grateful for the reminder that there is always a consequence.

The long way home

I’m not one for taking a walk just to walk. I do it, of course, but on some level it seems rather pointless. Yes, I know there’s the benefit of exercise and getting those steps in every day can be a challenge. But walking without purpose for some reason doesn’t sit well with me. If there’s a shorter way to get from A to B, I’ll usually take it. The long way home isn’t for me. Read more

pear and walnut bread

2019 Grateful 36: Burnt offerings

I can’t remember if I was asked or whether I volunteered. Most likely I volunteered. Mainly because I like the lads behind 6:3 Borozó and had planned to attend their wine-tasting anyway. They needed some nutty bread to go with their award-winning asparagus pesto. They’d tried out my cherry and orange bread and my pear and walnut bread before (variations on the traditional banana bread) but this time I planned to also try my take on a traditional French walnut bread recipe where I used dark beer instead of tepid water with strong white flour instead of a white/brown flour mix – mainly because I couldn’t find brown flour and I could find beer.

The experimental batch turned out lovely even if I messed up the temperature settings. My non-regulating oven is quirky at the best of times and after nearly three years, I had thought we’d reached an understanding.

Wednesday evening I set to work. I was down to the last jar of pear preserves (I like to use local ingredients – I’ve even managed to find flour that is milled in the county) and was dredging the last of JFW’s walnuts. The first two pear and walnut bread loaves burned in places I didn’t expect. Usually, if I don’t watch carefully, the bottom gets a bit brown, but I had burn creep up and over the sides. The walnuts on top practically roasted. I was annoyed. So I made two more without the added walnuts on top. And they were worse. There was no way I could give them to anyone. They looked awful.

The next morning, I was booked on the 10 am train to the city. I got up at 6 am to start on the French bread. All went well until I got distracted. I failed to score them (that deep cross-like incision that lets the dough breathe) and I forgot to glaze them. They looked less like loaves of bread and more like smooth stones. Another failure. I was incensed. I ran the full gamut of self-recriminations loaded with expletives and salted with a few tears (I’m not at my best that early in the morning).

Back in the city, I searched three bakeries looking for a nut bread and had to settle for less. And funnily, in comparison, mine didn’t look half bad. I’d brought a loaf of each of the burnt offerings with me and duly delivered them to the lads who weren’t at all phased. They trimmed and sliced and served and the compliments rolled in. Delicious. Fab. Amazing.

All this made me stop and think about how wrapped up I am in external appearances. If it doesn’t look close to perfect then it’s an automatic fail. No matter that it looked a little burnt on the outside – inside it was fresh and tasty and full of homemade goodness. There’s a lesson in that, one I’m grateful to have been reminded of. Appearances can be deceiving. And just as ugly on the outside doesn’t mean ugly on the inside, neither does pretty on the outside mean pretty on the inside. Time (and taste) tells.

Pear and Walnut bread recipe

In one bowl, mix 3 cups of flour, 1 tsp of baking soda, 1 tsp of baking powder, 1 tsp of salt (and an optional half-cup of fine-ground walnuts). In another bowl whisk three eggs with 1 cup of vegetable oil, 2 tsp of vanilla essence and1 cup of sugar until smooth. Then gradually fold the dry mix into this, adding 2 cups of liquidised pears towards the end. Then add a  cup of coarsely chopped walnuts. Mix well. Divide into two rectuangular loaf tins and bake. I can’t help you with the temp or the time as my oven is contrary – I put it is about 8 pm on the dial and check it after 20 mins, turning if the back side seems browner than the front. So maybe 325 F or 165 C for anywhere between 30 to 50 minutes. Keep an eye on it. Be sure to preheat the oven though, as this helps. Cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes and then upend onto a rack to completely cool. It freezes well and keeps in a tin for days.

Pear and walnut bread

wine-tasting hungary

Hungarian wines and the 5%

I’m not a great one for wine-tastings. I have a thing about pretentiousness. I don’t trust the lingo. Talking of balance and body and finish and legs and such brings out the blue collar in me and I resist what I see (irrationally) as poncey. I’ll fess up. It’s my issue. It’s in my head. Mine alone.

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2019 Grateful 37: Thought police missing?

Last year, Hungary made the international news because of a controversial decision to pull a production of Billy Elliot. Billy Elliot musical branded gay propaganda in Hungary and cancellations follow, said the New York Times. Billy Elliot musical axes dates in Hungary amid claims it could ‘turn children gay’, decried The Guardian. Hungarian State Opera axes Billy Elliot shows after homophobic campaign, noted The Telegraph. Read more

potatoes

The price of potatoes

When I was at home last, Boss was complaining about the price of seed potatoes. €45 they wanted. He wasn’t impressed. I’m not sure who they are or what he ended up planting but plant he did. In the village, himself has been on a planting frenzy – everything but potatoes. He can’t see the return on labour – all the work that’s involved when Hungarian spuds aren’t expensive and we don’t eat many anyway. And then I read the news:

Domestic potato stocks have run out!

What is going on with my worlds? Where have the potatoes gone? Why are they so expensive? Apparently the price in Hungary was up 66% year-on-year in February. I can’t say as I’ve noticed.

I was curious. I was waiting for a laundry cycle to finish and had time on my hands. So I did some research.

The European potato harvest has been the worst in 40 years. Prices on the Belgian open potato market are 11 times higher than they were last year. And while this mightn’t worry you unduly if you’re not into boiled spuds and parsely or spuds  roasted in goose fat, think about the knock-on effects. The price of chips (French fries) is going to skyrocket. And if the potatoes are smaller in size, there goes the fully loaded baked potato as a summer BBQ side. And because there was a 25% drop in production, fewer seed potatoes are available and so they’re more expensive (must tell Boss) and this means that fewer will be planted for the next harvest, continuing the cycle.

György Murai, a member of the Hungarian Potato Council (who knew!) said on a radio show during the week that most potatoes imported to Hungary come from France, and they’re red. The French, appararently are partial to the yellow potato and don’t mind sharing the reds. Does this mean that I won’t be able to get yellow salad spuds for my warm potato and artichoke salad this summer? Or what of my pasta e patate, that Neapolitan class of pasta and potatoes?

Interestingly, not too long ago, the growing of potatoes was outlawed in France:

In France and elsewhere, the potato was accused of causing not only leprosy, but also syphilis, narcosis, scronfula, early death, sterillity, and rampant sexuality, and of destroying the soil where it grew.  There was so much opposition to the potato that an edict was made in the town of Besancon, France stating: “In view of the fact that the potato is a pernicious substance whose use can cause leprosy, it is hereby forbidden, under pain of fine, to cultivate it.”

With other spuds are arriving from North Africa, from countries like Algeria and Morocco, it looks like the Hungarian potato will be hard to find this summer.

Even more curious now, I did some more reading and discovered that after rice, wheat and maize, the potato is the world’s largest food crop. A veritable vitamin ball, the humble potato has a bit of all the important ones:

An excellent source of vitamin C
A good source of potassium (more than a banana!)
A good source of vitamin B6

And it’s fat-, sodium- and cholesterol-free. Who knew? Where are the marketing guys on this one?

The potato originated with the Incas in Peru back around 8000 BC. Much, much, much later, while the Spanish Conquistadors were checking out what Peru had to offer, they were so impressed with the humble spud that they brought it back to Spain. This was around 1536. Then later, in 1589, Sir Walter Raleigh brought them to Ireland, planting 40 000 acres of them at his Irish estate at Myrtle Grove, Youghal, near Cork.

The local gentry were invited to a royal banquet featuring the potato in every course. Unfortunately, the cooks were uneducated in the matter of potatoes, tossed out the lumpy-looking tubers and brought to the royal table a dish of boiled stems and leaves (which are poisonous), which promptly made everyone deathly ill. The potatoes were then banned from court.

I’ll be looking with interest to see where the potatoes on offer this summer come from. My summer BBQ menu might need some adjusting, too. But isn’t it interesting what you can learn when you’re waiting for washing-machine to beep?

 

 

 

2019 Grateful 38

I’d been looking forward to April 18th for weeks. The first day in the lead-up to Easter Sunday. The day I’d finally get to leave the city and head to the village.

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