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Chapter One

Some of my questions are never answered because they are never asked. Some of my questions have never been born. Then some questions pop up and I wonder why I’ve never thought to ask them before and I’m almost ashamed of my ignorance (almost!). Take this Michelin Star business. Yes, I know it’s the hallmark of fine dining but I didn’t know it had any connection with Michelin, the tyre people. And I didn’t know that back in 1900 Michelin first launched a guide book to encourage people to drive around France. And I didn’t know that in 1926, they started reviewing restaurants anonymously and giving them stars.

Somewhere in my head, I’d assumed that Michelin was some sort of famous chef and is to fine dining what Pulitzer is to jouralism. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten in a Michelin Star restuarant and am still not sure if it’s the chef or the restaurant that gets the stars.I know now that one star is very good, two stars are worth a detour, and three stars are worth a special journey. The fact that there are so few stars in the world is a sad indictment of the state of modern restaurants.

Walking by Chapter One in Malta last week, I stopped to read the menu only because there’s a Chapter One in Dublin that friends rave about and I know that it has a Michelin Star. The two are not connected. But still, I was curious. And when I saw that the Maltese restaurant had a Michelin-trained chef in residence, I gave voice to the question. Does this mean that he has been trained by a chef with a star or has he worked in a restaurant with star? Well, Hiram Cassar trained in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris and opened the doors to this restaurant in Malta in 2010. The menu was simple, typed on an A4 page, nothing fancy (I like the transparencey of this sort of unaffected simplicity.) Prices were a little on the high side for me, but I still thought it worth checking out. And last night, I did.

From start to finish, it was exquisite. I hold my hand up to doing a double-take when I first saw the portions (have I ever had half a radish before?) but the sum of the parts was far greater than the sum of the whole.  I opted for tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms in a thyme and garlic infused cream, followed by roast breast of duck, braised red cabbage, parsnip pureé, cracked pistachios and red wine au jus. SM started with a carpaccio of sea bream and prawns marinated in a citrus emulsion with fennel salad and herb oil. He opted for the duck, too, which was served with roast potatoes and the most diverse, interesting, art-like veg I’ve seen in a long time. Apart from me asking SM to identify the various veg (local produce is a speciality), conversation was embarrasingly inane, replete with deep sighs, mmmmms, and groans of sheer ecstasy. Dessert, served on a slate tile plate, was modestly described as a classic apple tart tatin with vanilla ice-cream. Positively orgasmic.

The decor is understated, the service just right; the food does all the work – which is as it should be. I’m already saving up my pennies for my next trip to Malta. To show you how good it is, I’m going back even though the website commits what in my book of pedantry is a cardinal sin by using a possessive apostrophe in ‘its’.

I have a rotating list of my top five meals of all time. It was pretty stagnant there for a while, until my last trip to Geneva. But unnecessary apostrophes aside, it looks like Chapter One is going to shake it up some more. If you’re in Malta – make it your business to drop by. It’s well worth a detour.

Why I love living in Budapest No. 7

folk fest 160

Meat is meat is meat. The Hungarian diet is loaded with meat. Not just the Irish ‘meat-and-potatoes’ meat but proper, honest-to-goodness meat. Meat cooked as meat.  Not meat cooked to accompany vegetables, or to provide a vehicle for some fancy sauce. Simply meat. And nothing but meat.  Deep fried, shallowfried, spit-roasted or grilled…meat and its fat are well-respected. And on state holidays, when the folkartists are selling their wares, the meat lads are frying up a storm. You buy it, not by the piece, but by the kilo. I made that mistake once and never again (I really  need to learn this language!)  …even I, with half-a-day’s hunger on me, couldn’t make a dent in the huge piece of beef I’d mistakenly ordered.

And is it good? Good doesn’t even come close. It’s melt-in-your-mouth stuff. Pork is best; that’s the meat that’s been mastered here. Chicken next. Then duck and goose, followed by beef, with lamb limping along behind. ‘Tis hard to get good lamb outside of Ireland or New Zealand. (This morning, a Saturday morning no less, I was up at 7am to chase down a rumour that Lidl was stocking lamb cutlets! Not the Lidl nearest me though.) But sausage is king. Long, thick sausages, swimming in hot oil, register on your olfactory nerves from a 1000 metres! Smoked horse sausage from Eastern Hungary is nearly as good as the moose sausage I enjoyed so much in Alaska.

But best of all is the crackling! Before moving here, I hadn’t had crackling since my days at BoI Coolock. Across the road in the Sheaf o’ Wheat pub, Tony would roast a side of pork on Thursdays. I’d order a plate of crackling with a side of apply sauce. Them were the days! Here in Budapest you can buy crackling by the kilo (it can be pork or goose). I drive my local shopkeeper mad by asking for just három darab (three pieces), apologetically holding up three fingers (not the middle three as in the rest of the world, but the thumb, index, and middle – the Hungarian way). Three pieces? It’s like asking for one square of chocolate. No. It’s like asking for a half a square of chocolate….or a shaving from half a square! Unheard of!  On Monday last, driven to the edge of frustration, having been misplaced in a lower-intermediate Hungarian lanugage class (when I’m clearly just a baby-step removed from being a complete beginnger), I was having a bad day. Frustration is one of those emotions that I don’t do well with. Anger I can handle. Frustration I have yet to master! And, on the Frustration Scale, I was almost at the upper limit; past the chocolate cure; past the G&T cure. I had reached a place I’d not been to before in Budapest so I had no measure of solace. And then it came to me… crackling! Not just három darab but egy kicsit taska (one small bag). And it worked.

Mind you, my gallbladder woke up quicklyand refused to go back to sleep for two days. I could practically hear it putting those gallstones together! I kid you not – I couldn’t sleep on my right side for nearly a week! But at least  nowI know what shape and form the cure for almost maxing out on the Frustration Scale takes!

I have some good friends who happen to also be vegetarian. VS won’t eat anything that has a face. I heard during the week that down the country,  bacon fat is considered a vegetable (as in it’s not meat – there’s no meat on it – it’s simply fat). I’m still laughing at that! I fully respect their choices. And I won’t roast potatoes alongside the leg of lamb if they’re coming to dinner. And if I stay at theirs, I won’t cook meat in their pans; and if I store it in their fridges, it’s triple wrapped! And then there’s my fellow meat-lovers. WZs is blessed with those skinny genes that fat leaves alone! No matter how much she eats, she doesn’t gain a pound. Whereas yours truly is beginning to show the signs. Where’s the justice????