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11:11 on the 11th

Before moving to Hungary, I thought I was pretty well-versed in my Catholic feast days. I knew enough to be a tad peeved when the Holy See decided to allow Bishops to move most Holy Days of Obligation (those days other than Sunday on which Catholics are obliged to go to mass) to the nearest Sunday. They said it was to accommodate our increasingly busy lifestyles. I’m still struggling to get my head around Ascension Thursday being on Sunday.

marton3In the past few years, 11 November has become one of my new favourite feast days – that of St Martin or Márton nap as it’s known in Hungary. Of course, it’s not exclusive to Hungary but I’m quite taken with how it’s celebrated here. The idea of having to eat goose at 11.11 a.m. on 11 November to avoid going hungry for a year is one I can live with. What I hadn’t realised though, is that it’s also a day for tasting new wines – those just opened after the grape harvest. What a perfect pairing.

What I also hadn’t realised is that St Martin, the son of a Roman tribune, was born centuries ago in Savaria, which is near Szombathely, Hungary (famous in my mind for being the birthplace of Leopold Bloom’s father in James Joyce’s Ulysses). Anyway, as the story goes, one night when Martin was soldiering for the Roman emperor in France, he saw a homeless guy and offered him half his cloak to keep warm. That night, in his dreams, Jesus appeared to him dressed in his cloak, thus sealing Martin’s faith and future. He left the army and turned instead to serve God. His good deeds earned him a reputation for compassion towards the poor. As his popularity grew, the powers that be decided to make him Bishop of Tours. Now, Martin wasn’t at all keen on the idea so hid in a barn full of geese when they came to collect him. But the traitorous geese gave him up which is why we eat them. And in 371 AD, Martin became Bishop of Tours.

There are lots of stories doing the rounds about geese on Márton nap. Geese once saved Rome from attack and were known to Romans as the sacred bird of Mars – and it’s not a goose step from that to Martin’s bird. Or, perhaps a more sensible explanation is that it falls at the end of the harvest season when workers received their annual wages (imagine that!) plus a goose (as a bonus).

marton4His goose connection having been safely established, St Martin as the appointed ‘judge of new wine’ is a later belief, and perhaps has more to do with timing than taste buds. Still, to his credit, the man has been busy and is now considered Patron Saint of France, horses, riders, soldiers, geese, and vintners.

Goose is a year-round staple on the Hungarian menu and my particular favourite place to eat it is a little restaurant called Huszár Étterem up near Második János Pál pápa tér. I go there reasonably often and the only time I don’t have the goose leg is when they’re out of it. And then I pout.

I’m a creature of cravings and when I crave goose, I want roasted goose leg with steamed red cabbage and roast potatoes. There are even days when goose crackling wins over chocolate.

But perhaps this year, we should look to Martin’s selflessness in sharing his cloak with a beggar. As well as thinking about how to avoid going hungry ourselves, we could think about sharing what we have with those who don’t have as much. Winter is coming and for many, life on the streets is about to get a lot worse. Just a thought.

First published in the Budapest Times 6 November 2015

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????