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Lángos, langalló or pompos

Lángos is often touted as the Hungarian pizza. But it’s deep fried or shallow fried. It doesn’t come out of an oven. Is its pizza-ness due to the fact that it’s (a) round and (b) has toppings? Probably. [Tasty Trix has some good instructions on how to make lángos at home!] But what then do we call what comes out of the traditional brick oven?

The dough is rolled flat, as you would a pizza. It is then cut into rectangles and topped with various stuff, loaded onto a shovel and set to bake in the oven. So, except for its shape, it’s still pretty much a pizza and more in line with the traditional western idea of pizza.

But what’s it called? After much searching I came across a rather spurious account that claims that the baked-in-oven variety is called langalló and is, apparently, enjoying a resurge in popularity in recent years. I have visions of hoards of enterprising would-be millionaries reclaiming old pizza ovens  that were long since banished to the outhouse or the back yard.

Still further investigation reveals that lángos came from people tearing a piece of dough, flattening it, and putting it into the oven before the bread was cooked thus giving rise (ahem) to langalló or kenyérlángos. Those who didn’t have the luxury of an oven, took to frying it in fat, thus giving us lángos .

Whatever its story, whatever its provenance, don’t depart this Earth without having tasted the fried stuff… to die for (and, most likely, given the fat content, that’s not as improbable as you might think!)

But the question remains – if lángos is fried langalló, what is pompos?

Eat your hearts out, ladies

Without Valentine’s Day, February would be… well, January. Such an insight could only come from a comedian like Jim Gaffigan and yet, he might well have a point. In much of the western world, February and Valentine’s Day are synonymous. Growing up in Ireland, I used to live in dread that I would be the only one in my class not to receive a Valentine’s card. The one and only time I was ever thrown out of class was on St Valentine’s Day when I was caught red-handed reading a big, red, heart-shaped card. That one blemish on an otherwise pristine school career still haunts me.

The real St Valentine

St Valentine is one of the oldest, most successful, brand names in history. I wonder if he’s turning in his grave at how commercialized his feast day has become? I only discovered recently that in the Catholic Church’s martyrology (what you read when you’re stuck for a book, eh?), there are no fewer than three St Valentines listed under the date of February 14.  One was a priest in Rome, and another a bishop in central Italy, both of whom lived in the third century. Of the third, not much is known other than he lived and died in Africa. Of the three, one the two Italians are most likely to be the St Valentine who has lent his name to an industry that generates millions in hard cash each year.

The pick of the pair

Some sources say February 14 is the anniversary of the Roman’s death in 269 AD. Jailed for refusing to give up Christianity, he left a farewell note for the jailer’s daughter with whom he had fallen in love, signing it from your Valentine. That explains the cards. Other sources say it’s the anniversary of the bishop’s death. He was jailed for defying the emperor Claudius the Cruel, who had outlawed marriage – married soldiers were apparently reluctant to leave their wives and go to war. Valentine defied his ruling and married couples in secret. For this he lost his head; is this linked to how we often lose our head (reason) when in love.

Known as Bálint Nap in Hungary, the commercial side of St Valentine’s Day is relatively recent here (1989). Local folklore still suggests that it is a good day to have geese, ducks, and hens sit on their eggs and hatch. Bird enthusiasts will tell you that half-way through February (a normal February, that is) birds begin to pair off and choose their mates. In his Parliament of Foules Chaucer talks about: For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day, whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate. In the village of Szil in Hungary, people believe that St Valentine is the patron saint of sparrows as this is when sparrows begin to mate. Perhaps this is why the date is so auspicious for lovers – the most favorable day in the year for them to declare their love by writing letters and sending gifts. (I wonder if anywhere in Budapest delivers heart-shaped langós complete with tejföl, sajt, és hagyma?)

Far from conventional

For most of my adult life, I have had the (mis)fortune to date men who have eschewed the whole idea of St Valentine’s Day. My memorable moments are therefore few and far between. My most unusual Valentine’s Day present was from a very married man. He called me late on the evening of February 13 to say that he had a Valentine’s present for me and asked if he could drive round to deliver it. I was already in bed and hoped it might wait until the next day – at work. But no, it couldn’t.

Curiosity will always get the better of me and amid assurances that his wife knew what he was doing and was fine with it, I agreed. I’m a trusting soul. I was to be dressed and ready and waiting outside my cabin in 10 minutes. It was winter. It was Alaska. It was snowing and it was cold. So I donned my parka and my boots and went outside just as he pulled up in his pick-up truck. He’d been hunting. The tailgate was down and I could see the huge, inert form of a dead buffalo lying in the bed. My friend reached inside the carcass and pulled out my present – the buffalo’s heart.

The next day, as girlfriends of mine around the world found vases for flowers, ate their chocolates, read their cards, examined their new jewelry, and looked forward to romantic dinners for two, I was stuffing and cooking a massive buffalo heart for six technicians at the Valdez Marine Terminal – all male, all married. That was February 14, 1999. The heart has been eaten but the story lives on.

First published in the Budapest Times 10 February 2012

Gorgeous girls and goosefat

I am very fortunate to have some wise and wonderful Hungarian friends who are extremely knowledgeable and clued in. Between them, they have managed to answer practically all of my never-ending questions about life in Hungary as it is now and as it was then. Their areas of expertise include history, geography, politics, linguistics, sports and the arts, with a little bit of religion thrown in for good measure.  Together, their knowledge of who’s who and what’s what in Budapest alone is encyclopedic. They have their fingers on the city’s pulse. They speak its language and, more importantly, they also speak mine! But try as they might, there is one question that still remains unanswered.

Making comparisons

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that Hungarian women are beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that grown men literally stop and stare as they walk by. And it’s not that surreptitious glance from a gawky teenager that you might see in Dublin; a glance made all the more daring by the chances of being caught in the act. No, Budapest has left puberty behind. Here, men stop. And stand. And stare. It used to catch me unawares. There I’d be, walking along, lost in my own little world, trying to conjugate a particularly difficult Hungarian verb, when the man in front of me would suddenly stop. And stand. And stare. And I’d run right into him and ruin the moment. Now I pay more attention. I’m more considerate. I save my conjugation for cafés. But it rankles. Hungarian girls are gorgeous: they have perfect figures, great skin, healthy hair… and all of this on a diet of red meat, goose fat and lángos! How can it be so? Where’s the justice? Answer me that!

I love my food. I can’t imagine life without red meat and chocolate. I shudder at the thought of never again enjoying Filete Enchocolatado. While at an open-air market recently, I noticed my visitors going pale at the sight of pork steaks swimming in vats of hot oil. I couldn’t wait to get stuck in. At dinner later that evening, while they searched in vain for a fruit-filled palacsinta, I went straight for the hórtobagyi. Hungary, for me, is hog heaven, with a large duck pond and a garden full of geese. But unfortunately, I am missing that all-important gene that allows Hungarian women to eat what they like, when they like, and still look fantastic.  I’ve thought about this a lot and for want of help from my encyclopedic friends I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s simply no other explanation. It has to be genetic…doesn’t it?

Making concessions

The last time I fitted into a size 8, I was 18. I have neither the interest nor the inclination to do what’s needed to go back there.  Don’t get me wrong: if it could be done with a wave of a túró rudi, I’d be first in line. But diet and exercise are two words that don’t feature in my vocabulary, in any language! I have made a couple of concessions though. I only allow myself langós when I have virgin guests in town – far be it from me to deprive first-time visitors to Budapest of an experience that is truly Hungarian! When I cook at home, I always have at least two real vegetables: tomatoes, onions and peppers don’t count! Come to think of it: that’s another question I must ask. Where do all the real vegetables go once they leave the market stalls? The carrots, the parsnips, the turnips, the cauliflowers – I’ve yet to see one come out of a restaurant kitchen in solid form!

 Making choices

My weight fluctuates according to where I’m living. In California, it was too hot to eat. In Alaska, it was too cold not to. Ok, so perhaps I didn’t have to take hibernation as seriously as I did or have so much sympathy for the whales that I began to morph into one myself.  No matter. That’s history. Today, I have chosen to live in a city full of beautiful women; a city which is populated by men who are very obvious in their appreciation of this beauty. Perhaps, subconsciously, the skinny person living inside me is making a last-ditch effort to escape. Maybe hers is the voice I heard telling me to move to Budapest in the first place. Maybe she was hoping that being in the presence of such beauty would inspire me to lend her a hand. But, as Woody Allen wondered: what if the 20lbs I lose is the best 20lbs I have? The pounds that contain my genius, my humanity, my love and my honesty? What then?

This article first appeared in the Budapest Times on Monday, 22nd October, 2009