A cool Yule to all my readers in the last post for 2018. I doubt there is anybody actually following the whole Travelling Lady’s Cookbook (a Grand Tour in Twenty Recipes), but I don’t want to break the sequence (even though I’m now only two chapters ahead of the game, so I’d better get back to writing).
So, pausing only to show you the dinner for one I had on Chrimbo Day (‘Pear Tree in a Partridge’ (pear and walnut stuffing), Ch Palmer ’89, cheeses with LBV Port and a ‘Fettes Mess’ of meringue, raspberries and whisky)
I shall move on to Chapter XI
Gladsome was our Epifanea at having booked two nights in Ahmed’s North African fantasy apartment. Her hosts had turned out to be as charming as their accommodation had appeared online, and with them she could sit long into the night, sipping wine and talking about life. And mainly about food.
xxxAhmed’s wife, Renaté hailed from Budapest, so naturally conversation turned to the dishes of Hungary. Eppy was able to impress with her knowledge of a few of those that were not just goulash.
xxxThat she had eaten kárpáti borszata and tried her hand at making sólet, the Magyar version of cassoulet, albeit in a simplified form, impressed her hostess immensely.
xxx“In Spain,” she said, “they make fabada, which also has in the bloody pudding, I think.”
xxx“Morcillo — black pudding, we call it. Yes, I’ve had that too. But I like the paprika in sólet. The nearest British cuisine gets is tinned baked beans with what they claim are pork sausages.”
xxxEpifanea even knew that a true gulyás was a soup and not the chunky stew most Brits assumed (and she most often made, with goodsize cubes of meat and spud, and more lumps than liquid). But even as a soup, served with large hunks of crusty bread, it was one of her main course mainstays.
xxxAnd of course Renaté kept a good supply of the finest Hungarian paprika, dark, fruity, aromatic and somehow a notch or seven richer than even the best delis sold back home.
xxx“We girls should cook big gulyás together tomorrow!” she had said in the early hours of the morning.
xxx“Does Ahmed cook?” Eppy asked the next day, as she and Renaté chopped onions and potatoes, the man in question being busy slaughtering zombies on a distant planet to make it fit for human habitation.
xxx“Oh yes. We both have our specialities. Couscous, tagine, foul medames, Mediterranean salads, anything with an eggplant.”
xxxFor some reason, Renaté seemed to find her final comment hilarious and nearly choked on her wine with giggling. Epifanea smiled with her, more out of politeness than understanding.
xxx“So you have boyfriend in UK? Why he don’t come with you?”
xxx“Mainly because of his job. But I wanted to travel alone anyway.”
xxx“Why? You don’t love him? You sound loving when he phone.”
xxx“Yes, of course,” she replied, surprised by Renaté’s assessment but saying nothing to contradict it. “In fact we’re thinking about starting a family and …”
xxx“You mean make babies?”
xxx“Er, yes, I suppose I do mean ‘make babies’.” Eppy laughed. “And once we’ve made one I know travels like this will be out of the question for quite a while.”
xxx“What is the question?” asked a confused Hungarian.
xxx“Sorry? Oh I see. No. ‘Out of the question’ means it will not be possible. To travel so freely and easily with a baby in tow — I mean ‘with us’. What about you and Ahmed?”
xxx“Oh yes. We make already. Is still in oven, haha. Four months. Nearly half cook already.”
xxx“Congratulations!” said Eppy, giving her hostess a spontaneous hug, a risky manœuvre when said hostess was chopping a green pepper with a fierce, sharp blade.
xxx“Ovatos! Careful! Are you OK?”
xxx“Oh God, sorry. Yes, no harm done.” Eppy checked theatrically her garments and skin for holes. Both women laughed, causing Ahmed to turn suddenly and get blown to pieces by an alien stormtrooper or something. What he said was, Eppy assumed, an Arabic swearword. She didn’t ask; he went back to his game.
xxxRenaté put garlic and bacon pieces into the Dutch oven with a little olive oil, and turned up the gas a little.
xxx“This called Székely gulyás,” she said. Some say from town of Szeged, some say invented for writer Székely. Restaurant have things left at end of day — meats, gulyás, er … savanyú káposta?”
xxx“Sauerkraut,” said Eppy as Renaté pointed to a jar of pickled cabbage. “Yes, we use the German word.”
xxx“OK, sauerkraut. So he say, ‘put them all in pot’. You like sauerkraut?”
xxx“Oh yes, I love it. Not in large quantities on its own, but I love it in Polish bigos. This seems similar.”
xxx“Yes. And different also.” Again the Hungarian seemed inordinately amused. “So, you will marry boyfriend for make family?”
xxx“I don’t think so. I think he’s more traditional than I am, though.”
xxx“You don’t want him put a ring on it?”
xxxRenaté did an amusing version of Beyoncé’s dance.
xxx“Haha, no, I’m not a prize pig to be tagged. And I’ve lost count of the friends who found the ‘security’ of that ring was just an illusion. We’ll use wills and other legal documents to protect our interests, just in case.”
xxxShe smiled and added, “And anyway, I know people who can find him and kill him if he cheats or leaves.”
xxx“You are serious?!”
xxxIt was Epifanea’s turn to laugh and to confuse.
xxx“No, no, no! Only joking. Did I worry you? Anyway, the onions are in; now the meat?”
xxxNot yet. Green peppers — is right name? Yes; peppers for one minute to get softer. Then the meat. They say original restaurant had three types. This just young beef.”
xxx“Veal. Looks delicious.”
xxx“Yes. Just cook away pink colour, then add paprika.”
xxx“Oh, that smells so good. Much better than I have back home.”
xxx“You will take some when you go. It is insisted. But now I add some tomato, cut up. Some tradition cooks say no tomato; came from Mexico only four hundred year since. Very new ingredient.
xxxRenaté’s random laughter was becoming infectious, perhaps helped by the wine, dark red and plentiful.
xxx“Egri Bikavér,” read Eppy.
xxx“Blood of bulls,” said Renaté; “from Eger in North of Hungary.”
xxx“Yes, I remember that name. My father said Bull’s Blood was a popular wine in the Eighties. It’s bloody good in fact.”
xxxIn honour of her guest’s expressed appreciation, the hostess topped up her glass. She also poured cold water into the pot, to cover its contents.
xxx“Once is boiled we turn down to low and cook for hour, hour and half. We drink and talk and drink and prepare csipetke paste. And drink.” And laugh.
xxxSo drink and talk and drink they did. Renaté seemed fascinated by, if not obsessed with her guest’s love life.
xxx“So you travel all on own. Many lovers in different cities?”
xxx“No, no, no! Would you do that to Ahmed?”
xxx“Of course no! Sorry. But would not travel without, either. You never tempt? Your body not miss jiggy-jiggy?”
xxx“Jiggy-jiggy?!” Epifanea had to cover her mouth to avoid spraying the table with Bull’s Blood. “Well — a bit, maybe. Naturally. But mainly I’m glad of a break, even if my body isn’t.”
xxx“Not so good at home?” Renaté’s smirk suggested she meant ‘in bed’.
xxx“Very good at home! Maybe too good.”
xxxShe was about to say that maybe the good sex clouded her judgement in other areas, but she neither wanted to have to explain the phrase, nor go into detail.
xxxBut fortunately this was not a topic that could be sustained for ninety minutes, so, after Eppy had half-grudgingly admitted that in all her zig-zag whimsical travels round Europe, yes, a few handsome and even naked young guys had caught her eye (and after she’d explained that idiom), but that none of these had even slightly tempted her or caused more than the slightest tingling in her loins (a favourite phrase of his that she now avoided using altogether), they spoke mainly about all the food she had cooked and eaten, and slightly about the other sights she had seen on the way.
xxxNot that the topic of love and sex was put totally aside. Renaté’s new-found concern for the Englishwoman’s love and sex life flavoured much of their conversation in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, and came to the surface once again when holiday reading matter was discussed.
xxx“You are reading sexy book, I think? Picture on front …”
xxx“Oh, God, no! I mean yes, I am reading, and, yes, it is meant to be sexy, but it’s so bad. Badly written, stupid story — terrible.”
xxxShe tried to explain why, if it was so bad, she was reading this instead of something more intellectually stimulating. Renaté was very impressed that Eppy had even heard of her compatriot, László Krasznahorkai, but totally baffled as to why any Hungarian would actually read his turgid, meaningless waffle, much less someone with so many good books written in her own language to choose from. But she wasn’t as curious about the roots of such lunacy as she was to know what kind of things went on between the covers of Picnics of Passion.
xxxMs Tredwell obliged with an exaggerated and comic account. She quoted and misquoted some of the tortuous and torturous descriptions of both feelings and actions.
xxx“To be honest, it’s not very explicit — not many sexy details —yet. But I think as it goes on it might get a lot worse.”
xxx“Or better!” said her hostess, once again with that knowing smirk. “And it not make you want …?”
xxxThey both laughed so much that Ahmed turned the sound up on his game.
xxxEppy protested that the writing was so bad it countered any stimulating effect of the subject matter. Nonetheless, she admitted to herself alone that even badly-described sex had some kind of effect on the more primitive parts of the brain.
xxxIt was a relief when Renaté glanced at her watch and announced that the time had come for her to show Epifanea her csipetke — at least it was, when she remembered that csipetke referred not to anything excessively personal, but the tiny dumplings that were to accompany the goulash. The Hungarian provided a running commentary.
xxx“I break egg in bowl. Then I beat. I add little water and salt. Then I add … er, liszt? Yes, flour, not composer. I make stiff shape — like fasz!”
xxxHer laughter and the obscene gesture she made with the phallic piece of dough left Eppy with no need to use her translation app.
xxx“Now we leave it on own for while — like you!” and once again she laughed heartily at her own comment.
xxx“While that rest,” Renaté continued, covering the bowl with a tea towel, “we add — sauerkraut, yes? We add to gulyás. Stir in, let warm up.”
xxx“Like you,” said Eppy by way of riposte. She realised she wasn’t quite sure what she meant by that, but as it seemed to bring yet more laughter from the chef, it hardly mattered.
xxx“Yes, I very warm. And ‘hot’. Ahmed think so anyway. But he play stupid war, we set nice table.
xxxAnd so they did. And once it was set, Renate stirred into the soup a large spoonful of tejföl, which was obviously soured cream, leaving a delicately decorative swirl atop the pan. She had set a pan of water on the stove, which was now at a rolling boil, so she gave Eppy the great honour of pinching small pieces from the dough and dropping them into the water.
xxx“Fast as you can. This is what csipetke means,” she said, as she demonstrated the pinching action.
xxxOnce the noodles were swollen, cooked and drained, they were placed on the table and joined by the goulash and green salad, so the warrior reluctantly came back on leave from the battlefield to join the grateful womenfolk back home. After many a solitary meal, Eppy was moved by the conviviality of this one, probably in part due to the effect of liberal helpings of rich, red Egri wine. She was touched by the deep affection, free from excessive sentimentality, shown by her hosts, obviously as comfortable with each other’s foibles as happy with their good qualities, and she found herself much more amused than discomfited by Renaté’s occasional suggestive looks and knowing smiles.
xxxWhen she messaged home from her bed that she missed him, she meant it.