Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Dreaming of Slovakia

It's what we in Hungary call "Cucumber Season" (uborka szezon) these days - mid-summer and all the newspapers can report is that the cucumbers are ripening. Yes, we had a bit of a nasty heat wave, although the BBC reports of 500 dead seem to have come from some oddball and untraceably politicized source (Hungary's political life is characterized by a particularly rabid partisan insanity at the best of times, and the bankrupt health care system is only the latest summer theme to play to the populist heartland.) So no, we are not dead. Nor are we overly warm - it has been cold, rainy sweater weather for the last few days. All that does is make me yearn for the Carpathian highlands of Slovakia, a few hours north of us.Slovakia is home to some of the best fly fishing for trout and grayling in Europe. And I like fly fishing for trout and grayling. My favorite stream is the Revuca, a tributary of the Vag River running just south of Ruzomberok. While returning home from Poland we stopped for lunch along the Revuca - no time for fishng (and it was too hot) but just being close to the Revuca is almost enough for me. This is my home stream. Size 14 Olive Hare's ear nymphs tied with a goldbead head. Does. Not. Get. Better. Than. This. Hopefully, me and Fumie are heading up into Slovakia soon for some fishing.The Revuca is located in a national park, and when Czechoslovakia was communist it served as a hunting preserve for party members - the result is that it remains a wild and unspoiled region with lots of game wardens checking for fishing licences. Which is a good thing, if you like quality catch and release wild trout fishing.When we go to the Revuca, for fishing we usually stay at a small restaurant with guest rooms called the Bodega, located south of Ruzomberok in the hamlet of Podsucha. Basically, the Bodega is a shepherd's and lumber jack bar with local food at local prices. On weekends bicycle fanatics - and Slovakia is full of mountain bike fanatics - pedal down to the Bodega from Ruzemberok to eat the starch plate special and drink beer and bellow out amazingly loud Slovak folk songs all afternoon. My kind of place. Come on, you do not complain at 8 EURO a room, and 2 Euro for lunch, with ear-crunchingly loud Slovak folk singing thrown in for free. The Bodega specializes in local dishes of the mountainous Liptov region, and that means starchy, cheesy dumpling dishes. In Slovakia, that means halusky, known in Hungary as sztrapacska.Halusky is made from flour and potatoes mixed into a gnocci-like dough, slathered with sour cream and sheep cheese, and smothered in fried bacon cubes and lard. Not for the kosher crowd at all, I'm sorry, but then, nothing in Slovakia is. I bought lunch for the band - at these prices, I can afford to splurge. Sztrapacska is an old peasant food in Hungary... like a lot of peasant dishes you don't find it in too many posh restaurants, and every restauarant in Hungary wants to be posh these days. As we approached Podsucha I asked the guys in the mini bus "Hey, who likes sztrapacska?" ... And my kontra player, Puma, answered "Who doesn't like sztrapacska?" Well, Feri likes shnitzel - or lapos hus as he calls it ("flat meat") which he couldn't get in Poland. And Feri (our cimbalom and flute player) is actually from a Slovak minority family in southern Hungary. Go figure... There is a weekly show on the Hungarian version of the Food network - Paprika TV - about Slovak cuisne. Basically, everything is made by exceedingly cute old peasant ladies with flour, potatoes, and cheese. Sometimes milk is added. Everything has fried bacon bits added. Everything is white. (I have a nephew who would love Slovak food.) At least the Slovaks have a living folk music tradition. Slovaks, at least in the Liptov region, like to drink beer and then feel compelled to sing, which in other regions would be called "shouting happily at the top of your lungs." It is loud. But it is real. The Liptov area used to be home to a lot of great bagpipers, but today the tradition has shifted to heligonka, a great huge honking alpine diatonic button accordion. Last year I got to try one out at the general store in Vkolinec, which is a sleepy UNESCO heritage village where the shop owner doesn't have much to do all day besides diddle around on his accordion. He was a bit unnerved to hear me crash through a bunch of syncopated Lousiana creole tunes from the late, great Amedee Ardoine...

Monday, July 23, 2007

Poland: Klezmer Festival in Kazimierz Dolny

This past week in Budapest has been one long kanikula, or heat wave, and I have had no energy to set foot outside, much less post anything. Temperatures reached 41 centigrade (107 degrees farenheit) in Hungary setting an all time record. After a week of that the heat finally broke with a cool, fresh wind blowing in last night and today seems positively invigorating with temperatures around a mere 85-90 degrees farenheit. This was somwhat in contrast to the weather we had up in poland two weeks ago when we went up to teach and play at a Klezmer Music festival in Kazimierz-Dolny: cold, rainy, and from our present viewpoint, eminently preferable.Kazimierz Dolny is located about two hours from Warsaw, just by Lublin, and it is a pretty little old market town that owes its preservation to the fact that it was the site of one of the royal castles founded by King Kazimier of Poland. Kazimierz is basically an artist colony, and fills up on weekends when the yuppies of Warsaw come in for a weekend of pushing baby strollers alongside the Wistula river.Every day I taught a klezmer music workshop to a group of about twelve young Polish music students. Klezmer in Poland is quite popular - it represents a previously unkown, exotic-yet-local music tradition to young Poles, who show an active interest in learning about the traditions of the Jews who were once at the heart of small-town Polish life before WWII. As for the Klezmer music, well, Polish klezmer, like so much European klezmer, is a fantasy music with very little connection to anything Jews ever played at weddings. I was hired on to fix that situation, armed with music from Naftule Brandwein, German Goldenshteyn, and the Belf Orchestra.The students were actually surprised that anybody was actually teaching them Jewish music - modes, niggunim, wedding lore - instead of just piling on the melodies. Like young musicians anywhere, they tended to play fast, whereas in Klezmer you can increase intensity without increasing speed by using ornaments, phrasing, and accompaniment tricks. After a few days they seemed to "get it." The festival was sponsored by the Restaurant U Fryzera, which is housed in a beautiful old style wooden building in Polish folk style. The festival policy was that whatever the musicians wanted - food or drink - they would get for free at the U Fryzera. This included pierogis from the outdoor pierogi bar next to the festival tent. The meat and wild mushroom filled ones won the award...Since it was raining and cold almost every day, soup filled the bill, often a Polish zurek, a creamy sour soup made from fermented rye grains filled with frankfurter bits...Every Polish town seems to have at least one "Jewish Style" restuarant serving "historical" dishes such as latkes, chopped liver, cholent, or kasha varnishkes. These are usually prepared from some anonymous hobby cookbook... because they don't ever seem to resemble anything I ever saw Jews eat. Chopped liver at these places is exactly that - chopped liver, chopped eggs, chopped onions arranged in attractive layers on a plate. Jewish chopped liver, however, gets mixed into a mashed mess suitable for making into statues of Bar Mitzvah boys and is spread on TamTam crackers... so stick with the herring. Our hosts, however, are used to serving Poles, who easily wolf down a half kilo platter of herring in a serving and consider it the salad course!

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Pršut of Happiness

Korcula is as far south as we got in the Adriatic. Located within a day's sail of Dubrovnik, it was the town that offered the best ferry connection back to Split. We moored in the town marina in the middle of a flotilla of Italian millionaires and their private yachts.
Korcula is yet another of the small Venetian walled cities that make up the Dalmatian coast, yet it plays its one tourist trump card full blast. Korcula claims to be the birth place of Marco Polo, the 15th century Venetian merchant traveller who visited China. Korcula's claims are
not holding water with histoprians very well, and are baqsed on the fact that some families on the island are named "Di Polo" even today. But a tourist trap needs bait, and Korcula dearly wants to be that trap. Mind you, history has no actual record that Marco Polo was born here. He was a Venetian, and Venetians moved around a lot as traders within their own realm, which included Korcula. But Korcula needed a tourist draw, and so various houses were claimed as "Marco Polo's Birth House" until finally a particular tower, located conveniently near the church, was designated the official Marco Polo House. Except that it dates from about two centuries after Polo was born.
Tourist trap or not, Korcula remains a pretty honest destinataion for hungry sailors and thousands of British and Australian tourists. Captain Squid and Mate Froggette, looking suitably tanned, await their langoustines.
Above is the pršut station at the Konoba Marco Polo. Dalmatia's take on prosciutto, pršut is a ham served in transluscently thin slices and it beats all other pig meat to hell. Some of the best is made on the high, dry mountainsides that rim the Adriatic going up towrds Bosnia. One friend of Captain Squid in Split is a sailor who is essentially a vegetarian - except that the only meat he will eat is pršut. It's that good. Croatian vegetarians make an exception for pršut. Mussel soup.Grilled Squid.Black rissoto called crni rizot. This is prepared from cuttlefish, which is a bonier relative of the squid, and which also has a lot of deep black ink, which flavors the dish and dyes it a jet black. It looks disgusting, I know, but it may be one of the best seafood dishes on earth.A five hour ferry ride (air conditioning!) brought us back to Split to catch our midnight sleeper train back to Budapest. After wandering around the Palace of Diocletian (the 4th century Roman Emporer best remembered for feeding early Roman Christians to the lions) we took dinner at our favorite Croatian Konoba - the almost invisible Fife's. Located way down the northern end of the Split Riva, almost on the waterfront itself, Fife is informal, cheap, defiantly local, and possibly the best food in Split.
I won't be posting much in the next week - I'll be teaching and performing Klezmer music in Poland. When I get back there should be lots of pictures of kielbasa and zurek... but it sure ain't the Adriatic.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Lastovo: The Last Outpost

Lastovo is said to be the least touristed island in the Dalmatian Adriatic, so to put that to the test Capt. Squid and First Mate Froggette decided to run a boatload of tourists to the island and see what happenes. First of all, there was the inevitable environmental consequences - I got a chance to fish. As I have said before, I am a fly fisherman, I fish for trout, and I always release my fish unharmed. Usually. On the high seas, however, that changes. I become a hunter, a cold blooded killer, and I fish for meat. These mullet, brilliantly collored pirka, and soles became a fine fish soup for our hosts.
We moored in a small bay surrounded by one of the smaller communities on the island, and had dinner at the Konoba by our dock. We were dead tired and not in the mood for fancy fish dinners anymore, but the yacht next too us ordered lobsters. As you see above, these are not the usual Maine lobster known in America, but a kind of giant mediterranean langoustine. A kilo goes for something like EURO 80, so we passed, thank you very much.
Our home away from home - the Azsija, moored in Lastovo. Home to Captian Squid and Mate Froggette, she is big and roomy, sleeps five comfortably, and was built at the shipyards in Velka Luka on Korcula. Slow and heavy is the way to go - nothing will ever capsize her. Lastovo only became a part of Yugoslavia after 1945. Previously the island was a part of Italy, and under Mussolini it was the destination of an ambitious resettlement program designed to relocate the island residents around Naples to a new home in the Dalmatians. Most of the Italians were repatrated to Italy after 1945, but the Lastovans still speak a Croatian peppered with Italian words and phrases.
During the middle ages and the Venetian era, Lastovo was a strategic prize, and often the first target of pirates and Turkish raiders in the endless wars between the Venetian Republic and just about everybody else on the planet. The result is that the village of Lastovo was built inland for protection, just behind the hill from the steep coast, around the rim of an old volcano.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Vis Island, Komiza

This is the third trip I've made to Komiza, the small fishing village on the outer west side of Vis island in the Croatian Adriatic. Captain Squid, who lives on his sailboat when not piloting supply ships to oil riggers off the coadst of Angola or Brazil, likes to moor in the harbor here and spend weeks sipping coffee and travarica with the local sailors and fishermen, so it is like a second home to him. Komiza, like all of Vis, was a center of Yugoslav partisan activity during WWII, and as such was declared a military zone and spared the rapid developement that affects so much of the Croatian coast.
Yes, you can still find deserted beaches in the Adriatic, but you ought to get out to the outer islands to find them. You don't need a lot of money to see the islands - ferry travel is cheap (about five dollars a ride) and you can usually find a room for rent in a family house for less than EURO 25 in full season.
This part of Dalmatia used to be part of the Venetian Empire, and the architecture shows it in spades. The local residents are Croats, but folks in this region tend to refer to themsleves as Dalmatians, and - besides their language - don't see much empathy between themselves and the nearby mountain Hercogovinan Croatians or the Pannonian Croatians up around Zagreb. Above, you can see the fish market in Vis - one sign says "Ribarnica" in Croatian, while the older sign, just above the door, reads "Pescarija" in the old Dalmatian dialect. The Dalmatian dialect of Croatian retains a lot of old Dalmatian vocabulary - Dalmatian was a Romance language similar to Friuli or Venetian that was spoken around these parts until the 19th century, and Italian is still widely spoken as the second language of choice.
The Konoba Barba sits on the western edge of Komiza, near a couple of other konobas (Dalmatian wine and fish restaurants) including one... run by somebody Captain Squid refers to as a "Hercogovinian fascist nationalist bastard!" Dalmatians prefer to look after their own. Salted anchovies as an appetizer, with tomatoes, olive oil, and capers. If you think anchovies are simply a salty fish that comes from a can and is thrown on pizza, you are wrong.Marinated tuna, octopus salad, and anchovy with white sheep cheese appetizers. We ordered fried squid as a main course, but I was so busy falling on the platter like a hungry lawnmower I forgot to take any photos - the squid in this part of the world is rolled in flour and lightly fried, producing a light, crisp batter unlike the bready fried squid you would find in most Italian restaurants.Travarica is the drink that defines the Dalmatian coast. It starts with pure grape spirits, grappa, known locally as loza or rakija, and then local fragrent herbs are addes to infuse the flavor. Everybody has a different recipe, but rosemary, sage, mint, and carob are common ingredients. The one below was made from salvia, which gave it a strange sweet flavor without the addition of sugar. We headed out the next day aiming to get to the island of Lastovo, but nasty bora winds forced Captain Squid to reconsider and we wound up taking a berth in the harbor of Velka Luka on the north side of the island of Korcula.
Velka Luka is unusually untouristed as Dalmatian towns go - it still has a ship building factory and doesn't need to push for more tourism, which made it a fine overnight stop for us. The shipyards produce the rescue pods that are used on modern ships as lifeboats, and we saw one taken out for a trial run.Exhausted from fighting the winds and choppy seas, we just wanted something simple and cheap to eat, so it was pleskavica time. Hamburger of the Gods. You want pleskavica in a nice fresh-baked flat lepinje bread, you go to a pizzeria because they have the oven to make the bread fresh. Also, a lot of places call them "hamburger" because, well.... pleskavica is considered to sound too Serbian. Hamburger is much more modern and globalized sounding. So hamburger it is...
Tuna farming off the coast of Korcula. fishermen catch undersize or normal sized tuna, and place them in these fenced off cages, where they will be fed until they double in size and are sold for astonishing prices to Japanese buyers. Unlike a lot of fish farming operations, these cages are contantly moved around behind the moving ship, so they are slightly less damaging to the environment. You gotta suffer for sushi.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Back from Dalmatia! Lunch on Vis...

I haven't been updating the blog in a while, since Fumie and I were traveling down south in Croatia last week. Our friends ... let's codename them "Squid and Frog"... live on a sailboat floating around the Adriatic sea and we were invited to aimlessly float around with them as we had last year. A sixteen hour, very cheap sleeper train ride from Budapest took us to Split, from whence a two hour ferry ride brought us to the Island of Vis.
While Hvar and Brac have become tourist magnets in the last few years, Vis is still relatively untrampled, having been off-limits to foreigners during the Yugoslav era when the whole island served as a military zone. Vis was never occupied by the Germans during WWII - it remained in Partizan hands and was Tito's home base for a while, also serving as an Allied supply naval base. During that time it was the main transfer point by which Jewish refugees from Yugoslavia were sailed to safety in Egypt in Partizan fishing boats. Entire villages of Partizan families had to be evacuated as well - when the Germans came to a village full of women and children, they would realize the men were away serving as Partizans and murder the whole village. The families were relocated to El Shatt, in British held Egypt, and today many of the older generation of Islanders were actually born in El Shatt.
Our first stop was for lunch at the the Konoba Pojoda in the older part of Vis town known as Kut. This is where we had lunch on Fumie's birthday last year, and all of our party feel that this is possibly the best konoba (Dalmatian wine and fish resaurant) in the Islands (with the Konoba Fife in Split running a close second.)Poklada specializes in local cooking, which means a lot of stews brewed with fish stock brodet, and unique combinations such as lentil, barley, and squid stew, seen below next to a fish soup (juha) comprised of fish stock, white fish meat, and rice.Octopus salad....Fumie with the owner of Pojoda. We had a lot of courses... even re-ordering favorite dishes - and the damages per head for this came to only about fourteen Euro per person. And did Imention that tipping is not customary in Croatia? This place was even written up in the New York Times a few months ago. It hasn't become spoiled. I, on the other hand, have. I have been floating around on boat cruises too much this spring. And when it comes down to it, I definately prefer the cuisine of Croatia to that of the Ukraine...