Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Negreni 2012. A Whole Bunch of Gabors!

It has been a couple of years since I was able to make it to Transylvania for the annual Negreni Fair (known in Hungarian as Fekete tó vásar.) Unlike most similar events in East Europe, this peasant fair has not become a quaint festival of folklore performances and nationalistic speeches and film crews parading their celebrities around. Negreni is the real thing. A muddy riverside field in a small village that becomes – on the second weekend in October every year, rain or shine – a sprawling market, selling everything from antiques to embroidered cloths to used shoes to sixty gallon cauldrons to sheepskin hats to and Chinese pink plastic hair bows. If you travel a lot around Transylvania  Negreni’s annual Fair is a time to meet up with people. It seems that everybody is there. Thousands of peasant, city folk, visitors, curious folks from Bucharest and Budapest descend on this nondescript village every fall to buy, sell, and just say hello to each other. (I have covered Negreni in other posts as well.)
Traian Ardelean and Dorel Kordoban, Negreni, 2008
This year was a bit sad for those of us who love this region’s wild, vibrant folk fiddle tradition: the vioara cu goarna music that is played in the villages around Negreni and Bihor county. The fair was one of the annual gathering places for the makers and fiddlers of this unique “trumpet fiddle” (actually a homemade resonator violin with a horn to amplify the sound.) But this year saw the passing of two of the local masters. Dorel Kordoban, master fiddle maker and musician from the village of Lazuri passed away last spring. And then the elder Gypsy fiddler Traian Ardelean was murdered in nearby Alesd in the summer. I did get a chance to meet with Mircea Roastas, but his health is not good and he wasn’t able to spend much time at the fair. I would not worry about the tradition dying out, though.Although there were less local fiddlers at Negreni this year, I found one, Gutu from the village of Balnaca, at one of the beer tents, and he was in fine form.
Fiddler from Balnaca
I have heard a lot from people who ask “What about that big Gypsy festival in Transylvania?”Well, if you want Gypsies, you can find them at Negreni. A lot of them. But it is not q Gypsy festival as much as a homecoming where different families, clans, and tribes touch base with each other year after year. Some refer to themselves as Roma, some do not. Some keep to a strong sense of Gypsy moral code and law, some less so. Appearances can be deceiving.
Metalsmith Gypsy
You can be sitting next to a family of Gaboresti Roma who proudly wear the broad cowboy hats, handlebar moustaches, the women in flamboyant skirts, that one anthropologist called “a hyper-gypsy sense of dress” and then find a blonde guy in a smart business suit chatting with them in Romani about a shipment of plastic shoes arriving at the airport from Istanbul.

Young Gabors in pin stripes
The Fair attracts a lot of Gaboresti - the clan known as "Gabor Gypsies." Why? They are descended from somebody originally named Gabor. Most of the family names are "Gabor." Don;t let it worry you. They know which clan is related to whom, and who they will marry, even though you can often wind up with people named "Mrs. Gabriella Gabor Gabor Gabor." Gabors are mostly Seventh Day Adventists: they don’t drink (much – beer doesn’t count) and they work in retail and market selling. They are active in Adventist church organizations and educate their children in Gabor run schools. A lot of them are, in fact, blonde.

Gabor gypsy girl.
That may reflect that the orginal extended families that congealed into the Gaboresti “nation” came from southern Transylvania in the area where Saxon German settlers have lived since the thirteenth century. There is an almost Germanic sense of “ordnung muss sein” about them. That lifestyle has led a lot of Romanians to contend that “Gabors are not Gypsies” because they are clean, hard working, all the things that define the negative stereotype of “Gypsy” in East Europe. This being Central Transylvania (on the road between Oradea and Cluj) you get not only the Gabor Gypsies, but any number of Kalderash clans who affect the Gabor style (big hats mean high prestige) but without the Gabor’s businesslike moral demeanor. But big hats and pin striped pants do not a Gabor make. If you want to live in a huge tin roofed palace, you need to do business like a Gabor. And that means a social network that the Gabors have built up through links of kin, religion, and pure hard work. There are areas of the market that seem to have been populated by differing groups of peasant and Gypsies.
Rudari: wood carvers 
The Rudari – wood carving families who do not speak Romani among themselves – set up tents and busily set about custom carving the whatever wooden implements of Transylvanian peasant life that you can’t buy at the Metro in Cluj: buckets for sheep cheese, milking stools, pig killing troughs. Hungarian Peasants from the village of Szék colonize a road on the northern edge of the Fair. They are also conservative in their dress: the costume acts as an advertisement for their presence and their business of selling folk crafts to (mostly Hungarian) customers. Across the river, women from the nearby Kalotaszeg region monopolize the antiques fair. Honestly, after decades of working with Roma and various groups of Gypsies all over east Europe, these people do not seem the least bit exotic to me anymore. Yes, I have learned to speak their language, after a fashion. I have traveled with some of these families, played music with them, toured abroad with some, gotten to know them as people, and one of the reasons I have rarely written about Gypsies is that they seem... just so normal to me.
The Valley of Cauldrons
Not exotic at all. Once you get to know the inside working of any group of people, what is exotic about it? Talking about family? Business? Travel? Marriage prospects? A lot of my better friends are convinced that I am an American Gypsy: my nickname in one village is "Bob o Amerikano" but I always start by telling them that I am not Gypsy. But once you say this in Romani language, well… you just passed the boundary between what defines a Gypsy and a non-Gypsy (gajo). So I fall back on my time honored proverb: Me som rom mashkar e romenge, taj me avav gajo mashkar e gajenge. I’m a Gypsy when I am with Gypsies… and a Gajo when among Gajos. [For more amazing photos of Negreni and Romanian Roma in general, visit Fumie Suzuki's facebook pages here and also here.]

Friday, September 07, 2012

Büfé Đăng Mười: City wants to Close the Chinese Market? Dang! The Best Eats in Budapest.

Just as soon as I get inspired to update the blog with news of authentic Asian foods available in Budapest at the Four Tigers Chinese Market, along comes the Hungarian daily newspaper the Magyar Hirlap (once a truly great newspaper but since 2004 a shabby rag not worth wrapping fish with) with a story about how the eighth district Mayor and city council would like to shut the whole market down. For those of you who don’t read Hungarian, it seems that there was an altercation between two Arab guys attacking a Vietnamese stall keeper and his wife with swords a couple of weeks ago. (For some reason, all the weird crimes in Hungary tend to involve swords – usually of the decorative samurai variety. Mother-in-law murderers, angry truck drivers, drunken farmers, Arab money changers - all seem to have inexplicable access to a supply of samurai swords.) This altercation led to an investigative piece by the Hirlap reporters describing the market in hair-raising terms as a hotbed of crime, tax evasion, illegal weapon sales, customs transgressions, and all – around scary non-Hungarian badness. Needless to say the details in the article are shaky – the reporter claims that he encountered guys hawking fake tax receipts, brass knuckles, butterfly knives, and shock tazers as he entered the market. We have been going to the market two times a week for over ten years, and I have yet to be offered anything more than fake tax receipts, which have a far better market in tax-phobic Hungary than hand to hand weapons ever would. You don’t go to the Four Tigers Market for weapons. You go for rice noodles.The main reason I go to the market is to eat real, authentic Vietnamese and Chinese food, and to shop for Asian vegetables and groceries. Occasionally I buy some cheap blank DVDs, but mostly I purchase things involving rice noodles. And I am not the only one. My favorite Vietnamese spot is the Dang Muoi Bufe, located inside an ersatz Vietnamese grocery stall in the back of the Four Tigers Market (directly opposite Gate 3 – the “middle gate” of the Market. Pass the fornetti stand, the telephone sellers, and the little Chinese bufe by the entrance and march straight directly to the back end of the rows of stalls to the food shacks.) The Dang Muoi may not look like much – heck, it looks a lot less than much – but it takes my vote for the best restaurant in Budapest.The best Vietnamese for sure, but also the best soup, the best atmosphere, and definitely the best bargain of any eatery in town. You can argue with any of those points, perhaps rightfully so, and I simply don’t care. I like it. And so do Hungarian bloggers who have discovered it. The family who run this place have placed Xeroxed copies of Hungarian food blog reviews on the three picnic benches set up inside the tented grocery shack to advertise their fame in the Magyar food blog world. Almost every time we have been there this summer there has been a gaggle of curious Hungarian foodistas trying out the Vietnemese soups and slathering fish sauce over everything in sight. The Dang Muoi is all that is left of the row of Chinese and Vietnamese snack and soup shacks that once ran through this section of the market.There used to be the Chinese dumpling Lady and the hand pulled noodle shack, but now the area is completely Viet. The Chinese seem to have moved across the street to the wholesale market, leaving the Vietnamese (and in other section of the Market, the Turks) to feed the workers and shoppers who swarm here daily. The lunch shacks here are really not for the faint of heart – if you are obsessed with prissy concepts like neatness or table reservations do not bother making the trip. By some kind of quiet agreement, no restaurant inspectors ever seem to make the trip to the market shacks, and so it should stay. You are here for the pho - the Vietnamese noodle soup of the Immortals, the potage equivalent to the Vision on the Road to Damascus, the Alpha and Omega of Rice noodles and Sriracha sauce. I used to look for the stands that had Vietnamese signs lettered on cardboard scraps “pho” soup… but Dang Muoi Bufe (Büfé Đăng Mười) has a large poster illustrating all of the nearly twenty options on offer. Pho bo is the classic Vietnamese meal in a bowl, full of flat rice noodles, beef, coriander, and a tangy broth you can add to with chili sauce or vinegar and hot pepper sauce from jars on the tables. A big serving comes in a bowl that would sit nicely at the center of any Hungarian family’s Sunday lunch table, and probably holds more tender beef as well. There is no dainty way to eat pho. You can use forks and knives, you can try chopsticks, but basically the “attack and slurp” method works best. Vietnamese are famous in Asia for their sloppy chopstick technique so there is no reason for you to feel self conscious about the orange cloud of broth materializing around your head as you dig in. Rice noodles are not designed for easy eating. Try the bun bo hue if you want thin rice noodles in spicy beef broth – not for the rice noodle beginners.The rice plate (com phan) consists of a choice of about twelve options you point at and have loaded onto your plate: BBQ pork belly, fried sardines, curry chicken, tofu, marinated hardboiled eggs, fried spring rolls, Asian greens, pickled cabbage, salad… just point and hope for the best. But the real choice to make on the hot days of summer is bun cha – fresh barbecued pork slices served on a bed of cold rice noodles and salad with plenty of mint, basil and coriander, topped with crushed peanuts, accompanied by a side dish of a plastic bowl filled with tangy cold broth made from fish sauce, vinegar, sugar, and water.You wrestle a mess of noodles and meat onto your chopsticks and dip it into the sauce or you can take it easy and just dump a bunch of the noodles and shrubbery into the broth and alternate bites of cold brothy noodles with grilled meat. Bun nem is the same set up with crispy Vietnamese spring rolls – nem – instead of grilled pork, and happens to be my favorite.Pricing is usually around FT800 for a small plate or bowl (which is pretty large) and FT 1000 for a large serving (including the bun cha/nem sets.) Dang Muoi also offers a selection of Asian cold drinks, such as lotus nut drink, sickeningly sweet lemonade, and black bean drink.Black bean drink is one of those things I can never quite wrap my brain around, but everybody else likes it. Think of it as a cold, sweet black bean soup in a glass of ice. On a hot day, it is quite filling in itself. They also offer Vietnamese iced coffee – cà phê đá – which is a shot of super strong French espresso served with condensed sweetened milk AND sugar over ice. Personally, I prefer to wander over to the neighboring shack for my coffee, where the guy at the “deli” window offers the choice of “sweet or bitter” (edes vagy keseru.) Bitter means your iced coffee is only condensed milk sweet, not diabetes-inducing sugared sweet. Either way, it is the best iced coffee in a town where iced coffee still means a hot coffee with an ice cube tossed into it. If you do check out the Dang Muoi, remember that it is a small place serving a lot of people – take out within the market is a big part of their business – so don’t expect to stroll in and get a table for six easily. Its best to go just before the lunch rush or just after, but after 2 pm you run the risk of no more bun cha or much left on the steam table (so you go with pho.)The tables are picnic tables you share with everybody else while sitting beneath crates of ramen noodles and bags of rice. When you are done, you can even pick up all the Vietnamese ingredients you need to reproduce your meals at home – from fish sauce to coriander. We usually shop at the market stall next door. The guy two stalls down speaks English and his fish freezer sells the cheapest shrimp in Budapest and – if you can convince him to let you dip into his restaurant stocks – restaurant quality frozen squid, bigger than the small one-kilo squid you can usually find in Chinese groceries.And now the Magyar Hirlap wants to take all this away from me.And the Mayor of the eighth district (last famous for criminalizing homelessness in his district) chimed in saying the city council should close the entire market down and replace it with a “green belt” park featuring skate board ramps and basketball courts and… a lot less Chinese businesses. Making this stretch of Budapest into a green belt is a project only slightly less realistic than, say, terraforming Mars or cloning a triceratops. We’ve seen this all before. Hysterical news articles about the imminent demise of the Chinese market have been appearing for years, and yet they are still there, selling kitchen wares, slurping noodles, minding their own business while making sure the underpaid proletariat of the world can continue to clothe themselves in cheap underwear. I’m sure that an amicable solution will be worked out between the city and the management of the market in the traditionally accepted manner: over drinks and with big suitcases stuffed with cash pushed across a table. I’m not too worried that the market will be disappearing soon, but you never can tell when dealing with the eighth district. I may have to up my pho quotient this fall. Just in case.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Budapest: The Hunt for Chinese Noodles.

Laziness. Procrastination. Call it what you will, I am guilty of it. This is the slowest summer that this blog has seen. I haven’t been posting because of… well, not much has been happening. Or a lot has that I don’t write about. Like writing, which is how the rent gets paid. I've been working on some contract writing this summer while trying to at least research some articles for paying publication, and the next thing you know – our lonely blog finds itself neglected, cast aside, forlorn, bereft of zingy little updates from the far corners of East Europe. Well, we haven’t been traveling as much this summer either. Fumie calls it our first “stay-cation" in Hungary, and it hasn’t been at all unpleasant. We’ve had a lot of visitors (Lemme hear you say YO! to the Cluj posse!) and endured the hottest summer in years without air conditioning, but we made it. My old bicycle – a half ton of ancient hardware nicknamed “the Maschina” by the local bike shop – was stolen from our building’s back yard in early July.I had this bike - an old junker rebuilt by a bike messenger friend - for almost a decade and it was nearly indestructable. Perfect for Budapest's streets. It was so unspeakably ugly that I had actually seen bike thieves look at it and walk away. But bike theft is big business and Budapest is not immune. Most bikes are broken down and the parts shipped out to the third world where bikes are what the car is to the first world. Thieves strolled into the building yard and wire clippped through the cable lock that had worked for so many years. I will miss the Maschina, but it has finally been replaced by the hybrid trek bike of my dreams from Bikebase in Budapest.I can now cruise Budapest shifting gears to my heart’s content. And yes – Budapest has some funky corners that even locals know virtually nothing about. I have written about the sprawling Four Tigers Chinese Market years ago. It is a world unto itself, part souk, part suburb of Beijing, hardly regulated by any local Hungarian law, but nevertheless it is an orderly place following its own rules. It is where all of the small shop owners of East Europe go to buy cheap underwear, discount toys, bad fishing equipment, cheap DVDs, and odd plastic hair clips and where Fumie and I go to find decent cheap Chinese and Vietnamese food hidden within the alleys and warrens of the back rows. Usually we go to the Vietnamese vegetable markets where you can get the cheapest frozen shrimp (Big frozen shrimp) and squid in Budapest, alongside Asian greens, sauces, rice noodles, and fish sauce.The Dang Muoi Bufe and Asian market is here (I will deal at length with the Dang Muoi Bufe in a separate post. It serves Vietnamese food - a world class noodle cuisine all on its own right - and deserves some in depth attention.) which I have noted is the Best Restaurant in Budapest. Sure it may not lok like much, but the food is the best deal in town. Located inside a small Vietnamese food market, they serve some of the most authentic Vietnamese lunches in Europe on picnic tables located inside the shop. Friends (the Cluj/Kolozsvar posse again) pester me to take them there, and nobody goes home unimpressed. They make not only the classic Vietnamese Soup of The Heavens Pho (Pho bo, beef, and pho ga chicken) but about a dozen other great Viet meals in a bowl of broth as well, like the excellent spicy bún bò Huế.If you are from Budapest, however, go find it yourself. (Back of the retail side of the market from the middle entrance, called gate 3 – across Kobanyai ut) The Four Tigers Market is merely the retail face of a whole world of Chinese business activity. On the other side of Kobanyai ut are a series of huge, dilapidated old warehouses and factories that have gradually been transformed into business centers called things like “Asia Center” or “Europa Center.” Set aside for large scale wholesale distribution, these shops are rarely visited by people strolling for bargains – they don’t sell single items. Trucks and vans with lisence plates from Romania, Poland, and Serbia load up on goods as porters wheel around on odd looking Chinese motorcycle trucks.But if you go into the back nobody stops you from browsing. Hell, nobody even notices you. Which is good, because signs at the entrances – manned by beefy Hungarian “secuity” guards with tattoos and shaved heads – expressly forbid photography, and if you are lucky a shop keeper may warn you about the rule before the security goons confiscate your camera. Of course, we have been coming here for years so we are experts at surreptitious photography. The best way to cruise around this teeming urban market landscape in seeming invisibility is simply to ride a bicycle through it.It is, basically, an industrial suburb of some Chinese city, so everybody gets around on bikes. Some parts of the market are fashioned into malls, some parts look like Turkish shopping centers, and bikes are parked everywhere. You can, literally, ride your bike through the malls. Everybody does, and nobody seems to be bothered by it. Different rules apply here. The streets back here are named “Shanghai ut” and “Wenzhou ut” and “Kinai ut.” As if you need to be reminded. We were here cruising for lunch, and we found it hidden among the kolbasz stands and trucks serving regional fried bread things from China. When we were here a few weeks ago exploring with my old friend Rick and his wife, Xioarong (who is a sophisticated Szechuan woman) we came across a small lunch place advertising itself in Chinese as “Lunch. Shan.” Xiaorong poked her head in the doorway and asked the family there what kind of food they served. "Food from Shan county in Fujien province."If you ever ate around East Broadway in Manhatten's Chinatown - noodle soups and spicy fish at rock bottom prices - you will understand our addiction to Fujienese cuisine. But here? In the Budapest wholesale market? It was a bit early, and we had already eaten our breakfast soup at the Dang Muoi across the street, so we took note of the place and made a mental promise to return. A couple of tables, a cash register, and a family making dumplings. What more could you ask for? This time Fumie and I went straight for it (address: K-8. Apparently, the buildings are named K, D, B, etc. Live and learn, right?)We walked in, checked out the menu. Noodles. Soups. Dumplings. Nobody spoke much Hungarian or English. Excellent! The partons took no notice of us at all and all chatted in Chinese. the market is full of wei lo folks from Hungary and Romania, porters and workers and buyers who have picked up a taste for Chinese lunch - and even some who have learned to speak Chinese as well. Fumie pointed at the steam dish full of dumplings and expertly miscommunicated enough to get a dozen for FT 800. I simply said “Give me something good” And presto!Out comes a bowl of some of the best Chinese noodle soup with pork ribs and vegetables this side of the Danube. This is a real winner - a deep delicious broth with real Chinese noodles, not the spaghetti some places use as a substitute. Sometimes there is nothing that beats a good Chinese noodle soup. I grew up with them as the cheapest good meal you could get in New York. The lack of chinese noodle soups used to be one of my biggest complaints about living in Budapest, but with a bit of faith, perseverance, and the world's fastest growing economy, Chinese noodles have come to me.And dumplings. these were hand made, filled with meat that may have come from some kind of animal and oddly, carrots. Served with soy sauce and vinegar. They made Tokyo born Fumie happy, as did half of my soup. If Budapest ever gets a decent Japanese ramen noodle shop, these soup stands in the market may get a run for their money, but until then, they are safe. Now when the weather gets a bit colder and we need something more substantial, there are the traditional hand pulled Langzhou noodles you can find in another Chinese soup joint in a different part of the wholesale side of the street market. This is an unnammed hole in the wall lunch spot with one table located in a warehouse across the street from the main gate of the Four Tigers Market. This little unmarked hole in the wall is run by folks who really don't care about anything except perfect noodles - atmosphere? Service? Nope. Just noodles. Tell me: is this not the most evocative bistro in all of Budapest? No? Well, they may well serve the best soup in town.Service with a smile? Who needs all that extra stuff. They stretch the noodles by hand. If you want them, you will sit at a cramped picnic bench beneath a warehouse of cardboard crates and enjoy it anyway. To find it go to the doorway below the sign that says "Kapu" (gate) behind the sign that says "CHANGE" next to the Rong Rong market vegetable market, which is now just a guy hawking bitter melons and bok choy from boxes on the street. Its on your left about 25 meters before you get to the Hungarian sandwich/lunch stand where all the Romanian Gypsies and Syrian moneychangers hang out. Bon Appetit!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Chewing through the Netherlands!

It has only been a couple of weeks but I miss the Netherlands already. If anything can be said about the Dutch, it is that they are "nice." Yes, nice. The single most ambiguous adjective in the English language, but in this case, devilishly specific.They are nice. They are also tasteful, often extremely so.The the hidden benefit of being a touring musician: you get to know places that would otherwise probably have passed by. Like Tilburg, a small textile trading town that is home to a University and the scene of the Tilburg International Gypsy Festival. Having done several tours of the Netherlands in the last decade I can honestly say that I see no great reason to stay in Amsterdam, and that eating in Holland is like eating nowhere else. Which is to say, you can eat well and cheap, but not necessarily in restaurants. I’m sure there are good restaurants in Holland, but the ones I have been treated to tend to be pricy and bland. Indonesian and Surinamese places are widespread and entirely assimilated into the Dutch national cuisine, but in truth the national food seems to be various forms of fast food: gyros, felaful, pizza, and even hybrids like the mysterious “Kapsalon” – a frightening mess of doner kebab meat, fries, cheese and mayonnaise topped with salad that was featured in a recent column on the award winning Istanbul Eats blog. Then there is Febo. Anybody who has ever staggered home late at night drunk in Holland knows that glowing sign offering solace and fried goodies to late night stomaches in search of edible solids. And that is pretty much what Febos offers.Febo is a chain of automats, self contained and nearly robotic human feed suppliers that offer coin operated little doors to open and a nearly fresh hamburger or croquette comes out. And apart from the fact that nearly everything is deep fried or of the hamburger tribe, it is actually quite fresh and healthy. Kroket is a very Dutch food that, obviously, has not traveled much outside of the borders.Originally a French croquette, it is a roll of beef with thick gravy breaded and fried. Basically, leftovers fried. These are sold everywhere, especially in “Snakbars” where you can have a dozen different varieties of things on sticks deep fried for you and then slathered in mayonnaise sauces. When you look at this, you are looking at what food of the future will look like. Scary. But not bad at all. But there is yet another Dutch favorite that vies for the title of Unhealthiest Food in Holland, and that is the humble Flemish frites and saus. Tilburg is in the Brabant region, a mere ten kilometers from the Belgian border, and is culturally and linguistically a part of the Flemish continuum, and that includes the thing we English speakers have erroneously labeled the “French” fry.They should be known as “Flemish” fries, but by now nobody really cares who mastered the art of the twice fried frite and who discovered the mayonnaise saus, it is the cheapest thing around when you have no idea what to eat and you do not want to shell out EURO 4 for another stick of fried mystery meat. When you get to the south of Holland or the north of Belgium you begin to notice that the festival backstage staff are often comprised of hugely fat people, frighteningly mutated Belgomorphs and Flemonsters who grow to legendarily immense size on a diet of frites, mayonaisse, and trappist beer. Which, at music festivals around here, is what is for lunch!The Dutch, however, do have a few real delicacies hidden up their sleeve. It is not all hothouse vegetables and cans of white sauce. Cheese, for one. It is everywhere, and it is always good. Good Dutch Gouda cheese, either “jonge” or”oude”, is a pleasure and still made by hand in small artisanal farm operations. And everybody seems to have a cryopac sealing machine on hand just in case you wish to travel with your hunks of perishable local cheese. We bought a couple of good chunks from a cheese dealer in Tilburg who gave us a lesson in local cheese (“try this… and try this one… now taste this one…”)We learned that a huge wheel cheese is the mark of a good cheese, because the farmer is confident that he knows exactly how long it takes to age and ripen. Factories can’t take that kind of risk with their product, so their wheels are standardized and smaller. There was an aged Gouda with a crystallized texture like that in parmesan cheese that was unforgettable. And while they have a long seacoast and an active fishing fleet, the Dutch don't really have a rich tradition of cooking seafood. They have excellent fresh ingredients for it, though, and good smoked fish - including eel - is widely eaten. The Dutch have a wonderful way with herring: nieuwe harengs are halfway between sashimi raw fish and a fermented pickled fish. Doesn’t sound good, does it? But it is.Boneless, mild and meaty, they are unlike any herring you may have tasted, and it seems that shipments of Dutch herring are finally making it to New York and the City of Foodies is going wild. The best ones you can get are in the open markets and served with a bit of chopped onion – you hold them by the tail and drop them down into your mouth. They pop them in a bun for the national sandwich, as well.And Fumie made her big discovery: Dutch pastries and cookies. Especially almond cookies. Every nation in Europe has one sweet baking specialty in which it surpasses all other competitors. The French win at baguette and croissant. The Hungarians win at pastry and scones. The Germans know how to bake cookies, and the Italians win for apple tarts. But the Dutch win the prize for anything made with almonds, especially ground almonds.For some strange reason, they simply do not know how to make a decent loaf of bread. Most Dutch I asked will admit this openly. They have a dozen types of bagged soft white bread or varying shades of the kind of sandwich bread we know all too well in the USA as “Wonder Bread.” When we stayed here on tour we used to drive across the border into Belgium to gas up (cheaper) and buy bread (better.) You would know you had crossed the border into Belgium because immediately the bike lanes would disappear, the roads would start on the street crumbling beneath you full of pot holes, and there would be piles of stinking garbage left out to rot. Oh, and the missing children posters on the bus stops. No, we would be very happy to return to the Netherlands, who were bursting with pride for their team’s efforts to place in the Euro Cup football finals.The town was all decked out to support them, but they lost all three matches to Portugal, Germany, and Denmark, the so-called “Death Group” consisting of the best teams in the league. Even the Tilburg tennis shop faced the EU Cup match wears Holland's Orange colors with ironic aplomb.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Gypsy Festival in the Netherlands!

Been home a week since playing the International Gypsy Festival in Tilburg, Netherlands. The Festival is one of Western Europe's best venues for Gypsy bands getting together for a long weekend of music, culture and dance organized by Albert Siebelink's Stichtung Kultoer music agency, based in Tilburg. Over the years they have toured many of East Europe's best folk and Gypsy music acts around the Low Countries and have a lot of experience dealing with the particularities of working with Gypsy musicians on the road. And working with local Gypsy communities, Albert has been able to promote a sense of cultural inclusion that would be welcome in the frighteningly anti-Gypsy political atmosphere we presently have here in Hungary. It all added up to a seamlessly organized festival, a great and enthusiastic crowd dancing outdoors in downtown Tilburg.
So what is a Klezmer band doing playing at a Gypsy festval... in the Netherlands? The theme this year was inspired by the work of a Dutch Gypsy classical composer, Roger "Moreno" Rathgeb, whose composition "Requiem for Auschwitz" reminds the world that Roma, as well as Jews, homosexuals, and political prisoners were murdered by the racist policies of the Nazis at Auschwitz. People don't usually associate Roma with Holland: under the Nazi occupation they were almost entirely exterminated alongside the Dutch Jews. Those that survive are determined to keep a vigil over their people in Europe, and the Festival is just one part of their public presence in NL.Albert asked that Di Nayes play alongside the Hutsul Gypsy band Manyo from the Ukraine, as we did on our last CD Traktorist. The band - known in Hungary as the Tecsoi Banda - learned a lot of Jewish music via their father, the fiddler Manyo Cheriavets, who played for Jewish communities in the Ukraine in the years after WWII. And so it was a matter of getting the band from Tjaciv to Budapest and on a plane to Eindhoven, NL. Not easy. But I love a challenge, and after taking these guys to New York two years ago it was fun to watch them experience west Europe for the first time. We stopped at a supermarket for snack supplies on the way in from the airport, and they were somewhat blown away by the free promotional serve-yourself coffee machine located in the middle of the produce department. In the west, they give coffee away... for free! At the hotel we were rubbing shoulders with some of the musicians from Taraf Des Haidouks and the Kocani Orkestar... Yes, thank you, dutch Hotel, for knowing exactly what Gypsy musicians want to eat at the breakfast buffet: mounds of greasy bacon and eggs, bread and cheese, and coffee. Yes I even met happy Gypsies (maladyilem baXtale romensa...)
The main festival was on Monday - Pentecost, a holiday known as "Pinkster" in the predominantly Catholic southern Netherlends - Taraf des Haidouks and Kocani Orkestar, as well as Olah Vincze's band and Lajko Felix from Serbia, and Amparo Cortes' flamenco inspired project from Spain, Temperamanto Gitano, which featured the violin of my old friend Tcha Limberger. Tcha is a Sinto Gypsy from Belgium who came to Hungary in the 1990s to learn music. He apprenticed under master fiddlers in Transylvania like Netti Sannyi and picked up the virutostic style and repetoire of the Kalotaszeg region. For the last few years Tcha has also been working with Alan Bern's Yiddish Summer Weimar program teaching Gypsy music and theory.
Born blind, Tcha is something of a genius, speaking at least a dozen languages (including several dialects of Romani, Hungarian, and Romanian) and playing Gypsy fiddle in a number of styles. When Yuri the drummer from Manyo met him he listened and then said to me in Hungarian "It is a pity he's blind." to which Tcha piped in fluent Hungarian "No, I can hear well enough!" Backstage you could hear musicians from all over speaking in Hungarian, alongside Romani, Serbian and Romanian. It was like we had never left home.Special thanks to our friends Hans and Vera for putting Fumie up and taking good care of the band, and to the Rom Baro himself, Albert, who managed to produce a festival of outstanding quality while facing a year of health concerns. As we say in Romani "T'aves but sastipe!" May you have much health!