Tuesday, November 19, 2013

St. Martin Day: What's Good for the Goose...

November 11 is Saint Martin's Day, which is traditionally celebrated in Slovakia, Croatia, Austria, Poland, and... well, most of the countries that surround Hungary. Oh, and they celebrate it in Hungary as well. Well... they have started to celebrate it. Hungary has loads of traditionally marked folksy holidays to keep itself busy, but  in contrast to Saint Martin Day most were not actually cooked up by the Marketing department. I am not saying that Saint Martin isn't legit or doesn't rank alongside December's St. Lucy day (Where... are... my... eyes!... MY EYES?) or Saint Nicholas Day (bananas!) for early winter fun, but it is much more celebrated by our neighbors and by Hungary's German speaking Schwab minority.
Actually, Saint Martin of Tours was born in Hungary - in Savaria, presently kown as Szombathély on the Austrian border, but this was long before any Hungarian speaking Magyars were to be found any place near Hungary and he spent a lot of his time as a Roman soldier in Gaul where he wound up as Bishop of Tours and Patron Saint of Roast Goose. But... Saint Martin Day celebrates the arrival of the new wine harvest, and in Austria and among our local Schwabs he is also is celebrated by eating goose.
Restaurants love it. Wine associations love it. Producers of pricey goose liver pate love it. So if the Austrian Tourist board can make a hefty Euro penny out of it, why can't we? I should add that now - the weeks after Saint Martin Day - is the time to eat goose in Hungary. The markets are full of it at rock bottom prices. A fresh whole goose liver is a pricey treat, but you can get it for about FT 4000 a kilo - about half the normal price - if you buy now (at Bosnyak or Vamház tér markets) if you are lucky. And remember: in the Land of Lard goose fat is the kosher alternative!
With this in mind, and a paying gig tied into the deal... we were off to Szentendre to visit the Outdoor Folk Museum, also known as the Skanzen, for Saint Marty Day! Now, the Skanzen is a must see if you are hankering to get outside of Budapest, reachable by taking the HÉV commuter train north a half hour to Szentendre. It was designed during the Communist era of the early 1950s to house folk architecture from around Hungary so ethnography students could do their "research" without having to make a trip out to the villages, where actual villagers live, which is a really dumb way to approach ethnography that only the Communists could have come up with. They were good at that kind of thing.
Over the last two decades the Skanzen (the name comes from the Skansen Swedish folk architecture museum in Stockholm)  has developed into a comfortable and extensive folk museum that provides a venue for festival events such as the Saint Martin's Day festival. I always experience a bittersweet reaction to strolling around amid these beautiful thatched roof peasant houses. When I was a kid visiting my Mom's family in Hungary you could still find a lot of these regionally distinctive old peasant homes in use in most Hungarian villages.
No longer. During the 1970s the Hungarian state made low-interest loans available for people to build "modern" houses in place of their old thatched ones. Virtually everybody who could rebuilt their homes. Centralized planning made only a few designs available, basically one design was a square house with windows, the other was a slightly more rectangular house with windows. That is it. That is the design of the houses you will see in 95% of the villages in Hungary today. A stroll through the rich diversity on view at the Szentendre Skanzen makes that point so much more painfully obvious. Not so long ago, our villages were truly amazing and beautiful.
Of course, not every modern person wants to live under a thatched roof. They tend to house mice, magpies, and whatever else creeps and crawls and likes to keep warm in the winter times. And as a friend of mine who did live in an old thatched house in Veszprém in the 1990s learned, it can be demanding to keep the wattle and mud walls upright. There are still a few thatched houses around but very few people still know how to repair the thatch, which has become expensive as well and tends to be used only for thatching folkloric restaurants and tourist houses. Back in the early 1990s I remember riding around Zuglo (presently known as Papcsakistan) here in Budapest and there were still a few old reed roofed houses on some of the back streets. But wouldn't you want a thatched peasant house if you were going to keep a herd of long horned Racka sheep?
These babies are an old breed native to the Hungarian plain. As with a lot of Hungarian native breeds, they seem to have been bred not only for wool and meat, but  - like the long horned Hungarian cattle - also for poking each other's eyes out if kept in close proximity, and so you don't often get to see them casually unless you are out on a vast empty plain somewhere where it isn't easy to poke your eyes out. These are the sheep that lend their hides to make the woolly shepherd's cloaks that are still worn by Romanian sheep professionals in the Apuseni mountains in Romania. With the decline in open range shepherding in Hungary, Hungarians tend to raise them for their insufferable cuteness.
Cute, however, does not describe the mangalica pig. Mangalicas are "hairy pigs" which retain a  lot of their wild boar forebear traits. They are native to Central Europe, deriving from a cross between the Bakony pig and wild boars in the early 19th century. Hairy pigs like to be raised with access to the outdoors, ranging over open ground, and as you can see, they will tend to turn any ground they - a cabbage field or maybe the horse pasture -  find into a nice thick acre of mud.
Naturally, peasant farmers chose less destructive breeds that could flourish in the constrictive quarters of pig pens and sties, and the breed eventually nearly died out. The modern Mangalica been bred from a few scattered survivors into a major new direction in Hungarian cuisine. Hungarians love bacon, which is something that Hungarians are very, very good at making, and Mangalicas are very, very good at producing fat. I have tried eating mangalica pork chops a few times, but they never impressed me as something worth paying more for, but mangalica bacon and lard - and any salami or cold cut produced from it - are one of the major culinary giant steps taken by Hungarian cooking in the last decade.
And of course, you could find some very good salamis for sale... and tempting tastes of old regional peasant dishes being prepared in many of the museum's reconstructed peasant houses. And this being Saint Martin's day, a large tent housed a wine festival offering a selection of the year''s newest vintages, some of which were coming from some of the very good small producers who have been raising the level of Hungarian wine over the last two decades to become some of Europe's best affordable wines.
Not to mention producers of the other stuff Hungarians love to drink: pálinka, high octane home brew fruit brandy. The last few years have seen a boom in small, high quality pálinka makers who have taken the humble home brew tradition (made using a kitchen pressure cooker, a kitchen sink cooling coil, and a cola bottle) and made it into some very carefully refined white lightning. But unlike most Hungarians I simply can't drink the stuff during the daylight hours. At least not any more. It knocks me for a loop - especially the home made stuff you get in Transylvania that clocks in at 125 proof. On the upside, I never get hangovers from drinking pálinka, at least not the pure drop. I wouldn't touch the stuff you buy in supermarkets and stores, though. If I want my head to throb I have something else that does the trick... bagpipes.