Monday, November 06, 2006

pig of a day

I'm now in Balatonbolár, which is on the South Western side of Lake Balaton, Hungary’s (and most of Germany's), favourite summertime retreat. Imagine Sorrento, Lorne and a collection of Murray River shacks, with some castles, old churches and huge mansions situated around Central Europe’s largest lake and you’ve got the mental picture. My hosts, the Molnárs, both work as hotel managers in nearby lakeside hotels. As it is currently the off-season, they have plenty of free time and they like to fill in the hospitality gap by inviting couchsurfers like myself into their home. It was a wet 80km ride from Székesfehérvár, with the first 40km stretch of sketchy road covered by a cheeky and rather lazy $3 train trip. But before I write about this place, I still have a few tales from Székesfehérvár to tell.

In Székesfehérvár, (which, as we all know, was the capital of Hungary 1,000 years ago - thanks Gabriel), I stayed with Kata, an English teacher, who teaches from home, has three grown children, a colourful past with about a billion stories and a disliking for hot beverages. Her house, while situated in a rural looking area, is pretty close to old the town centre, with one of the oldest standing churches in Hungary (it was turned into a mosque when the Turks invaded and still has a little crescent moon near the steeple). Her two daughters and one son all have interesting lives. Daughter number one is married to the son of the mayor of Casablanca, her son came third in the national Hungarian Folk music awards and daughter number two is an ex-pro basketball player for the national female team.

On my first day, Kata took me for a quick tour of the old town, showed me a few historical sites and then pointed out one of the cafes in the area. "This place is great. It has cute little tables, pots full of coffee beans from all over the world and a great atmosphere". As it was a public holiday, I asked if she would like to join me the following day for a coffee.. "oh no. I hate coffee. Hate it." Fair enough. - I went back on a solo mission a couple of days later to try the coffee and it is below ordinary. The town has its share of old school Hungarian-Euro architecture, mixed in with Soviet housing estates and various industry on the outskirts. Kata introduced me to a few of her friends, including Gabor, who is a theatrical actor by night and works in a bookshop by day (we sell shit). On Friday, Kata's basketballing daughter Othillia came back from Budapest. We made a plan for the following night to see a basketball game and then go for drinks with her friends at a few of the local establishments. That was the plan, but the following morning changed everything.

I was woken up around 6am by the sounds of people laughing and banging stuff from just outside my window. I laid in bed thinking "I’m not getting out of bed for anything. This is nice and warm and I'll drift back to sleep any moment now". The kafuffle from next door didn't stop, my curiosity got the better of me, I got out of bed and peered out the window. The scene I was presented with didn't really work with my morning "Chinese" brain. There were 5 people standing around a table, which had a dead pig laying on it. They were taking turns at blowtorching the pig, then shaving the burnt hair from it. Still half asleep, I grabbed some breakfast, said good morning to Othillia and shared with her how I had been woken up. She too had been woken up by this bizarre pig burning ritual and said this was a normal Hungarian thing to do during the lead up to winter. Ok then, things were starting to click. She left for work and I put on some warm clothes and ventured outside to see if I could get a closer look at the pig.

As I approached the fence, the group turned and faced me with suspicious expressions. They asked something in Hungarian with the only two words I recognised being "Kata" and "Othillia". I somehow indicated I was a guest at Kata's, I was curious about what they were doing and I was from Australia. This last piece of information broke the ice, smiles cracked their suspicion and they gestured to me to join them. I walked around, went through the front gate and I was in. But first, Hungarian formalities. "Pálinka?" Being 7am, I hesitated for a second, but thought better of it and gave it a go. It certainly warms you up when it's -3. I was then invited in for breakfast, which consisted of blood sausage and eggs.

Over the next 5 hours, I assisted the family with dissecting the pig, turning it into bacon, sausage, ham, soup and stuffed stomach. This was accomplished with minimal English, minimal German, minimal Hungarian, plenty of wine and lots of gore. I got to eat raw pigskin (chewy but tasty), grind meat, taste fresh sausage mix and watch the process of a whole pig turning into the various by-products of pig. The family invited me back for dinner (which, as no surprise, was pig based), where we had pig soup and fried pig sausage with pickled paprika. Fatty but yum. They now have about 2 dozen salamis hanging in their pantry, which have been dubbed the "Kangaroo" salami.

Once a year, most rural Hunagrian families will spend an entire day working on a pig. This day is called disznótor (pig killing and butchering day). The day starts with the killing of the pig (traditionally with a knife, but this one had been electrocuted, as most pigs we eat these days are), then the family spend the day making the many things that comes from pig. Apart from a couple of snooty Budapestians, the Hungarians I’ve spoken to since have said that I was very lucky to be a part of such a genuine Hungarian family tradition.

If you eat meat, it is really important you see and understand the process behind getting the meat. People are so disconnected with what they eat that we happily shovel in stuff filled with synthetic preservatives and artificial flavours, but cringe at the idea of seeing where a meat lover’s pizza come from. Go to a farm, go to a butcher or watch a film at least once to see how an animal is killed (and most times suffers), for your taste buds. When I was about 14, I saw a cow go from walking around and chewing grass, to being bits of meat hanging up, with the occasional twitch now and then reminding me of just how fresh it was. There was the violent (but quick), gun shot to the head death; the butcher skinning and carving up the corpse; my dog Dermot chewing happily on the testicles; and the burial of the unused bits (head, tail, arse, innards, etc). It hardened my then vegetarian resolve, made more of a man out of me and taught me about the inner workings of a bull – all in one day. If you get a chance and can tolerate piss-poor quality video, I recommend watching one of John Safran’s non-aired docos Master Chef. It can be viewed here.

When I arrived back at Kata’s, Othillia was just leaving the house to go to the Basketball game. I tagged along and spent the first half of the game, musing at how weird my life had become over the last few months. It was some the most surreal cheerleading I’ve ever seen, but that was a result of my head contrasting the pompoms and calastenics with the people I’ve met and the places I’ve seen during my trip. If you're curious, it was close for most of the game, but the local team, Albacomp, ended up thumping Eastern Hungary quite convincingly. After the game, we met up with Othillia’s friends, went to a couple of drinking places and talked about life in Hungary.

Tomorrow I have to wake up at 5am, because at 6, the Molnárs are taking me to Hévíz, a town about 50km to the North West, which has hot springs, public baths and traditional Hungarian style massage. Nice one.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

Hey Dan

Great to read about all your fabulous experiences - I guess you are getting to travel the way you wanted to do and you are doing it very well. The pig thing sounds fascinating - very "house on the Prairie" if you ever read the books.