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The Traveler and the Cook: The Land Beyond the Forest

Our Cooking Instructor, Eva Szigeti, takes us on a journey into The Land Beyond the Forest, where sheep roam, and their cheese is currency…

Food is part of our everyday life. Even when our primary travel goal is not the exploration of the cuisine of a certain region or county, culinary experience often finds us. While traveling, we are inevitably exposed to local food, and sometimes we stumble upon a great culinary experience almost by a chance.

That summer, we were traveling in a part of Romania known as Transylvania, The Land Beyond the Forest. Although in the Western world Transylvania is often associated with Dracula (thanks to Bram Stoker’s novel), the story of the vampire count doesn’t have a prominent place in the culture of the region. We were exploring a different side of the country: its historic towns, salt mines, dark pine forests, and beautiful wild meadows.

One day, we were hoping to buy some local sheep cheese in a small mountain village. A villager advised us to get the cheese directly from the shepherds. This seemed simple enough. We were given instructions of where to find them, and off we went, leaving the village and hiking up the hills to high-altitude meadows in search of the shepherds and their flock. The two-hour walk took us through rolling hills with green pastures and blooming wild flowers. This is where the shepherds and their sheep spend the whole summer. In early spring, villagers merge their animals, and a shepherd and his helpers herd the sheep and goats to pastures in the hills above the village. The sheep and goats graze on the mountain grass throughout the warm season. The men sustain themselves on a diet consisting mostly of milk, cheese, polenta, preserved meats, and gifts of the mountain: wild mushrooms, berries, and herbs. The shepherds and the animals spend the whole summer and early fall up on the high meadows, and they return to the valley along with the cold autumn winds.

Our walk seemed longer than what we had expected. Did we get lost? The first sign that we were heading in the right direction came in the form of loud, not-too-friendly shepherd dogs running toward us. The dogs are a much-needed help for the shepherds. They herd the animals and protect them in an environment where wolves and bears are a real threat. To them, we were intruders. We stopped to make sure the shepherd noticed us before the dogs could reach us.

The shepherd’s hut is a shabby one-room shack with no electricity or running water. It serves as a shelter and sleeping area for the men, as well as a work space where cheese is made. The role of the shepherd and the cheese maker merge here; the shepherd not only takes care of the animals—he also turns their milk into cheese. The inside of the hut is rudimentary and dark. There is no stainless steel equipment here; just beat-up pots, rustic wooden tools that could be part of a museum exhibition, and cheese hanging from the ceiling.  The tools and methods of cheese making are the same as they were 100, 200, perhaps even 500 years ago.

If a cheese from this hut sat on a shelf of a specialty cheese store in a big city, it would be described as an artisan organic cheese made from milk of pasture-raised animals. But the wheels from these pastures are not destined for a store, and they could never be sold in one. The shabby shepherds’ hut—without running water and refrigeration, milk heated above a wood fire, wooden tools with quite a bit of patina—hardly conforms to the regulations of the European Union. The cheese from the shepherd’s hut doesn’t enter any formal market. Except for a wheel or two sold to the occasional town-people wanting to taste the real stuff, this cheese feeds the locals. A self-sufficient lifestyle is still prevailing in the economy of small, remote mountain villages. The cheese is distributed among the villagers—the owners of the animals. Traditionally, making cheese was a way of preserving milk. Some of the cheese made in the summer is still saved for the winter months. For the most part, the cheese is consumed within the families. Any excess is bartered for produce or services.

While cheese can serve as a currency in these parts of the world, money may not buy us cheese on the high mountain pastures. Bills aren’t very useful up in the mountains. The shepherd prefers to trade his cheese for fresh vegetables, preserved meats, and bread. Luckily, we came prepared….

Carrying cheese, like a trophy, we walked back down to the village, tired but happy and amazed. We found and tasted a truly authentic Transylvanian cheese; a rustic, pure, strong, perhaps unpolished cheese, deeply rooted in the local land and the ancient tradition of cheese making on the high pastures of The Land Beyond the Forest.

 

Cheese Spread with Herbs

Making cheese at home is not a small task. Although this spread isn’t a true cheese spread (it is made from plain whole-milk yogurt), its preparation involves one of the steps present in cheese making (draining the whey out of the cheese). It is a great first project when introducing the concept of cheese-making to children.

Ingredients:

3 cups organic whole-milk plain yogurt

fresh herbs (such as parsley, dill, chives)

salt to taste

Line a colander with several layers of cheesecloth. Put the colander into a pot or large bowl. The whey draining from the yogurt will accumulate in this vessel. Measure out the yogurt and put it into the colander. Keep the draining yogurt in the fridge for a day or two. The longer it drains, the firmer the spread gets.

Take the spread out of the refrigerator and put it into a bowl. Add salt and finely chopped fresh herbs. (We used dill and chives.) Enjoy with bread or fresh vegetables.

The whey could be used for smoothies or shakes, as a cooking liquid for grains or potatoes, or in muffin and bread recipes.

 

The Traveler and the Cook: Visiting a Palace

Our Cooking Instructor, Eva Szigeti, tells about a palace adventure, ponders what it must have been like to live there, and provides a recipe for a lavish quark strudel…

Visiting a historic house, old cathedral, castle, or a town with rich history could feel a little bit like time travel. Stepping with half a foot into another era is not only fun. These trips into the past also unquestionably contribute to our children’s informal education, nurture their imagination, put their knowledge into context, encourage critical thinking about the past, and even put our own lifestyles into perspective. For our family, one of these exciting trips was a visit to Esteháza, an estate with a grandiose palace located in western Hungary.

As the large structure emerged in front of us (the front of the building is 100 meters long, the wings measure 46 meters), the kids first question was: Was this actually someone’s home? The answer to this question is yes, but it wasn’t the family’s primary residence. The 126-room palace was just a summer house in rural Hungary, far away from Vienna. The palace, built by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, is often referred to as the Hungarian Versailles, although perhaps it has more in common with the Viennese Schönbrunn Palace. The glory days of the estate lasted from 1766 (when the main part of the palace was finished) till 1790, with the death of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy. Because of the estate’s remote location, his successors didn’t deem it a desirable place to live.

Although today no one would consider the place to be far from Vienna (only 60 miles), it still feels remote and rural. We got off the train at the nearest train station, which was about 2 miles from the palace. As it turned out, the small town has no public transportation and not even a taxi service. So lots of walking was part of our day.

Inside of the palace, the children wanted to run up and down the wide staircase, touch the golden rococo floral decorations on the wall, and explore the rooms. They fantasized about how much fun it would be to play hide-and-seek, to explore the attic, or look for secret doors. Of course, none of these were an option. So instead they tried to listen to the guide and take it all in. We admired the enormous mirrors, the furniture, the frescoes and chandeliers on the ceiling, and the huge wood burning stoves that had been fed by the servants from the adjacent rooms. In the Banquet Room, my daughter was imagining balls that might have taken place there long ago. She saw hundreds of candles burning, women in beautiful dresses, heard the music and wished that she could be one of the dancers.

We learned from the guide that the estate hosted not only balls, but also large hunts and big feasts. The most likely foods served were veal, rabbit, lamb and mutton, poultry, wild birds, and fish; all accompanied with sauces flavored by spices and nuts. The guests probably also enjoyed pates and rice porridge with spices, prepared by the many cooks of the estate. Exotic fruits, like oranges and lemons, were served. Chocolate biscuits and marzipan, a popular dessert of the era, might had been offered to the guests.

The Price, patron of the arts, also hosted concerts, opera, and theater performances. The estate had its own Opera House (seating 400 people), Marionette Theater, and a Music House with apartments for the musicians, actors, and dancers employed by the prince. The orchestra was led by none other than the celebrated composer Joseph Haydn. Haydn lived on the estate from 1766 to 1790. The majority of his symphonies were written for the Prince’s orchestra, and they were most likely performed for the first time in Esterháza.

As we walked through the estate’s extensive park back to the train station, my daughter expressed her desire to live in a palace. Then we tried to imagine the everyday life in the Esterházy Palace 250 years ago. The lifestyle of 18th century aristocracy seemed lavish, but extremely wasteful; grand, but perhaps not very comfortable.  After all, they lived in times when 60 miles was a great distance.

Their luxurious palaces had no electricity, central heating, or plumbing. They wore fancy, but most likely uncomfortable clothing. My kids wondered if Prince Esterházy would have perhaps preferred to live in our heated house with a nice bathroom, wear a cotton T-shirt, and listen to music every day without having to provide food and accommodation for musicians of an orchestra.

Quark Strudel

Strudel is a typical Austro-Hungarian dessert. The layered pastry (with sweet or savory filling) became popular in the Habsburg

Empire in the 18th century.

Making the dough itself requires skill, time and patience. The dough is rolled out, then gently stretched by hand until it’s paper-thin. Then it is filled and rolled up. Popular fillings include apple, sour cherry, poppy seed, and quark.

Today not many home bakers take on the challenge of making the strudel dough. Most bakers rely on store-bought dough. Filo dough is a good substitute for dough made from scratch.

 

Makes two strudels

For the dough:

8 sheets of thawed filo dough

6 tablespoons melted unsalted butter

 

For the filling:

1 pound quark or unsalted farmer’s cheese

2 eggs, separated
¼ cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
grated zest of 1 lemon
½ cup sugar
pinch of salt
½ cup of raisins, optional
4 tablespoons breadcrumbs
Confectioners’ sugar for sprinkling

 

Preheat the oven to 375 °F. Lightly brush a 13×9-inch baking dish with melted butter.

Prepare the filling. Put the quark/farmer’s cheese into a mixing bowl. Add egg yolks, sour cream, sugar, salt, vanilla extract, lemon zest, and raisin. Beat the egg whites until stiff, then gently fold them in the quark mixture. Cover your work surface with a clean kitchen towel. Place a sheet of filo on the towel (with the long side facing you) and gently brush it with the melted butter. Layer three more filo sheets, buttering each layer. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of breadcrumbs in a 3-inch strip along the longer end of the dough, leaving an inch on the bottom and the sides without any crumbs. Gently spread half of the cheese mixture on top of the breadcrumbs then sprinkle with another tablespoon of breadcrumbs.  Fold the unfilled sides in and roll up like a jelly roll. Place the strudel seam side down on the baking sheet. Brush the pastry with melted butter. Repeat the process to make the second roll. Bake for 35 minutes or until the pastry is golden brown. Place the baking sheet on a wire rack and let cool for 15-20 minutes. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar, slice, and serve.

The Traveler and the Cook: At the Airport

In her new series, our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, writes about airport experiences that went beyond the expected…

At the Airport

For the weary traveler, airports are rarely fun. Usually, we don’t think of airports as places where the real travel experience happens. They are just the unavoidable necessary steps toward our travel destinations, where all the fun and experiencing is supposed to happen. If time spent at an airport becomes memorable, it is usually for the wrong reason: a missed plane, hours of delay, lost luggage…

That being said, I’d like to share two very different airport-related experiences that don’t fit this equation.

One of them happened years ago in Paris Orly Airport. As I was absent-mindedly hurrying through the airport, I suddenly became a witness of a tiny moment in some strangers’ story and felt deeply touched by it.

I had very little time to catch my connecting flight. Navigating the corridors as a little piece of an anonymous moving crowd, the only thing on my mind was to get to the right gate on time. But then, suddenly, I had to stop. We all had to stop, and readjust our minds, our perception of the world—because the following happened: The column of people in front of me stopped moving.  Something was wrong. I could see the escalator at the end of the narrow corridor—the only available exit route in front of us. The escalator was running and there was a crowd of people seemingly waiting to get on, but the steps of the escalator continued their rhythmic ascent without carrying any people.

The group at the very front seemed to be traveling together. Their clothing stood out. They weren’t dressed for the cold Parisian winter day. Rather, some wore short-sleeved T-shirts; others wore traditional African clothing made for a warm climate. They seemed scared and indecisive. The older members of the group were discussing something. Suddenly a teenaged boy stepped out of the group and turned back as if asking for the approval of the elders. He then stepped onto the escalator and went up. Shortly after, the others hesitantly followed the young boy. I realized that escalators were not part of their experience prior to this moment. Confronted with one for the first time, they did not know what to do until the curiosity of the young boy grew stronger than his fear, and he showed the group the way…

I do not know what was to follow for these families after they arrived at the top of the escalator. Perhaps they were on a vacation, or perhaps they were fleeing their homeland. I have often wondered how their lives unfolded since that cold day in Paris. I hope they found their way and their place.

The other very different and cheerful story involves travelling with my children and their perception of a country, based solely on its largest airport. We were changing planes in Zurich, Switzerland. This time, I didn’t have to worry about not making it on time to the connecting flight, as we had a five-hour layover. I was worried about having too much time. Spending hours in transit after an overnight flight is usually not fun.

I had prepared. We had plenty of snacks packed to fight hunger and also serve as a distraction. There were a few small toys, books and activity booklets in my backpack, ready to provide a little entertainment. But, in the end, we never took them out. The children vastly enjoyed the airport. The sleepiness was gone and the boredom was lifted as they looked out of the airport windows and past the runways. As far as the eye could see, there was forest, and only forest. We were at the largest airport in Switzerland and it wasn’t surrounded by an urban or industrial landscape, but rather, endless trees. The children noticed it right away. They pointed it out, and they loved it. They appreciated how clean everything was, too. We enjoyed the view for a while, and then it was time for lunch. We chose a deli that imitated the looks of a rustic small town bakery. The soft pretzels with ham a cheese looked so good and tasted even better. A piece of Swiss chocolate for dessert followed. We learned and experienced that there is such a thing as a good airport food – at least in Switzerland. Of course, one pays the price, as Switzerland is anything but inexpensive.

The natural question for my children to ask was: “Why don’t we live in Switzerland?” This country, experienced only through its airport, somehow made so much sense to them. My children now often talk about Switzerland. Since spending five hours at the airport in Zurich, this country has become one of their dream destinations. My daughter started learning Italian, and explained her decision among others things with: “It could be useful in Switzerland”.

So we keep saving for a ‘real’ trip to the country of the majestic Alps, delicious chocolate, and yummy airport sandwiches.

Airport Pretzel Sandwiches

This is a recipe for the sandwiches we enjoyed at the airport in Zurich. Butter, ham, and cheese are a combination typical for Germany and German speaking regions of Europe.

If you are in the mood, you can start with baking soft pretzels from scratch. Pretzel dough is basically yeasted bread dough with a bit of butter in it. The Internet is a good source for pretzel recipes and instructions on how to properly form them. Compared to baking bread or rolls, making pretzels involves an extra step: immersing the formed pretzels in boiling water before baking. This process creates the typical chewy texture of pretzels (and bagels too).

Making pretzels from scratch at home requires some time and a bit of patience, but it can be done, especially if you have helpers interested in playing with dough.

  • For each person/eater, you will need:
  • 1 soft pretzel
  • some butter
  • 1 slice of good quality ham
  • 1 slice of Gruyere cheese

Slice your pretzel in half. Butter both sides. On the bottom part, layer the cheese and ham. Cover with the top half on the pretzel. Enjoy for lunch or pack for your next road trip.

The Traveler and The Cook: Visiting Familiar Places

In her new series, our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, writes about visiting her childhood hometown with her children, and about the fruitful discoveries they make along the way…

Traveling with children usually results in a very different experience than getting on the road with adult company. It is not only that when children come along we adjust the pace and the activities to meet their needs and interests. What is truly unique is that we get to see our travel destinations from a different angle, with the refreshing eye of a child. The whole travel experience takes on one more extra layer when we decide to take our kids to places that have a special place in our personal history; when hometowns, college towns, broader areas of our childhood become destinations. We are hoping to include the children in our story, one that is the precursor to their own.

We traveled to Central Europe last fall to visit family, friends, and participate in a harvest in the vineyard (the first one ever for my children). On most of our day trips, we kept crossing paths with the Danube. For me, the Danube is ‘The River’. I was born in a town on the Danube, learned to swim in its waters, and I spent my college years in two cities on the Danube. The river had been part of everyday life, just as it was part of those moments that stood out. There was no New Year’s Day during my childhood without a family walk to the Danube. I always saw it as a New Year’s pilgrimage to experience the cleansing effect of chilling wind carried by the river.  So naturally, encounters with the Danube were part of our recent trip.

With the children, we strolled on the banks of the river; they threw pebbles, watched ships. We talked about history: times when these parts of the world were the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. “Wait, what? Romans here?” the children wondered. So we went to a museum to see some artifacts and to learn more. Turkish invasion was the next subject….

From my hometown, we walked through a bridge over the Danube and crossed to another country. As history has redefined borders, one town has turned into two: one on each side of the Danube and each in a different country. Luckily, both countries are now part of the European Union, so we were able to enjoy ice cream on the other side of the river without needing a passport.

During our trip we stood on several castle hills, all overlooking the Danube. The children imagined themselves to be knights watching the approach of the enemy. They felt lucky to be strategically well positioned and protected in their castles. They were enjoying themselves. But I kept wondering during the whole trip: Are they unimpressed? Does this experience really sink in? Or are these only fleeting moments of fun that will be soon forgotten?

After many day trips came the long anticipated day of the harvest in the vineyard.  The harvest of vine grapes has a special place in my personal mythology for a simple reason: I was born on the day of harvest in my grandfather’s old vineyard.

The bulk of the grape harvest in that area happens around Saint Michael’s Day (September 29th). The exact time is determined by the skilled eye and taste buds of the grower/vintner. The right levels of sugar, tannin, and acid are the first step to a good wine.

On the day of the harvest, the grapes were plump, ripe, and ready. Probably like my mother’s belly on that day many harvests ago. I was happy that we were there, that my children get to see the vineyard in its full autumn beauty, that they will savor the many tastes of different grape types, all of them so distant from the supermarket varieties.

Grape harvest is quite a sensory experience. It is not only the smell and taste of the berries, but how aware we become of our hands. The super ripe berries are no longer able to contain their juices. With each picked cluster, the hands of a picker get more and more sticky from the sweet juice that, like a magnet, attracts dirt, resulting in a gray sugary second skin.

Like everything else, grape harvest has its traditions. As for lunch, we had the traditional: roasted duck prepared on the day before (because who has time to cook on a harvest day?) with pickles and bread, and sweet bread for dessert—the perfect food to eat while sitting in the grass at the edge of the vineyard or under one of the peach trees dotting the rows of wine grapes.

The life span of grape vines is 50-100 years. Although the vineyard where harvest took place on the day of my birth no longer exists, we went to visit the place where it oncegrew. We looked around in the trees, and there they were: old, woody vines climbing up the tree trunks in search of light, and still bearing grapes. We picked a basketful of this surprise fruit for my grandparents, so they could taste and remember their lost vineyard.

My grandfather is fond of grape vines. He made sure his descendants would have no lack of them in the decades to come.  At the age of 90, he decided the time had come to plant a new vineyard. And that’s what he did.

There is one single grape vine growing in my garden as a fill-in for a vineyard. I bought the plant four years ago in an Italian gardening center without being aware of its variety.  The plant bore fruit for the first time this season. With great expectations, I picked a plump berry, and to my surprise, I tasted something very familiar. I recognized the cultivar right away: sweet, aromatic with a thick slip skin. Isabella: one of the varieties that had grown in grandfather’s old vineyard.

Eva’s Recipe for Traditional Braised Cabbage

On the day of the harvest in the vineyard, roasted duck is eaten picnic-style with only bread and pickles. When served properly on the dining table for a fall Sunday lunch, roasted duck and goose are often accompanied with a side of braised cabbage. Braised cabbage is also a nice side dish to be served with pot roast, roasted ribs or any other roasted meat, including game.

1 head of cabbage (3-4 pound), shredded
1 medium onion, sliced
3 tablespoons canola oil or lard
3 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
2 bay leaves
½ teaspoon caraway seeds
½ cup water

 

Sprinkle the shredded cabbage with 1 ½ teaspoon of salt and let it stand for 30 minutes. Squeeze out the cabbage and discard the liquid.

Using a large heavy-bottomed casserole, heat the oil or lard and sauté the onion until limp. Add the sugar, stir and let it lightly caramelize. Add the cabbage and seasonings. Pour on the water, bring to a simmer, and cover. Gently simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 3 hours or until tender. Great fresh, and even better reheated the next day.