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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.