What We Ate On Our Summer Vacation

July 11, 2006

Don’t worry, O Best Beloveds, I know that hearing about people’s travel stories can be almost as tedious as watching their travel slides, so I won’t subject you to a blow by blow of our trip, but I will tell, for those who are interested, what we ate, bordering on perhaps obsessive detail. For the rest, the short version is I not only felt fine the whole time, I felt utterly fantastic; no stomach issues, no aches and pains, only the occasional crash of energy but always at bedtime, when it was appropriate and not in the way of further fun. It was remarkable, and all due, I think, to the relatively benign nature of this chemo from the very beginning. It also bodes well for my recovery when I am finally released from treatment. The only real problem was that I have trouble walking up hill and even more so going upstairs. I lose my breathe and hurt a bit. Since many old cities and towns are built on hills, this slowed us down some, and was even a bit embarrassing, as I had to stop and puff every few steps.

Before we get to the foreign food porn, though, a few actual trip highlights (feel free to skip to the next graph, where the caloric fun begins): the candy colored town square of Tallinn in Estonia. The concert of Russian sacred music, unamplified as it was originally sung, in a church, the space intended for it. The day we spent in Helsinki, because we could. The hours we spent in various pubs watching World Cup matches (usually with British fans, because they swear so excellently), because we had to; we were in a place where it was the only thing that mattered, and there was nothing to do but submit. Making friends with yabboos who had serious ideas to discuss about world peace and harmony in between screaming for Beckhan’s kick, and a former Lieftenant-Colonel of her Majesty’s Army, and hearing his stories about work done in Belfast and Bosnia. St. John’s eve in Parnu, with 10,000 drunken Estonians celebrating the longest night of the year (the sun doesn’t really go down so much as it hovers around the horizon for a couple of hours), some local rock bands like Mr. Happy Man and a bonfire. Swimming in the Baltic sea. Seeing Budapest again, and slipping it on like a favorite garment. The organ rehearsal we stumbled into in a medieval church, and the Catholic liturgical music concert we also happened on in St. Stephen’s Basilica. Talking to a girl who is a wood carver, at the St. Mattias church, about Hungarian traditional designs, and using them to convey new theological thoughts. Spending a day in the tiny town where my father’s paternal grandpa came from, with local friends we had met there ten years ago, with their family, and many friends, using about 60 words of English and Hungarian, and a long game of charades to talk about everything, a magical day of love and fellowship. Returning each night, either along a cobbled stone medieval street or a busy boulevard, to the flats we had rented in various towns, feeling like we were just another neighbor. The train ride to Salzburg, with the Alps and the lakes shining away. Making new friends at the philosophy conference, which included any number of stimulating, invigorating and inspiring conversations. The brilliant artistic production of “The Magic Flute” performed by marionettes from a tradition decades old. The view of Salzburg from the castle. Watching the World Cup semi finals in the Salzburg Square with thousands of screaming locals. A few precious hours in London, seeing the British Museum, and best and most precious of all, Katie, as beautiful as ever. Learning our flight home was delayed twenty hours until the following day, and returning to London to ponder its history via the National Portrait Gallery, and then seeing the play Katie is currently directing, an unexpected last minute gift that nearly resigned us to returning home to Dr. W. There was more, but you get the idea.

Right. Food. We started in Tallinn, a couple of hours after arriving, at a restaurant that specializes in pig–there is even bacon baked into the bread, which is a fine innovation. Slices of local roast pig, a mildly sweet sauerkraut, pig shaped window gardens, and the sun shining brightly just like it was about 4pm, except it was really 10:30 at night. Hi, welcome! Estonia’s more or less national dish is “pancakes” which are really more like thick bilinis, that slightly spongy and sweet dough, filled with oozing cheese sauce liberally laced with garlic, or spiced beef, or ham and cheese. As each was the size of a folded small town newspaper, we usually shared. “Feta” cheese was often creamy and spreadable, more like chevre, and made a nice addition to salads. A popular local restaurant is the Olden Haus, which sounds rather Medieval Times, as wait staff is dressed in authentic period costume, and they serve only by candle light and play period music, but it is not at all cheesy as one might think and we feared. All of it is done accurately (they have a shop that explains how all the stuff–clothes, music, even utensils — is traditionally made), and the food comes from meticulously researched and reproduced authentic recipes. Our first night, we had wild boar, bear and elk sausages, with wild berries, turnips, fig compote and horseradish, plus another huge pig knuckle with similar accompaniments, and creamy rose flavored pudding. The wait staff are made up entirely of the most adorable and best looking of the local young people. This only adds to the success of the venture as a whole. Really clever, really good food. In Parnu, during the St. John’s celebration, when we briefly went wandering out of the park where it was held, we ran into a guy sitting at a table bearing the remains of a whole roast suckling pig, complete with head. “Huh?” we said, smitten as always by pork, and grinned at him, trying to figure out how he got there (it was an event with proper vendors and people weren’t allowed to bring in outside food, so we weren’t sure what he was doing, since he looked like he was just feeding his friends), and when he got there, since we hadn’t seen him before despite having been all over the place several times. We told him it was a fine looking pig, whereupon he solemnly picked up a pig part and handed it to us. It was the best pork rib we’ve ever eaten, and since it was smoked with its skin attached, it came with its own cracklings. Our gleeful jumping up and down apparently paid him back for his generosity. We returned about an hour later and he was gone, as though he had never been there, was just our Fairy PigFather,and had vanished, his work done. Also at the festival, we got various grilled things–beef, chicken–all cooked together in a big wok style gizmo along with potatoes or french fries, usually topped with a variation on pink Russian dressing, and watched as some booths smoked salmon over open wood fires.

Desserts in Estonia were often disappointing; ice cream was reliable (especially the little street machine that took a cup of ice cream and manipulated it to turn it into instant soft serve) but pastries often stale or not creamy enough. Morning puff pastries filled with spinach and cheese were successful, as long as you got there early enough before they began to cool down and dry out. Local chocolate was superb, however (thanks, Melissa, for this tip!).

Our British retired colonel friend told us we should take the ferry to Helsinki for the day, and so we did. At the waterfront open air market, we got some fresh poached salmon on black bread, and a plate full of small fish, deep fried and heavily salted, which you ate whole, bones, head, tail and all. “Watch out for the seagulls,” they said, and we wondered why when–SWOOP!–“mine, mine, mine!” they cackled, the little feathery muggers, snatching a fish off the plate we made sure to cover after that. Some Swiss milk chocolate ice cream, with paper thin pieces of chocolate mixed in, some of the most heavenly ice cream of the trip.

We love to eat in Hungary, and just a short walk from our flat is Kispipa, one of our favorites. I got crackling slices of goose dressed with easily six whole grilled peaches, which was I delighted with until I tried Steve’s catfish paprikas, so orange with the paprika, so garlicky to the taste, plus cottage cheese dressed flaps of pasta topped with fatty and smokey chunks of bacon, and my dinner became dust and ashes in my mouth. We also returned to our favorite Watertown restaurant, for rich wild boar stew complete with almond croquettes, while Steve had the house fish stew, a spicy soupy glory. We found the sandwich shop that sells palm size pieces of bread topped with all sorts of tasties, like whipped up spreads, or salami–Hungarian Pic salami is the best in the world, sorry, Italian fans, but it has a punch and presence that is unparalleled–or egg and caviar. Enough sandwiches for two for lunch costs $2 total. And there were many plates of Hungarian cucumber salad and sliced tomatoes and onions, the tomatoes of such penetrating flavor that any other version of that fruit that we think is a vegetable are pale shadows in comparison. There was a Turkish donner kebob,and a couple samples of cherry soup, a Hungarian starter that, since it’s cream or milk based and usually topped with whipped cream, feels more like dessert to our palates. (Wild cherries were also in season and were superb.) Speaking of, we also had any number of pastries (cheap and plentiful in Hungary), and ice cream (eaten as early as 10am by locals, who are a delightful people), with at least one terrific dobos torte and a cake designed by its baker to celebrate his father’s 80th birthday, filled with chocolate and mocha cream.

One disappointment was a restaurant highly touted by our guidebook as the best in Budapest, the place for authentic Hungarian food, but once we got there–after a long, hot, uphill walk thanks to the guidebook neglecting to tell us when to exit the tram that goes there–they pushed not the typical dishes but work from their new outdoor grill. My fish and Steve’s pork cutlets in particular were very good, heavily seasoned, but nothing worth the struggle to get there and the many mosquito bites endured during.

During our visit with our friends in their tiny northern town, they fed us a local stew made of peppers, onions and tomatoes, slowly cooked over a wood fire in their front garden. The next day, we tried another local soup, with red beans, cream, paprika and chunks of sausage and bits of bacon. We plucked cherries right from neighbors’ trees and were fed fresh wild strawberries someone else had picked. We stopped at a local stand for a Hungarian specialty, hot dough fried and then topped with grated cheese. Our last evening in Budapest was spent at a relative of Kispipa, a mostly outdoor restaurant arranged around a courtyard, decorated with, of all things, trompe l’oiel latticework, plus della robbia style ceramic medallions, just a delightful space, even though it was raining a bit that night. Mary’s chicken paprikas was good and generous on the dumplings, but again, it was Steve’s duck, most certainly wild duck considering its particular strong yet not repellently gamy taste, along with an orange chutney that won the evening. We can’t wait to eat there again.

Salzburg both sped up and slowed the feasting. We often didn’t have time nor inclination for full meals, but there were sausage wagons galore, that would cut the wiener of your requesting into small slices, add some not that spicy brown mustard on the side, and a hard roll, and had it too you. We tried at least five varieties, but our favorite was filled with gooey cheese. Meanwhile, I practiced my one German phrase (“Mit Shlag, bitte”–with cream, please…which cracked up one of my professors at the conference, who is Austrian, as I shrugged “What else do I need to know how to say?”) though only had shlag on hot chocolate, and in between two pink colored meringue shells. Oh, and between a more gooey whipped egg concoction and coffee flavored between more puff pastry. And in a big pile next to some apple strudel at the conference dinner. Hardly any, really. Lots of pastries, naturally, and more ice cream. A plate of cheese and green onion covered dumplings in a sizzling iron pan. Some pan fried pike. And our last dinner was slices of roast pork so tender and robust in flavor that it was like the prime rib of pork–never have we had a cut like that–accompanied by a baseball sized dumpling. That should have been enough, but we also ordered “bacon bread” which proved two slices of hardy toast topped with at least eight strips of strong bacon, all baked in an oven.

Finally, we spent our half day in London, happily trying both a large donner kebob AND some righteously salty and vinegary fish and chips, plus fresh peaches with double cream poured over them. At the local deli, they had us sample their superb falafalla (with a lemon kick at the back end). We were caught off guard with our delayed flight and didn’t pull the eating together as well as we might, but at Steve’s recommendation, I tried a Walls 99 complete with Cadbury flake, and it was the best soft serve ice cream I’ve ever had–the cream content makes a difference–Dan the Flake makes it a sort of do-it-yourself chocolate chip. British people reading this are laughing at me, but really, it was a Moment.

There were a lot of moments and it added up to something wonderful.

Mit Shlag,