When you meet a Hungarian the first thing they will tell you is that they like to eat and drink. That is certainly true, but also only half the story. Generosity is a by-word. Having struggled manfully through our first few meals on our Hungary trip, we were surprised to learn that if you eat everything you have presented before you, the perception is that your host has not provided enough. It is considered polite to leave a generous helping behind, thereby complimenting your host on their copious provision. The same is true of the offering of wine. If you finish the bottle another will be provided, ad infinitum. It is a scary country for those in need of moderation!
I have been in Zebergeny, a village on the Danube about an hour outside Budapest, for a week. I am here with the whole family and two of their friends. We did the ghastly Ryanair and then a huge hire car, because we are six in all, plus luggage. In scalding heat we headed into the city in order to buy delicacies in the fabulous late 19th Century Central Market Hall (in Hungarian, Nagycsarnok) with its striking green and yellow Zsolnay tiled roofs. It is the hottest day in Budapest for a hundred years. Everyone is wilting and lack lustre. The idea of buying Mangalitsa (the wonderful cuddly looking hairy indigenous pig) salami and slices of deep fried fat (a local snack delicacy) and various other embellishments, seems a terrible trial. After the desultory purchase of some local honey, we head off to the country. Our party has now increased in number, with the addition of an old friend, her daughter and her friend. After sight of a road accident where we see an upturned car, a damaged truck and several bemused looking occupants meandering about, we arrive at the house a group of nine, only to discover there are only three bedrooms. Such worries are put to one side as we pour into the pool - sanity and calm return as our bodies recover their temperature balance.
This is a busman's holiday as with only 10 days to go before our client's daughter's wedding, the house we are decorating needs to be finished. In addition, I am gathering the last few exhibits for the Masterpiece "European Treasures" show at Fine Art Asia in Hong Kong this autumn. Everything has to go to the printers and the plans need to be finalised before the end of July. I am ringing various dealers around the world and am discussing stand designs with Stabilo in Eindhoven - whilst here in Hungary we have furniture movers, painters, carpenters and electricians buzzing about.
In Zebergeny we have one incredible asset - Ildiko, or Ildy as she is known. My friend Lucinda, who is here for only four days, manages to create a new version of what seems to me to be a very simple name every time she speaks to her. I was, almost, impressed by her vocal versatility. The only variant of the necessary letters she never employed was her actual name. So it goes! Ildy lives nearby and is our intermediary and our whip cracker. She explains and cajoles, she bullies and encourages. Ever smiling and even offering the occasional wink, she gets the men into gear and achieves, with a recalcitrant workforce, wonders of delivery. She is dark haired, brown eyed and has a honied suntan from the local weather, and has endless energy. She runs a local hostel where the Hungarian overweight come to receive motivational training. They arrive beaten by their size and leave positive and encouraged to lose weight. She juggles her new arrivals along with keeping the men busy here at the house. Her asset, ex-partner and father of their charming nine year son Bence (needless to say Lucinda could only manage Ben), is Gyozo, pronounced Yerza. He is an astonishing cook. He has produced for us a short resume of the best in Hungarian cuisine. We have had Mangalitsa steaks, fried with the garnish of a cut wheel of fat, deep fried trout on a bed of herb rich potatoes, goulash (of course), barbecued spatchcock chicken on a bed of paprika-doused roast vegetables, and finally the most fabulous fried foie gras folded into a fluffy bed of shredded deep fried onions, accompanied by small hillocks of herb rice. Each meal is presented with delightful, charming solemnity. The food is prepared and fashioned with total commitment and though far from minimal it still achieves a startling sense of freshness. But that is not all. Breakfast can be a feast too - we had scrambled eggs with thick salty slivers of bacon topped with a sprinkle of paprika, and wonderful platters of cut fruit. Even the toast is a treat - it is fashioned from dark rye and nut bread, warmed and spread with salty butter and the local, slightly sour, jams.
Everything is washed down with copious cups of deep, dark, black coffee. But here, of all places, wine rules. From dawn until way past dusk everyone, and I mean everyone, has a glass of wine on the go. The Sauska wineries in Tokaj and Villanyi produce a wine for every taste and every hour - sparking whites and reds, light wines, rosé, a fleet of whites and reds, some to be drunk cool, some freezing cold, others warm. Any nuance of mood can generate the taste for a wine that suits. Finally there is the Hungarian Palinka, a sort of eau de vie that comes in plum, apricot and pear flavours. The tradition is to have some before a meal as it is said to 'line' the stomach. Line it with alcohol, as I see it.
Zebergeny is a community and a small one at that. Everyone knows everyone and the centre of life is the Mokus (squirrel) bar by the town square, one tourist shop, a church, a Co-op supermarket and the wooden kiosk selling cylindrical doughnuts in a myriad of flavours. By an amazing coincidence our gardener in London is Hungarian and his favourite bar in the whole of Hungary is Mokus. Sitting upstairs under a canopy we nibble on nuts whilst some drink the distinctive fruit flavoured, low-alcohol beer, Arany Aszok. In the distance we can hear the band playing in the square. We have fortuitously found ourselves in Zebergeny at the time of the annual festival. The crowds are thronging to hear traditional brass band music followed by a folk band.
As we wander towards the music, I realise that we could be anywhere and equally this is very local indeed. The summer fete in an English village is not so different, and yet here we are in the Hungarian countryside where the experience is so much harsher. With the current pan-European economic crisis coupled with the struggle to rebuild technological infrastructure after 60-odd years of communism, it is tough for the people. But there is no sense of anything other than an enthusiasm and energy to grow and progress. Despite the sense that this is a developing country we must not forget that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was one of the most sophisticated and complex socio-economic societies the planet has ever known. Though these villages may seem to have been left behind, they are not strangers to being at the cutting edge of all things progressive.