Author Alan Ogden discovers that the best meals in Eastern Europe are often discovered by accident.
Eating in Central and Eastern Europe seems to me to be not so much about the food and drink ingested but more about how one arrived at the culinary event in the first place.
Take Armenia where I once set off in a dodgy Range Rover to find St Dopartvanan, a small church in the fields to the North East of Stepanavan. Long ago, a merchant stopped there to allow his wife to give birth to twins. One died; one survived. Hence this little Church of Thanksgiving, lying in a meadow of wild herbs - mint, thyme, St John’s Wort – its congregation now birdlife – hoopoes, black-headed buntings, golden finches, rose finches, shrikes, cuckoos, Caucasian blackcock and soaring high above all, eagles and vultures.
The Range Rover, which had been showing increasing signs of wanting to expire, died on me by the church. It turned out to be an Act of God for the ensuing delay give me the opportunity to have a delicious impromptu lunch with some shepherds, who shared their food – bread, cheese and strange twists of dried meat - and vodka with me, refusing any token of appreciation.
The year before in the Ukraine, I had been looking forward to an energetic Houtsoul mushroom picking expedition in the Sub-Carpathians when I hoped to be initiated into the mysteries of the znakharkas, old ladies who know the secrets of the plants in the meadows and the trees in the forests. Many people seek them out when they are ill. They apply potions, usually murmuring a spell in the process. Unfortunately, it poured with rain and my hosts Maria and Ocsana reluctantly cancelled the outing, suggesting lunch instead.
Despite my protests that my packed lunch would suffice, just after noon they arrived to prepare the meal, oblivious that a mere three hours had elapsed since breakfast. I felt like a goose being force-fed for foie gras as dinner, breakfast and now lunch seamlessly merged into a twenty-four hour food fest of nalysnyky (crepes), tomatoes, pork, borsch, varenyky (ravioli) cream cheese, pidpenky (mushroom sauce), mamaliga, dumplings, hard cheese, cottage cheese, eggs, bacon fat, holubtsi (stuffed cabbage rolls), all eased down with draughts of berry juice and the ubiquitous Carpathian palinka or horilka. When Ludmilla, my guide to the next village, appeared at the door to collect me that evening, I saw her as an angel of nutritional mercy.
The Ukraine is always an eventful place to travel through. On a train from Kiev to Sevastopol, I befriended Andrei and Marina who arrived at the compartment with a bottle of Crimean cognac. Drinks all round is a matter of course in a Ukrainian train compartment and soon Granny Olga from next door heard the party and joined us. One and a half bottles later, the story was thus. Andrei and Marina were childhood sweethearts and were doing a runner to the Crimea. Andrei had left a wife and 14-year-old daughter behind, Marina a small baby, Tomas, which explained her constant reversion to tears. Granny Olga appeared unmoved by their story, hovering up any food in sight and quaffing whatever liquid refreshment was on offer.
At one point we stopped for twenty minutes at a large station in the middle of nowhere – tucked away to one side of the platform was a little cluster of stalls selling smoked fish, none of which I recognized. They were displayed, petrified, in the upright position as if something terrible had happened to them in the river as they went about their daily lives. I bought some and also half a dozen fat crayfish and on return to the train offered some to Granny Olga, who devoured them, all in their entirety. Her snores went on to keep the whole carriage awake.
Veszprem is one of those surprises Hungary seems so full of; a fortress on the hill, inside of which is secreted a clump of Baroque houses divided by a single street, complete with Cathedral, Bishop’s palace and Knights Templar Cloister. I arrived just as it was getting dark, snow tumbling relentlessly down. Everywhere appeared shut as I set off in sub-zero temperatures to find somewhere to eat. A single light dimly glowed in the valley beneath and like a moth to a flame I headed for it and miraculously discovered the Borok Haza, where after copious slugs of barack (Apricot) Palinka, I dined on clear pheasant broth, kebab of wild boar and roe deer fillets washed down with buckets of house red. As I walked back across frozen streams, high above me loomed the blacked-out Bishop’s Palace and twin-towered cathedral with a sliver of moon hanging between its Gothic spires, it occurred to me how eating in this part of the world is best left to luck and instinct!
Alan Ogden is an acknowledged authority on Romania and he has written four travelogues on the country. His latest book, A Spur Called Courage, details the exploits of Special Operations Executive [SOE] officers in Italy during WWII and is available on Amazon now.