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torta RigojanciArriving in Budapest the previous afternoon turned out to be somewhat more of a culture shock than Vienna had been. After many years of traveling throughout Italy, I had begun to take for granted the fact that I spoke the language. Even though I didn’t speak German, I had learned a few key phrases to help me get by in Austria—plus I was so familiar with the exchange rate that I could convert euros to dollars in my sleep. Hungarian, however, proved to be a decidedly more challenging language—I had bought a phrasebook but only managed to learn a couple of words—and the national currency took me back to my pre-euro visits to Europe. Fortunately, I found the people in Hungary to be incredibly friendly, and if they didn’t speak any English themselves, they could often round up a young person who did.

On my first morning, I was delighted by the selection at Hotel Art’s breakfast buffet. Along with the yogurt and muesli that I had become accustomed to, there were scrambled eggs, an assortment of salami and sausages, cheese, bread, and a platter of tomato and cucumber slices. After I had my fill, I set out to find the Keleti train station, so that I could buy my ticket for Trieste, where I would be heading two days later.

The closest Metro station was two blocks from my hotel, but once underground I found the ticket options to be rather perplexing. The choices included tickets with unlimited stops, three or fewer stops, a transfer with unlimited stops, and a transfer with five or fewer stops. I knew I needed to transfer from the blue to the red line, and so counted out on the map how many stops that would make, but then I couldn’t find any place to purchase tickets. I asked at a nearby newsstand, and though the girl working there didn’t speak English, she got her friend to assist me. This young man, who had been hanging around outside her store smoking a cigarette, steered me to a ticket window—small and rather hidden off to the side—and conveyed to the clerk exactly what I needed.

Once at Keleti, I succeeded in purchasing my train ticket, although I was surprised to learn that seat reservations were not given here. From the station, I retraced my course via Metro and then set off on foot toward Buda, the section of Budapest on the western side of the Danube River.

At the river, I crossed the Chain Bridge and climbed the steep steps to the Royal Palace (a.k.a. Buda Castle). I had hoped to visit Mátyás Church, but they had just begun mass and weren’t letting in tourists until later in the afternoon. On my way to the castle, I passed Ruszwurm Cukrászda, one of the city’s oldest bakeries. There, I bought a slice of Rigó Jancsi, snagged a spoon from the gelato counter, and took my treat to a bench outside. The squares of chocolate sponge cake were thinner than I expected and rather stale. The chocolate cream filling, on the other hand, was piled about two inches thick, and the top layer of cake was glazed with a sinfully rich chocolate ganache. While I had read that this dessert was popular in Trieste—and I was therefore hoping to include it in my book Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy—this was the first time I had ever tasted it.

As I was polishing off the last crumbs of my decadent treat, I felt the mist of a light drizzle beginning. Nevertheless, I continued my exploration, strolling around the outside of the castle to the Fisherman’s Bastion, a viewing terrace built in the late 19th century, complete with towers and turrets straight out of a fairytale.

As it was nearing lunchtime, I descended the steps and headed to Horgásztanya Vendéglő, professed by some to be Budapest’s best fish restaurant. I ordered the fish stew with carp, which was served in a mini cauldron hanging from a hook on a small cast iron stand. The dish came with a fiery paprika sauce on the side, so that I could make my meal as spicy as I liked.

After lunch, I decided to make the climb up Castle Hill once again, in hopes that Mátyás Church would be open. It was—and well worth the effort, for the interior was as gorgeous as the church’s brilliantly tiled roof. The walls were painted floor to ceiling in colorful, though somewhat muted, patterns: stripes, swirls, dots, flourishes, leaves, and flowers, the intricate designs lending an exotic Byzantine character to the Gothic arches and stained-glass windows.

From there, I made the descent a second time, but instead of returning to the eastern Pest side of the river, I walked south, past the Chain Bridge and Elisabeth Bridge, all the way to Szabadság Bridge. I spotted Hotel Gellért, famous for its spa and thermal baths, but was more interested in seeking out the Cave Church, a tiny chapel built inside a grotto underneath Gellért Hill. The walls were made of nothing but bare, natural rock, its niches filled with Catholic statues and altars.

Budapest's Pilates Balance StudioBy this time, fatigue was beginning to set in, so I returned to my hotel to rest for an hour. I wanted to feel refreshed for my late-afternoon appointment with Zsuzsanna Bokor, owner of Hungary’s first Pilates studio. As a Pilates instructor myself (and author of Balance on the Ball: Exercises Inspired by the Teachings of Joseph Pilates), I had recently written for the new Pilates Style magazine. I was now planning on submitting two articles for their “International” section: one on the Pilates studio in Milano, which I had visited in July, and another on this studio in Budapest.*

Budapest's Pilates Balance StudioMy plan was to walk all the way to Oktogon Square, where Zsuzsanna had arranged to meet me outside a Burger King. It was quite a distance to cover by foot, but I left my hotel extra early and even found time to stop and peek inside the magnificent Hungarian State Opera House on the way. When I arrived at Oktogon, it appeared that Burger King was a popular meeting spot for all sorts of people converging in this busy octagonal crossroads. Girls, boys, women, men—some alone, others in groups—all loitered casually in front of the American fast food icon, only to vanish once their companions arrived.

Budapest's Pilates Balance StudioI had seen Zsuzsanna’s picture on her website, so I knew who to be on the lookout for: an attractive brunette in her early 30s. I was startled, then, to be approached by a man, tentatively addressing me by name. It turned out to be Zsuzsanna’s husband, Gabor, whom she had sent to fetch me. We went directly to the Pilates Balance Studio, where Zsuzsanna and two of her instructors, Krisztián Mélykúti and Czech-born Vladka Mala, were waiting. Like me, they all had a background in dance—except Gabor, who was an orthopedic surgeon. Zsuzsanna and Krisztián were professional ballet dancers, and Vladka was a contemporary dancer. They all spoke English, and the interview flowed seamlessly. Even my camera, which had begun to malfunction in Vienna, managed to remain on long enough for me to snap a few photos of the instructors demonstrating Pilates moves.

After the interview, Zsuzsanna and Gabor invited me to dinner. I followed them to a nearby restaurant called Karma. The daylong showers had stopped by now, so we sat at one of the outdoor tables, a relief for me after having put up with far too many smoky dining rooms in the past few days. The menu was an ecclectic mix of international cuisines: Hungarian, Italian, Asian, Mexican, and Indian. I wasn’t terribly hungry, so I ordered a plate of grilled mozzarella and vegetables. Zsuzsanna had a quesadilla, and Gabor had tandoori chicken. To drink, they ordered sparkling lemonade for us all, though by the time the sun went down, the icy beverage had me shivering with cold.

We lingered at the restaurant until after 8:30pm, talking about our lives, our hopes and dreams. It was especially interesting to hear their take on the fall of Communism and how things in Hungary had changed over the past fifteen years. Having lived in Ohio for several years—Zsuzsanna once danced for the Cincinnati Ballet—their English was flawless. I felt overjoyed to have made friends who were not only close in age but also shared a similar background and values. Although we have since lost touch, I will never forget our friendship that chilly October evening.

* Shortly after I sent in my articles, Pilates Style hired a new editor. In fact, their entire editorial staff seemed to have turned over in a very short period of time. Although I submitted my pieces several times during the following year, they were never published.

torta RigojanciHere is my version of Rigó Jancsi (torta Rigojanci in Italian). The cake was named after the Hungarian gypsy violinist Jancsi Rigó, whose passionate affair with a beautiful American millionairess caused a worldwide scandal in the late 19th century. For picture-perfect slices, trim the cake edges before assembling.

Cake:
6 eggs, separated
1-1/4 cups sugar
2/3 cup cake or pastry flour, sifted
1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder, sifted
Pinch salt

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks and sugar to the “ribbon stage,” about 5 minutes. (The batter will be pale in color and will leave a ribbon-like trail when drizzled over the surface of the batter.) Stir in the flour and cocoa powder.

2. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they form stiff peaks. Soften the batter by stirring in a little egg white; fold in the remaining egg whites. Pour the batter into a greased and floured 11- by 17-inch jelly-roll pan. Bake until a wooden pick inserted near the center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Cool completely before removing from the pan. Slice the cake into two 8-1/2- by 11-inch sheets.

Chocolate Ganache:
6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
1/3 cup heavy whipping cream

Melt the chocolate with the cream in a double boiler, stirring until smooth. Pour the ganache over one sheet of cake. Refrigerate until the ganache has set; slice into twelve squares.

Cream Filling:
8 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
3 cups heavy whipping cream, chilled

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler, stirring until smooth; remove from heat. Pour the cream into a large bowl. (For best results, chill the bowl in advance.) Beat until the cream forms stiff peaks. Stir about 1 cup whipped cream into the melted chocolate. Pour the chocolate mixture into the bowl of whipped cream; whisk vigorously until the chocolate is thoroughly incorporated. Spread the chocolate cream over the remaining sheet of cake. Place the twelve glazed squares on top of the cream layer. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

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Torta SacherFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Torta Sacher (Chocolate Cake with Apricot Glaze and Ganache). Known as Sachertorte in Austria, where it originated, this elegant cake has become ubiquitous throughout much of northern Italy and makes a festive addition to the holiday table. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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fave dei mortiFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Fave dei Morti (Almond Cookies). While other countries around the world are gearing up for Halloween or Dia de los Muertos, Italians are preparing to celebrate La Festa di Ognissanti (All Saints’ Day). While variations of these cookies—which translate literally as “beans of the dead”—are found in regions throughout Italy, they are especially popular in Trieste, where bakeries prepare them during the months of October and November. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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apple strudelFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Strucolo de Pomi (Apple Strudel), in honor of the Festa della Mela, held in mid-September in the Carnian town of Tolmezzo. While apple strudel is popular throughout Friuli, this version using puff pastry is based on the recipe given to me by Trieste’s Pasticceria Penso. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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crostata alla marmellataFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Crostata alla Marmellata (Mixed Berry Jam Tart), in honor of the Festa dei Frutti dei Bosco in Forni Avoltri. The jam is freshly prepared with raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries (although store-bought jam may be substituted). The cookie-like crust is enriched with almonds and flavored with cinnamon, cloves, and a bit of lemon zest. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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berriesIt was the day of the Festa dei Frutti di Bosco in Forni Avoltri, and gauging by the number of tables set up, it looked to be the largest of the food festivals I had so far attended. The village straddled the Degano River, and most of the events were taking place on the farther side. Carnival rides had been erected in an empty parking lot, and rows of booths wound upward through the streets. By this time, I had started to recognize some of the same artisans at each festival—selling crafts such as jewelry, woodwork, paintings, dried flowers, and soap.

Forni Avoltri Though I was tempted by the vast array of food stands, I decided to wait and eat a little closer to lunchtime. So I took a short hike up into the mountains, past a dribbling brook and miniature waterfall, to the hamlet of Pierabach. The road was paved but climbed steadily uphill the entire way. I stopped after about an hour, when I had reached the Goccia di Carnia plant, where fresh spring water is bottled for sale.

Along the way, I had passed Osteria Al Fogolâr, one of the restaurants I had read about but hadn’t been able to find on my initial day of exploration. It was only 10:30am, however—still too early for lunch. Later, on my way back down to Forni Avoltri, I peeked in to see if there were any tables available, but by then the place was completely packed. No matter, I told myself, since I had planned on eating lunch at the festival anyhow.

In addition to handing out samples of prosciutto and cheese, vendors were selling sausages, herb-filled tortelli, barley soup, and of course, frico. But as always, I couldn’t resist trying the cjarsòns. I slid to the rear of the long line to wait, and to my surprise, standing in front of me were none other than Giacomo del Fabbro, president of the Centro Culturale and host of the previous evening’s cookbook event, and the mayor, whom I also recognized from the event. When they saw me, I got a major chiding from both of them for leaving the book-signing prematurely. I had assumed that the event was over when, at 10:00pm, everyone stood up and headed for the door. Apparently, that had only been the intermission. Later, there had been a food tasting, and I had missed it! I really kicked myself for that mistake, but it just shows how badly the fatigue of traveling was beginning to affect me.

After the scolding, the mayor handed me a free voucher for the cjarsòns. Then, following an interminably long wait, I finally got my plate. By this time on my trip, my standards for cjarsòns had been set extremely high. Regrettably, these fell a bit short. Made with a potato-based dough, they were heavy and doughy, over-sweetened and overcooked, and I could only bring myself to eat one.

jellyrollLuckily, my lunch was redeemed by the elaborate spread of sweets. Countless stands were serving up cookies, crêpes, frittelle (fritters), and even gelato, but the biggest tent of all held a vast display of berry-themed desserts. There were cakes and pies of all shapes and sizes, from jellyrolls decorated with whipped cream to tarts studded with a kaleidoscope of fruit. Everything featured wild berries—strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, red currants, and even gooseberries. I chose for my treat a huge slice of crostata with a thick cookie crust, mixed berry jam, and fresh blueberries peeking through the lattice top.

Forni Avoltri paradeAfter a brief rest in my room at Hotel Scarpone, I went back out in the afternoon to see the parade. Townspeople were dressed in rich medieval costumes—velvet gowns and brocade tunics, complete with faux swords and shields. I followed the procession from the center of the festival back across the river, accompanied by drummers and minstrels, and followed by a logjam of cars, everyone trying to beat the traffic out of town.

At 5:00pm, I paid a visit to the town’s Collezione Etnografica, an ethnographical museum located down the street from my hotel. Though tiny, it showcased many aspects of traditional Carnian home life, including furniture, clothing, cookware, and crafts.

Afterward, I returned to my room to rest some more before dinner. I was quietly reading, when suddenly I heard the sound of trumpets blaring. I stuck my head out the window and saw a marching band heading down the street toward the town hall. Grabbing my room key, I dashed downstairs and followed the crowd to the piazza. A pompom-waving drill team was performing, after which the Miss Carnia beauty pageant was announced. Eight model-thin girls proceeded to compete in three outfits: t-shirt and pants (or skirt), formal dress, and swimsuit. The microphone was broken, so no one could hear the announcements, but I stayed the full 90 minutes to see which waif would win the title.

It was my final night in Forni Avoltri, and not having made a reservation elsewhere, I took a chance on dinner in my hotel again. Of course, the frico was still not available, but they did have the cjarsòns. I ordered those, along with a light second course of prosciutto e melone and an insalata mista. Unfortunately, it appeared that the cjarsòns were the exact same ones being served at the festival—it did seem plausible that the hotel could have catered the event. At least these tasted fresh, though the filling was ice cold. For once, I voiced my dissatisfaction, though no offer was made to bring a new plate. As I was eating, I noticed another table being served pizzas, which were not even listed on my menu! Yet again, I was flummoxed by the obviously disparate menus. Later, when the waitress came to inquire about dessert, I had to remind her that she had not yet brought my salad. When it was finally time for dessert, I requested only a couple of apricots, which were served with knife and fork, just like my grapes two nights earlier. One of the apricots, however, was moldy inside. This time, I didn’t bother to complain; I just left the fruit open-side up on my plate, its blue and white fuzz clearly visible.

crostata alla marmellataHere is my recipe for crostata alla marmellata, inspired by the mixed berry jam tarts at both Forni Avoltri’s Festa dei Frutti di Bosco and Sauris’s Festa del Prosciutto:

Marmellata:
1 cup fresh blackberries
1 cup fresh raspberries
1 cup fresh blueberries
1 cup sliced fresh strawberries
1 medium apple, peeled, cored, and grated (or puréed in a food processor)
2-1/2 cups sugar

Place the blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and apple in a large pot, mashing slightly with a spoon. Cook over medium heat until the berries soften and release a little of their juice, about 5 minutes. Stir in the sugar. When the liquid begins to boil, reduce heat to low; cook until thickened, about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. (When the jam is ready, a small amount of syrup will hold its shape when cooled. To test, dip a spoon into the liquid; as it cools, the syrup will thicken and coat the spoon.) Transfer the jam to a medium bowl; cool to room temperature.

Dough:
2 cups blanched slivered almonds
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon peel
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
2 eggs

1. Finely grind the almonds in a food processor. Transfer to a large bowl; stir in the flour, sugar, lemon peel, salt, cinnamon, and cloves. Blend in the butter, a little at a time, until crumbly. Add the eggs; mix until the dough forms a solid mass. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

2. Preheat oven to 350°F. Divide the dough into two parts, about two-thirds for the bottom crust and one-third for the lattice top. (Keep the reserved third of dough refrigerated until ready to use.) Roll the dough on a lightly floured sheet of waxed paper to form a 10- by 15-inch rectangle. Invert the dough onto a greased 10- by 15-inch baking sheet. (Any rough or broken areas may be easily patched.) Spread the jam over the dough, leaving a 1/2-inch border on all sides. Roll out the reserved third of dough on a lightly floured surface. Cut into 3/4-inch-wide strips; arrange the strips over the jam to make a lattice crust. Bake until the crust is golden brown, about 30 minutes.

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torta RigojanciFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Torta Rigojanci (Chocolate Cake with Chocolate Cream Filling) in honor of Valentine’s Day. This decadent mousse-filled cake was named after the Hungarian gypsy violinist Jancsi Rigó (or Rigó Jancsi, as Hungarian names are written surname first ). It was the late 19th century, and he was playing at a Parisian hotel, where Baron Chimay and his American wife, Klara, a millionaire’s daughter, were in the audience. The beautiful baroness was so captivated by the gypsy that she seductively slipped her own diamond ring onto his finger. It was not long before Klara left her husband and children for her new sweetheart. During the height of this worldwide scandal, a Budapest pastry chef named his newest sinful dessert after the infamous violinist. Sadly, the love affair didn’t last, but Jancsi’s passionate fling has been forever immortalized in chocolate. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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