Sunday 30 June 2013

The Danube cruise - part 4 - Food and Flowers

So far, what I have written about our recent Danube "cruise" has been mostly about the river and the various historical monuments we visited. In this post I want to describe some of the food- and gardening-related things I saw / experienced.

I have already posted an album of photos of the Budapest market called the Nagy Vasarcsarnot, on my Facebook page, which some of you will have seen, but I'll use a few of the photos here to illustrate my post...

Well where do I start? The tour company that owns the ships we were on is a French one, and we had therefore built up some high expectations about the quality of food we would get. As it happens, the standard of the food we were served was quite variable - some of the meals were very nice indeed, and some were in our opinion rather poor. We were disappointed that both Lunch and Dinner were set-menu meals, with no choice - expect in the case of special dietary requirements. I suppose if we had been seasoned cruising people we might have expected this. I warned them that I didn't eat fish, and I am happy to report that I was provided with an alternative when fish was served, which (surprisingly) was only twice in the week we were aboard ship.

The meal that both Jane and I liked best was the Hungarian Gulyás or Goulash. I draw the line at taking photos of my food in a restaurant, so I don't have any pictures of this dish, but I do have some pictures of paprika, the essential ingredient of goulash and seemingly most other Hungarian dishes. The word "paprika" is a generic one, applied to all forms of the capsicum-style pepper, both hot (i.e. Chillis) and sweet (Sweet Peppers or Bell Peppers):

Fresh and dried paprika

In the UK, goulash is normally interpreted as a fairly thick stew, with lots of tomatoes and peppers in it, but the one we were served was definitely a soup - thin but exceptionally clear and tasty beef stock, small pieces of beef meat, diced carrots, onions, and some small pasta-like dumplings (similar to the German spatzle) - and of course powdered paprika. There were no pieces of pepper (capsicum / bell pepper) in it and I think only a few tomatoes. It was absolutely gorgeous, and everybody on our table had two or three helpings. The dish was made all the more attractive by being served in dishes that resembled the traditional cast-iron cauldron or "bogrács" complete with handle for suspending it over the campfire!

In Hungary they evidently enjoy eating pork. The market was full of stalls selling pork in every conceivable form, both raw and preserved.

Check out the huge replica salami dangling from the front of this market stall, just like a barber's pole!

One of our best meals on the trip involved a starter of lettuce, tomatoes and various salami-type sausages. The salami was wonderfully tasty - again flavoured with paprika. Amongst the selection there was a smoked one which was probably my favourite. By the way, I think the key to enjoying salami like that is to have it sliced wafer-thin, something which is hard to achieve at home. You really need a machine to do it properly!

On a couple of occasions we had at breakfast-time some sliced Watermelon, which probably came from the market I visited, which was only about 250 metres from where the ship was moored. How is it that we can never get Watermelon like this in the UK? The ones we buy are always anaemic and crunchy like a cucumber, whereas they ought to be a deep red colour, soft and sweet...

Another typically Hungarian product we tried a couple of times was a fruit-flavoured brandy called "Palinka" - very much like the German schnapps. The most popular flavour appeared to be Apricot, but Apple, Pear, Plum, Blueberry, Peach and Cherry flavours were widely available.

Palinka is apparently best served in a tulip-shaped glass so that the aromas are concentrated near the drinker's nose. In the market I even saw a glass with a lid - presumably to ensure that the precious alcohol doesn't evaporate between sips!

When we visited the horse-farm mentioned in Part 3 we were greeted on arrival in traditional fashion with a glass of palinka and a little loaf of very salty bread described (rather inappropriately) as a brioche. The palinka was fine (though probably not the best thing to drink at midday when the temperature is 35C), but the bread was far too salty to be enjoyable.

We also tried some Hungarian Tokay wine. This is made from a grape variety which takes the name of the place where it orginates - the Tokay or Tokaji region. We found it rather too sweet for our liking, when served as an aperitif, though it would probably be nice as a dessert wine, with some ripe peaches or pears.

According to Wikipedia "Furmint" is another name for the "Tokay" grape variety.
I think that is about all I can write about food that we encountered that was distinctively Hungarian, so let me now show you a few photos of plants...

In general, the plants we saw were not very different to those we here in the UK are familiar with,  like these:-

But I don't think I have ever seen a Crab Apple as dark-coloured as this one:

At first I thought it was a cherry!

Everywhere you looked there were Lime (aka Linden) trees, and we saw lots of people collecting their flowers to make a sort of tea or tisane. I understand that there are two basic types of Lime tree, one of which is good for making tea, and one of which isn't. I don't know which type this is...

These too are not common in the UK - Mirabelles (a member of the plum family), often used to make a very nice liqueur.

I'm afraid that most of my pictures are not so good, because of the exceptionally bright conditions (to which I am not used, because we seldom get light like this in the UK!). However, I was lucky with this one - a majestic Stag Beetle, spotted lurking in the shadows at Esztergom:-

And this rather bedraggled butterfly:

And these energetic bees...

Finally, a couple of pics of the Goulash that Jane made a couple of days ago with the paprika we bought in the Budapest market:

Jane's version has potatoes added towards the end of cooking time, to give the dish some extra carbohydrate. This time she used the sweet version of the paprika, but I think I have persuaded her to use the hot one next time! :)

I think this will be the last post I write about our Danube adventure. Don't get me wrong, folks. I'm not saying that we didn't see / eat some nice things in Austria and Hungary. I'm just saying that we had wanted to experience a bit more "water action", if you know what I mean...

Saturday 29 June 2013

Brussels Sprouts and Shallots

My "Brilliant" Brussels Sprout plants passed a significant milestone this week - I judged them big enough to require staking. Up till now they had been unsupported, but their foliage is getting to be quite luxuriant and in danger of making the plants top-heavy. In the seemingly incessantly windy conditions we are experiencing they could easily snap if not supported.

So I have now provided each of my four plants with a sturdy hardwood stake, and I have tied the plants to the stakes with a couple of turns of soft string:

As the plants grow taller I will add another couple of strings.

The addition of the stakes caused me to reconsider the use of the net which had previously been covering the Brussels Sprouts and the Tenderstem Broccoli. I decided to leave it off, since there have been very few butterflies around this year, so no caterpillars so far. The leaves on the brassicas are still perfect - no nibbles at all which is great, but unusual! Looking at my photo now reminds me that since the net has gone now  I really out to remove the Build-a-Ball rods as well...

In the foreground of that photo above you can see the "Longor" Shallots, whose foliage has flopped over now, a sign that they are approaching maturity. Inspecting them closely I see that they are a bit of a mixed bag. Some of them are nicely sized, but others are tiny. I think the cold, dry conditions may not have suited them well.

The spare ones I planted in a couple of pots looks pretty much the same - not significantly smaller, considering they were the ones left over after I had chosen the best ones for my main crop.

I'm not going to harvest them just yet. I'll wait until the foliage is mostly brown before I do. And maybe the will grow a bit more too.

Friday 28 June 2013


This post is about ferns, simply because I like taking photos of ferns! There is something about their very regularity that appeals to my sense of order (OCD?).

I don't know much about Ferns - just that there are hundreds of different types, so there is bound to be one suitable for just about every different type of soil. I have a clump of Ferns that seems to be enjoying my dry sandy ("free-draining") soil. It's certainly expanding quite rapidly.

The fronds of lots of varieties of fern are edible. I wonder if these ones are?

These Ferns of mine are all descended from a volunteer that just appeared in my garden a few years ago. I'm glad it did.

In my ignorance, I used to think that ferns only grew well in damp shady conditions (e.g. forests), but I now know that is not true, and many types of fern love dry, sunny conditions. My self-seeded ferns are growing in what is probably the least "attractive" part of my garden - a place which seldom gets either sun or rain, but they seem to be quite happy.

Other than these self-seeded ferns, I do have one other that I actually bought. It is called "Dryopteris Erythrosora". It is a very handsome fern when it gets going, but this year it is (like most plants) way behind its normal schedule. By this time last year it was full of foliage, but this is what it looks like now - just a few tiny fronds:

Hopefully, in a few weeks time I will be able to show you this same plant exhibiting a mass of beautiful golden leaves...

Thursday 27 June 2013

The Danube cruise - part 3 - Budapest

Continuing the tale... Following the re-adjustment of our itinerary we arrived in Budapest (the capital of Hungary) not by river but by road, travelling along the motorway from Vienna in a coach, a journey of about 3 hours, if I remember rightly. We joined our second ship, the MS "L'Europe", one of the tour operator's biggest and most modern ships. It is 110 metres long and capable of carrying 180 passengers.

By the way, I have been asked by our Travel Agent (whose reps have evidently read some of what I have written) to point out that the cruise which Jane and I were on was actually a competition prize, and that we didn't pay any money for it (only for the optional excursions). I thought I had already made this clear in earlier posts, but obviously not clear enough. I'm not sure that this alters your perception of what I'm writing, but there you go...

MS L'Europe is at the left
Our arrival was in the late afternoon, so there was no opportunity that day to do anything other than take a little stroll along the riverbank after dinner to enjoy the scenery - which I admit did look very romantic with all the big buildings illuminated.

Early on the following morning our group headed out on a tour of the city with a local guide. First stop was at Heroes Square, a site of huge cultural significance in Budapest - possibly the equivalent of London's Trafalgar Square?

The statues around the base of the tall column and the nearby colonnades commemorate the original seven Hungarian tribes and the kings of Hungary from Stephan I onwards. (Don't ask me to name them!)

At the sides of the square are two big museums. One of them is for Fine Art and the other is for Contemporary Art. The buildings themselves are works of art! This one is the Mucsarnok museum of contemporary art (aka Kunsthalle). Just look at the detail on this wall!

Our tour of the city took in most of the best-known landmarks, such as the Parliament building, St.Mathias' church and the Liberty Statue (Hungary's equivalent of the USA's Statue of Liberty in NY?). Our guide this day was much more lively and interesting than the lady in Vienna!

St.Mathias' church
The Freedom Statue has an interesting history: it was originally erected to commemorate the liberation of Hungary from the Germans by the Russians in 1944, but then after the end of the Communist era in Hungary (1989) the statue and its inscription was altered to remove the Russian element, and has now come to symbolise liberation from Soviet rule.

Liberty Statue
 Since the river downstream from Budapest was still closed to traffic (and we were told that the landing-stage at Mohacs, where we were supposedly going to join yet another ship, was still 2 metres under water) the tour company kept us in Budapest for four days, filling the time with short-distance excursions. On the Sunday we visited the town of Kecskemet (which apparently means "Goat town") and saw the outsides of several churches and public buildings - being Sunday everything else was closed, and the churches were in use.

College in Kecskemet - (with a peal of 20 bells)
Check out the fabulous magenta-coloured Petunias in the window-boxes of this otherwise unremarkable block of flats! I'm guessing they were provided by the landlord....

After Kecskemet we went on to a place near Lajosmizce where there was a tourist attraction centred around a horse farm / stud. We witnessed amongst other things this amazing feat of horsemanship - a man standing with one foot on the back of each of two horses, whilst controlling three more in front via long reins - and all done at a gallop!

On our second evening in Budapest, the ship's captain decided to give us a mini-cruise to see the sights of the city at night, so we sailed upstream for a mile or so and then back down again. It was a strange sensation to be on a moving ship at last! The riverside scenery was certainly spectacular:

Since the river below Budapest was still not open, it was decided that we should head back upstream for a bit, so we sailed back up to Esztergom, approximately 50 miles from Budapest. At Esztergom (which  - in common with many other cities - at one time used to be the capital city of Hungary) there is a huge basilica (aka church) which was formerly the HQ of the Hungarian catholic church. (Sorry, I don't know the correct ecclesiastical term!).

Landing-stage at Esztergom

Inside the dome of the Esztergom basilica
We never actually set foot in Slovakia, but we saw a tiny bit of it. Here is our ship moored at Esztergom, with the Slovakian town of Sturovo visible on the other side of the river.

Sailing back down towards Budapest, we stopped for lunch (as you do) at a place called Visegrad, where a "Medieval Banquet" was served. Here is a photo of our fellow-travellers Alex and Karen, who were appointed King and Queen for the occasion. (They seem to be enjoying it!)

On the evening of this day we attended a Folklore Evening, which featured Hungarian Gypsy music and dancing. It was very enjoyable and refreshingly informal. One particularly fascinating element of the music was the use of an instrument called a Cimbalom, which we had never come across before. Imagine a piano with the cover taken off and the strings played with padded drumsticks like huge cotton buds! The man who played this instrument was very skilfull - and fast. At one point he even played while blindfolded!

The following day, with a morning "at leisure" in Budapest, and partly in order to escape some ill-timed and noisy "essential maintenance" by the ship's crew, I paid a visit to the nearby Nagy Vasarcsarnot market.

The market building

This huge market sells all manner of interesting stuff - mostly food and drink, but also craft work, embroidery, ceramics etc. I plan to write a separate post about this soon.

Our last afternoon in the Budapest area was occupied with another excusrsion, this time to the curiously named Gödöllő (pronounced something like Ger-Der-Ler!), about 30km North of the city, where there is another palace closely associated with the Empress Elisabeth (aka "Sisi") who is evidently much-revered in Hungary.

By palace standards this is quite small - almost homely, you might say. It was given to Sisi and her husband the Emperor Franz Josef as a coronation gift by the Hungarian state. Ransacked and allowed to deteriorate to a state of ruin by the Germans in WW2 and by the Soviets during the Socialist period, the palace is slowly being restored to its former glory, and many of the artifacts and decorations are being recreated with the aid of photos and paintings. Unfortunately the temperature was about 38C when we were at this palace, which made it very difficult to fully appreciate the scenery!

So there we are then; our time in Hungary had come to an end at this point and we returned to the UK the following day, sadly without ever having experienced any significant cruising. Still, we did see some new sights and we did enjoy a couple of nice meals (a fabulous gulyás or goulash, for instance), so it wasn't all wasted.

My next post about the holiday will focus mainly on food and drink and gardening - as witnessed in Austria and Hungary of course.


Note: We have now agreed a settlement with the Travel Agent. The refund of our money for the excursions was never in dispute, but as compensation for their failure to deliver a satisfactory prize for Jane they offered us two alternatives: another (shorter) cruise later this year (when would we ever get another two weeks off work??) or a cash sum. We chose the latter. Just to set the record straight, most of the problems we encountered were really the fault of the Tour Operator (i.e. the company that owns the ships), and not the UK-based Travel Agency. But that's what agents are for: to act on behalf of the customer!

Anyway, People from the Company (I'm sure you will be reading this), perhaps you'll have the good grace to recognise that despite my critisicms, my posts have actually done a fair bit of advertising for you of the general concept of River Cruising! I'm sure that in more normal circumstances, things would have been much more enjoyable.  :-)

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Cucumber woes

Having had good success with outdoor cucumbers last year, this year I decided to grow them in greater quantity. Last year, the two plants that made it to maturity produced between them something like 25 - 30 fruits (I didn't count them). This year I planted-up six plants, three each of "Iznik F1" and "Melen F1"  - both so-called cocktail varieties, whose fruits only grow to about six inches in length.

Until recently, they looked normal, but a couple of weeks ago they began to look very unhappy. The leaves lost their gloss and became more yellow than green. I fed them and watered them and generally did everything I could think of to nurture them, but when I went off on holiday I thought I had probably seen the last of them. Well, on my return the situation was a bit mixed. Two of the plants were definitely beyond redemption:

These ones I pulled up and discarded. I found that their roots had almost completely disappeared, and what was left was crawling with tiny millipedes. Was this cause or effect? Do millipedes attack the roots of a living plant and cause it to die, or do they just move in to take advantage of the decaying material associated with an already-dead plant? I don't know.

Anyway, the remaining plants look a bit better than before. This looks healthy enough:-

I have loosely tied the plants to their supporting poles and they are beginning to climb:

The first few fruits are forming now.

Since I took these photos I have put in place a few pieces of broken terracotta pot to keep those little cucumbers off the surface of the soil, which will hopefully make them less likely to rot.

So, now I have four cucumber plants that look as if they may possibly survive. Looking on the bright side, that means I have twice as many as I had last year. That has to be a good thing, surely? On the down side, the two casualties were both from the same cluster, so now I have one group of three and one group of one! I'll have to find something to fill the empty space. Meanwhile, I have sown my last few spare seeds, hoping that it won't be too late!