Farewell to the City of Castles

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I have been homesick and looking forward to the end of the Budapest shoot, but when the end actually approaches, I’m sad to leave.  Having finished packing, I took a long walk along the now familiar streets from my hotel to the Danube.  A realization hit me that perhaps I will never see this city of castles again. 

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St. Stephen’s Basilica

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The Grand Opera House

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Liszt Academy of Music

Over the weekend, a friend visited me and I took her on a walking tour of my favorite places in Budapest.  As we were meandering around, we came upon a crystal shop that carried the most exquisite cut crystal ware that I had ever laid eyes on.  We stayed a long while, marveling at the brilliant colors, elegant shapes and intricate patterns before continuing on our walk toward the Fisherman’s Bastion.

I had been thinking about the crystal ware when I was packing, and decided to take a walk back to the shop.  In the sweltering midday heat, I combed through the area where I thought it was located, but the shop with the most splendid crystal ware was nowhere to be found. I was disoriented in the labyrinth I thought I had come to know well.

For quite a while, it felt as if my stay here would be indefinitely long, and I could always wait until tomorrow to do the many wonderful things on my list — to visit the aromatic Turkish spice market, to see a film in the grand Urania Cinema, to soak in the mineral spring of the ancient Rudas Baths, or to shop at the dazzling crystal store.  Now suddenly there is no more time.  Time is capricious; it never moves in a dependable pace.

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The 500-year-old bath that I have not been.

I say good-bye to Budapest with a little regret — much like the kind one feels when leaving a sumptuous buffet without having tried all the delicacies, though completely satiated; or the hint of salt in the salt caramel chocolate, without which sweetness is incomplete and boring.

I imagine decades from now when I least expect it, I might look up the night sky idly and suddenly remember the warm evening when I spotted the mysterious flying creatures soaring atop the magnificent Hungarian Parliament Building — glowing like fireworks — and think of the friends who shared my adventure.  Then more years might pass without a single thought of Budapest when out of nowhere, I’m stopped in my tracks by a brilliant sapphire crystal ware in an obscure storefront.  A nameless longing will surge inside of me; and that night I will dream about being lost on the cobblestoned streets of a distant city searching for something that I will never find…

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Or perhaps there is an alternative ending to my dream (or is it my life?):  Not finding what I thought I was looking for, I will stumble upon a place of astonishing beauty an unfamiliar sanctuary so alluring that I surrender to it like a weary waddling duck gliding into the cool water of a tranquil pond…

Getting lost is sometimes the only way to find home again.

Beauty and Love in Budapest

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After two weeks of eating in the restaurants, I finally moved back to the apartment where there is a kitchen.  I invited a couple of friends over and cooked a ton of vegetables which are usually lacking when eating in restaurants in Budapest. The tomato-egg stir-fry that I made — the most basic comfort food during my Shanghai childhood — finally alleviated my craving for home cooked food.

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After dinner, we went to an organ concert at the St. Stephen’s Basilica.  I had never before heard Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-minor through such magnificently booming organ pipes. The vibration shook my bones.  I was awestruck.

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We were on our way to get a post concert drink when serendipity had us run into some members of our cast and crew who were having a birthday celebration for Michelle Yeoh at a restaurant.  The ex Bond girl is playing a kick ass fighting nun in Marco Polo. 

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Michelle’s Hungarian friend knew the restaurant chef, who prepared for us sumptuous dishes that were not on the menu: minced pork stuffed paprika, beef stew, ratatouille with mixed peppers… My second dinner was an absolute feast. 

I don’t remember who started it, but after a few bottles of wine (and three sips of limoncello for me), we began taking turns to define the two most over used words with the most expansive meanings: beauty and love

Michelle Yeoh’s assistant said to Michelle, “Beauty is Michelle.”  No wonder she had worked for Michelle for 11 years.

“Beauty is what arrests you for reasons you can’t quite articulate — it’s unreasonable,” said Tim Yip, our costume designer.

“It is the purgation of superfluities,” someone quoted Michelangelo.

“Yes, it must be simple.”

“And everlasting.”

“But beauty is fleeting.”

The discussion went on and on, and no one could completely agree with the other because what lends beauty its luster is precisely this ineffable quality that escapes analysis and speaks to the imagination.

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Two years ago with Peter in Budapest on family vacation

Then we came to the definition of love, which is so all-encompassing and amorphous at the same time that anything we said paled in comparison to what we intuited it to be.  Looking back, we sounded down right corny, but we all took a moment to think about love — each carrying a private memory or longing that tugged at his heartstrings.  I immediately thought of my children, my husband and my parents, who are all far away but rooted deeply in my heart as I am rooted in theirs. 

“Body and Soul.”

“Something to die for.”

“Something to live for.”

We interjected between bites and sips, laughing at each other’s mawkish declarations.

“Love is what I’m feeling right now,” John Fusco concluded with a big smile, looking at all of us who had gathered here because he created Marco Polo.

It is mysterious and wonderful how fate brought us here — around a dining table on a cobblestoned sidewalk in Budapest from different continents sharing food, wine and friendship, contemplating beauty and love. 

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With John after dinner. St. Stephen’s Basilica in the background.

Budapest Leisure

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I finally ate at The Bigfish Seafood Bistro, a restaurant that some of the cast and crew have been raving about.  And it is fantastic!  I honestly never believed I could get good seafood in this landlocked country until today.  It is a simple concept — you choose your fish from the ice-bed behind a glass counter and they will grill it for you. It reminded me of Peter’s favorite seafood Chinese restaurant in the Bay Area, Koi Palace, where there are tanks filled with live fish and crustaceans.  Peter, the true fish lover of my family, would have enjoyed this place.    

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My friend and I picked a whole flounder, squids and octopus.  They came on a plater grilled with olive oil, lots of garlic and parsley — simple, no fuss and mouthwatering delicious. 

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Zsevago serves only drinks and no food. And it opens only on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. I suppose the owner values his leisure as much as the customers.

After lunch, we roamed around the blocks and arrived at a Russian teahouse called Zsevago — a nostalgic space that looked like a stage set with old settees, divans and tables covered in old lace tablecloth.  For a couple of dollars, you can come here, order a tea and read in one of the upstair nooks or chat with friends in the living room area — where my friend and I sat.

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I have noticed that Budapest has a rich and vibrant cafe culture. There is a multitude of them within 15 minutes walk from where I’m staying.  While window display of shops in the city are often unattractive, the cafes and teahouses on the other hand are always warm, charming and enticing.  Could it be that this culture values the quality of its leisure time more than material possession?  I seem to sense contentment in the people sitting in cafes and teahouses, where time is ample and its passage sweet.

In today’s constant pursuit of efficiency and distraction, leisure has been exiled from our lives.  But is a life spent in multitasking productivity a good life?  I have my suspicions. 

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After we left the teahouse, my friend showed me the chocolate bar that she had wanted to take Audrey to.  It was closed on that day and Audrey was very disappointed.  Today, I went in her stead, in her white sandals. 

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Dark and atmospheric like an opium den, Noir ChocoBar exuded an air of decadence.   We devoured the mint and lavender flavored iced chocolate with chocolate ice cream.  I didn’t take a card from this place.  I fully intend to forget where it is and never find my way back here again.  The stuff is addictive like opium.

Eat and Meet in Budapest

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The restaurant is in a small apartment some distance away from the center in a quiet residential district by the Danube. The Balcony where we had our lemonade and water had a pleasant view of the river.

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Audrey’s new best friend, Benedict Wong – Kublai Khan

I’m afraid last night I led my posse into a tourist trap — a gentle, cozy and innocuous one, but a trap nevertheless.  I was looking for a special and different culinary experience and came across this pop-up restaurant called Eat and Meet on tripadvisor.com.  The reviews were fantastic.  It was rated as #7 out of 1,971 restaurants. I was ready to be wowed.

The hosts are Susie the Mother, Susie the Daughter and Frank the Father.  Since we were never given their full names I am now not sure if these are their real names or just their “stage names” — easy to use and remember for the tourists.

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Susie the Daughter would gently but firmly shush us in mid sentence whenever a dish or wine was presented to give us the history, background or benefit of each item.  After a while, some of us stopped paying attention and carried on with our conversation and Susie was somewhat at a loss as to how to proceed, as if we had deviated from the script.  I noticed that Audrey was always listening even when the region of the wine production didn’t really interest her.  I felt secretly proud that my daughter had good manners and was kind. 

I think for ordinary tourists who are in Budapest for two three days, this contact with a nice local family might be enchanting. But we are no ordinary tourists, and they are no ordinary local family. They are in the tourism business, and we are that strange species called film crew — seasoned travelers who feel at home wherever we happen to film.  We go to work everyday like the locals.  We shop groceries like the locals.  We drive around the city armed with GPS as if we know it like the locals.  A tourist trap was the last place we would like to find ourselves in, though quite a few from our party were rather amused by the whole situation. 

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The appetizers were fresh vegetables, cured meats, fresh and smoked cheese and cold fried pork fat. The main course was baked chicken breast wrapped around prunes, served with stewed apple and rice.  Dessert was a lemony fresh cheese, whipped cream, fruits and semi sweet cookie crumbs.  The appetizers were interesting — probably the best part of the dinner, though cold fried pork fat sounded like something I would make someone eat if he lost a bet.  To be fair, Dan Minahan, one of our producer/directors, did love the fried pork fat and said it was his favorite.  The baked chicken was unfortunately as dry as cardboard.  For 30 Euros per person in Budapest, even with the wine pairing, the food quality was not worth it.  I felt really bad for having led everyone into the trap.  If the family simply talked to us like real people about any topic instead of giving us a rehearsed speech about the food, we would have found the authenticity and the connection priceless.

Thank goodness for friendship and camaraderie, we enjoyed this shared experience and laughed about it afterwards. When I look at the photos I took, I remember mostly of the fun conversation and warm laughter we shared.  After we came back to the hotel, Audrey said, “They probably just hit a low point in their cooking tonight.”  She is always willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, and made me feel that I might be too harsh in my judgement.

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Palinka helped

We used Uber in Budapest for the first time this weekend.  Audrey and I went everywhere with Uber and found the rides at least 50% cheaper compared to the taxi cabs.  Some in the crew told me that the taxi drivers are not always straight when it comes to fares.  Uber is definitely the way to go.  

Budapest Indulgence

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Last day on Tamas Farm

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First day on Tamas Farm, sharing screen with the lovely Audrey

I was very happy when our van drove away from Tamas Farm for the last time on the narrow dirt road last night.  So many of our trucks and vans drove back and forth on the dirt road kicking up so much dust that it felt as if we were in a dust storm.  As I sat in the departing van cussing and choking on dust, I realized that one day I will look at the pictures of the idyllic gently rolling meadow and miss the place, the people and the time I shared with them.  It’s strange how I had a premonition of the imminent nostalgia as our van sped away leaving behind a plume of dust.

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Audrey with Marco Polo

Someone in the crew commented that I had not updated my blog lately and I said I had been on set everyday.  She joked, “Get your priorities straight, Joan, we are waiting for your recommendations for the weekend.”  This is how a hobby becomes stressful.

So what’s new?  I have apparently indulged in too much heavy Hungarian food because I noticed that my costume was becoming very tight.  I love to eat and have a voracious appetite.  It is truly difficult to eat healthy if I don’t cook for myself.  Last night I decided to order “the big raw mixed salad” from “Gluten Free And Carb Smart Options” for room service.  When the “carb smart” food arrived, it came with a basket of assorted breads and butter.  What is one to do?  

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For dinner today, Audrey and I went to a restaurant recommended to us by a Hungarian foodie from our camera crew.  He gave me a list of restaurants and one of them, Bock Bisztro, happens to be downstairs of the hotel that we are staying in.  The restaurant has won many awards and is Michelin Guide recommended.  Since we didn’t have a reservation we went very early before the dinner crowd.  Everything on the menu looked interesting to me.  I decided on Ox Cheek Retro while Audrey ordered Csango Vegetable Soup and Salad with Parmesan.

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I looked at the beef poster on the wall that explained the different cuts while waiting for my ox cheek.  I thought of my husband Peter, whose favorite part of a steamed fish is the cheek — that tiny pearl of flesh appreciated only by the most discerning fish eaters.  It has been many weeks since I last saw him and I grieve for all the meals that I can’t share with him — a food lover like myself.

The ox cheek came with chopped pig’s ear served in a bone and a huge buttery Hungarian dumpling.  The braised meat was melt-in-your-mouth soft and tender with the most delectable sauce. 

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Audrey’s vegetable soup was lemony and creamy with cauliflower, carrots, peas, onion and baby spinach.  She loved it, but was so full after eating her soup with bread that she couldn’t finish her salad. I had a few spoonful of her soup and regretted it right away.  Though it was delicious, it was like drinking cream.

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Bacon flavored lard for the bread.

Off to the pool now to try to undo some damage.

Mongolia in Budapest

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There was a lot of waiting on set for me today.  I got picked up at 7:20 in the morning from the hotel and didn’t begin my scene until 4:00 in the afternoon.  I had a lot of time looking at the camels who were also waiting.  Though not in our natural habitat, the camels and I seem to be quite content and at home here in our make-believe homeland.  It was a luxury really, sitting idly under the sun without any guilt — technically I was working.  I act for fun, but I get paid for waiting.  Why didn’t I bring a book?  A book would have been perfect.  I found myself not reading as much as I used to.  There is simply too much distraction from everywhere all the time. 

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When the camels got up to take a walk, so did I.  There were miles and miles of undulating sunflower fields around where we were filming and they were breathtaking.  I sometimes hate waiting on set, especially if the upcoming scene is emotional because too much waiting destroys one’s readiness.  You end up feeing drained before you can even begin. Today I decided to luxuriate in the peaceful surrounds of Tamas Farm — it’s not everyday that I come to a place like this and I will never be here again when these scenes are finished.

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Audrey and I found a lovely little restaurant a few blocks from our hotel called KonyvBar & Restaurant.  It is a book lovers’ haunt where the chef creates his weekly specials based on the theme of a book that he has read and wants to recommend.  This week’s book is Gerald Durrel’s My Family and other Animals, an account of an English family’s experience in Greece.  The specials are all Greek, including dishes like Mother’s first moussaka and  Watermelon granita. The atmosphere is Zen-like and gentle.  It is a place that if you had to eat by yourself, you’d feel pretty comfortable sitting there with a book.  Audrey’s steak was excellent — tender, juicy and flavorful, while my beef stew, though redolent with great spices, was a little tough.  But I will definitely go back there again, even if just to find out about the chef’s next book and his new weekly specials.

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Taking pictures of our food has become a pandemic worldwide

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I found this painted wall across from the restaurant quite charming

Budapest Sunday

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Almost all shops are closed on Sundays in Budapest, but there are some markets and bazaars that stay open, mostly for tourists.  And that’s us.  Audrey fell in love with a dress in a street market called Gozsdu Bzaar.  After looking at all the stalls in the bazaar, we stopped at a restaurant for lunch.  From where we sat, we happened to be peering at the back of a stand where an old man was selling whistles and dresses — an odd combination that was later explained.  Pointing at a cream dress with little blue flowers, Audrey told me, “This dress looks like the one from Urban Outfitters.  I will show you.”  She proceeded to show me the dress on her phone and said she would like to try the dress.  While I sat at the table waiting for the food to arrive, Audrey went to ask the old man if she could try the dress in the lady’s room in the cafe. She came back to the table with the dress and told me that all the dresses were made by the old man’s wife.  So, that was why the whistle stand also sold dresses. 

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I ordered the roasted goose leg with red cabbage, which seems to be a national dish that most restaurants manage to prepare well. This one was crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. Quite delicious. But you see why I must skip dinner.

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From where we sat, we saw the back side of the whistle stall that also sold dresses.

Unfortunately, the pretty dress was too small for Audrey.  I told her to ask the old man if his wife could sew a larger one and we will come back in a couple of weeks.  Audrey came back and said that the old man said no, but his english wasn’t good enough to describe the reason why not.  It was either because his wife was leaving him or she was dead.  I thought that was strange and went to talk to him again after lunch.  He told me again that his wife was leaving him. “Tomorrow,” he added, flapping his arms.  We finally understood that she was leaving for vacation tomorrow.

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The whistle stand. The dress behind the old man is the one Audrey wanted.

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This stand sold little candle shades that turn your wine goblets into candle holders. They are perfect for our wine glasses because we don’t drink.

Disappointment aside, Audrey found some lovely souvenirs and gifts to bring home. 

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After a heavy lunch, I made some more quick pickled radish.  This time I added onion, garlic, poblano pepper and paprika to the mix.  We snacked on the pickled radishes while watching Mrs. Doubtfire, which brought us back to the familiar streets of San Francisco.  The film was shot in and around a house only a few blocks from our home.

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I have to get up at 4am tomorrow for my first day shooting, and I must go to bed now.  I will share the recipe for pickled radishes tomorrow because they are really delicious.

Home Cooking on the Road & Happy 4th of July!

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I found Budapest to be a very livable city.  There are supermarkets of different sizes every few blocks — some carry more meat selections than others, while some carry more wine or fruit selections.  They are not as big as the supermarkets in the US, but everyone is able to easily walk to one near where he lives.  We thought they were swell until this morning, when we found this wonderful farmer’s market only two blocks away from us.  I can’t believe this little gem of a market has been hiding from us in plain view.  The market at Hunyadi Tér has an outdoor part and an indoor part, selling everything from salami, meats, fresh fruits and vegetables to baked goods and cooking ingredients.  Many of the fruits and vegetables are so fresh that they looked like they had been picked this morning.  We found those vine-ripe berries that smelled of sun — perfect for a July 4th treat. 

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We brought home two large bags of vegetables and fruits and made a simple, but delicious lunch.  I don’t have many ingredients here in the kitchenette of my hotel apartment.  All I have are a bottle of premium quality extra virgin olive oil, a bottle of sea salt, vinegar and lemon, garlic and ginger, honey and sugar (from the hotel coffee tray).

Not being at home in my kitchen, with my measuring utensils and a full spice rack is an interesting challenge that teaches me to be more creative and openminded.  We really don’t need a fancy kitchen like the ones in cooking shows, the dazzling talent of a star chef or the sophisticated ingredients to eat well.  All we need is a great appetite and a great willingness to cook.

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I lightly sautéd some spinach with garlic and olive oil, and we ate it with hard boiled eggs topped with a dollop of tomato, paprika condiment that I bought in the supermarket.  I made a quick braised mixed vegetables with a little fresh lemon juice and honey.  The vegetables were sautéd on high heat until they are slightly caramelized, adding a little water at a time to prevent burning.  The hot poblano pepper, the sweet pimiento pepper, the aromatic garlic and onion infused the simple dish with a rich and varied flavor without any added spices.  

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Finally, a little summer homework

For dessert, we made “instant tarts” with Italian wafer, kefir, berries and a little bit of honey.  The berries are so sweet and fragrant that our holiday treat turned out beautifully without much fuss.

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The Best Sandwiches in the World Here in Budapest

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We might have found the world’s best sandwich joint on a narrow cobblestoned street in the old Jewish quarter of Budapest: Bors Gasztrobár.  We went there for the first time yesterday after our visit at the Hungarian National Museum.  Audrey doesn’t like museums in general.  The only one that she’s ever truly enjoyed was Musée Mécanique on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, where they exhibit clever mechanical gadgets and toys of a bygone era.  Visiting the Hungarian National Museum was not exactly something on her to do list here. 

Audrey was tired, hungry and in an irritable state after three hours in the stuffy museum.  It was a 15 minutes walk from the museum to Bors Gasztrobár, and when we arrived we saw a big crowd waiting in and around the tiny joint.  There was no place to stand, let alone sit.  I almost regretted going there. 

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Much to my relief, the line moved quite fast and the menu looked really interesting and enticing.  The atmosphere, too, was youthful and pleasant.  The two owners and their two staffers handled the orders with a light-hearted briskness, but nothing was rushed.  They acted as if they were the hosts of a party — just having a great time with their guests. 

Audrey ordered Ham Baguette, and I ordered French Lady.  We had wanted to take the sandwiches back to our hotel to eat, but they arrived piping hot in paper bags.  It would be a shame not to eat them right then and there. The Ham Baguette had in it veal ragout, hamburger sauce, home-made pickles and cheddar cheese, while French Lady had in it raspberry onion jam, roast chicken and Edamer cheese.

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Audrey’s eyes lit up when she took her first bite and devoured her 12 inch baguette sandwich in a matter of minutes.  Between bites she declared that this was the best sandwich she’d had in her entire life.  I couldn’t agree with her more.  Those sandwiches were peerless — perfectly crunchy on the outside, cheesy and saucy on the inside, and simply bursting with flavor.

Sandwiches are not something I usually get excited over, but the first thing Audrey and I uttered to each other this morning was how delicious those baguettes were.  I had a rehearsal today in the outskirts of Budapest and immediately after we came back, we went to Bors Gasztrobár.  It was 3:30 in the afternoon and the place was less crowded.  We ordered exactly the same sandwiches that we had eaten yesterday.  I suppose we will move on to other sandwiches eventually, but for today we just wanted to relived the experience of yesterday.  And amazingly we did.

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Let me not forget to mention the price.  It is just as unbelievably good as the food.  The most delicious sandwich in the world costs 780 forint, about US$2.80 each. 

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After all the heavy restaurant food that we have been eating, I had a craving for pickles.  Since I didn’t have a mason jar, I made a quick pickled radishes in the mugs.

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Pickled Radishes

Ingredients:

1 bunch fresh radishes, thinly sliced

1/2 small daikon, sliced

1 carrot, peeled and sliced

Radish leaves, tender parts only

1 cup or more rice vinegar

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoon sugar

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Preparation:

Mix the vinegar, salt and sugar in a container.  Marinate the carrots and radishes for 30 minutes or longer.

We discarded the marinade and and squeezed a little lemon juice on the radishes.  Then we ate them with the tender radish leaves like a salad.  It was a much needed and refreshing change from the heavy Eastern European diet that we’ve been keeping.

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Pork Knuckle in Budapest

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Budapest is one of the loveliest cities that I have been — rich history, beautiful architecture, delicious cuisine and friendly people — what more could one ask for?  I have been doing costume fitting and script read-through in the past few days, but Audrey and I have also been exploring the city when I have free time, mostly on foot.  We walked so much that one of her wedge sandals broke today just when we arrived at the Four Season’s Hotel for lunch.  The top of the sandal separated almost completely from the sole and Audrey had to hop into the swanky lobby dragging a broken shoe.  It was quite hilarious and embarrassing at the same time. 

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from Audrey

We sat down in the restaurant and asked the waiter for duct tape, but he didn’t understand what we were saying and thought it was a food item that was not on the menu.  Thank goodness for Google Translate that we found duct tape in Hungarian: szövetbetétes ragasztószalag.  Audrey taped the sandal to her foot and kept the rest of the tape in her purse, just in case. 

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For lunch, we ordered the special of the day — pork knuckle with pearl onion and baby potatoes. It was absolutely delicious.  Budapest is a city of carnivores, where vegetarian choices are somewhat limited.  Audrey has eschewed her vegetarianism since we arrived and is now eating meat with a vengeance. 

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Bread in Europe is really, really good. Here it is served on a hot stone to keep it warm and toasty.

In the market near our hotel, we saw fresh pork bones and decided to make bone broth for a lentil soup for dinner.  Next to the lentil bean packages, I saw something that looked like oat bran or wheat bran and bought one to cook breakfast porridge.  After I made a big pot of bone broth and sautéd some chopped onion and carrots, I poured the vegetable and the lentil in.  And then, at a whim, I added about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of what I thought was oat bran or wheat bran to the soup.  Much to my surprise, the soup turned into a gloppy elastic consistency and texture that would roll off the utensil.  I quickly googled the words on the package: utifu maghej, and it turned out to be Psyllium husk, a plant seed husk that is used as a laxative in this part of the world. Good thing I checked.

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Tired after gluttonous eating

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Working off the pork knuckles in the pool. The pool and the spa in the hotel was the inspiration of the original novella of The Grand Budapest Hotel.