Sunday, September 30, 2007

Binge, Purge

Neither is recommended, although I did have a good time doing both this weekend.

The binging began Friday night with a goose fest at the Zlatá Hus, or Golden Goose restaurant in a village just outside Bratislava ( for fotky or photos). This was my dining club’s annual event, and the third time I’ve been to this place.

I don’t generally have much of an emotional reaction to Slovak cuisine one way or the other. Anyone who has spent time in the Rust Belt (and by this I mean Pittsburgh, Cleveland, to Detroit) has tasted some form of bohunk or Central European cooking. It’s cabbage and schnitzel and pirogis and pork, pork, pork and palacinke. Comfort food at best. Hearty. Stick to your ribs. Compared to what I ate in Argentina, it can be spicy because there is often paprika and pickled peppers. But it can, like any cuisine, become tiresome. Pork, cabbage, pork, cabbage.

Luckily, in the fall and winter, there’s goose. And this place serves, perhaps, the best I’ve had.

The meal starts with an aperitif of a homemade pear liqueur. It comes in a small glass with a tiny pear that the family grows just for this drink. It’s not firewater, as many of these fruit alcohols can be, but really smooth. And it’s an important digestif for the heavy, greasy meal.

Next comes a large platter of goose liver. I love foie gras, but I do not like organ meats in any other form. And the first time I saw this dish, I was skeptical. But, let me tell you, even my fussy kids will eat it. I don’t know exactly what happens to this liver, but I’m told a milk marinade is involved. The end result is something light, almost mousse-like, with a clear, golden gravy that is salty, but not too salty, and perfect for dipping the accompanying rye bread into. It is easy to eat too much of this.

On Friday, the waiter brought us a sweet white wine to drink with the liver. I don’t usually care for sweet wines, either, but this was a small portion, and it was nice with the dish.

Then comes the goose, as glorious as any Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving scene. Platters of golden brown goose, with the most perfect, salty, crispy skin. The meat is not at all dry, but succulent. I heard one of the regular guests explain that the geese enter the oven at about 7 kilos, but weigh less than 2 kilos when they emerge because all the fat has been rendered during the roasting process. Whatever happens in those ovens results in food you are encouraged to eat with your fingers.

Accompanying the goose come side dishes with red cabbage and a thin potato crêpe called lokše.

Now, I do love lokše. They are served with melted goose grease . . . I know, I know. That sounds hideous. But think about Indian gee. That’s what the goose grease is like here. It’s clear and . . . just wonderful. Now during the Christmas market you can get lokše with all sorts of different toppings. But I always get them just plain, with the goose grease.

The first time I had them, they were so irresistible, that I ate five, an apparently unheard of number. This is food to be taken seriously. It laid in my stomach like a rock for most of the evening following that meal. I thrashed about in my bed, trying to find a comfortable position, to no avail. I drank some bubbly water, thinking it would make me burp. Instead it just made my abdomen swell further. I had a veritable brick-sized shelf just below my rib cage that wasn’t moving in any direction. I began to imagine that I would have to go to the hospital and have my stomach pumped, but eventually the problem solved itself.

When I told this story later, I learned that, aside from moderation, the key is to drink more alcohol and eat more of the picked vegetables that also accompany the meal. Both help cut the grease and aid digestion. So last year I only ate three lokše, drank a little more, and suffered no ill effects.

I don’t know what happened this year. I didn’t drink very much, but I did, perhaps, have a variety of wines (the pear liqueur, the sweet wine, and then a red with the main course). I only ate two lokše (but I did have two slices of strudel for dessert . . . it was warm). Anyhow, a few hours after I returned home, sleep proved impossible because the meal refused to move along in an orderly fashion. I’ll spare you the details, but I was a sad, sad rabbit.

I paid for my gluttony yesterday on a vigorous bike ride through the Small Carpathians. One of my dining companions Friday night was a French-Canadian woman about my age. She took up running last year, lost a noticeable amount of weight, and emerged fit enough to complete a half-marathon in very respectable time. Recently, however, she has had some issues with her feet that make running no longer her best option. So she now does her jogging route on a bike.

When she first mentioned showing me her route, I thought, “Oh, that will be a nice change of pace from my flat routes along the Danube.” Frankly, I thought since I can go out and plow through 40 km, her little ride under the trees, with little or no wind, ought to be a piece of cake.


Boy. Was I ever mistaken.

First, I cheerfully set out for her house, which is about half way up a significant hill. I was fairly sure I could not ride up the entire hill, which was true, but I got about 1/3 of the way up, which I considered an auspicious start. I didn’t think that it might have been a stupid waste of energy, but live and learn.

From her door, we got back on our bikes and continued further UPPPP the hill, all the while with her cheerfully saying, “Oh, this is the worst part.”

Me: “ . . . pant . . .pant . . .pant . . . cough.”

The woman is nothing if not optimistic.

When we got to the top of the hill, I realized with horror that I am ill equipped, psychologically or otherwise, to fly down a serious hill. I poked along, weenie-like, brakes smoking, weaving around the various Sunday-Strollers and their dogs. It wasn’t until I finally caught up with her at the bottom of the hill that it occurred to me that the return route would be back UPPPP that very hill.

“Oh, yeah,” she said, again cheerfully. “It takes me about 17 minutes to ride up it. It’s a big hill.”

I decide to just ignore the thought until I was once again facing the hill. So off we went through the woods on decently paved trails for about an hour.

I have to say it was lovely. This part of Slovakia looks very similar to Southeastern Ohio, which, in my opinion, is some of the prettiest turf I have seen. Little streams gurgled. Leaves were just beginning to turn color. A recent rain made the earth smell fresh and, well, forest-y. At the top of one hill (“ . . .pant . . . pant . . . pant . . .”) there was a stand of elms or beech or some trees with tall, silvery trunks like elephant legs. The late afternoon sun hit the trees from the side with a golden light. It was like something out of a fairy tale.

So that’s it, really. I rode around in the woods and lived to tell about it. It was difficult, I got off and walked a few times, but I made it home in time for dinner.

My favorite moment, however, came just a few hundred meters from the top of the Big Hill I mentioned earlier. I walked up most of that hill. In fact, when I wanted to ride again, the angle was too steep for me to even get going. I tried. I finally found a flatter spot and got enough impulsion by heading across the path a little first and then careening sharply uphill. With both my gears in first, like a total wimp, I inched my way up the easy part of the hill.

“ . . . pant . . . pant . . . pant . . .”

In my defense, this was two hours into what was, for me, grueling.

Suddenly, on my left, is Young Guy. On his bike. He’s working. He’s breathing hard. He passes me. He turns over his shoulder and looks at me. I give him the “Yeah, I just rode up this mother, too!” nod. He looks ahead for a moment. Then he looks back over his should at me again.

Yeah. Dude. I, old enough to be your mother, just rode up this hill, I tell him non-verbally. (He doesn’t need to know how wimpy and out of shape I really am!)

He raises an eyebrow. I speed up. We’re neck-and-neck, pedaling in sync, when I find French-Canadian Friend, talking to a mother we both know from school, at the top of the hill. (Oh, please. She was cranking. She was waaay ahead of me! But I confess nothing.)

I nod at him once more.

He continues on.

I am cool.


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