Saturday, April 25, 2009

Hungarian Fruit Preserves

Raphael Patai (1910-1996) wrote about his childhood and his education in Budapest in the autobiography Apprentice in Budapest: Memories of a World That Is No More. I found it very readable. He creates careful portraits of his family, his teachers, and his peers, with little asides about where they eventually ended up and what they accomplished. He often mentions that one or another person or family were among the four-fifths of Hungarian Jews exterminated by the Nazis. Patai creates a very complex narrative with lots of background and history, without ever really seeming to digress. I've read several of his other books, which are scholarly but always readable too.

Patai mentions many family meals, student meals, and shared food experiences, but really only offers one long and detailed passage on food and its preparation. He explains the preparation of preserved fruit, which his mother prepared each summer, and the embedding of goose livers in goose fat to preserve them. "I loved to eat," he writes, "and often went on foraging expeditions to get a snack in between the regular five meals a day."

He would sneak into the pantry where he found large quantities of preserved fruit and goose livers, and help himself. These two foods were contents for the sandwiches he was given for his mid-day meal at school -- though butter with fruit preserves or goose fat with liver were always separate treats, to comply with kosher restrictions. "I do not remember ever having left over even the smallest piece of these sandwiches."

I was especially interested in this passage about fruit preparation:
Toward the end of every summer ... Mother would go to the market with the maid, and purchase huge quantities of fruit -- apricots, black plums, greengage, and the like -- and, assisted by the maid, would prepare preserves. The fruit was peeled, cut up, and cooked for a long time with lots of sugar in large pots, poured into pint- or quart-sized jars, liberally topped with salicyl, a white salt-like substance used to prevent the formation of mold, then tightly closed with parchmentlike paper that was tied down around the opening of the jar with a strong string. The jars were placed into several very large pots, each of which could accommodate perhaps six or eight of them, and the pots were filled with water so as to cover the jars, and put on the stove to be boiled for a considerable length of time. All these steps were considered necessary in order to prevent spoilage. When the time came to open a jar, the top layer of salicyl as first removed, then Mother would carefully inspect the contents to see whether, despite all her precautions,they showed signs of decay.
Patai's childhood favorite fruit preserve was made from "quinces and sugar (and perhaps some spices as well?), boiled in water until the fruit was soft enough to be passed through a sieve." This puree was cooled, hardened, and when it became the consistency of hard cheese, could be eaten in slices without bread. He also describes sneaking into the larder and poking around beneath the goose fat to take a piece of the hidden goose liver.

In subsequent paragraphs, Patai also lists his favorite childhood desserts. He describes how his grandmother rolled out dough and wrapped it around apples to make turnovers. In one long passage (p. 150-152) he describes all this -- the only detailed description of food in the autobiography, It's definitely a treasure in helping to picture one aspect of the life of Hungarian Jews at the time.

1 comment:

Stasya said...

this is very interesting!