I had my vodka and Red Bull/foam party/clubbing until 7 a.m. for a week straight in Ibiza moments. But that was quite a while ago. For the past few years, it's been a pretty quiet New Year's Eve at home with the usual assortment of family and friends. We do go through quite a bit of liquor though, largely wine and champagne.
I'll be the first to admit I don't have a very sophisticated wine palate. Those floral, fruity, woody notes you're supposed to detect in wine? Totally escapes my tongue. Most of my wine is bought from Trader Joe's, because they describe what the wine is supposed to taste like and because I can get some pretty good stuff for under $5. If the wine ends up being a miss, I just cook with it and I didn't waste much money trying something new. I like white more than red, sweet rather than dry. I even went really ghetto this year and bought a clearance $2 wine in a box from Target. I have high hopes though because it's made with moscato, chardonnay, and chenin blanc grapes. Heh.
So while stocking up my wine cabinet, I found this bottle of Egri Bikaver (Bull's Blood of Eger) at TJ's.
Bull's Blood is a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and several other Hungarian red grapes. But my all-time favorite is the super-sweet white wine Tokaji Aszu, Tokaj is the name of the town and Aszu the method for making the wine.
My favorite travel memories are the unexpected. I mean, if I said I had good wine in France, that's expected. I think in most people's minds, France = wine. But good wine in Hungary? A whole valley of caves where the Huns hid from the Turks and have since been turned into wine cellars? Now that's a story.
I was in Hungary for about a week visiting my cousin. Several years before that, I had already taken all the obligatory tourist pictures all over Budapest. So this time around, I mostly stayed in the college town of Debrecen, about 3 to 4 hours away.
Her then-boyfriend insisted on introducing me to everything Hungarian. So I soaked myself in pools of thermal hot springs all day and at night ate goulash, of course, as well as steak tartar, fish offal stew, langos (basically a large flat fried dough slathered in sour cream and cheese), ice cream with cake bits mixed in, and Hungarian chili.
Pictured is Hungarian boyfriend making Hungarian chili over an open fire the way the nomadic Hun warriors of old might have. Now, not having made or eaten Hungarian chili before, I was content to let him do all the work. But he kept asking me if he was sauteing the onions right, to taste this and that. Finally, giving up when I said I really had no idea.
Heh, cooking duties wriggled out of the way, I was then able to concentrate on the important part -- sampling Hungarian wine. I started off with a large can of beer because my host gave it to me so I drank it to be nice. But really, I'm just not a beer drinker, so I chased it with a large glass of aszu. Not a wine glass, mind you. A large drinking glass full. Oh, man, was it good. So sweet it was like drinking white grape juice. Infinitely better than drinking bitter beer. And darn it, that chili was taking so long to cook over an open fire. So I had another glass. And another. And um, I can't recall how many glasses I had. I may have drunk the whole bottle. And not a wine bottle, a liter-sized bottle, because they reuse plastic pop bottles for homemade wine.
Once I started drinking, I apparently liked to debate European Union politics. I think we were debating whether a giant E.U. would be enough of a superpower to compete with the U.S. I remember one of the other guests getting all excited and frustrated because he could sort-of understand what we were discussing but his English wasn't good enough to really articulate his points. In case you were interested, they didn't have too much hope for Hungary's inclusion into the E.U. simply because they thought Europeans were too divided.
There was also another night, four bottles of champagne, shared amongst four people. And again, we debated politics. This time, Soviet-era apartments built with cramped kitchens so the people couldn't gather and make plans to overthrow the government. I pointed out that treason could be planned in the living room just as easily as in the kitchen, but evidently Hungarians don't do that. Heh.
What about Eger you ask? Here you go.
Eger is a town of about 70,000 people, in northern Hungary. Hungarians are quite proud that in 1552, Eger held back the Turkish invasion into Northern Europe. About 2,000 Hungarians, including women and children, held back 80,000 Turks.
But the Turks invaded again with a bigger army in 1596, and stayed for 80 years. So the Hungarians hid out in caves dug into hillsides in a nearby valley.
Today that valley, Szepasszony volgy (Sirens Valley, sometimes also translated as Valley of the Beautiful Women or Nice Woman Valley), has about 300 caves that have been converted to wine cellars. Sirens Valley is about a half hour walk from downtown Eger, or a very quick drive.
Some caves look really nice inside with wine cabinets and tables. See how nicely packaged the bottles are in glass and corked for visitors to take home? But if you plan to drink the wine soon, most Hungarians buy the wine in reused plastic pop bottles. It's cheaper.
We just hopped from one cave to another, sampling a glass in one, buying a bottle in another. Some places sold food. Some didn't. Some had lighting and toilets, others were literally a dark cave dug into the side of a hill.
One cave/wine cellar featured an American musician from D.C. who started strumming his guitar to pass the time and people started streaming in, tossing coins into his guitar case, and swaying to his music. The owners gifted him with a bottle of wine to thank him for pulling in customers, he uncorked the bottle and shared with new friends.
So whether you celebrate New Year's Eve with family or friends or wine, I wish you a memorable evening to end 2006.
And for those of you who have my sense of humor (Because really aren't we all funny? It's just whether someone else's sense of the absurd is the same as yours.), I'll leave you with this anecdote.
"I'm hungry," Norwegian girl cousin said.
"You're not Hungary, I am," said her Hungarian boyfriend.
As for that Target wine in a box? Blech! What kind of moscato grapes did they use because it wasn't even sweet. Ugh! :( Maybe it's time for another batch of risotto or something.
You can read all Europe posts with the tag Series: Europe, but I suggest reading this particular trip in this order:
"Meet-Cute" Stockholm - Sweden
Helsinki - Finland: A Two-Night Cruise and One Day
Sigtuna - Sweden: More Rune Stones Than Any Other Town
Gamla Uppsala (Old Uppsala) - Sweden: Beowulf and Burial Mounds
Uppsala - Sweden: Birthplace of Celsius
Tallinn - Estonia: A Two-Night Cruise and One Day
Eger and Sirens Valley - Hungary: Floral? Fruity? Woody Notes? What Notes?
Agios Georgios, Corfu Town, and Vidos Island, Corfu - Greece
Glass Bottom Boat, Corfu - Greece
Gaios, Paxos Island - Greece
Parga - Greece
Autostitch of Parga - Greece
Paleokastritsa, Corfu - Greece
Butrint and Saranda - Albania