During a visit to Hungary in the 1990s, my then husband and I took the opportunity to try and make contact with Magdalena, a long lost Oma on his mother's side of the family. No-one in Australia had heard from the dear old lady since 1978 when, in her late seventies, she made the long journey from a quaint little medieval hamlet called Grebenhain in the Vogelsberg region of Germany. She, and a grand daughter who accompanied her, stayed for our wedding before returning home. The grand daughter came back to Australia briefly many years later, but then unfortunately the family lost all contact.
Finding someone in a foreign country is no easy task, but things get even more complicated when (a) telecommunications are almost non-existent, (b) you don't speak the language, and (c) you have no real idea where to begin. Let me explain... there were no mobile telephones in Hungary in 1994. Nor were there too many landlines. In fact, one of my cousins, a General Practitioner doctor in Budapest, didn't even have a home phone, while curiously his elderly mother did. From what we learned at the time, it took several years to have a telephone connected, if you were lucky. Of course things had changed by the time I returned in 2001... by then everyone (and I mean everyone!) had a mobile phone and a landline, hot running water, modern motor vehicles etc. But, now I digress...
After much deliberation, we started with an Embassy in Budapest where we managed to find contact details for family in Stuttgart (the cousin who visited Australia in '78). Then, my (well meaning) uncle, Józsi bácsi, my father's last surviving sibling out of ten or more, arranged for a Hungarian/German speaking neighbour to assist. This neighbour had been a teacher in his prime, but was now a very-deaf elderly gentleman whose German was broken to say the least. He and my uncle accompanied us to the local telephone exchange, where we had to quite literally kow tow to a nasty piece behind the counter in order to arrange a short telephone hook up to Germany. We were disconnected countless times before the call finally went through. And then, with great frustration, we listened to the loud and strained conversation between the elderly teacher and the husband of the said cousin. Finally, exasperated and unable to bear any more, I snatched the handset from the man and took over. My uncle was mortified that I would behave in this manner... at the time there were strict protocols in place for how 'youngsters' behaved in the presence of grown ups. But what the heck, I was an Australian-born Magyar in my forties, after all, and the phone call was costing me money and getting us nowhere!
Long story short, the relative on the other end of the line in Stuttgart spoke English well enough to realise who we were and understand why we were calling. Sadly, he informed us that my husband's Oma had passed away only a year before. During the course of the conversation, however, we were able to make arrangements to drive to Stuttgart for a visit, with a stopover to the Vogelsberg region and the village where Oma had lived, to visit her grave and see the nursing home where she had died. Our journey took us along the German Fairytale Road to a tiny village that boasts a legendary half-timbered house called Teufelsmühle or The Devil's Mill, which was built in 1691. On this trip, I managed to have my first brush with stinging nettle against my naked backside! I will share more on that story in another snippet.
Fast forward to January 1996 and the delightful cousins from Stuttgart visited the family in Canberra as part of an adventure that took them right across Australia. Their parting gift to me was a cook book titled Swabia, a culinary tour (Hans-Dieter Reichert), inscribed with the lovely message 'Hallo Liz, what can you us recommend?'. I have treasured this book ever since and was always particularly fond of Sour Potato Wheels on page 156, a dish I have cooked over and over. Here is my take on the recipe, which according to the author 'was at one time a national dish' but has since 'gone out of fashion'. My Peter won't eat anything with mustard or vinegar, so given that he is currently travelling at the Top End in Darwin with work, I have put back on my menu... (please don't be put off by the word 'sour'.... this dish is deliciously different and I hope you add it to your repertoire too).
This post is dedicated with love to Oma Magdalena, her daughter, Alma (my former MIL), and cousin Gabi... all of whom have sadly left us. And with love and hugs to Michael and Helga in Stuttgart, who are often in my thoughts.
SWABIAN SOUR POTATO WHEELS
1kg (5 medium) potatoes (use Nicolas or similar)
1 onion, chopped
2 tablespoons oil
2 tablespoons plain flour
500mls cold vegetable stock
2 bay leaves
a sliver of nutmeg
2 teaspoons mustard
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
Now there are two ways to prepare the potatoes... you can boil them in their skins until they are just tender, then peel and discard the skin before slicing the potatoes into 'wheels', or you can peel and slice the potatoes, then cook them gently until a fork just pierces the flesh (take care not to overcook them). In the meantime, saute the onions in a little oil until they are translucent, then sprinkle over the flour and stir with a wooden spoon. Fry gently until the onions and flour are turning golden and then stir in the cold vegetable stock, slowly, stirring until smooth, then add the mustard and cider. Pop the spices into a tea egg, or spice egg, and add this to the pot, heating through the potatoes and allowing the flavours to infuse. Taste and then season with a little cracked pepper. Serve with schnitzel or corned beef. This quantity will serve 2-3 as a side.
The process in pictures...
The dish, , ready to serve...
Now tell me, dear readers... have you ever managed to track down a long lost relative? Share your story.
Hello. I'm Liz, a writer, cook and traveller based in Canberra, Australia.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.