The Adelaide Hills of South Australia in the sixties where my parents built their home, was not an environment highly conducive to boys who liked to cook. We lived an hour out of town, and half my primary school-mates were farm-boys. The closest they came to food preparation involved killing rabbits or chickens. Boys who wanted to spend time in the kitchen were unusual, and regarded with suspicion.
My father was a University Bio-chemist, and my mother a talented woodworker, photographer and gardener. The youngest in a family of six children, my mother had never cooked until her marriage at the age of nearly thirty. My maternal grandmother who came from a deeply middle-class business family of a certain status, always had a local woman in to ‘do’. It was only when my mother finally married and was almost immediately went to Canada with my father for a 2-year research post in Ottawa, that my mother realised she needed to learn. Even then it was a repertoire best described as ‘post-war functional’.
We were not a family that mixed much socially with other families. Neither of my parents were naturally gregarious or good conversationalists. Team sports didn’t really enter into the equation, and only intellectual and artistic pursuits were encouraged at home. Both were deeply agnostic, so church was out too. After a couple of obligatory and unfortunate experiences in the highly competitive ‘entertaining circle’ run by the wives of fellow academics, my mother bluntly forbade any of them to ever return, effectively ending her career as a university hostess. This was a relief to all concerned.
This life of quaint solitude would normally have continued until I left for university, but sometime around 1970, Balázs and Eva Varga built a large house on the other side of the gully from us, and abruptly interrupted the semi-rural isolation of our family. They were Hungarian refugees who had escaped the uprising in 1956, leaving everything behind. In their iteration of the Australian immigrant story, they remade their lives in Adelaide, eventually starting a very successful and popular Hungarian restaurant called Decca’s Place. In deeply conservative Adelaide of the late 1960’s, Decca’s Place had European-style sophistication in spades. Balázs had had Swiss-hotel school training and was proud of his skills and all things Hungarian and was keen to share this with the world. They were also practising Catholics, which created some suspicion.
Not long afterwards, they appeared at our front door one day and politely asked if they could harvest the Slippery Jack Mushrooms (Suillus Luteus) which they had noticed growing in abundance under our pine trees my parents had planted in the gully. With great suspicion, they gave consent, wondering whether they would ever see them again. From then on, the Vargas arrived every autumn after that, and harvested large quantities which they took home and dried for later consumption. after that, I was occasionally invited into their house, to help baby-sit their two children. On these occasions, Eva’s instruction was always “Just help yourself to anything you fancy in the fridge”. Their fridge overflowed with exciting produce from the restaurant, and was nothing like ours.
Soon, I was introduced to Csabai, fish and sauerkraut soups laden with paprika, spicy bratwurst, speck, goulasch and csipetke, with noodles served apricot jam and walnuts and Kugelhof for dessert. These dishes were impossibly exotic and deeply stimulating. I realised that the Vargas were people who cherished both family and a love of food.
Not long after, one Easter Friday evening, my middle brother was gathering firewood on a tractor at the bottom of the gully with my mother. He fell off into a creek, and the tractor rolled on top of him. Nick was badly injured, and my mother called up the gully for me to ring for an ambulance to take him down to the Adelaide hospital. My youngest brother and I were temporarily absorbed into the Vargas’ household where Easter preparations were well under way. I was distracted from the stress and fear of what had happened by Balázs, who involved me in the preparation an enormous ham which he was boiling for their traditional post midnight-mass supper. Such extravagance!
After that, Balázs often let me spend time with him in the kitchen when he was at home, patiently answered all my questions, and told me many stories of his life in post-war Hungary ‘before the communists came’. For the first time, I had a role model who was not only a man, but also deeply proud of being a chef, his Hungarian heritage, and making a good living for himself and his family. Although it would be a few more years before I would get to work in a commercial kitchen, it was his encouragement that got me interested. My enthusiasm for Hungarian comfort-food also remains.