I am currently reading two books. The first is a little known series that Paddy contributed to in 1962 about which I will say more very soon. The second is volume two of Bánffy’s trilogy. I am convinced of the semi-autobiographical nature of these books and I have become obsessed with trying to find the house in Cluj of the married woman, Adrienne, who becomes the lover of the hero Balint.
There are many clues, including street names, but Bánffy has been able to mix fact and fiction, and what is more, many of the street names have been changed from the traditional Hungarian to new Romanian names since 1918. I was discussing this with one of my work colleagues in Cluj, Boglarka Ronai, and I happened to say that I was convinced that Bánffy also had a lover in Cluj, and that Adrienne’s house in the story may have been based on this woman’s house.
We are not sure about the house part, but Bánffy did indeed have a long-term lover in Cluj, and Boglarka sent me the following article about her: Baroness Elemér Bornemissza née Karola Szilvássy. Quite bizarrely it is about a cookbook that she wrote. What is interesting is how the writer of the article positions the contributors to the cookbook within the context of the decline of the Hungarian nobility of Transylvania, and in some cases this had tragic endings. It was into this world that Paddy walked in 1934 as he enjoyed his long summer in Hungary and then Transylvania. I have not had the time to cross-check, but Paddy may well have met some of the characters mentioned in the article and written about them in “Between the Woods and the Water“. Many of those mentioned in the article were writers and members of a Hungarian-Transylvanian writer’s group, the Erdélyi Helikon. In the picture below I believe Count Miklós Bánffy can be seen second right sitting on the chairs.
The Taste of Old Transylvania
Baroness Elemér Bornemissza: Kipróbált receptek (Proven Recipes). Edited and with an Introduction by Ildikó Marosi. Csíkszereda–Budapest, Pallas—Akadémia Könyvkiadó, 1998, 153 pp.
A friend of mine brought a heartrending cookery book from Transylvania. At first sight the slim little volume looked ordinary enough; I expected some amusing oddity when I picked it up and read the name of the author—Baroness Elemér Bornemissza née Karola Szilvássy—and the title: Proven Recipes.
The cover showed a copperplate print of Marosvécs in the last century—I was able to identify it by the four sturdy corner towers. This Renaissance building on the site of the Roman castrum was, until recently, in the possession of the Kemény family—the descendants of János Kemény (1607–1662), Prince of Transylvania, who had fought the Turks and had been abandoned by the Habsburgs and Montecuccoli.
When I read the first recipe, I still thought I would be treated to a bit of “blue-blooded” diversion. Who in their right mind could take a recipe of Goose-liver paté à la Salzburg seriously, which requires three whole goose livers, of which two have to be soaked in lukewarm milk overnight, then fried with onions and white bread rolls previously also soaked in milk, then pounded in a mortar, pressed through a sieve, mixed with finely sliced truffles which had been soaked in sugared wine, then with more wine added, with cloves and pepper, and the whole mixture finely layered with the third goose liver, which had been fried, cut into thin slices, and then the whole thing finished in a hot oven.
Who would have time for all that today?
It was only when I read the foreword of more than thirty pages and then went through the recipes that my heart suddenly sank. Every single recipe permeated the air with transcience and death. What I held in my hand was the frozen, fossilized evidence of a social class, a culture and a world, which have been obliterated from the face of the Earth.
This class was the Hungarian aristocracy of Transylvania, which, as well as distinguishing itself in the culinary arts, maintained an extremely rich Hungarian tradition, culture and literature.
As Ildikó Marosi’s Introduction reveals, the book is the first publication of a hand-written cookery book. Besides being a fascinating document, an original collection of recipes found among the estate of János Kemény, the last titled resident of Marosvécs, it is invaluable also because in the case of most of the recipes the author also names the source: when and where the baroness had learned the secrets of preparing the dish concerned. And if we use Ildikó Marosi’s guide to keep track of the sources, then the book will, indeed, make heartrending reading.
Let’s get a foretaste of the names of people who cooked for Hungarian writers, poets and editors in Transylvania between the two world wars.
The author of the cookery book was Baroness Bornemissza née Karola Szil-vássy, daughter of the landowner Béla Szilvássy and Baroness Antónia Wass.
Karola’s character was captured in two novels by two twentieth-century Transylvanian writers of aristocratic blood, Count Miklós Bánffy (1874–1950) and Baron János Kemény (1903–1971).
Ever since her youth, Karola was a stunningly beautiful, unbridled and proud woman with a passion for fine food as well as for interesting, eccentric and talented people. She liked to have excitement around her, and when there were no scandals at hand, she personally intervened to remedy the situation. For many years, Karola had a housekeeper, who had been a convicted murderer’s lover, and whom she took into her house along with the hanged man’s child. Accompanied by one of her friends, herself a baroness, Karola travelled to South Africa—on rail, by boat and on a donkey—to erect a tombstone for her cousin, Albert Wass, who had died there while fighting for the Boers.
This extraordinary woman had a difficult time to find herself a husband; eventually she married Baron Elemér Borne- missza, but the marriage was a failure, and their only child died, so they lived separately, with Karola receiving a handsome allowance from her husband.
Between the two world wars, Karola made herself the heart and soul of the Kemény Zsigmond Society of Marosvásárhely, the publishing house Erdélyi Szépmives Céh, and the magazine Erdélyi Helikon. (Erdély is the Hungarian name of Transylvania.)
The society, which bore the name of the Kemény family’s greatest son, the novelist and liberal thinker Zsigmond Kemény, was formed after the writer’s death in 1876, and functioned until 1944. It acquired a unique role after Transylvania’s annexation by Romania in 1918, organizing and rallying the Hungarian writers and maintaining links with the mother country.
Erdélyi Szépmíves Céh was the most prestigious book publisher in interwar Transylvania, and Erdélyi Helikon, the magazine started by János Kemény, was published by them.
The writers who were associated with the publisher and the magazine—Károly Kós, Aladár Kuncz, Károly Molter, Jenoý Dsida, Benoý Karácsony and many others—annually gathered in János Kemény’s château in Marosvécs. On these occasions, Karola’s attendance could always be taken for granted, and all the memoirs name her as the spirit of the company. (below Karola is fourth from right)
In this way, Karola, the compiler of our cookery book, was at the centre of Transylvanian literary life, and her kitchen produced, from “proven recipes”, the fine food enjoyed by the writers and editors.
Take for example, the horseradish with oranges: cook the juice of an orange with sugar, add a large portion of grated horseradish and a diced orange, then serve chilled.
Karola died in Kolozsvár in 1948, at the age of seventy-two. Her grave in the Házsongárd cemetery of Kolozsvár was covered in red roses by Miklós Bánffy, the same man who wrote a trilogy on the decline of the Transylvanian aristocracy; who designed the set for the Budapest première of Bartók’s The Wooden Prince in 1917; who was Hungary’s Foreign Minister in 1921 and 1922; and who, upon his return to Transylvania in 1926, took the helm at the Erdélyi Helikon. Complete with its ups and downs, his not particularly secret liaison with Karola lasted for decades, and he followed her to the grave within a couple of months of her death.
However, let’s carry on leafing through the cookery book.
Here is the second recipe, a tomato jelly, coming from one of Karola’s friends, a certain Olga.
Peeling tomatoes or putting the saucepan on the stove for this dish will never again be the same, knowing that the Olga, who provided this recipe, was none other than Mrs. Óváry, née Olga Purjesz, whose salon in Kolozsvár served as a sanctuary for the Hungarian arts in Transylvania in the mid-1930s; in addition to the local literati, such as the poet Jenoý Dsida and the writers Benoý Karácsony and Aladár Kuncz, the salon was visited by just about everyone who happened to pass through the town coming from Hungary: thus Béla Bartók, and the writers Zsigmond Móricz and Dezsoý Kosztolányi. We add the herbs and the gelatine differently, we chop the tomato with different feelings, knowing that the Olga, who had recorded this recipe, was machine-gunned, along with her entire family and dinner guests, in September 1944 by a Russian soldier, or by a soldier of some other nationality—possibly Romanian—wearing a Soviet uniform.
Then there is the Turkey galantine, which will not taste the same, no matter how closely we follow the recipe, adding all the ingredients—turkey, milk, white rolls, butter, eggs, goose liver, bacon, ham, macaroni, cucumber, lemon rind, mushrooms—when we find out that it comes from Záh, the estate whose last proprietor, Artur Horváth, was lynched by a Romanian mob in 1944.
Several English recipes are included in the book, the source of which in most cases is given as Auguszta.
Auguszta, to whom Karola bequeathed the cookery book, was Mrs. János Kemény, the host of Helikon evenings. Born as Augusta Paton in a Scottish family, she arrived in Transylvania some time in the 1920s to visit her brother, who found himself stuck there after being interned during World War One. The brother wished to study a variety of pig species bred in the Mezoýség region, but could only witness the disintegration of the Empire and Hungary instead. Augusta, too, got “stuck” in Transylvania, after marrying Baron János Kemény. This was how the sister of a Scottish pig expert became the châtelaine and, incidentally, also one of the main patrons of Transylvanian literature between the two wars.
All the exquisite recipes in the world—the Shepherd’s pie, the Turkish speciality Imam bald or the sweet bread with honey and almonds—cannot make us forget that they came from the kitchen of János Kemény, a man not only dispossessed of his mansion and thrown into poverty, but also banned from writing. All he was left with in the end was a plot in the graveyard.
János Kemény and his wife are buried in the once beautiful park of Marosvécs, overlooking the turbulent River Maros. If your nerves are steady, you can visit the tombstone—but be warned that you will probably be accompanied, as the beautiful Renaissance palace of Marosvécse now functions as a mental hospital.
Written above the recipe of Veal cutlets béchamel there is the word Sáromberke.
Sáromberke was the name of the place where Gemma Teleki’s château stood. Among the direct descendants of Count Sámuel Teleki, the founder of the famous library and chancellor of Transylvania in the 18th century, was the identically named explorer, from whom Gemma in-herited not only the huge château full of elephant trunks and lion skins, but also a genius of a cook, Róbert.
Róbert Pirckhan’s father was an Austrian gamekeeper, originally brought to Sáromberke by Sámuel Teleki to start a game reserve; however, he also started a family there, and since his youngest son Róbert was born hunchbacked, Uncle Samu arranged for his training as a cook.
To that effect, he sent the boy first to the National Casino of Budapest, and then to the kitchen of the German Prince Waldeck, where among the frequent guests was the Russian Tsar, a gourmand.
Later on Róbert became the chef of Sámuel Teleki’s boon hunting companion, Crown Prince Rudolph; he was there, in Mayerling, on that wretched Sunday, when tragedy struck. Of course, Róbert discussed the Crown Prince or Mayerling with no one; instead, he returned to his former master in Transylvania. He was a genius of a chef, who at Sámuel Teleki’s hunting parties was sometimes known to cook for three or four kings at a time.
Róbert ended up as a pauper, despite being entitled to a fabulous pension; having turned deaf first, and then blind, he was finally run over by a car.
Now, as we continue leafing through the booklet, and as we stumble on another recipe from Sáromberke, the Crème Galushka, dumplings made of whipped egg white cooked in syrup, drained, layered with vanilla cream and apricot jam and served chilled, our thoughts should go out not only to the trampled-down cook, but also to the lady of the household where he was employed.
Gemma Teleki is still alive. Her family fled to the West, but she chose to stay in Transylvania. For decades, she made ends meet as a street vendor selling vegetables; since 1989 she has received a small pension from the Hungarian Association of Political Prisoners of the Revolution of 1956. Having passed ninety, the former mistress of the Wesselényi château at Zsibó and the Teleki palace at Sáromberke now lives in a basement in Marosvásárhely. Recently, she featured in a moving Hungarian television documentary, in which she talked about the past with an amazing power of recollection.
You can still visit her.
And that is how a Transylvanian cookery book looks today. Published in 1998, it came out in Csíkszereda, Transylvania, under the aegis of the Pallas–Akadémia Könyvkiadó of Budapest, supported by the Hungarian Ministry of Culture and Education.
This cookery book deserves a place on the shelves of the Great European Cookery Book Library, next to the cookery books of the Saxons of Transylvania and the Zipsers of Slovakia; of the Swabians of Bácska and the Germans of Bratislava; of the Hungarians of Kassa, of the Sudeten Germans, of the Königsbergians, of the Bosnians, of the people of Kosovo—and of the unmarked graves, and of the mass graves.