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The Milk Lady

(post, Jon Clark)

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I have what can only be explained as an Oregonian's natural love of the outdoors. Maybe that's why I never fully explored the two modern buildings that make up a part of my farmer's market in Szeged, Hungary. Keep in mind that even in the winter, the outdoor portion fills about 100 tables. You can imagine how full it is these days now that spring is yielding it's fruits (and vegetables). So it is, perhaps, forgivable to have overlooked these two extra buildings across the way. After all, when I did peak in one of them before all I saw were shoes and clothes and those are not good eats.

This particular market, Mars tér, is open every day of the week. Whenever I go there I love to browse the stalls and see what new items have arrived since the previous visit. Right now there is a lot happening: strawberries have arrived and are being sold by the tray full, green peas followed, now there are even cherries! I've spent a lot of time there learning the names of the fruits, vegetables, herbs, and getting the feel for how things work. I thought I had everything figured out after getting acquainted with the two major purveyors of sauerkraut and other pickled goodies, but during this time I had been lacking something.

Despite my fresh eggs, duck, vegetables, fruits, handmade pastas, and garlands of paprika and garlic, I was missing cheese, a lot. A couple of months ago I was craving some sharp Tillamook cheddar, and I couldn't find a good source of cheese anywhere. I did eventually find a cheese shop that imports Dutch cheeses that also has a small selection of French and Italian cheeses, but I was left wondering how this was enough for Szeged. All I could ever find in the super and hyper markets were mass-produced, imported cheeses. Where were the good imports? And where was Hungary's contribution? "There are great hand-made cheeses," one of my Hungarian colleagues told me, "you simply have to go out to the countryside and get them from the dairy farms." Well, that was a good tip, but it still didn't solve the mystery of what the 170,000+ people in the city of Szeged did to find good cheese. Did they really all head out to the country?

It wasn't until I was recently invited to lunch at another colleagues home that the subject of cheese came up and I got my answer. She told me that I could buy it from the cheese lady in the Mars tér farmer's market. It was under my nose the whole time?! "You can find her in one of the modern buildings that are a part of the market," she said. Was the cheese lady tucked away behind some shoes?! Clearly, it was time to take another look at those buildings.

Well, suffice to say, finding the cheese lady was this week's all-important mission. And find her I did. Of the two brick buildings, only one is filled with clothes and shoes, the other has stalls for baked goods, various other food stalls, and the Tejpiac, the milk market. She was all alone the first day, last Wednesday, dressed in a white apron embroidered with colorful tulips in the Kalocsai motif, her eyes wrinkled and happy, and her hands showing the signs of years of hard work. I knew I was in the right place. Before her were displayed various hand-made cheeses that I tasted: two kinds of sheep's milk túró, cow's milk túró, and a soft-rind cow's milk cheese that was lightly smoked and similar to Gouda. ("Túró," Hungarian for "curd," is a fresh cheese that is a kind of quark, similar to fromage frais.) I also wanted butter but she had already sold out. So I left with a wedge of the Gouda-like cheese, and was told to return the next day.

I arrived earlier the next day to the milk market and saw that there were five other women working there too. But even amongst other choices I felt a loyalty to the woman I had met the day before. Maybe it was because she reminds me of my grandmother, or because she ends each transaction with, "Minden jót!" a wish for everything to be good for you, or maybe it was the trust I had in her from seeing her knowledge and experience reflected in her eyes and her hands. I decided to buy some of the sheep's milk túró and noticed that she was selling milk by the liter. I was interested in learning more. I began to ask questions such as, "Where is the milk from?", "What kind of cow", "Is it pasteurized?", and "How long is it good for?" She proudly told me that the milk comes from a village about 15 kilometers outside Szeged called Forraskut, that the milk is raw and comes from a Hungarian breed, and that it would stay fresh for about three days. I decided to buy a liter even though I was still a little hesitant about it being raw milk. On top of that while I've come to expect surprises here, I was still a bit shocked at the sight sight of a used water bottle becoming my fresh milk container. I was also struck at the price! A liter of milk from her costs 120 HUF/liter whereas it costs closer to 200 HUF from the grocery store.

Walking home from the milk market I basked both in the sunshine of the warm afternoon and in my pride of having successfully obtained new products and new information using only Hungarian, at least pseudo Hungarian anyway. At that moment I realized that although I had sought her out for some fresh homemade cheese, she was a source of all kinds of fresh dairy products. She wasn't simply a cheese lady, she worked with real, fresh milk and used her skill to create many different products. I returned again on Friday to have another crack at getting some butter. She had some, and it was formed in a little wheel! Naturally when Franny was in town on Saturday, I had to take her to see the cheese lady and share in the glorious discovery of the milk market. We left with more butter, some cream and another liter of milk. This time, though, I brought a Nalgene bottle to tote the milk home.

The taste of the milk is difficult to describe. It has a smell that tells you that it came from a cow, and the feel of it on the tongue is heavy. It has a natural sweetness that's different than the pasteurized milk that most of us are used to. The butter is unbelievably sweet and creamy tasting more like whipped cream than butter. The túró has a taste similar to that of feta, but is spreadable. I'm very happy to have finally found this source of good dairy and am excited to put it to good use.