“Chicken Soup, Perfume, and the Dunked Minister – Easters of Days Past”

Written by Henriette J. Runte

Oh, Easter is a special day in our family. It certainly has been a VERY special day, ever since I almost died on Good Friday when I was 5 years old! …

Oh, Easter is a special day in our family. It certainly has been a VERY special day, ever since I almost died on Good Friday when I was 5 years old!


My mother is the religious one in my family. She belongs to the Reformate church, which is the only branch of Protestantism that exists in Hungary and Romania. My father is a Catholic, but not a very good one. When asked by my mother to teach me the Lord’s Prayer in Hungarian, my father taught me a rated R version that resulted in my mother not speaking to him for weeks. For those who speak Hungarian, his version of the prayer began with, “Mi gatyák, aki a kosárban…”

My mother has always taken religious holidays very seriously, and Easter has always been second only to Christmas in her book. On Easter, my mother has always taken it upon herself to feed her friends and neighbors, as well as the poor and unfortunate. As a result, she has always cooked for days before Easter.

The year I turned 5, she decided to initiate me into this tradition, only everything went wrong.

My mother had prepared a gigantic pot of chicken soup and placed it on a wooden board under the window to let it cool off. She proceeded to further busy herself at the stove with the preparation of the other dishes. I went to the sink, which was right next to the window, to lick out some bowls that had been used to make the desserts. I took one wrong step, landed with my foot partly on the wooden board the chicken soup was resting on, lost my balance, and fell into the pot, with my behind first.

The pot was so huge, that I slipped in all the way to my waist and got caught. Apparently, I only let out one little scream and then fainted. My mother pulled me out of the soup as soon as she could, but my poor bottom still cooked into the soup for altogether too long.

What made matters worse was that I was wearing nylon panty hose that quite dramatically melted into my flesh.

The story turns funny in a second, so please keep reading.

The ambulance was called, I was taken to the hospital and saved, but my mother insisted on bringing me back home, trusting only herself to take care of me. Now, you have to know that in the late 1970s in Romania, the way they treated severe burns was to clean the wound thoroughly and press sterile gauze, dipped in iodine into the wound. As the skin grew back, the gauze pieces would slowly peel off.

So, you see, I returned home, wrapped from the waist to my knees in gauze dipped in iodine and could only rest on my stomach.

And it was Easter!

But it would turn into not only a memorable Easter, but also a joyous one.

My father, the not-so-good Catholic, has always been a very good father. And he was not going to let me be sad on Easter.

In Hungary and Romania, one interesting Easter tradition, for kids especially, is the practice of locsolás. On Easter Monday, excitement about spring and ancient fertility rituals mix into the religious celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Little girls and women paint eggs, mainly by attaching little flowers and leaves onto the eggs, tightly wrapping them inside old pantyhose, and cooking them in water with red onion peels or red beets. They also prepare obscene amounts of cookies and pastries.

On Easter Monday, little boys and men are supposed to go visit every woman they know. Men start early in the morning with the “less important” women in their lives, and mostly time it so they are with family and close friends for mealtimes. The evening visits are reserved for the most special women, and these visits tend to be a little longer than the others.

As a little girl, I kept a special diary of my Easter visitors, and compared how my list developed from year to year. The boys and men who came by our house would put their name down in my book and would maybe draw a little something, or write one or two lines.

According to tradition, the men recite a poem to the women and ask if they may water them. In the villages, the watering sometimes means throwing a bucket full of water over the head of the woman in question. But most of the time, a few drops of perfume are used instead. The gentleman callers are then rewarded with colored eggs. One of the best know poems that men tend to recite goes something like this:

„Én kis kertészlegény vagyok –
Virágokat locsolgatok.
Azt hallottam, hogy egy rózsa
El akar hervadni.
Szabad megöntözni?“

Translated, this means, “I’m a little gardener who is watering flowers. I heard that a rose was wilting. May I water it?”

Other poems are more humorous, or poetic, or personal. It is up to the man to decide on his particular poem. Some men write their own poems and come up with a new one every year.

How many different perfumes mix atop of your head on Easter Monday, and how long your list of callers gets is a particular point of pride, especially for little girls.

So, back to my burned behind (-:

As you may know, my father was the National Olympic Weightlifting Coach in Romania. On the Easter when I was burned, he had all his athletes come and call on me on Easter Monday. He recruited neighbors, friends, everybody he knew. There was a line of boys and men outside our house that year, which cheered up even the little girl in considerable pain, lying on her stomach, with her bandaged backside in the air.

Of course, stories tend to forget about my poor mother, who in light of my funny, heroic, extroverted father, gets ignored. So here are a few lines about my dear mother as well. You can imagine the feelings of guilt she was coping with that particular Easter. Nevertheless, she finished her cooking. She prepared hundreds of colored eggs. And, she set up a system to disinfect all the visitors’ hands and maintain hygiene around her severely burned daughter.

And to top it off, she served everybody a bowl of soup!

This cheered me up the most. Knowing that people were eating my butt soup just cracked me up inside!

Not the article about Easter you were expecting? Well, welcome to my world!

Once we moved away from the Carpathian Basin, my Easter experiences became less spectacular. But I do still have one or two stories about Easter that you might enjoy.


Skipping forward to the first Easter experience my kids had in the US, I will tell you about the year we visited my dear friend Deborah in Dallas.

My parents have been living in the US for over 40 years now, but Easter at their house is still more reminiscent of the Carpathian Basin than of anything real Americans do. So, one year, when our twins were 5 and our little one had not yet turned 1, we went to celebrate Easter with a childhood friend of mine in Dallas, so the kids would finally experience a real American Easter.

The part of Easter I was looking forward to the most was Sunday Mass at Sunrise, because that is something that I had shared with my friend Deborah when we were growing up. My parents felt a little estranged from churches in America when we first moved to Texas from Romania. There were too many branches of Protestantism to pick from and ceremonies were way too jovial and loud for their cultural taste. My parents have since found a Methodist church where they feel very welcome and comfortable, but during our time in Texas, my church experiences were limited to going with Deborah to her Presbyterian church. I particularly enjoyed Sunday Mass at Easter. The church always organized a lock-in on Saturday night. We watched movies, talked, ate junk food, and spent the night in the church. Then, on Sunday, we were expected to get up at the crack of dawn and go to mass. The services on Easter Sunday at Deborah’s church, with the sun coming up and the minister finding just the right words and sentiments, always appealed to me. These were some of the most religious moments of my early teens.

I really wanted my kids to experience Deborah’s church on Sunday, but with three little ones – four, actually, with Deborah’s son – we just didn’t make it that early. But the church was organizing an Easter Egg Hunt and many games and activities, so we headed out as soon as we could.

What struck me as different from the way I remembered things was that the eggs that were hidden were basically reusable plastic egg-shaped containers filled with various types of candy and chocolate. I found that quite progressive and environmentally friendly.

We used the choochoo train that was set up for the occasion. We blew soap bubbles and played the games.

Then, we wandered over to the dunking booth. In case you are not familiar with dunkin booths, they are big containers of water with a seat on top. The objective is to hit a lever on the side that makes the seat drop into the water. Different volunteers, some more prominent than the others, sit on the seat, and people try to dunk them, making them sink into the container of water. Often, dunking booths are used to raise money for a cause. In this case, it was simply a fun way of bringing the community together.

Many people sat on the seat and got dunked, but whenever the minister sat atop the dunking booth, somehow no one managed to make him sink. My kids took turns trying. Deborah and her husband and my husband tried their luck. I just watched. I’m not a particularly good thrower, so I just stayed out of it.

They announced that it would be the last round and the minister volunteered to sit one final time atop the dunking booth. I said that I would give it a go this time. I took the baseball handed to me. No one thought I could do it, but with my first shot, I dunked that minister good!

It was very funny. The minister, completely soaked from head to toe, came to meet us and to have a chat about the different ways Easter is celebrated around the world. It was all very light and pleasant and very comforting and uniting.

Afterwards, I had to think about how strange life is sometimes. Until that moment when I dunked the minister, Easter somehow always carried the gravity and drama of what had happened to me at Easter when I was little. But leave it up to the good ol’ US of A to add a little cheer to it all.


By the way, did you know that Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Easter Monday are national holidays in Germany, a secular country. And yet, in the US, although “In God We Trust,” only Easter Sunday is observed, with very few exceptions like the White House Easter Egg Roll or days off due to Spring Break.

In Hungary and Romania, including the Carpathian Basin, where I was born, Easter is also celebrated and recognized nationally as a public holiday from Friday to Monday, both Friday and Monday being official days off from work.

In France, Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified, is not a public holiday, because the day does not call for celebration. However, Easter Monday, which marks the Resurrection of Christ, and the end of Lent, is a day of rest, a day when all public offices are closed and the people are given the day off from work.

I have only spent one Easter in France. I spent 7 summers researching at the theater festival in Avignon, countless summers in Paris, studying, taking groups of students on university exchange programs, or just vacationing, and many summers traveling around the country, visiting my host family in the Nantes region, or enjoying the beaches of the Vendée or the beautiful landscapes of the Dordogne area or the South of France. But almost all of the time I have spent in France has been in the summer. But I did live in Besançon for a year and taught at the Université de Franche-Comté, and that is the only time that I experienced a French Easter.

There are only two things that seemed particularly interesting to me. One was the fact that all church bells seized to ring on Thursday before Good Friday. Out of respect for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, all church bells fall silent until Easter Sunday, the day of the resurrection. The ringing of church bells in France is quite present, something you cannot easily ignore. There is almost an eeriness to when they fall silent. When they are rung again on Sunday, there is a sense of awakening, of rediscovering the sounds of Christianity. You have to experience it to really know what I mean.

My other observation about Easter in France is actually an erroneous one. The year I was there, Easter fell on one of the last days of March, and children were already getting ready to play April Fool’s jokes. French kids cut out colorful little fish, symbols of Christianity, and place them on the backs of the adults they are fooling. I was not familiar with the tradition and was fooled. When I discovered the fish that had been attached to my back, I didn’t quite understand. I found especially confusing why such a prank would be played on Easter Sunday, of all days. To this day, I find it strange how the Poisson d’Avril somehow mixes religious fervor and April Fool’s antics.

It is perhaps in Germany that I have had the most experience with Easter, because this is where I had my children and where I had to decide on the Easter tradition my family would observe.

Good Friday is a holiday here, and we use it to color eggs. We spend the whole day painting eggs and reading our favorite Easter books. My youngest daughter’s book, Magical Easter Eggs, is of course among them. (-:

On Saturday, in Germany, you are allowed to burn any access wood or shrubbery in your back yard. Some friends of ours have used this opportunity to organize an annual bonfire, which serves as an excuse to have a huge party. Over the fire, the kids roast Stockbrot, which is dough wrapped on sticks. Once cooked through, the little breads slide off the sticks and can be eaten. They are often dipped into butter. There’s also a barbeque and a potluck buffet, so enough to eat and drink for everyone. This party has become a part of our Easter tradition.

Easter Sunday is reserved for family. We set a table with ham and fish and cheese and bread rolls, the works. Of course, the highlight is on the colored Easter eggs. To begin the breakfast, we each select an egg. Then, in pairs of two, we take the pointy part of our egg and try to break our “opponent’s” egg with it. The winning egg then goes on to the next round. The person who selected the egg that breaks last is the winner. This is called Eiertitschen, and the King or Queen of this family Easter egg battle boasts about his or her victory all year!

The way we eat our Easter eggs is also special. The eggs are pealed, cut in two, and then the yolks are removed. You put a little bit of the following ingredients inside the two egg-white halves: oil, mustard, mayonnaise, vinegar, as well as salt and pepper. And then, you carefully squeeze the egg yolks back in. All this is done with your hands, no particular etiquette to follow here. The final bites are also placed in your mouth by hand.

After breakfast, the kids go out in the yard and look for hidden chocolates. Traditionally, neighbors also place chocolates and little bags of goodies into each other’s yards, so the “hunt” is always worthwhile. Older kids sometimes find a book or another small present hidden as well.

On Monday, we always go for a long walk. Otherwise, we spend the day at home, together, doing nothing in particular.

And those were my Easters of Days Past and Present. I guess the only two traditions I miss are Easter Sunday Mass at Sunrise from the US and the Easter Monday tradition of men reciting poems and watering women in exchange for colored eggs from the Carpathian Basin.

And with that, I wish you all Happy Easter, wherever you are and however you are celebrating (or not).

Written by Henriette J. Runte

One pig – one year – so many mouths fed

Written by Sebastian Junge; Translation by H. Runte

Traditionally, we process a whole pig in my organic restaurant at the beginning of the year. For us, this is pretty much the most exciting part of our work when it comes to processing animals. The variety of products that can be prepared from the whole animal is pretty unbelievable, as is how much yield we have from one animal and how many people eat from it. …

Traditionally, we process a whole pig in my organic restaurant at the beginning of the year. For us, this is pretty much the most exciting part of our work when it comes to processing animals. The variety of products that can be prepared from the whole animal is pretty unbelievable, as is how much yield we have from one animal and how many people eat from it.

Pork has a catastrophic image due to the slaughter industry, discounters, various scandals and contemptuous forms of husbandry and production. Of course, this is not the path we follow. We select a farm from the area and insist on exceptional quality.

For us, it is worth looking at the pig and the task entrusted to him on the farm. As an omnivore, the pig is responsible for using up leftovers on the farm – unused vegetables, unbackable cereals, catch crops, maybe even whey from the farm’s own cheese dairy. In return, the pig produces offspring, fertilizer for the fields, and of course, the entirety of his/her body, which we then process into food. The farms from which we obtain pigs have entrusted their animals with these tasks, in contrast to factory farming, which is about producing meat in the most effective way, as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

In general, we only use old breeds of pigs, which, in contrast to industrial animals, offer significantly more fat and are in much better health. This year we processed a field pig for the first time. These animals are on the pasture all year round and can pursue their natural behavior, such as wallowing in the mud. I visited the farm last year with my daughter to get an idea of the ​​animal husbandry and to get to know the people who are responsible for the farm. We exchanged ideas extensively, got to know each other and learned a lot about farrow-to-finish pig farming.

We agreed to take over an animal in January.

When the time comes and we pick up the slaughtered animal, the kitchen is on high alert for a week. It is an enormous challenge to process a whole animal in so many different ways while still keeping the restaurant open to our guests. We are talking about almost 150 kg slaughter weight and well over 15 different ways of preparing and preserving the product. For example, we process blood and offal into blood sausage, black pudding, and coarse liver sausage. The head is boiled and made into jelly and baked pralines. We salt a large quantity of ham, to use over the next few months and especially during the asparagus season. Then ham is also cold or hot smoked, air dried and cured. We make sausages for lunch, cook rinds for sauerkraut and prepare many pieces for main courses. Then rillette, lard and other sausages are boiled down. All in all, it is a lot of work and also a technical challenge. It requires a lot of organization and impeccable teamwork.

Once the work is done, we are eager to taste the products ourselves and are very proud to serve them to our guests at the restaurant. It is an absolute rarity to work with such exceptional quality and to prepare dishes from it.

I have acquired the tools of the trade over the years by reading specialized literature, attending internships with butchers, visiting slaughterhouses and participating in trainings digitally. Then came the time to try out what I learned, in practice, on actual products.

We at Wolfs Junge process the animals whole, because when we consume meat and take the life of a living being for our food, it is our responsibility to make sure it is treated with respect and used fully.

“Nose-2-Tail” is not a marketing strategy for us, but an integral part of the concept behind our restaurant. There is so much waste in the industrial slaughterhouse and in the wholesale trade, and the animals are treated anonymously and with such lack of dignity, that I would find it repugnant to use such products. Were we to order from these providers, we would know nothing about the origin of this meat, who raised the animal, where the animal was raised and what it was fed, where it was slaughtered, and and and … For us and our restaurant, it is essential to know the animals we process and to have a relationship with the people who raise and slaughter these animals.

By now, we have completely processed the pork in our kitchen and are in the process of serving it, little by little, much to the delight of our guests. We serve it in a variety of ways: at lunchtime we have the bratwurst described above, in the evening we roast coarse black pudding with olives and raisins as an intermediate course, and for the main course we grill the neck and combine it with beetroot from the surrounding area.

We are absolutely committed to the high-quality of the food we serve. We wish to educate our guests and to explain why we think pigs are important on farms, how diversely they can be processed, and what cultural background these processes have.

What actively moves me personally are the moral and ethical foundations and problems that come with the consumption of meat. But to write about this here would go beyond the scope of this blog entry. At the moment, what I can say is that I take on this responsibility for myself and for my restaurant and that I look forward to the time when we can cut and taste our self-smoked ham in a few weeks, right on time for asparagus season.

Written by Sebastian Junge; Translation by H. Runte

Ein ganzes Ackerschwein für das nächste Jahr

Geschrieben von Sebastian Junge

Traditionell, wenn man davon im 5. Betriebsjahr sprechen kann, verarbeiten wir am Anfang des Jahres ein ganzes Schwein in meinem Bio Restaurant. Das ist für uns handwerklich so ziemlich am spannendsten, wenn es um die Verarbeitung von Tieren geht. Die Vielfalt an Produkten, die sich aus dem ganzen Tier zubereiten lässt ist schier unglaublich, ebenso, wie viel Ertrag wir aus einem Tier haben und wie viele Menschen bei uns davon essen. …

Traditionell, wenn man davon im 5. Betriebsjahr sprechen kann, verarbeiten wir am Anfang des Jahres ein ganzes Schwein in meinem Bio Restaurant. Das ist für uns handwerklich so ziemlich am spannendsten, wenn es um die Verarbeitung von Tieren geht. Die Vielfalt an Produkten, die sich aus dem ganzen Tier zubereiten lässt ist schier unglaublich, ebenso, wie viel Ertrag wir aus einem Tier haben und wie viele Menschen bei uns davon essen. Schwein hat ein katastrophales Image, zu verdanken der Schlachtindustrie, Discountern, diversen Skandalen und verachtende Haltungs- und Produktionsformen. Mit der ganzen Schiene haben wir naturgemäß wenig am Hut, sodass wir natürlich auch in diesem Bereich auf Ausnahmequalität ausgewählter Höfe zurückgreifen.

Hierbei lohnt es sich das Schwein und seine ihm anvertraute Aufgabe auf dem Hof zu betrachten. Das Schwein ist nämlich als Allesfresser auf dem Hof für die Resteverwertung verantwortlich. Soll heißen es wird ausgeputztes Gemüse, backunfähiges Getreide, Zwischenfrüchte, vielleicht sogar Molke aus der hofeigenen Käserei verfüttert. Im Gegenzug produziert das Schwein Nachkommen, Dünger für die Felder und schlussendlich natürlich auch den Schlachtkörper. Die Höfe, von denen wir Schweine beziehen haben ihren Tieren diese Aufgaben anvertraut im Gegensatz zur Massentierhaltung, in der es darum geht aufs effektivste günstig und schnell Fleisch zu produzieren.

Wir benutzen generell nur alte Schweinerassen, die im Gegensatz zum industriellen Tier deutlich mehr Fett ansetzen und eine sehr viel robustere Gesundheit vorweisen. In diesem Jahr haben wir das erste Mal ein Ackerschwein verarbeitet, das bedeutet, dass die Tiere ganzjährig auf der Weide stehen und ihrem natürlichem Verhalten, wie bspw. das Suhlen im Schlamm nachgehen können. Den Hof habe ich bereits im vergangenen Jahr mit meiner Tochter besucht, um mir selbst ein Bild von der Tierhaltung zu machen und die Menschen kennen zu lernen, die für den Hof verantwortlich sind. Wir haben uns ausgiebig ausgetauscht, kennengelernt und viel über die Ackerschweinhaltung gelernt.

Für den Januar haben wir die Abnahme eines Tieres verabredet.

Wenn es dann so weit ist und wir das geschlachtete Tier abholen, steht die Küche für eine Woche Kopf. Es ist eine enorme Herausforderung ein Ganzes Tier im laufenden Betrieb so mannigfaltig zu verarbeiten. Wir reden hier über beinahe 150 kg Schlachtgewicht und weit über 15 verschiedene Zubereitungs- und Konservierungsarten des Produktes. Wir verarbeiten bspw. Blut und Innereien zu Blutwurst und grober Leberwurst. Der Kopf wird abgekocht und zu Sülze und gebackenen Pralinen, wir salzen eine ganze Menge Schinken ein für die nächsten Monate und vor allem die Spargelsaison. Dann wird Schinken kalt oder heiß geräuchert, luftgetrocknet und gereift. Wir machen Bratwürste für den Mittagstisch, kochen Schwarten für Sauerkraut und bereiten uns viele Teilstücke für Menu Hauptgänge zu. Dann wird noch Rillette, Schmalz und andere Würste eingekocht. Alles in allem eine Unmenge an Arbeit und auch handwerklicher Herausforderung. Das erfordert eine ganze Menge Organisation und zahnradmäßiges Ineinandergreifen unseres Teams. Ist der Großteil der Arbeit geschafft, erfüllt uns das Probieren und Servieren der Produkte mit großem Stolz, ist es doch eine absolute Rarität mit solch einer Ausnahmequalität zu arbeiten und Speisen daraus zu zubereiten.

Das Handwerkszeug habe ich mir über die Jahre dafür angeeignet, über Lesen von Fachliteratur, Praktika bei Fleischern, das Beiwohnen von Schlachtungen und die Fortbildung über Videos etc. Danach geht es ans Trainieren mit den Produkten in der Praxis.

Wir verarbeiten die Tiere in der Regel im Ganzen, denn wenn wir Fleisch konsumieren und einem Lebewesen das Leben nehmen, um es zu essen, ist es unsere Verantwortung, dass dieses respektvoll behandelt wird und gänzlich benutzt wird.

„Nose-2-Tail“ ist bei uns kein Marketingbegriff, sondern wird durch unser Konzept gelebt. Im Industriellen Schlachtbereich, sowie im Großhandel fällt dermaßen viel Abfall an und die Tiere werden völlig anonym und fern jeder Pietät behandelt, dass es mir zuwider ist, solche Produkte zu verkochen. Bestellen wir so etwas, wissen wir quasi gar nichts über die Herkunft dieses Fleischs – wer es wo aufgezogen hat, was es zu fressen bekommen hat, wo es geschlachtet wurde oder oder oder … Daher ist es für uns unabdingbar eine Beziehung zu den Menschen und den Tieren zu haben, die wir verarbeiten.

Zum jetzigen Zeitpunkt haben wir das Schwein komplett verarbeitet und servieren es nach und nach. Es kommt großartig bei unseren Gästen an, wir servieren es mannigfaltig, mittags gibt es die beschriebene Bratwurst, abends dann grobe Blutwurst gebraten mit Oliven und Rosinen als Zwischengang und im Hauptgang grillen wir Nacken und kombinieren es mit roter Bete aus dem Umland.

Wir brechen eine Lanze für dieses hochwertige Lebensmittel und leisten Aufklärungsarbeit, warum Schweine in unseren Augen auf Höfen wichtig sind, wie vielfältig sich diese verarbeiten lassen und welchen kulturellen Hintergrund diese Verarbeitungen haben.

Was mich persönlich viel und dynamisch beschäftigt sind die moralischen und ethischen Grundlagen und Problemfelder des Fleischkonsums. Darüber hier zu schreiben, würde aber den Rahmen sprengen. Zurzeit kann ich das für mich und mein Restaurant in der Form verantworten und freue mich auf den Zeitpunkt, wenn wir in ein paar Wochen zum ersten Spargel unseren selbstgeräucherten Schinken anschneiden und verkosten können.

Geschrieben von Sebastian Junge

Happy Places Change

Written by Henriette J. Runte

I sat at a small desk at the window, and even though it was late at night, I could still see out into the dunes, lit up by the moon and the star-studded sky. When I stepped outside for some fresh air, I could hear the roaring of the sea and the whistling wind. If I took a few more steps, I could sit on a small wooden bench and even see the sea with its white, majestic waves tickling the beach in its vastness.

It seems appropriate to begin the New Year with an entry about Happy Places.

My Happy Place in the Carpathian Basin has been mentioned many times on my podcast and in my latest book, Life with Coach Pop, but perhaps I should tell you about it in this blog as well.

A very good childhood friend has a cabin outside of Bálványos that I have been going to for years. The little village of Bálványos is located north of Brassó (Brașov in Romanian; Krohnstadt in German) and east of Marosvásárhely (Târgu Mureș in Romanian), cradled in the bend where the Eastern Carpathian Mountains extend into the Southern Carpathian range. The thermal baths of Sováta and Tusnád lie to the west, not far away. My friend’s little cabin outside of Bálványos has been my Happy Place since my early 20s, when I first stayed there.

Everything I associate with this cabin is wonderful, even the long, complicated way to get there.

To get to Bálványos, I always have to go through Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca in Romanian; Klausenburg in German), the city where I was born. I still have old classmates and some friends of my parents’ living there, and Kolozsvár is an exciting city culturally. The city takes me down memory lane and makes me feel like I know who I am.

Bálványos is less than 200 kilometers from Kolozsvár, but the trip takes between 6 and 9 hours because of the terrible road conditions.

The first time I went to Bálványos, it was with several friends. We had two cars. We got a late start from Kolozsvár. It took us forever to get to Bálványos, and it was 3 am by the time we got to my friend’s cousin’s house, where we were supposed to pick up the keys. My friend’s cousin and his family take care of the cabin a little, so they are the ones in charge of the keys. This was in the early 90s, pre cell phones and such technological conveniences. We had no way of contacting my friend’s cousin from the road. They knew when we left, and they calculated when we should be there, and then they waited.

We felt terrible about arriving so late and thought we would find the keys hidden outside somewhere, with a little note of instructions and pointers. Instead, the entire family was still up, waiting for us. They had made beds for each of us with fresh, ironed white linen. And they set a table with bread, salami and fatback, peppers and cucumbers, butter, and milk.

We couldn’t believe it and felt we should not impose or put them out any more than we already had. We were all, except for my one friend, complete strangers to them after all. But they would not let us go up to the cabin in the middle of the night. They said it was too dangerous because of the roaming bears and because of road conditions being even worse up around the mountain hut. So, we ate and ended up spending the night.

In the morning we made our way to the cabin. We were almost immediately greeted by a pack of stray dogs. There were about 10-12 of them, big and small, young and old. I instantly fell in love with a midsized puppy that looked like a little wolf and could not have been more than 3-4 months old. My friend explained that the dogs protected the cabin from the bears in exchange for being fed. I didn’t want to think of what they did when no one was at the cabin. I wanted to adopt every single one of them.

The cabin is a very simple mountain hut with two rooms downstairs and a big attic flat upstairs, where all the beds are. There is no running water and no bathroom. There is an outhouse about 10 meters away from the hut, and the kitchen consists of a tiny underground room with two electric plates and some storage shelves. Most of the cooking is done outside, at the fire pit, where you hang a big iron skillet on chains and cook over the open fire. This is called bográcsozás, and it’s a traditional Hungarian way of cooking food. There is electricity, but the water has to be brought from a nearby fountain. It’s all wonderfully basic.

The nature around the hut is incredible. There are 2,000 meters high mountains with pine forests directing you to the peaks. There are natural sulfur baths. There’s a lake in a volcanic crater nearby, and there are exciting hikes to take, whatever direction you go. 

When I am there, I find serenity. The feeling is addictive, and I cannot stay away from this place for too long. After a while, I start craving this feeling of peace and belonging, this true calmness and oneness with nature and myself.

Already when we start out towards Bálványos, I go into this zone, this mindset, and I enjoy every single minute of the journey. Whenever I am there, I have to go to my favorite hill, the one that I have claimed as my own personal Happy Place. It is two rolling hills actually. Sheep and cows graze on it. The air is fresh. And there is nothing else. And this place has been my Happy Place, for as long as I can remember.

The last time I was there was with my husband to be. I took my husband there before I married him. Luckily for him, he appreciated my Happy Place. I guess we wouldn’t be married otherwise. With our children being born, and so many of my friends from Kolozsvár having moved to Budapest, we have returned several times to the Hungarian capital, but haven’t visited my Happy Place in Bálványos since.

Being too far away from your Happy Place isn’t a good thing, and I have been very emotional about this, especially in recent years. It has been a source of great sadness for me not to be able to retreat to my Happy Place at will. I have felt detached, uprooted for a very long time. I would even go as far as to say that I have been somewhat hopeless. If I couldn’t even manage to see my Happy Place on a regular basis, how could I hope to feel at home and to achieve a sense of completeness and tranquility.

But the title of this entry is “Happy Places Change” and here it comes …

It is very difficult to go from Hamburg all the way to my Happy Place in Bálványos. Either way you calculate it, I need at least 3 days to get there, if I plan it perfectly and everything goes as planned, which is rarely the case with a trip to Romania. First of all, there are no direct flights between Hamburg and Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca), so I always need to initially reach a connecting city in Germany, then fly, and then go by car to Bálványos. Going by train takes several connections and more than 20 hours, and then there is still the 6-9 hours of driving to Bálványos. There are buses that connect Hamburg and Kolozsvár, but these take about 28 hours. And don’t forget about the subsequent car ride to the mountains! It takes a lot of time for me to reach my Happy Place. It means setting out on a long, expensive and exhausting voyage, every time.

Much easier to reach is Denmark. An unexpected turn, I know! 

The first time I went to Denmark was when our twins were 4 months old. My husband’s family rented a house there. The vacation was wonderful, filled with great food and family around, but I hated Denmark. The beach was cold and windy, even in the summer, and the people seemed grumpy and snippy.

We returned one more time in the summer with my husband’s family, and then I started exercising my wifely veto on the matter, and we didn’t return for a while.

One year, when our third child was still a toddler, and I had been very sick for a long time, and we didn’t have the energy to plan anything else, we ended up renting a house on the beaches of Denmark again, this time in October. The house was an absolute disaster, moldy and stinky and truly horrible. Thankfully, we were able to switch houses, and the new one was acceptable, but nothing amazing. Still, we had each other. The dog was still alive. And we settled in to our little house. We took long walks, went on bike rides, played games, and recharged our batteries a bit.

One day, on one of our lengthy walks, we discovered a beach with breathtaking dunes. The beach is several meters wide (about 50 meters at high tide and more like 70 meters at low tide). It is a soft sand beach with beautiful, scattered shingles and cobbles. In the morning, you can walk in either direction for hours without seeing a single person, with only the sound of the crashing waves and the North Sea breeze to keep you company.

And then there are the dunes! To reach the beach, you walk through rolling sand hills covered in grass and shrubs. It is difficult to convey the beauty of these dunes to someone who has never experienced them. The landscape is almost surreal, like something an artist has dreamed up. The hills are often quite high, and you have to endure the climb. When you are in one of the valleys, all the surrounding sounds are blocked out and you are left alone with the little birds chirping. You often encounter deer grazing along your path. If you are lucky, you can see the occasional fox. And oftentimes, you will see a squirrel, a bunny, and frogs scamper by. From the top of the hills, you have a panoramic view of pure nature.

I often turn slowly 360 degrees to take it all in, the blue and white of the horizon, the green and yellow of the dunes, and the explosion of pinks and purples of a sunrise or sunset.

After our discovery of this pristine beach, we decided to return to Denmark the following year. This time, we rented a house closer to our favorite beach. It was wonderful. We could sit in a hot tub heated with firewood outside, overlooking the dunes. We could eat breakfast on the glass-covered, wind-protected, sunny porch. And we could reach the dunes and the beach without having to see another house or another person. Please don’t think that I am antisocial, but this feeling of seclusion and oneness with nature is something I do enjoy very much. And it is a feeling that I rarely manage to have, since we live in a big, cosmopolitan city in Europe! We have sought out this type of serenity on other vacations, to Norway, Argentina, and Croatia, for example, but since all of those destinations are also quite far away from us, we have never been able to return regularly.

Denmark became our vacationing place for the fall holidays. Our kids grew up expecting to go to Denmark at least once a year, usually in October, when Hamburg typically has two weeks of school holidays. We got to know the area around our favorite beach and we have rented one house after the other until we found what we consider the perfect house, a very modern construction, with comfortable rotating chairs and a cushiony, soft sofa in a living and dining room that allows for a view of the dunes in every direction through the multiple floor-to-ceiling windows that make up two of the outside walls. The house is cozy with its fireplace and little corners where you can read, write, or settle in for a chat or a game of cards. The modern kitchen and bathrooms provide for contemporary conveniences and comfort. This house in the dunes has become our little October home in Denmark, and we return with enthusiasm year after year. 

We look forward to going in to town by bike to buy bread for breakfast. Rundsykker (breakfast breads; Brötchen in German) and valnøddebrød (a type of Wallnut bread) are personal favorites. We are always delighted to buy the Danish potatoes, sold on the side of the street in little huts where you just take a bag and pay into a metal money box – left up to your conscience and sense of honor to pay the right amount. We crave ahead of time the rullepølse, a traditional Danish cold cut, the leverpostej, a Danish liver pate, and the rygeost, a Danish smoked cheese we particularly enjoy. Interestingly, it is also in Denmark that I find some of my favorite American treats, Twinkies and corn nuts as well. And we always go to the same restaurant for a round of the best burgers the North has to offer!

I originally started writing this entry while we were in Denmark on this year’s fall vacation. My whole family was asleep after a long day of playing in the dunes, running up and down in the sand, flying kites, and breathing in the crisp, iodine-filled air of the North Sea. I sat at a small desk at the window, and even though it was late at night, I could still see out into the dunes, lit up by the moon and the star-studded sky. When I stepped outside for some fresh air, I could hear the roaring of the sea and the whistling wind. If I took a few more steps, I could sit on a small wooden bench and even see the sea with its white, majestic waves tickling the beach in its vastness.

Right now, I am sitting in front of the fire at our house in Hamburg. It is January 1st in 2023. My family is still asleep, and I am trying to finish up an entry I can offer you in celebration of the beginning of the new year.  

If I closed my eyes and try to conjure up an image of my Happy Place, I see my children running in the dunes of Denmark. In my mind’s eye, they are in turns toddlers stumbling over rocks and almost teenage giants passing me on the paths with long strides. Memories of our dog who shared the dunes with us in his lifetime and still joined us in spirit this past Fall flood my mind. I smile at the thought of my husband and I on our morning jogs that inevitably turn into us goofing around like children, or our evenings of binge-watching our favorite series, a sinful pleasure we only allow ourselves in Denmark where the abundance of time spent in nature during the day justify such sedentary activities.

I remember particularly one day this past Fall when we were walking back from the beach and I was suddenly hit by the realization that Jutland in Denmark had become my Happy Place.

The kids were running around, giggling, and telling stories excitedly with pink cheeks and foreheads sweaty from all the playing. My husband was telling jokes, relaxed and carefree. Tiny, perfectly round spider webs lined the shrubs on the path. The grass was leaning backwards, engaged in a romantic dance with the wind. And the sun was caressing my face. Everything was picture perfect, like a drawing in a children’s book. I turned around in a circle, as I often do in beautiful landscapes, and I realized that there was nothing I would have wanted to change, not in what I could see or smell or feel. I was at peace, in my Happy Place.  

But how could this be? How could Denmark have become my Happy Place? And had Denmark replaced the Carpathian basin?

I am Hungarian, by blood, by ethnicity, and by ancestry. Much of my cultural identity is marked by an upbringing anchored in the Carpathian Basin. History and family link me to the area. I carry the Carpathian Basin deep in my soul. But we are meant to develop over time, and to adjust to new conditions and circumstances.

My father made a bold move when he fled Communist Romania. His decision severed our official ties with the country, and made a connection to the people and the places there more difficult to maintain and almost impossible to develop further.

I cherish the close friendships I still have in Hungary and Romania. I am proud to still be able to speak Hungarian with native fluency and to still have working knowledge of Romanian. I absolutely insist on teaching my children about the area I am originally from, and I try to instill in them an appreciation for the writers, musicians, and artists of the region. I raise them to understand the delightful humor of Transylvanians. I give them the tastes of the cuisine. I teach them the history and the mentality.

But happily, I too have moved on. I would like to begin the new year with this realization: that my cultural identity crisis is perhaps slowly finding its way out of confusion and panic. Together with my husband and our children, I think I am creating my own history, and I am starting to instate my own traditions and cultural markers. Although I have found a new Happy Place in Denmark, the Carpathian Basin and the house in Bálványos will never be replaced.

But it is perfectly all right to be happy in more than one place! In fact, you know what? I’m not that unhappy sitting right here, in my living room, right now!

Here’s to Happy Places around the world and why not also to being happy wherever we are! 

Recommended artists

  • For paintings of the North Sea Dunes, Reiner Würz and Lothar Struebbe, two German painters
  • For paintings of the Carpathian Basin, the Hungarian painter from Csíkszereda in Transylvania, Imre Nagy.

Written by Henriette J. Runte

Of Geese, Ducks and Ham

Written by Sebastian Junge; Translation by H. Runte

What the month of November also brings to our kitchen is so-called waterfowl, or in other words, duck, geese, and other aquatic birds or winged game. …

Autumn has unmistakably reached Hamburg since my last entry. The last warm days are over. It rains a lot, and it gets dark very early. We live in a perpetual gray haze. Temperatures are falling and the last late summer vegetables from our producers are coming in. We have finally harvested all the vegetables from our own fields as well. It was a great year that produced an excellent harvest and provided us with wonderful new impressions and experiences. Now, it is time to begin pickling and processing all the vegetables we have harvested ourselves or have received from our producers.

What the month of November also brings to our kitchen is so-called waterfowl, or in other words, duck, geese, and other aquatic birds or winged game. Maurice Blank, a longtime companion from Lemsahl-Mellingstedt, a neighborhood in the north-east of Hamburg, has been raising small groups of ducks and geese for us for a long time.

Maurice serves a few private customers and otherwise only our restaurant, and we feel incredibly lucky to be able to enjoy the fruits of his work at the end of the years.

We process waterfowl in as many different way as we do domestic pigs. We make rillette and paté, both braised and pan-fried. We make pastrami. And best of all, we can make our very own cold-smoked ham again. This is only possible in the really cold months. The temperature has to fall below 10 degrees at night so that we can cold smoke the salted pieces of meat over a longer period of time. We can typically do this starting in November, and we truly celebrated this.

The knowledge and craft we use to create our cold-smoked ham has been
fascinating fellow chefs and guests for a while now. Smoked products have been an integral part of our menus and cuisine from the very beginning.

We use ancient preservation methods that help create a feeling of well-being and bring back great memories for many people, including me. Our hams represent the type of cuisine we stand for. They are unique and can only be enjoyed here, at Wolfs Junge, and they unmistakably bear our signature. In the spring, for example, when we will cut open our ham from our domestic pigs after 4 months of ripening and smoking, just in time for the first asparagus, I am always filled with great pride in what we do. The knowledge that this ham can only be enjoyed here, in combination with other unique products, is a superb feeling.

Tomorrow, I will try our first goose ham. After 4 weeks of preparation, it is now ready. Its taste will transport me and my taste buds full into the autumn spirit.

Written by Sebastian Junge; Translation by H. Runte