I now know how the peppers got to Hungary (the Turks brought them as they swept across the great plains), but not why they stopped there. And I have experienced the ubiquity of paprika in at least one area of the country.
Last September, my husband and I went to Kalocsa, south of Budapest, centre of one of the country's main paprika-growing areas, where consumption of the spice is double the national average: about 2kg (more than 4lb) per person per year. Compare that with the length of time one mingy tub of paprika dallies in your own kitchen cupboard.
We reached Kalocsa as the paprika harvest was getting into full swing, and as our week went by, the eaves in nearby villages were festooned with strings and bags of scarlet peppers. Most were long, tapering, mild peppers, but among them hung skeins of small, round, hot cherry peppers.
Of course, every dish we were served came liberally dosed with paprika: not only the fairly frequent goulash and its thicker-sauced counterpart, porkholt (goulash is definitely a soup, not a stew), but even simple fried eggs. Only a pale noodle dish escaped the mandatory splash of red.
Our Hungarian visit was part of a year's trips to eight European countries (for a Channel 4 series, starting next week), during which other culinary cliches were upheld. For instance, the Portuguese, at least those on the coast just south of Lisbon, are unabashed consumers of sardines, and the Swiss produce and eat huge amounts of dairy produce.
But other notions proved to be mythical. Portuguese cooking has an unfair reputation among holidaymakers as being, at best, less than outstanding. This may be true of tourist restaurants, but elsewhere it can be quite superb.
We ate wonderful meals of scintillatingly fresh fish, cooked to perfection, rich cheeses and thick soups laced with coriander.
In Switzerland, we soon realised that the people are anything but boring, and that a fascinating, sturdy cuisine lurks behind the pervasive fondue, rosti and chocolate. I can think of nothing I would like more right now than a slice of the indecently nut-laden, caramel- and cream-filled Engadiner Nusstorte.
Norway came as something of a surprise, too. I have never been one for cold weather, but I loved the place - snow, ice and all. We settled within the Arctic Circle, in the Lofoten Islands: Christmas-card beautiful, with chains of mountains sparkling white in the bright sunlight between the snow storms.
The food also had its ups and downs, but it was interesting, none the less. I bought a copy of a book by 'the well- known Norwegian food expert and television host, Ingrid Espelid Hovig', and this first recipe is one of hers.
More of a pudding than a cake proper, it is baked in two stages: the base alone and naked first, so that it is fully cooked through; then the whole, so that the upper layer of apples and 'cake' stay moist and slightly gooey.
Ingredients: 2oz (55g) unsalted butter, softened
4oz (110g) caster sugar
3 eggs, separated
2 1/2 oz (70g) ground almonds
For the filling:
2lb (900g) eating apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
4oz (110g) raisins
grated zest 1 lemon
1-2oz (30-55g) caster sugar
Preparation: Put the prepared apples into a pan with all the remaining filling ingredients. Add about 2tbs water. Cover and cook over a low heat until the apples are tender but not collapsing, stirring occasionally. Let them cool.
Grease an 8-9in (20-22.5cm) cake tin or ovenproof dish. Cream the butter and half the sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks, alternating with spoonfuls of ground almonds. Continue adding the remaining ground almonds, the flour and salt, beating well.
Whisk the egg whites until they just hold their shape. Add the remaining sugar and continue whisking until they form stiff peaks.
Fold into the batter. Spoon half the batter into the prepared cake tin and smooth down lightly. Bake at 180C/ 350F/gas 4 for 15 minutes until golden brown.
Lay the apple slices and raisins over the batter. Spoon over the remaining batter, spreading it as well as possible.
Bake for a further 20-25 minutes until nicely browned on top. Serve warm or cold, from the pan, accompanied by soured cream or thick Greek yoghurt.
Hortobagyi pancakes seem to be an essential dish on most Hungarian restaurant menus - and when they are good you can see why.
Invariably served as a first course, they are filled with a creamy minced-veal mixture, and napped with soured cream. Pancakes and filling can be made well in advance.
Always choose veal that has a nice rosy pinkness to it (pallid meat is a sign that the calves have been cruelly cage- reared). If in doubt, you can substitute turkey or chicken breast.
To clarify butter, melt and heat it through, skimming off any scum that rises to the surface. Leave to stand off the heat for a few minutes until the white sediment has settled, then carefully pour off the melted butter and leave the sediment behind.
Ingredients: For the pancakes:
6oz (170g) flour
pinch of salt
8fl oz (235ml) milk
8fl oz (235ml) fizzy mineral water
clarified butter for frying
For the filling:
1lb (450g) veal, cut into 1/2 in (1cm) cubes
2 onions, grated or finely chopped
1/2 pint (290ml) creme frache or soured cream mixed with double cream
1/2 -1oz (15-30g) butter
salt and pepper
Preparation: Sift the flour with the salt. Make a well in the centre and break in the eggs. Add about half of the milk. Stir, gradually drawing in the flour and adding remaining milk slowly, to form a smooth batter.
Leave to rest for half an hour. Just before using, stir in enough of the mineral water to make a thin batter with the consistency of runny single cream.
Brush a heavy frying pan, about 8-9in (20-22.5cm) in diameter, with butter and heat thoroughly. Stir the batter and cook the pancakes as usual, brushing the pan with butter between pancakes. You should have enough batter to make 12 pancakes, allowing for one or two disasters.
For the filling, melt the lard in a frying pan and add the onions and veal. Fry for about 5 minutes, then sprinkle with paprika, cover and stew gently for a further 30 minutes until meat is tender.
Drain off most of the juice and reserve. Mince the meat or chop very finely, and return to the pan along with 2tbs of the soured cream, salt and pepper. Simmer for 5 minutes until thick and pulpy.
Fill the pancakes with this mixture and roll them up, tucking in the ends as you go. Arrange them neatly and snugly in a heat-proof serving dish, dot with butter, then cover and pop into the oven (pre-heated 180C/350F/gas 4) to heat through.
Meanwhile, boil up the reserved juices from cooking the veal, until reduced by about half. Add the rest of the cream and boil until reduced by about one-third. Season, and pour over the pancakes. Serve immediately.
Aji no nambanzuke
On Portugal's Costa Azul, we ate Carapaus de Escabeche - marinated horse mackerel.
Later that day, in the Museum of the Decorative Arts in Lisbon, we saw the most beautiful Japanese 'namban' screens, depicting Portuguese sailors and merchants. The Japanese painted not only these strange-looking men, but also adopted and adapted some of their dishes.
Shortly after we returned from Portugal, I came across a recipe in a book, called What's Cooking in Japan, produced by the Kikkoman Corporation, for Horse Mackerel Escabeche - just what we had been eating a few days before . . . but in a Japanese form.
Serves 4-6 as a first course, or light main course
Ingredients: 12 small horse mackerel or small sardines, scaled and cleaned
3fl oz (85ml) sunflower or vegetable oil
For the marinade:
3 thick spring onions, trimmed
1 dried red chilli
3tbs caster sugar
3 1/2 fl oz (100ml) soy sauce
3 1/2 fl oz (100 ml) rice vinegar or cider vinegar
5fl oz (150ml) sake or dry sherry
3 1/2 fl oz (100ml) water
Preparation: Season the fish with salt and set aside for half an hour. Dry well, then dust with flour and fry in the sunflower oil, in several batches if necessary, over a medium high heat, until just cooked. Drain briefly on kitchen paper, then arrange in a shallow dish.
Trim off most of the green part of the spring onions and discard. Grill the trimmed spring onions close to the heat until patched with brown, then cut into 1in lengths.
Soak the chilli in warm water for 10 minutes. Drain, deseed and chop. Mix onions and chilli with the remaining marinade ingredients, stirring thoroughly to dissolve the sugar. Pour over the fish and leave for at least 24 hours before eating.
Travels a la Carte, with Sophie Grigson and William Black, starts in Sicily on Tuesday, 10 May, at 8pm on Channel 4. The book of the series is published on 12 May by Network Books ( pounds 15.99).Reuse content