Back in Time with the Néni

In the village of Horány on the southern tip of Szentendre Island, which floats in the Danube between the Danube Bend and Budapest, there is an older lady referred to by most as “the néni.” The néni runs a cafe at the bottom of a path leading up to a riverbank that is used as a beach in the summertime. The cafe is somewhat hidden, save for a large cardboard ice cream cone that marks the entrance. My brother and his wife have been to visit the néni quite a few times and on a recent trip to the Bend they brought me along.

The cafe is one that seems to have not changed in decades. Time has stopped here. The néni herself seems like a person from another era, a tougher one. She’s a stern, somewhat grim looking character who seems hardened by the passage of time. Her stare is blank and indifferent, her posture completely deflated. She doesn’t express any emotion at all; not until the very last minute, when she abruptly casts a warm smile on my darling little niece. She follows up by crooning something in a gentle yet pedagogical tone, maybe “Good little girls wait for their ice cream patiently.” Or something like that.

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A strictly functional 20 year old pastry case stands by the counter, the shelves lined with the classics: Ischler cookies, Somlói galuska (a decadent trifle), cakes with quark cheese and peaches, chocolate, cherry, rum and walnut. There is also my favorite, the ethereally soft and mushy Coconut Ball, saturated with rum. In another case there’s rétes (strudel), some pogácsa (biscuits) and tightly braided loaves of challah. Not a huge variety but good ’nuff. I say “strictly functional” because I don’t think too many people come here for the pastries. It’s all about the ice cream at the néni’s place.

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As my brother noted in quite a reverent tone, this is the old school Hungarian stuff, the stuff that was around before Italian gelato took over. The ice cream is cooked in house by whom I think to be the néni’s’s husband. It’s scooped out of aluminum buckets with the help of a scrape-bar that evens off the surface. This must be done swiftly as the ice cream is loose and very watery. It begins to melt as soon as it hits the serving bowl, likewise made of aluminum. The flavors, I suspect, have not changed in 40 years or more. There’s vanilla, chocolate, fruit punch, strawberry, lemon, sour cherry and walnut with rum No BOUNTY®, no goat cheese with balsamic, no horsing around. We got a walnut-chocolate-cherry and three espressos to take out to the little garden fronting the building. As we sat, a group of 4-5 and then a couple also passed by us to go inside. The néni’s is a happening spot in town.
aphotoThe ice cream was not the best I’ve ever had, nor was it even one of the best. It was actually not that great at all. To me the sour cherry was too sweet and the walnut overwhelmed by rum. The icy grit on the surface melted rapidly, causing almost every bite to feel watery on the tongue. The chocolate above all screamed for cream desperately, refusing to surrender to its fate but melting, inevitably, along with the rest. Scraping off the liquid wasn’t so bad on a hot summer day and I guess digging straight into the core would have yielded firmer spoonfuls. But the ice cream needed too much supervision and care for it not to become a puddle before the very first bite. It wasn’t something to hang out with for a while, but I guess sitting around slowly slurping your frozen treat is a bourgeois luxury that wasn’t as common back when this type was popular. Nevertheless I was wishing for something denser and sturdier by the end. I was craving the artisanal gelato back in Budapest.

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The coffee was bitter and powerful. No silky crema, no thick core but a nice dark roast and one that woke all three of us up, violently. A nice surprise was that it came in the old-school 60’s glass espresso cups that my parents are very fond of but which they, unfortunately, cannot find anywhere these days. Above is a photo of the glasses at the néni’s (left) and a photo of my mother’s espresso glass (right). She’s grown so accustomed to drinking out of it that she brings it with her on trips, along with a ziplock bag of Nescafe (a.k.a. the worst coffee in the world). Countless times have I seen her push the Nespresso and its pods out of the way only to stir that murky little lagoon of muck sleepily until it becomes homogenous enough to swallow. *Sigh* Eastern European parents…

The appeal of the néni’s cafe may, for a special few, be the quality. But I’m willing to bet that the majority of her business comes from folks who’ve been summering on Szentendre Island for generations. That dusty old cardboard ice cream cone has no doubt seen some summers come and go, and has made many a sweet-toothed kid giddy with excitement. And while the world around the néni has changed, she has not and neither has her place. The appeal of the cafe to me is that it stands as proof of the possibility that  something good, or bad, or just kind of mediocre can be preserved, in tact, in time. For one reason or another it’s a comforting thing to see.

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