The December issue of Reader’s Digest just arrived. “Believe in Miracles” is the lead article, and this is now my mantra. Since the journey on the Danube, my days have been filled with tissues, nasal sprays, zinc lozenges and gallons of liquid.

The December issue of Reader’s Digest just arrived. “Believe in Miracles” is the lead article, and this is now my mantra. Since the journey on the Danube, my days have been filled with tissues, nasal sprays, zinc lozenges and gallons of liquid. Both ears are blocked. For entertainment I can listen to my heart beat to the high-pitched note my right ear sings. Can only breathe if my mouth is open, can’t taste anything but salt, and all sounds are muffled. Was it the person who sneezed just as I was walking by in Salzburg? The lady sitting behind me on the Transatlantic flight? She seemed so nice. I personally want to take this bug on the road, but feel too rotten to leave the house. In between curling up in blankets on the couch and drinking soups, my goal is to write as long as there are tissues in the box.

My husband and I just took our first cruise. No way could one get me to climb aboard a huge passenger ship carrying a small city that sailed on the ocean. Those mega-boats have their advantages if you are the type that likes to be entertained and constantly fed with a few tourist traps thrown in for good measure. Nope, our cruise was on a section of river in Europe that flowed from Budapest to Passau. The name of our Viking Longship was the Helmod. Max number of people was190, but 170 had signed up for our late November trip. Well, it was the cheapest cruise they had for the entire year. Why not!

We flew on United from OKC to Chicago. Mini-pretzels. Never had eaten a Chicago hot dog before. The layover was two hours. Time to investigate. The Chicago hot dog was almost healthy with the all-beef dog nestled inside a sesame seed bun spread with mustard surrounded by peppers, onions, tomatoes, and a dill pickle spear all sprinkled with celery salt. From the Windy City (OKC is windier, but I am not sure exactly what sources we are talking about for either place) we winged it to Munich and partook of supper, more mini-pretzels and a small breakfast. Munich to Budapest, the last leg, was on Lufthansa. No mini-pretzels here, but a real sandwich with veggies and cheese. Our plane descended into clouds. It was fate. Not one sunny day did we have during the cruise until we took the train to Salzburg, which wasn’t officially part of the voyage.

Milling about in the Budapest airport wearing our red Viking badges that signaled “Americans are here looking for their Viking ship”, we were soon spotted and shepherded toward the door to waiting mini-vans. In no time our little group arrived at our boat. It turned out to not be the Helmod but the Bragi. The Helmod was stranded further upstream due to the shallowness of the Danube. The gangplank to Bragi was at a steep angle. One misplaced foot on the wet metal surface and one could jet propel straight down, through the glass doors armed with a sensor and into the lobby before smashing into the glass doors on the other side unless those doors sensed you were coming and automatically opened. Then you could collide with the metal railing or soar over the railing into the Danube. The Danube was very low. The boat was very, very low. The bank was very high.

We found our room but before we could think about relaxing, over the intercom came the announcement “Dear Guests, the walking tour of Budapest is soon to depart. Please bring your devices with earphones and join us.” So we grabbed the receivers, looped the lanyards around our necks, plugged the earphones into our left ears and stepped up the gangplank with the others to discover Budapest…in the cold mist. Our receivers had to touch the “lollipop” carried by the guide. A buzz meant our box was now linked with the same frequency as our guide’s, so he could talk quietly instead of yelling over traffic or other noises.

The twenty of us heard about the historic aspects of Budapest as we walked to the Central Market Hall. Central Market Hall was housed in a building that resembled a railroad station chock-a-block full of exquisite and colorful produce, garlic bulbs, all kinds of meats, honeys, cheeses, fish, bakery items, sandwiches, souvenirs and paprikas. Paprika shops were abundant.

All paprikas are dried fruits of various varieties of Capsicum annuum (think bell peppers, cayenne peppers or jalapenos), but paprika originated in Central Mexico. The dried peppers reached Hungary via trading. The Turks grew pepper plants in 1569 at Buda. The Danube River separates Buda from Pest, but the two cities are now considered Budapest, the capital of Hungary. The natives say-phonetically- Budapeshht. In Hungarian, the s has an shh sound.

In the 1920’s, a Hungarian plant breeder in Szeged discovered a sweet pepper variety that he grafted onto the established hot pepper plants of the time. Hungarian paprika is actually sweeter than that produced in other countries due to their cool climate which helps retain sugar in the fruit. The weather also contributes to the brilliant red color of the paprika in Hungary. As sugar content drops, the paprika grows redder. In warmer climates such as Peru or western China, the paprikas turn very dark red.

During communist rule, paprika was nationalized and Hungarian growers were forced to take their paprika to state-owned mills. If discovered they had sold paprika to locals, they were jailed for months.

Paprika in Hungary usually comes from the Hungarian heirloom tomato peppers. The small peppers go from shiny green to deep red when ripe. Paprika peppers are allowed to rest for 2 to 3 weeks after harvest to bring out color and flavor before grinding. Paprikas may be sweet, mild, hot or smoked. Sweet paprika comes from the pericarp of the fruit (the flesh between the skin and the seeds) with fewer seeds. Hot paprika is composed of ground stems, caps and seeds with attached tissue. The smoked variety comes from dried pimento peppers smoked over an oak fire. Seven months it takes from seed to ground paprika.

One tip from a Hungarian seller at the Central Market Hall was buy paprika in the autumn after harvest. The peppers are fresh and pungent. Store in a cool dry place to retain flavor. When cooking, use oil to enhance the color.

Goulash anyone?

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at Becscience@att.net.