From six to 60-something, two birthdays are celebrated at the Kerestes household in true Hungarian style, with plenty of peach brandy, a hunters’ stew, cherry dumplings and, of course, a birthday cake, made to a treasured family recipe.
28 Mar 2012 - 4:14 PM  UPDATED 30 Mar 2021 - 8:15 PM

“I love the chaos!” roars Zoltan Kerestes as he looks around the kitchen and spreads his arms to encompass daughters Tess and Lara slicing potatoes for the rakott krumpli; wife Kathy rolling dough for the sajtos pogácsa; houseguest Csaba, visiting from Hungary, putting the finishing touches on the vadas; and Csaba’s wife Csilla making dumplings for the stew. Csaba and Csilla’s two-year-old daughter Kitty watches the action with wide eyes as she chews on some potato bread.

The occasion is a joint celebration of Zoltan’s 62nd birthday, and the sixth birthday of Csaba and Csilla’s son Bence, and family and friends are gathering to celebrate with Hungarian favourites from their homeland. As preparations continue, chilled peach brandy is passed around. “It warms you from the inside,” says Zoltan.

In 1959, Zoltan and his family immigrated to Australia, keen to leave Hungary after the 1956 revolution. Kathy also arrived here in 1959, having left Hungary with her family in 1957 and spending two-and-a-half years in Paris. “As a child, I remember hiding in the basement and hearing gun shots and cross-fire. Food was scarce; I don’t think we would have survived if my mother hadn’t known how to make bread. After that, my parents wanted to get far away from Europe,” she says. “They requested Canada or Australia and the Australian papers came through first.” The couple met when Kathy became Zoltan’s French tutor, and have been married for nearly 37 years.

The party begins with sajtos pogácsa – pastries topped with cheese and caraway seeds (a traditional Hungarian ingredient). “I learned the recipe from a friend of my mother’s,” says Kathy. “I’m becoming more interested in learning old recipes.” Kathy’s mother, Theresa Noti, used to do all the cooking for family events, spending days on preparations but now, at 95, her stamina isn’t what it used to be. Her influence is present, however, in her special torte – a coffee-flavoured sponge, layered with hazelnuts and cream, that she always made for family birthdays.

“Lots of Hungarian food is very regional,” says Kathy, “and even particular to a town. There are many variations of dishes.” That’s evident as there is a heated discussion about whether the first layer of the rakott krumpli should be potato or Csabai (spicy sausage). Potato wins, but the proponents of Csabai don’t go down without a fight. “The Hungarians love to stick to the old ways,” says Zoltan with a wolfish smile. “Here in Australia, we’re happy to change things.”


Photography by Alan Benson