I hadn’t expected to be drinking at 10:00 in the morning. Yet somehow it all seemed quite natural considering my surroundings. My wife Anita and I were in Budapest’s Central Market Hall on a culinary walk with Taste Hungary, a tour company specializing in Hungarian food and wine. Minutes earlier our guide Elza, a bubbly woman in her twenties with lively brown eyes, had just given our group a summary of Hungarian history.
Being familiar with most of the Magyar past, I gazed out over the cavernous market from the top floor balcony. Curving steel beams criss-crossed the hall, streams of locals and tourists passed below. It was a Saturday morning and there was a palpable buzz about the place. The others had listened intently to Elza’s breakdown of Hungary’s history, from Magyar migration and Mongol invasions, to Turkish occupation and communist control.
At the Panorama Bar Elza served up shots of Unicum, Hungary’s homegrown herbal spirit. “This is our national drink, aside from pálinka of course,” Elza said laughing. Some of the guests found it too bitter, and indeed it is an acquired taste. Nevertheless, it’s quintessentially Hungarian and Anita and I were pleased it was in the tour.
While we sipped on the aperitif, Elza slid two frisbee sized disks of fried dough onto our table. Lángos as it’s called, is a Hungarian street food that, to be honest, is the perfect accompaniment to alcohol. One can order it slathered with sour cream, cheese, or both. I usually opt for the sima (plain), and brush on a bit of garlicky oil. It’s crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. Not something you want to eat on a regular basis, but one of the most satisfyingly sinful bites you’ll find in Hungary. “For Hungarians,” Elza explained, “when you have a cold beer and lángos at Lake Balaton then you can say, OK I have arrived. It’s officially summer-time.”
Our fellow tour guests were two couples from the U.S., both in early stages of retirement. It was their first time in Hungary and I delighted in their reactions to Unicum, lángos and the fervent scene around us. It brought back memories of my own quizzical experiences on initial visits to Hungary.
The lángos now devoured, we headed downstairs to the counters selling all things meaty. “Here we have a selection of Hungarian charcuterie,” Elza announced proudly. She held out a tray layered with slices of various sausages, salamis and cracklins. If there’s one thing Hungarians do well, it’s cured meat. We sampled spicy pork sausage, beef tongue, Mangalica sausage, winter salami and horse sausage among others. Hungarian téli (winter) salami is something I can’t get enough of. It’s not peppery or sour like many Italian salamis. Instead it has a slight smokiness that is hard to pinpoint. Let’s just say it’s damn good.
Our little group then passed through the fruit and vegetable sellers. Elza pointed out the ubiquitous red sachets of paprika powder and the dried Hungarian peppers hanging from strings. With the background bustle of buying and selling we next came to the poultry counter. Here Elza pointed out Hungary’s famous foie-gras, which I’m ashamed to say is something I have yet to actually taste. From here we headed downstairs towards the savanyúság (pickles) area. As with any proper Hungarian market, the funky smell of sour kraut permeated the air. At a small brightly lit counter, Elza ordered up a selection of pickled delights: baby melons, garlic, peppers stuffed with sour kraut and csalamádé (shredded pickled vegetables). If you’re a fan of all things pickled, like me, Hungary is a vinegary paradise.
Outside, in flawless September weather, Elza led us towards our next destination, Belvárosi Disznótoros. If you follow Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, you may recognize this place from his Budapest episode. A standing only joint on Karolyi Mihaly Utca, this butcher shop/eatery serves up hearty plates of all things pork. And in Hungary, pork is king. Elza pin-balled between our table outside and the deli counter, each time returning with yet another batch of goodies. We were treated to a beautiful mushroom soup, generous portions of hurka (liver and rice sausage) and kolbász (paprika infused pork sausage), crispy duck legs and pörkölt, a pork stew served over pasta. All this was of course accompanied by various pickled things, strong mustard and fresh grated horseradish. After this medieval feast I was beginning to think Taste Hungary should change their name— to Devour Hungary.
Created by Gábor and Carolyn Bánfalvi in 2008, Taste Hungary has grown to become one of Hungary’s premier tour companies. Originally from the States, Carolyn lives in Budapest with Gábor (who’s Hungarian) and their three children. After years of research, article writing and a book about Hungarian food and wine, the two combined their love of travel and culinary discoveries to create their award winning business. I first read about Carolyn and Gábor months ago while scouring the web back home in California. With Anita and I also being a Hungarian/American couple, their story resonated with me. It gave me hope that we too could make a successful transition to a life in Hungary. So in some respects being on one of their tours felt like we had come full circle; that things were lining up in the way the universe intended, or something like that.
What’s For Dessert?
“If a Hungarian says they’re vegetarian that usually means they only eat chicken or fish,” Elza said with a hearty laugh. Indeed, Hungarian dining is without a doubt a stick-to-your-ribs, meat-centric affair. With distended bellies we lumbered away from Belvárosi Disznótoros towards Kossuth Lajos Utca. We passed Ferenciek Tere with its fin-de-siècle architecture and stopped at Centrál Kávéház as Elza gave a history lesson on Budapest’s cafe culture. From the mid day bustle of Kossuth Lajos Utca, we stepped into Auguszt Cukrászda, a famous local confectionery.
The back door of this classic cake house leads to the beautiful Wagner House courtyard. The striking space, with its decorative columns and railings was recently renovated and now houses Paloma, a Budapest art and design cooperative. Sitting here around cafe tables we enjoyed slices of Dobos Torta, Eszterházy Torta and a dangerously delicious cake that recently won the Hungarian “cake of the year” award. Decadent, yet not overwhelmingly sugary, the cakes were perfect examples of old world dessert mastery. Over coffee Elza opened up about her childhood in Budapest and her family’s involvement in local theater. We next walked through the Palace District towards the Tasting Table, Taste Hungary’s own shop.
Wooden steps led us off the street and underground into an old brick cellar. Here, Gábor and Carolyn have created a cozy, ambient little space perfect for sampling Hungarian wine, local cheeses, oils and other gourmet bites. Our group gathered round a long wooden table for what be our final feeding. I wondered how on earth I could eat another bite, until a cheese selection was served by a tall man with dark hair named Tamás. Soon enough we were on to wine tasting. Our first wine was a 2014 Egri Csillag from the Böjt Winery in Eger. This white cuvee was crisp and wonderfully minerally. Next up was a tannin rich and spicy 2011 Cabernet-Franc from the Riczu-Stier Winery in Villány. And of course, how else could one end a Hungarian wine sampling but with “the wine of kings and the king of wines”, Tokaji Aszú . Tamás poured us an outstanding 2009 Royal Tokaji 5 Puttanyos Tokaji Aszú that perfectly ended our tour on a silky sweet note.
I was sad to see the two American couples go. It had been quite comforting being around people from the U.S. who are about my parents’ age. They had all sorts of questions about my life in Hungary and were of course very pleasant and chatty. It was sort of like being on an outing with my parents, minus the Irish accents of course.
Taste Hungary’s Culinary Walk actually exceeded my expectations. Elza seemed to have a bottomless tank of energy and possesses a wealth of local knowledge about the city that she so obviously loves. The tour certainly doesn’t skimp on food and one feels that Carolyn, Gábor and their team have a legitimate passion for Hungary’s food and wine. Hungary might not be a culinary destination quite like Italy or France–perhaps it never will be–but the folks at Taste Hungary are putting this little country on the map. Eating here isn’t about pretense and fluff. Eating here is like eating at grandma’s house: Slow cooked goodness with heart, soul and of course paprika. And don’t worry, there’s always enough for seconds, usually thirds too.
Although I was an invited media guest on this tour, my opinions, as always, remain my own.
Book A Tour: Taste Hungary
More Paprika Project: BudapestFlow: Beyond Ruin Pubs in Dynamic District VII