From recent posts, you would imagine that Ryan and I don’t actually live in Barcelona. Our pictures display shameless images of us savoring delicious cured meats in Zagreb, gorgeous red wines in Dijon, heaps of olive oil drizzled pasta paired with sparkling Franciacorta wine in Brescia, unctuous and rich foie gras of Hungary, and most recently, the gorgeous fresh produce from Valencia. In large part, this is a direct result of our consulting business, affording us the “excuse” of visiting a vast array of new European cities under the guise of giving talks on the intersection of social media and wine. And yes, Ryan being our intrepid public speaker does a fabulous job of this, but I, as the writer, am smitten with any opportunity to see the world, taste its foods, drink its wines and steep in its diverse cultures. Budapest was no exception.
Having been invited to the 2nd annual VinCe wine and food conference, organized by Decanter Hungary, at the breathtakingly beautiful Corintha Hotel in Budapest, it’s quite difficult for me to sum up our experience in a few hundreds words. Unlike our trip to India, where we spent the majority of our time exploring the gritty and exotic streets of New Delhi on our own – reveling in the amazing cuisine and culture, Budapest was a bit of a royal carriage ride, where just about every moment was filled with pre-determined appointments at the finest restaurants, wineries and hotels. Though far from the norm, irregardless of where we went, not once did Ryan nor I comment on the poor quality of the food or service. And for a seven day trip, both inside Budapest and in the vast vine covered countryside, this speaks volumes for the quality of Hungarian gastronomy.
For a quasi-vegetarian such as myself, like Iberia, Hungary values its meat, and a meal is never complete without some animal flesh.
This basic Hungarian truth couldn’t have become more evident than at our very first dinner at the famed Tigris Restaurant, where our very first amuse bouche consisted of an orange mascarpone mousse with duck liver, followed shortly thereafter with the main course: an Angus hamburger topped with a thick slice of grilled goose liver and placed on a bed of potato puree and mustard sauce. This last dish was absolutely delicious, as the beef was perfectly moist with a firm sumptuous texture that melted in your mouth when combined with the ever-so-slightly charred liver; but it did set a precedent for our trip: that which did not moo, oink, quack or baaa was not invited to the party.
Unlike Spain, where olive oil is the standard in every household, you’ll find rendered goose, duck or pork fat in a Hungarian pantry. The cuisine, however, is not necessarily greasy or dripping in fat. When prepared well, the dishes can be light, flavorful and delicious.
One cannot talk of Hungarian cuisine without mentioning paprika. Crimson colored peppers hang ceremoniously from every stand at the market, are painted on small canvases adorning restaurant walls, are embroidered in gleaming white kitchen curtains that blow in spring breezes, and when ground to fine red dust, sits unceremoniously in every restaurant kitchen. Paprika is the national condiment, used in heaping spoonfuls for many Hungarian dishes; though ironically, we experienced very little of it.
Paprika was originally brought to Hungary after the 16th century, becoming a ubiquitous spice in every household in the late 18th, early 19th, century. This point is not debated, where the contention lies is twofold: who brought it to Hungary and is Hungarian paprika hot or sweet? Let’s begin with the ‘where.’ Rumor has it that the Turks were the first to haul Paprika to Hungary, whereby the name ‘Turkish Peppers’ was adopted. Another theory contests that it was the people of the Balkans who brought them when fleeing the marauding Turks, while another suggests that a farmer carried the seeds in his pouch from Bulgaria. In short, no one knows for sure. As to what defines Hungarian paprika, beyond the obvious – that it’s made in Hungary – one must appreciate the wide variety of pungency, ranging from sweet to mildly hot to searing your tastebuds off, depending of the quantity of seeds included the grinding.
According to Carloyn Banfalvi’s book, “The Food and Wine Lover’s Guide to Hungary“, who also happens to be our friend and Hungarian food guru, there are four types of Hungarian paprika: Különleges, a glowing red paprika, ground fine that comes in either mild or sweet; Csemegepaprika, a lighter paprika that is coarsely ground and can be either hot or mild; Edes-nemes paprika, a courser grind than Csemege with a smidge of heat and generally used for soups and stews; and last but not least, Rozsapaprika, an inky dark red paprika that’s known for its searing pungency. If compared to Spanish Pimenton, Különleges would be its closest relative, because although Spanish paprika is said to be sold hot (alongside the mild and sweet versions), we’ve never ever seen it.
As a result of its landlocked position, one doesn’t associate Hungary with fish. As emphasized above, it’s a land of Ungulates (hooved creatures), but the occasional fish dish does raise its scaly head – most especially at Restaurant Gundel. “Oh dear Lord, they took you to that restaurant. I’m so very very sorry,” we heard on several occasions. Yes, clearly Gundel has failed to receive the accolades it so rightfully deserves today, in part due to previously failed management. For a centurion restaurant, it’s to be expected that time will wane innovation and creativity if new blood isn’t introduced, but I’m happy to announce, that it’s arrived: pumping fiercely with vibrant life and passion. Whether we’re speaking of the incredible ambiance, with old school decor, or the quintet of strings – adding ambiance to the evening, or the phenomenal food and service, it’s absolutely worth a trip. One dish we particularly enjoyed, though all were amazing, was the “Home Smoked Sturgeon Filet with Caviar Sauce.” Imagine two perfectly tender and juicy sturgeon filets drizzled with a slightly sweet and salty mint green caviar sauce and topped with fresh herbs and greens. Gorgeous. Granted, the “Essence of Guinea-fowl with Stuffed Morels” made me swoon. Mind you, this restaurant wouldn’t have nearly garnered our praise if it weren’t for Mihály Fabok the award winning sommelier who created a gastronomical experience well beyond our expectations. I think Ryan summed it up best when reflecting upon the evening, “Gabriella, I don’t think I’ve ever had a more perfect wine and food pairing in my life.” In short, another must visit, or revisit for you naysayers.
Next up, an unexpected slice of foodie heaven. How often do you travel in the middle of the countryside under the guise that you’ll stumble upon a restaurant with exceptional cuisine? When it came to a casual lunch at Kistücsök, located alongside Lake Balaton, in middle of nowhere Hungary, we ran home screaming, “That was one of the best meals of our lives!”
Kistücsök’s exquisite dish of smoked lamb’s tongue with Kohlrabi was a knee buckling experience. Sliced paper thin, the meat simply melted on your tongue, and when paired with the slightly bitter flavor of the Japanese Kohlrabi, it rendered the table speechless, literally. Another favorite included a soft, perfectly cooked pike filet wrapped in crispy ink colored bread crumbs, spritzed with lime, and accompanied with bean sprouts and tartar sauce, an absolutely brilliant experience. According to restaurant owner, Balázs Csapody, quality ingredients, along with international travel to remain inspired and passionate, is what makes Kistücsök unique. “We motivate others to use the raw materials of our region, and maintain close and trustful relationships with the producers, fishermen and winemakers of the region. Our mission is to connect them with each other, thereby promoting the wine and food culture to its deserved place in this area,” he said. Sound advice and beautifully exemplified.
Ever heard of Mangalitsa (US spelling), Mangalitza (UK spelling), Mangalesa (Spanish spelling) or Mangalica (original Hungarian spelling) pork? Neither did we until our trip to Hungary. I don’t want to get too deep into the subject, as I’ll be doing a feature article on it at later date, but imagine the Spanish Pata Negra Pig overdosed on Rogaine. Yes, our Hungarian pig is all hair, all the time, but it produces some of the most delicious meat you’ve ever wrapped your lips around. Also known as the “curly hair hog,” the Mangalica was hugely popular in Hungary prior to the 1950′s for its lard, until it almost reached extinction. But due to the combined efforts of a Spanish-Hungarian company who envisioned making a killer Jamon Serrano, Hungary now boasts of its 50,000 strong pig population.
During our lunch at Sárga Borház, also known as the Little Yellow House and part of the famed Tokaj producer, Disznókő, Ryan sunk his teeth into a Mangalica tenderloin with potato pancakes immersed in a rich, locally produced goat cheese. Slightly seared on the outside, the meat was flavorful, and juicy. Their menu actually boasts of three Mangalica dishes, each paired with either a sheep, goat or cow cheese, which begs the question, is this a traditional way of serving it?
The Paloc (a cold green pea and sour cream concoction) and Körteleves Zsályás Mascarpone Habbal (Cold pear soup with sage and mascarpone cream) are also noteworthy, if not downright delicious. I should take a moment to emphasis soup as an integral part of the Hungarian diet. As emphasized by Carolyn, “To most Hungarians, a meal just wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t begin with a bowl of soup.” The most typical of Hungarian soups is a called Húsleves, a hearty consume made with beef, marrow, carrots, parsley root, celery root and black pepper, and served over egg noodles. You’ll find several different types of consommé, in addition to vegetable soups, chilled fruit soups, or traditional holiday soups, such as Lencseleves, a lentil soup enjoyed on New Years. The key to Hungarian soups is simplicity and frugalness. Rather than add various ingredients, only to toss them once the broth has reached its peak, Hungarians preserve and consume everything. “They’d never think of throwing out the vegetables that were cooked in stock, as the French traditionally do. Instead, soup is started with plain water. Hungarians often add hot paprika, sour cream, or a few drops of vinegar (or all three) to their soup at the table. To further fortify soup, additions like majgaluska (liver dumplings), daragaluska (semolina dumplings) or teszta (pasta) are added.”
Finally, Arany Kaviar, a charming and cozy little restaurant located in the west side of the river, just north of Vérmező Park. Having arrived after an incredible lunch at Kistücsök, our appetite was limited at best. However, on trips like these, you seize the opportunity to experience absolutely everything you possibly can, because you’re never quite sure if, and when, you’ll ever find yourself back.
Founded in 1986, Arany Kaviar’s fame as the throne for caviar in Budapest wasn’t established until the management of Attila Molnar a decade later. With the culinary direction of Sasha Nyiri, the restaurant features French-influenced Czarist era cuisine highlighted by its plush and elegant interior that exudes romance. Thus, arriving to the restaurant in dirty vineyard garb was far from the ideal attire to enhance the decor; but fortunately, we were promptly excused for our haphazard state and given a shot of ice cold Russky Standart Vodka to cool our crimson cheeks.
The restaurant features several different types of menus including an 8 course Caviar Gourmet Menu, or the 5 course Tasting Menu, which we experienced. Dishes to note included the blini filled with smoked sturgeon cream topped with caviar, as well as the Ukrainian Borscht that was a slightly sweet and savory stew containing beetroot, cabbage and pork with a dopped of cream and topped with a baked brown garlic bread cap. I could happily live on this! And let’s not forget the lemon sorbet with soft caper cream topped with caviar. Honestly, it sounded revolting to me when I read it on the menu, but upon the first bite, the sorbet literally dances with the slightly sweet and savory caper cream, while the caviar simply accentuates the experience with its brilliant texture and rich flavor. It was one of the those experiences that you’ll never forget….or was that our experience in Budapest as a whole?
In conclusion, what can I say? Not only is Budapest absolutely stunning, but the food culture is phenomenal! Keep in mind that this is just a tiny little snapshot of what Hungary offers, but hopefully, it will inspire you to visit. A huge thanks goes to Agnes Nemeth, the Chief Editor at Decanter Hungary for being a stunning host, and we’ll be posting a follow-up article on the wines in the near future. Additional thanks go to Carolyn Banflavi for not only being an incredible chef, providing us with a fabulous meal at her house, but also for being an amazing culinary guide. Without her book, Food Wine Budapest, which should be updated shortly, we’d be gastronomically lost – a horrific thought indeed! Also take a moment to check out her website, as both she and her husband, Gabor, offer fabulous food and wine tours throughout Hungary. And finally, if you’re keen to follow a sassy food blogger based in Budapest, make sure you head towards Molly Hovorka’s blog, Baking in Stilettos.
1051 Budapest, Mérleg u. 10
+36 1 317 3715
Állatkerti út 2
1146 Budapest, Hungary
+36 1 889 8100
Bajcsy Zs. u. 25
Balatonszemes, Hungary, 8636
+36 84 360 133
Tokaj Disznókő dűlő
+ 36 47 369 029
Ostrom Street 19, Hungary
+36 1 201 6737
(all flights, accommodation and most meals were paid for by Decanter Hungary – photos by Ryan Opaz)