Friday, 5 July 2013

Hungarian delicacies

Street food on the day after the wedding... Sausage,
chicken and onion skewers and potatoes cooked in bacon fat.
Feel your arteries clog from the fat and salt.
I recently had the privilege to get aquainted with Hungary during a week long trip to attend a good friend's wedding. I was obviously intrigued about the local food and made sure to sample as many local delicacies as possible. To start with the usual disclaimer, I'm not being compensated by anyone to write this, all opinions are my own.

Our trip started with a few days in Budapest, filled with sightseeing and eating. Then we headed to Pécs in southern Hungary for the wedding, and from there part of the wedding party continued on to the wine region of Villány close to the Croatian border.

How to describe Hungarian food? Well, as my Hungarian friend put it, it's lots of meat with lots of fat and lots of salt. And I fully agree, it's definitely no diet food. I am having trouble doing the top button of my jeans after just a week, so any longer stay would probably have disastrous consequences. Also, being a vegetarian might not be as hard as it has been, but finding good vegetarian dishes is not very easy. I usually don't use any salt in my food, so I was also struggling a bit with the high salt content, be particularly aware of sausages and bacon, they will make you thirsty for a week. 
I'm traditionally not a big fan of cherries (apart from the
fresh ones), but the sour cherry and chocolate ice cream
was pretty awesome.
Hungarian main dishes are often slow cooked meats in the form of stews. There is pörkölt, which is what non-Hungarians would call goulash. A meat stew cooked with veggies and flavoured with paprika. The dish called paprikás is chicken cooked in a similar flavourful sauce, with sour cream added. Both of these can be found in pretty much any Hungarian restaurant and are simple but flavourful. The food at the wedding was a huge platter of cooked meats piled on veggies and rice, with deep fried potato dumplings and deep fried cheese to go with it. Again, very tasty, but you can feel the fat clogging your arteries. The culinary consultant had a huge grin on his face the whole evening.
The meat platter served at the wedding.
The amazingly delicious wedding cake,
raspberry and white chocolate.
One thing the Hungarians certainly do well is bread. Bread is served with pretty much every meal and its both crusty, soft and fresh. For a carboholic, it is pure bliss. I must have eaten loaves and loaves worth of that soft chewy bread, and its perfect to dip into sauces and stews.
Garlic soup with deep fried (yes, you read that right) bread.
Then the really good stuff. Lots and lots of bakeries. Just look for the sign saying Pékség (one of the very few words of Hungarian I managed to pick up during our trip), or follow the heavenly scent. Lots of baked pies and bun type of things with fruit and berries, apples and cherries being the most common I happened upon. Also, there are lots of cakes with walnuts or poppy seeds. I'm not quite sure what I think of the poppy seed fillings, it has quite a distinctive flavour. Mixed with fruit I liked it, but on it's own it wasn't quite sweet enough for me. The one thing most pastries and cakes have in common is that they are not overly sweet which makes the flavours of the fruit stand out much more. 

One of the most common cakes is rétes (strudel). Ooh, the strudel. Served warm with poppy  seed ice cream in a restaurant or still warm, eaten right on the spot from the bakery. In addition to the berry and fruit filled strudel there is one filled with a creamy soft cheese and raisins. So good!
I also tried out flódni, a famous multi-tiered Hungarian-Jewish cake with layers of walnuts, poppy seeds, apple and jam. I got mine from a coffee shop called Noé Cukrászda (Wesselényi utca 13). It was quite interesting, but with a bit too much poppy seed and walnut for my taste. But definitely worth a try, and it was very pretty.
One of my absolute favourite baked goods was chimney cake (kürtőskalács), which you can buy from touristy street vendors all over town for a few pounds. It's basically a sweet white dough rolled thinly, cut into strips and cooked wrapped around a hot metal cylinder and the outside dipped in cinnamon sugar, vanilla sugar, walnuts, almond shavings or chocolate shavings. It's basically a bun in a funny shape and its really good with a soft inside and nice crispy outside with the cinnamon sugar. The one I liked best was from a small coffee shop called Molnár's (Váci Utca 31, right next to the Elisabeth Bridge).
Chimney cake by the Elisabeth Bridge.
We ended up eating in rather touristy places in Budapest as we walked around town to see all the sights and pretty much stopped for fuel when we ran out of steam (or to get away from the rain). However, a few places did make an impression. A small butcher shop called Belvárosi Disznótoros (V Károlyi Mihály Utca 17) is definitely worth seeing and experiencing. The displays are brimming with meats and sausages, served with salads or fried potatoes on the side. A must for any carnivore.

The carboholic must place is the classic, and very fancy, cafe Gerbeaud (V Vörösmarty tér 7-8). Just pop in to admire the cakes, chocolates and macaroons or, even better, sit down for a cake selection and a huge glass of dark hot chocolate with whipped cream. Yes, it will cost you more than your dinner, but it's worth it.
The cake selection at Gerbeaud. Combined with
hot dark chocolate, it was pure chocolate bliss.
Last but certainly not least is the food market Nagycsarnok (IX Vámház körút 1-3). My love of food markets is no secret, and I loved walking around this one. Butchers, vegetable and fruit sellers and bakers. And quite a lot of touristy things as well, but who wouldn't love bags  of paprika powder with teeny tiny wooden spoons. We bought ridiculously cheap and delicious cherries for less than a quarter of the price we would pay back home, and berries seemed to be very cheap this time of the year as well. We also bought home a ridiculous amount of paprika powder and some goose liver. 
Selection of things to take home: paprika powder,
goose liver and Unicum, the most vile drink known to man.
The omnipresent paprikas.
Wishing cherries were this price in the UK
(less than a pound and a half for a kg)!
You can't talk about Hungary without mentioning the wine. We spent a day in the Villany wine region and got to see the wine cellars of the Bock winery as well as a tour of the actual vineyards of the Gere family winery

We also enjoyed a six course wine tasting meal at the Gere winery restaurant which was very memorable and enjoyable. Six delicious courses combined with very good wines. For a light drinker like me, it was rather tough to get through all those wines. Of course we couldn't resist getting a few bottles of wine to take home, we bought a rather expensive (for us) bottle of wine, and now we need some really special occasion to drink it. I really enjoyed staying in the Gere Crocus hotel, it has a lovely wellness spa, very friendly staff and the breakfast buffet was amazing, so a warm recommendation from me.

Pike sushi with cucumber gel, lime, cucumbers and
cucumber mousse from the wine tasting menu.
Another course from the wine tasting menu, grilled duck
liver and duck liver patee with rhubarb.
All in all, I had a great time in Hungary. It was weird travelling in a country where you don't understand a single word of the language, it was definitely a first for me. Even though I don't speak German, Italian or French, I can make out enough to identify words here and there as well as say a few simple sentences. But Hungarian is completely alien. Ironically Hungarian is one of the few languages related to Finnish, but I couldn't detect any similarities whatsoever. But it was quite funny going into a restaurant or shop, and have no idea what you are buying, just point and then taste to see what you got. And to be honest, most people did speak at least a bit of English, and most people working in more touristy places spoke very good English. And I'm not saying I'm expecting everyone to speak English, pretty much everyone I met spoke much better English than I speak Hungarian, so I have nothing to complain about. I'm just saying it's really weird to understand absolutely nothing. But it also leads to fun surprises. Like buying chocolate pralines from the amazing little chocolate shop called Cadeau and just pointing and then eating to find out what it was you bought. And before I finish, there is one non-food related place I just have to rave about, a teeny tiny paper shop called Bomo art (Régiposta Utca, some products are also sold in other paper and book stores in Budapest, and they have a web shop). They make the most amazing leather bound notebooks, calendars, photo albums and other bound books with papers they design themselves. You can also buy the papers and other paper products like post cards. I would have liked to buy everything in the entire store, the products are absolutely beautiful. But with very limited space left in the luggage after wine shopping in Villány earlier, I had to settle for one thing. So we got a beautiful leather bound guest book for the new place. I can't wait to invite guests so that we can start using it (well, after we have moved in of course...).


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