After living 20 months in Budapest, I occasionally think to myself that I should be an expert on the city by now. Since my days are mostly free to spend as I chose, I could go to a new spot every day. But while I do occasionally venture to a new café or check the listings for local events, the majority of the time I stick to my usuals. It’s like when I go out to eat – even if I peruse the menu and think, maybe I’ll try something new today – the waiter comes around and I order the same old, same old, because I know I like it. What if I chose a different entrée and I didn’t like it?!
Luckily for me, there are people who actually are experts on Budapest who are fellow members of the American women’s group (NAWA). One thing I particularly like about the group membership is that, while it’s geared towards women from North American countries, it’s not specifically limited to people who are expats, and many members are actually long-term or permanent residents of Hungary. Generally this is because they are a Hungarian citizen who fled the country for the USA during the communist regime and returned once the walls came down, or because they are married to a Hungarian. One woman from the latter group, Carolyn, together with her husband Gabor, own a tour company called Taste Hungary, which provides in-depth tours both in Budapest and in the surrounding countryside focused on the food and wine specific to Hungary. Carolyn also writes guidebooks and has created an iPhone/iPad app on Budapest with restaurant and sightseeing recommendations. I’ve explored a little using the iPad app and it is fabulous! If you plan to visit Budapest in the future, check out the Budapest Insider’s Guide app on the iTunes store.
Because of their association with NAWA, they gave us a special treat. Our October meeting for the association was focused on wines, and Carolyn and Gabor taught us about the various varietals native to Hungary and the different wine regions in the country, as well as giving us a tasting of three typical wines. On top of that, they took us on one of their food and wine tours of the city at a hefty discount. They told us to arrive hungry, so at 10 am we arrived at the central market hall ready to stuff our faces.
Barbara (Barbi) was our tour guide, and she didn’t start us off easily. We headed upstairs to the bar, where we were given a choice of traditional Unicum or Unicum Szilva (plum-flavored and slightly sweeter). Yes, the start of the tour is a shot of liquor. That’s how you know it’s good.
Barbi told us that the Zwack family, which originally created Unicum as a medicine (see, it’s just like Dr Pepper!) was forced to give the company over to governmental control during the communist times. However, the recipe was a long-held family secret, and so the recipe that they gave to the Soviets was not actually Unicum. The family fled to the US until the communist regime ended, and during that whole time a fake version was produced and sold to unsuspected Hungarians. The family returned in the early 1990s and resumed production of the real stuff. To keep the secret, the company goes so far as to order ingredients from suppliers that they never use, just to throw would-be copycats off the scent.
When you start off with a shot, it’s best for the longevity of the tour of you quickly follow up with some food, and, let’s be honest, Hungary specializes in greasy deliciousness, perfect for soaking up alcohol. Barbi acquired some traditional lángos for us – two garlic, and one sour cream with cheese. Lángos would fit perfectly into Dallas’s State Fair, because it’s basically dough fried in oil. Despite the fact that the lángos stand in the market hall has 20-something varieties to try, both savory and sweet, Barbi told us that a true Hungarian will only have a lángos with garlic, sour cream, or cheese… or some combination of the three. For the real deal, ignore all the sweet versions (try a fánk instead, which is a Hungarian donut) and don’t even think of getting one with salami on it.
Speaking of salami… our next stop was on the main floor, at a place that serves the best of the best of Hungarian salamis.
Barbi ordered a selection for us, including regular salami, cow tongue, horse meat, and the speciality of Hungary, winter salami from Szeged. Let the record show that I did not partake of the horsemeat… nor did most of the others. Barbi laughed and said that was typical of the tours she leads. No one wants to be the first to pick up the horse salami.
The Pick brand téliszalámi (winter salami) from Szeged was by far the best, although I have to admit that the tongue was delicious (once I got past the mental block).
Next, Barbi led us to the far end of the market, where I hadn’t ventured despite numerous visits to the market both on my own and with visitors. We passed one unusual office called the Gomba Vizsgáló, which literally means “mushroom tester”. Hungary has more than 100 different types of mushrooms, but only a small portion of them are non-toxic and edible. If you pick a wild mushroom, you can bring it to the office for analysis so that you can be sure you won’t keel over if you eat it. The market hall also has several glass display cases of typical mushrooms found in Hungary, with a designation of “edible”, “not edible”, and “toxic”. It turns out that most of us have a sense of humor similar to that of an teenage boy’s, because we got quite a giggle out of some of the not-safe-for-work mushroom replicas in the cases (I have a photo, but let’s just say it shouldn’t be posted on the blog and leave it at that).
Our last food sampling in the market hall was of three different types of házisajt (homemade cheese), from cow, sheep, and goat. We unanimously agreed that the sheep’s cheese was the best and made such yummy noises about it that regular market shoppers thought it was a free tasting and kept trying to snag some!
We left the market hall and headed to Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé, a delicious little chocolate company run by a husband and wife team. The shop was a bit small, so when we crowded in for the tasting, I thought “Oh, they’re going to hate us for taking over their place.” But after we ate our sample piece (chocolate with walnut and honey, mmmm) I realized they wouldn’t mind at all, because nearly all of us bought some to take home. Since Richie loves spicy things, I got him some chocolate with hot paprika… and of course, some lavender dark chocolate for me. Look how pretty their bars are!
Despite already chowing down on fried dough, salami, cheese, and chocolate, we still had more eating to do. Barbi took us to Belvárosi Disznótoros, a popular downtown lunch spot favored by locals for its cheap, delicious fare and quick service. The restaurant is standing room only, with friends and strangers crowded around long wooden tables, and everything is à la carte. The name of the restaurant means “downtown pigfeast”, according to one of the Hungarians in our group, and the name is completely appropriate. Barbi ordered some of everything for us to try, and our plates were loaded down with three types of sausages (regular, blood sausage, and liver sausage with rice), mashed potatoes with onion, fried potatoes slices with garlic and oil, a potato pancake with sour cream and herbs, a goose leg, red cabbage, more sheep’s cheese, pickled watermelon… oh, and some bread. I should remind you that this is a group of ladies, so to see us pigging out (pun intended) on all of this food was pretty funny to the locals, who were 99.9% male. They even started taking pictures of us because it was so unexpected!
And yet we still weren’t finished eating! Our next stop was the Auguszt Cukrászda, a family-run bakery that’s been in business since 1870. Once again, during the Soviet days, the bakery was nationalized and the owners deported, but luckily for us, they returned to make their traditional Hungarian cakes and pastries. We sampled three cakes – a traditional poppyseed cake (Hungarians love their poppyseed!), an Eszterházy torte (which has buttercream and almond meringue), and my favorite, the Dobos torte (a sponge cake layered with chocolate buttercream and topped with crunchy caramel… so, so good).
After all that eating, we needed to walk it off a little. So we wandered around the fifth district and popped into a few shops that Barbi recommended, before making our way to the last stop, Borbíróság.
Here, we tasted three typical Hungarian wines. Hungary is famous for their white wines from the Tokaji region, so we tried two of those – an early harvest one, which was light and perfect for sipping on a terrace in the summer, and a late harvest one, which was really sweet and would make a good dessert wine. We also tasted a red wine called bikavér, which means bulls’ blood. That lovely name comes from the times of the Ottoman occupation of Hungary. The Turkish soldiers believed that residents of the Hungarian town of Eger, where bikavér wines are produced, mixed bulls’ blood in with their wine to give them the strength to resist the invasion. Don’t be afraid to drink it, the wine doesn’t actually have blood in it 😉
So, for those of you who want to visit Budapest, you too can be a decadent housewife for a day and try the delicacies of Hungary! I’m now well-equipped to help you eat your way through the city.