In a travelscape of flashy beach and slick city destinations, too often Budapest escapes notice, much like the child who slips sideways, unnoticed, across the edge of our peripheral vision. Yet when we turn our attention to it, we find Hungary and its people fascinating, intelligent and complex.
It’s a land abundant in culture and history
Hungary is a land of great culture and intelligence, with numerous Hungarians contributing to the world of science, arts, music and technology. Hungary not only is in the world’s Top 10 for Olympic Games medals, their list of Nobel Prize winners is also impressive, standing at twelve. Talk opera, music, literature or dance and Hungary is up there.
From imposing castles to art galleries and opera houses, grand Parisian tree-lined avenues to walls of heroes and statues of great leaders, around us on our journeys are reminders of Hungary’s history.
A walk along Budapest’s streets provides a modern history lesson. This is to a landlocked country that has suffered relentless invasions and occupations by Mongols, Turks, Habsburgs, Germans, and Russians, yet it also had its Golden Age as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today its star is rising again as popular culture draws renewed attention to its strengths.
Hungary holds a raw and edgy beauty
Besides Hungarian women being some of the most beautiful in the world, there’s an earthiness about Hungarian people that’s endearing.
Hungarians are not only proud of their heritage, they also show off their pain: the ‘Iron Curtain’ in place until 1989, the ‘House of Terror’ museum – the site of unspeakable atrocities, part of the Jewish ghetto wall, and the heart-rending Shoes on the Danube, a trail of iron footwear that stands as a monument to the thousands of Jews executed along the riverbank during WWII.
With self-deprecation and an uncanny realism, Hungarians acknowledge their collective history. Some of the deepest wounds to the national psyche have been caused by Hungarian people who turned on their own, with many local atrocities in WWII committed by the Hungarian Nazi Party, only to be followed by further atrocities and injustice during communist occupation.
Yet, Venus-like, thriving ‘Ruin Pubs’ have risen from the dust of unused buildings, deserted during occupation, and bullet holes still remaining on buildings as mementos of their turbulent history. It’s all there, plain to see, the reminders of our humaneness.
It’s a foodie’s delight
Hungarians are serious eaters. Their food reflects their ethnic origins as well as the climate, but on our summer visit we see lots of fruit, cereal, yoghurt and salads as well as the traditional more substantial fare demanded by cold winters. Many tradition dishes feature meat, sausages and dumplings, all spiced up with paprika!
Here are some Hungarian foodie experiences you shouldn’t miss:
Fixed Price Lunch
Many restaurants offer a fixed price meal of two to three courses that is great value at 5 to 15 Euro. You’re likely to have a soup such as a clear broth with meat and vegetables, or a chilled fruit soup such as Meggyleves with cream, cloves and cinnamon to start. Main course may be a pörkölt – meat stew with dumplings, or chicken schnitzel accompanied by potato salad, followed by cake such as strudel or chocolate sponge roll.
Fat Boy Foodies Walk
While it’s hard to imagine a more self-deprecating name, this food tour is comprehensive, belly-filling, and one of the most informative we’ve experienced. A lifestyle journalist, Máté (pron. Mat-ay) is entertaining and a very discerning gourmet. He holds three Fat Boy tours a week taking us to family-owned specialty shops, restaurants and markets in the VII and VIII Districts, where we are introduced to several Hungarian specialties:
Langos. This afterparty food (pron. Lan-gosh) to soak up the hangover is topped with a variety of savoury fillings. However, the most traditional toppings are fresh garlic sauce, sour cream and Trapis cheese. Made to order, it’s sensational!
Flódni. “If you want to eat good flódni, you’ll have to visit Hungary,” the saying goes. A Hungarian-Jewish cake used only in special celebrations such as Christmas, Easter and New Year, its complicated structure of layers of walnuts in butter, apple, poppyseed and jam sandwiched between layers of pastry is time-consuming to make.
Strudel. We visit a shop that has made nothing but strudel for three generations, pumping out over 1,000 pieces per day. With fillings ranging from sweet cottage cheese, poppy seed and sour cherry to cabbage, you must see the extraordinary skill of strudel pastry making to believe it. Blink, and you’ll miss it.
Paprika. A visit to the local markets shows us the vast array of paprika on display, an essential ingredient in many Hungarian stews and soups including Goulash, the herdsmen’s bowl of steaming soup comprising slow-cooked beef, carrots, onions and loads of paprika for a good kick.
There too we find sausages and crackling. Too many varieties to mention them all (including horse, pork, goose and deer), you will find sausages and crackling in every Hungarian household. Sausages are eaten cold for breakfast with pickles or put into soups or stews. Hungarians eat crackling for breakfast, at dinner with bread or as a snack.
Drinks. As well as soft drinks such as the refreshing lemonade and elderberry lemonade, beer and wine, there’s Pa’linka, the fruit-based spirit that is 40% alcohol.
We end the tour at a traditional restaurant which has employed the same staff for around sixty years! In a humble restaurant lined with photographs of famous guests, we dine on their only meal – lunch, a two-course affair of beef or fruit soup followed by Pörkölt (pork stew) with nokedli, spätzle-like dumplings.
Hiding away below road level is a food and wine experience not to be missed: an underground wine shop that holds both tastings and monthly winemaker dinners hosted by its owners, Gaber and Carolyn.
The evening we attend, Tomas, the son of winemaker Dr. Géza Balla of Balla Géza Winery in Transylvania, tells us a little of the history of their vineyard, now famous for kadarka (red wine) and the legendary dessert wine Kadarisszima, a red botrytis-affected Aszú which can be made in only the best vintages.
As a three-course meal is served, we drink matched wine from the Minis vineyard; wine that “… gives spark to love, wings to thoughts and a fireplace of warmth to friendship.” Dr. György Csávossy.
It’s certainly true at our Tasting Table where the intimacy of a cellar brings people together from across the world to share food, wine and conversation.
Taste Budapest – Fat Boy Foodies Walk AUD$75pp (at time of writing)
Tasting Table by Taste Hungary AUD$49pp