Travel tips & advice for Hungary: A food tour in Budapest shows how surprisingly good Hungarian cuisine can be

When you think of the world's great cuisines, odds are Hungarian isn't one of them. It's a region that conjures up images of hearty goulashes and thick, meaty sausages rather than delicate sashimi and intricate pastries. Forty years of communist rule certainly didn't help;  the focus was on feeding the masses rather than winning Michelin stars. Since emerging from behind the Iron Curtain in 1989, however, Budapest has experienced something of a culinary renaissance. At least that's what Carolyn and Gabor Banfalvi believe. In 2008, they founded Taste Hungary to show visitors "that there is plenty of good food and wine here".

There are three of us on today's tour and we meet our Hungarian guide, Andrea,  at the entrance of Central Market Hall. Built in 1856, it's the city's oldest and largest indoor market – a cavernous, light-flooded building that has the feel of a grand Victorian railway station.

"The country and the cuisine are a melting pot of ethnicities", says Andrea. "But we are still very traditional in our tastes."

Fittingly, our gastronomic adventure starts with one of Hungary's most traditional tastes: Unicum. Created in 1790 by Dr Jozsef Zwack as a digestive aid for Austrian Emperor Joseph II, this dark, syrupy liquor is made from a secret recipe of 40 herbs and spices. It's also the same strength as tequila. Before realising this, I take a misguidedly large gulp and spend the next minute blinking back tears.

Next, we sample another Hungarian staple, langos. This deep-fried flat bread was traditionally baked at home and used as a quick and filling meal for farm workers. Now you can find it at street vendors across the city. Andrea rejects accompaniments such as cheese, peppers and onion ("toppings are for tourists") and instead plumps for a generous smothering of garlic. Despite its dense appearance, the dough is lovely and light, with a pillowy texture on the outside and a crispy golden crunch in the middle.

Leaving the food vendors on the market's mezzanine level, we head downstairs to explore the maze of stalls. Given the disproportionate number of butchers, meat is clearly still a mainstay of the Hungarian diet. "We use every part of the animal," says Andrea, pointing out trays of chicken's feet and rooster testicles.

Our next tasting is a selection of salamis made from mangalica (a cross between a domestic pig and a wild boar), beef tongue (which looks disturbingly like an actual tongue) and horse (chewy and gamey). My favourite is Pick's "winter salami", a rich, oily pork salami that's encased in a protective layer of mould. It's the only one that doesn't contain paprika, which Andrea says Hungarians "use in frightening amounts".

Nearby is a stall selling the spice in every conceivable form, including a hot paste called "Strong Steve" (bearing an image of a rugged moustachioed farmer) and a milder variant called "Sweet Anna" (showing his demure, headscarf-wearing wife). "We are still quite traditional in our roles here," says Andrea, smiling.

We head downstairs to the basement to check out "the stinky stuff". First, there's a row of fishmongers selling catfish and carp, then a dozen pungent stands offering sauerkraut and fermented vegetables. "Hungarians still eat seasonally so we preserve a lot of food by pickling," says Andrea.

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We try samples that have been pickled using three different methods. The sweet-pickled garlic is surprisingly mild whereas the salt-pickled gherkin is so challenging I struggle to keep it in my mouth. After the earlier Unicum incident, I don't even attempt the spicy one.

Lunch is nearby at Belvarosi Disznotoros, which roughly translates to "Inner City Pork Feast". Andrea says it's a tribute to the area's traditional butchers where you could get something cooked quickly and cheaply for lunch. Inside are trays of breaded meats, blood sausages, livers and pickled vegetables. Andrea chooses a selection and minutes later it's delivered outside where we eat standing up at benches. We start with a cold raspberry and sour cream soup, which is sweet and unexpectedly refreshing, before diving into a hearty platter of breaded chicken livers, deep-fried blood sausage and crispy duck confit. Helping to cut through all the fatty goodness is horseradish, pickled cucumber and a dash of Strong Steve.

From quick and casual, we head to elegant and refined. Central Cafe was founded in 1887 and has hosted some of the city's most prominent literary figures, many of whom are honoured with portraits on the wall. Restored in 2000 to its former 19th-century grandeur, it's now a resplendent montage of marble-topped tables, red leather banquettes and vintage light fittings.

It's a stylish setting in which to sample a selection of traditional cakes, starting with the country's most famous, a layered chocolate sponge called Dobos. Created by confectioner Jozsef C. Dobos, it was the first cake to use a cream filling made with butter rather than eggs (so it would last longer) and it was topped with a protective crispy caramel glaze (so it would travel well). At first, he kept the recipe a secret but later donated it to the city's pastry guild.

We also sample the Eszterhazy, a nutty walnut cake with a rich vanilla custard filling; the Ischler, a chocolate-covered cookie filled with red currant jam; and the Rakoczi turos, a meringue-topped almond tart full of apricot jam and cottage cheese (better than it sounds). If by some unexplainable miracle we weren't full before, we certainly are now.

Thankfully, our final stop is for wine and cheese for which we all, of course, have a separate stomach. Located in the atmospheric brick basement of a former 19th-century palace, The Tasting Table stocks more than 200 central European wines. The store was opened by Taste Hungary in 2014 to help educate people about Hungarian wine.

We're introduced to Lilla, who explains that Hungary has 22 different wine regions (some of which are just a single hill), which produce 70 per cent whites and 30 per cent reds. We sample three varietals: a dry, full-bodied Bull's Blood (named after a myth that Hungarian warriors used to add bull's blood to their wine before battle); a minerally organic red from near Lake Balaton; and a sweet botrytized Tokaji (or Tokay).

Perhaps my palate is still numb from the Unicum, but I find the reds a little acidic. The Tokay, however, is delicious – a sweet, sticky, golden syrup with hints of apricot and quince. It pairs well with the local blue cheese but would be even better drizzled over vanilla ice-cream. If only I had room.

TRIP NOTES

Rob McFarland was a guest of U by Uniworld, Aria Hotel and Taste Hungary.

MORE

traveller.com.au/budapest

budapestinfo.hu

TOUR

The four-hour walking tour includes eight tastings, lunch and a wine and cheese pairing. Departs 10am, Monday to Sunday. Adults $US90, children $US54. See tastehungary.com

STAY

Ideally located near St Stephen's Basilica, the music-themed Aria Hotel features a striking glass-covered atrium, a swanky subterranean spa and a stunning rooftop bar. Rooms from €221. See ariahotelbudapest.com

CRUISE

Aimed at the "young and young at heart", U by Uniworld's activity-packed, seven-night cruise from Regensburg to Budapest includes visits to Linz, Vienna and Bratislava. From $2099 per person (twin share). See ubyuniworld.com

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