Monday, 16 June 2014

Hungry in Hungary

The cuisine of Mittleeuropa is right up my strasse (or, more properly, Utca, in Hungarian). Boiled pig, fried pig, cured pig and pig fat abound in every dish. There are cream cakes and pancakes and dumplings and cabbage. Quite honestly, what’s not to like?

For some the idea of Hungarian food still might all be huge, artless piles of Goulash, paprikash and potatoes, made to sustain the workers and keep out the cold. And while there are still plenty of options for decent, no nonsense traditional food, the Budapest dining scene has exploded in recent years to feature Michelin Stars, multiple cuisines and a reinvention of the staid and stodgy dishes of old.

The morning of our first full day in town was spent watching the May Day fly past over the Danube from our balcony. The Elizabeth bridge was closed to traffic and the crowds swarmed forth to watch a magnificent display of planes and helicopters that filled the air with thick vapour clouds and the sound of cheering.

The afternoon saw us take a visit to the Great Park, on the city’s edge, where a huge fair with rides, games, live music, street entertainers, political stalls (May Day is the day of the workers), a market, and plenty of food and drink vendors had been set up. The atmosphere was hectic,but wonderful; I can’t remember going to such a busy, happy and democratic event for a long time. 


Mindful we had to be back, and relatively sober, to meet Stealth from the airport, we enjoyed a dark craft ale (at a quid or so a pint) and some homemade lemonade before buying some traditional Hungarian pastries and cakes for later. A trio of Perec, or pretzels, covered in melted cheese; three slices of Retes, a Hungarian strudel, stuffed with a various fillings of cream cheese, poppy seeds and cherry; and the piece de resistance, a cinnamon and sugar coated Kürtőskalács, or chimney cake.

These hollow cakes are a Transylvanian specialty, traditionally cooked over charcoal fires on rotating spits, and I carefully cradled my all the way home on the busy underground to eat for breakfast over the following days.

Central Market - Budapest's oldest and largest market hall, found at the foot of the Liberty Bridge - is a must see, and we walked the few blocks from our apartment the following morning for breakfast and a browse. Top of my list to try was the famous Langos, available from the stalls on the second floor. We also chose a handful of other hot dishes and pickles to complete our stand up buffet feast.

The langos - discs of deep fried dough topped traditionally with sour cream, garlic oil and cheese, but also available with a variety of other toppings – was immense. It might not be too much of a stretch of the imagination to think such a combination would be delicious, but this was lighter and crisper than I imagined and managed to combine the trinity of salty fatty and crisp perfectly.

Alongside we had Töltött Káposzta, rolls of stuffed cabbage filled with rice, pork and chopped veg, and a plate of fried potatoes studded with slice s of spicy Hungarian sausage and, to cut through the richness, a plate of salty pickled cucumbers and green peppers. We drank espresso, but there’s also draught beer and shots of palinka available to fuel you through the rest of the morning.

While the rest of the second floor is rather touristy – given over to keyrings, scarves and knick knacks including Rubik’s Cubes and the like - the ground floor of the market is full of stalls selling fresh produce. Here we bought bundles of both white and green asparagus alongside grapes, garlic and tinned paprika.

By far the best bit for me were the meats; rows and rows of suspended salamis and sausages; great trays of pork scratchings, scooped into paper bags with little metal shovels; tins of preserved goose liver and blocks of glistening cured pig fat.


Just as the choice was threatening to overwhelm us, a rather enthusiastic butcher spotted the Ewing looking curiously into the chilled cabinet and proceeded to point at his wares while making animal impressions complete with corresponding noises, so we would know what was in each sausage.

With all that effort, and entertainment, how we could not be tempted, and we came away with salamis and sausages made with goose, horse and spicy Mangalitza pig (more of that curly-haired beast later) to go alongside the Alpenkase (alpine cheese) sausage I had picked up in Vienna.

Seeking shelter from a thunderstorm after a visit to the marvellous, if rather sobering, House of Terror, we found the rather promising sign above. Following the arrow, we found ourselves in the Czech Inn, and while we may have taken a slight swerve to the North East of Central Europe, we soon discovered they were fellow lovers of porcine products and fortified alcohol and got ourselves comfy for an afternoon session.


To drink we sampled each of the trio of beers on tap; a traditional Czech Pilsner; a lighter, fruitier wheat beer; and a smooth and tannic dark ale. Served alongside was a generous plate of bar snacks, all deriving from the aforementioned Mangalitza pig. These included pork scratchings on steriods; cured lardons of belly; a spicy paprika-flecked salami; and the piece de resistance, a tea cup full of lard. The meat feast was crowned with a dusting of raw red onion, a dish of salt and a basket of crusty bread. Heart-stoppingly brilliant.

To fortify ourselves a trio of flavoured palinka brandies were ordered - pear, apricot and plum - an enjoyable, if by this point not entirely necessary finale, that left the Ewing feeling rather green on our return to the apartment - and later lead to her composing a drunken ditty revolving around the lines; 'woolly piggy, wolly piggy. Made me sicky'.

We couldn't visit Budapest without sampling some the famed Hungarian rib-stickers. A wander around the streets one evening lead us to a little cafe/restaurant down a side street were we sat outside and I had a rather good, if not particularly photogenic, plate of beef goulash topped with fried parsley and served with bouncy little fresh dumplings - rather like the Germanic Spatzle.

Stealth and the Ewing settled their stomachs with chicken noodle and beef goulash soups, respectively. At about two quid a bowl for these, there were few complaints.

We also enjoyed an early Saturday night dinner at Cafe Kor, a perennially popular bistro by St. Stephen's Basilica, in the heart of the trendy 5th District. Here Stealth further indulged her love for goulash, with their, very fine, red wine-spiked version that came served with homemade potato croquettes that resembled Oven Crunchies on steroids.

I had a dish of roasted veal, served with a sour cream-spiked sauce that wasn't too dissimilar to tomato soup and none the worse for it. More ballast was provided in the form of a duo of bread dumplings that - although I was still digesting them days later - appealed to my love of good old stodge.

The Ewing's plate featured a little hint of greenery in the form of a dressed salad, but was mostly dominated by a huge tranche of pike perch, doused in a garlic sauce and balanced mountain of fried potatoes.

To finish we shared two of Hungary's most famous deserts, Gundel pancakes stuffed with walnuts and raisins - a possibly a mystery herb/spice which Stealth became obsessed with identifying, but to no avail - and topped with a flood of chocolate sauce, and Somlói spongecake, balls of rum soaked cake served with whipped cream and more of the bitter chocolate sauce.

Quite honestly, how could anything with cream, cake and chocolate ever be wrong, even after the unashamed gluttony of our previous course; although, Stealth did comment, as we were looking back through the photos after our trip; 'no wonder we all felt so bloated all week'. Certainly no one complained of feeling peckish later that evening.

While Budapest isn’t the bargain basement destination it once was, you can still find yourselves a steal. One thing they excel at is a boozy Sunday brunch, which coincided nicely with the Ewing’s birthday. I had booked us in at Le Bourbon, at Le Meriden, after hearing reports that the pastries were the best in town, although it turned out the other choices weren't too shabby either.

Being set loose on the various tables groaning with grub soon saw us take some contrasting approaches; Stealth racing straight for the soups and grill, the Ewing sticking mainly with the cold starter selection and me making sure to try some of everything, lest I should miss out.

The cold appetizers may have been my favourite part; fresh baskets of bread and pastries, piles of ham, terrines, pate, pastas and salads, including a faux lobster number that others spurned but I loved enough to go back for second (and third) helpings.

While the hot food, in its lidded metal dishes and featuring delights such as salmon with grapefruit and chicken ‘curry’, may have looked like something straight from the 70’s but was surprisingly tasty. Stealth proclaimed the dill pickle-spiked Stroganoff, not a patch on her mother's version, although I really enjoyed it (although I cunningly contrived to get the maximum amount of tail fillet in my portion).

There is also a carvery of roast meats, with big joints of beef and turkey carved to order and served with a variety of veg and sauces; and a grill station, from which we enjoyed a selection of steaks, kebabs and mushrooms freshly cooked to order.

Finally we staggered on to pudding, both Stealth and the Ewing’s highlight of the afternoon. The choice,as with the rest of the food, was superlative with a pyramid of macrons, fresh fruit salads and mini cakes and pastries to choose from. There were also glorious éclairs’, decorated with caramel and chocolate and flavoured with different types of crème patisserie, and a chocolate cake that was only available from the menu - although still part of the buffet – which of course we had to order for the birthday girl.

There was even a pancake stand from which you can create made to order deserts from a Wonka-esque choice of fillings. The poppy seed and walnut I chose went very nicely with a scoop of the rum soaked bowls of fruit on the desert table.

The atrium, with its stained glass ceiling and glittery chandeliers, is a lovely space to spend a chilled out Sunday afternoon, helped by unlimited ‘Hungaria’, a surprisingly quaffable local sparkling wine, offered alongside red and white, juices, tea and coffee, and all for about £20. And while my companions may have mocked the jazz piano player in the corner, I rather enjoyed hearing a little bit of Phil Collins.


One of the best quirks of the Budapest bar scene is the concept of the ruin pub. These ramshackle bars were originally set up in the Jewish Quarter, providing cheap places for young locals to meet and drink, but have now sprung up all over town. As their name suggests, they are mostly housed in previously dilapidated buildings and have a ramshackle and unique charm, along with very cheap beer. 
A walk around the Jewish Quarter will unearth a myriad of drinking choices, and while we stopped at a few, and all were good, Ellátó Kert was probably my pick of the bunch. An endearingly ramshackle outfit, with a great garden decked out with fairy lights - de rigueur for most of the bars we saw - and featuring DJs later in the evening, a selection of Mexican food and comprehensive cocktail list, 

We enjoyed a variety of tacos stuffed with pork al pastor, chicken tinga and grilled mushrooms and served with a variety of hot tomato salsas, soured cream and guacamole. While not groundbreaking they were tasty and cheap and pretty perfect at soaking up the mojitos and the pints of elderflower beer

While the ruin pubs were charmingly spit and sawdust with their mismatched and laid back approach, we did dust down our glad rags and find time for a few classy birthday cocktails at Spoon, a restaurant/bar found on a boat moored on the Danube.

While there might not be anything particularly compelling about the place on its own, location wise it's in a prime spot. There aren't many better places to sit and watch the rays reflect on the water, as the last of the sun slips behind the Buda Castle.

To drink we chose a range of crowd-pleasing cocktails, known endearingly, thanks to her sweet tooth, as 'cheap sugary-shit' by Stealth. Despite their fluffy appearance they packed a hefty alcoholic punch and a couple of lychee martinis later saw us staggering back along the river shore.


Our final day saw a long and blister-filled visit to the Ewing's grandmother's birth place, followed by a schlep to the momentous Monument Park, were we spent a hour or two posing by the Communist statues while merrily trying not to kill each other.

The evening's entertainment was far more relaxed, with a table booked for a last supper at the Pest branch of the Bock Bisztro, a cosy and fab little spot serving a menu of modern Hungarian food that combines hearty with invention, and with a comprehensive and predominately local wine list, too.

Starters were forgone to ensure we'd be able to buckle upon the plane home the next day, although our waiter bought a pot of Mangalitza lard studded with pieces of pork crackling, lest we wasted away before our mains. And while the Ewing may have looked a little green at the gills when it first appeared, she was soon slathering swathes of the pig fat onto the crispy bread along with the rest of us.

The chicken paprikash was a perfectly judged piece of sous vide poultry, served with a sweet and smoky sauce and a brilliantly fiery slice of fresh Hungarian pepper. On the side were a deuce of ethereal cream cheese dumplings, topped with sour cream and crispy bacon pieces.

The Ewing chose the stuffed rabbit saddle with razor clams, a beautiful spring dish with perfectly cooked bunny amid a puddle of sweet pea sauce. On the side were a duo of razor clams and a vegetable dish of mashed potato-filled leek halves, cunningly presented to look like the pair of bivalves.

Stealth took on the Bock burger, a behemoth with both a nicely rare grilled beef patty topped with a further puck of shredded and breaded meat (duck?) and char grilled peppers and onions.

Side orders of home made pickles from the barrel and a cucumber and soured cream salad didn't materialise, but I'm not sure we really missed them.

To finish Stealth and I shared a trio of 'bizarre' ice creams, a selection featuring tobacco, smoked paprika and bacon. The tobacco had that plleasant 'tickly' flavour, much like tobacco infused chocolate, while the bacon paired a sweet and salty cured pork and caramel sauce over a ball of good old vanilla. Mist curious of all was the smoke pepper, which was sorbet-like, and strangely sweet and refreshing.

The Ewing chose the chocolate mousse, with bitter cherries and sponge cake, and all accompanied by a serenade from the accordion played positioned behind us -  thus creating one of my favourite photos from the trip. A suitably rousing finale for three stuffed, happy (and rather drunk) ladies.

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