Budapest Stories and Tips

The Cuisine of a City

The Hungarian National Dish Photo, Budapest, Hungary

Overview of Hungarian Food

Vegetables are interesting but lack a sense of purpose when unaccompanied by a good cut of meat. ~Fran Lebowitz

You’ll never go hungry in Hungary, unless you’re a vegetarian. Think hearty. Think thick. Think filled to the brim. Hungarians enjoy strudel, pancakes, stuffed peppers, goulash and kohlrabi soup. Goose liver appears often on the menu, and staples include potatoes and paprika.

Hungarian food, just as Hungary itself, has been invaded. The Magyars (what Hungarians call themselves) were introduced to tarhonya (dry pasta) from the east and the wife of King Matthias brought garlic with her from Italy in the 15th century. When Hungary fell under Turkish rule both paprika and strudel pastries entered their diet.

Our first meal in Budapest was dinner. I ordered pork. I received triple (yes, triple) fried pork with a side of fried potatoes. That was the entire dish. Not that it was bad, just a bit bland -- and dry from all of the frying. Julianna had opted for a "salad". To Hungarians this meant bits of lettuce coated entirely in mayonnaise, with a few slices of carrot, and dressing on the side. The dressing was cream based and orange, but not 1,000 Island as we had thought.

For our second meal we tried to create a picnic. This seemed easy enough.
In summary:

* Mars chocolate milk. Imported from the U.K. Nice.
* Sio grape juice. Local. Disturbing and not like any grapes that I had ever tasted.
* Tihany Camembert cheese. Local. OK. Thick. Not like French Camembert.
* Gala apples. Local. Mild and sweet.
* White (?) bread topped with sesame (?) seeds. Average.
* Pastry. Peanut butter and grape (?) jelly on crackers and coated with chocolate. Again, the grape was a very unusual flavor.

Maybe you’re sensing the same trend as myself. Their grapes are not grape in flavor. They are odd. Mild but tart too. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong with them. Their juice and jelly are off. This doesn’t bode well for wine, does it?


Hungarian Wine

The history of Hungarian wine is a roller-coaster, but begins when Romans bring vines to the Pannonia region in the 5th century. Extensive vineyards were planted, new grape varieties were introduced, and wine-making was in the western European style.

By the early 16th century Serbs introduced the Kadarka grape into the Eger region, creating "Bull’s Blood" (Egri Bikavér), a popular robust red wine. Soon after, the second most famous Hungarian wine, Tokaj (a dessert wine), found its place on the shelf, aided in part by Turkish occupation. The Germans also influenced Hungarian wine-making and introduced classification during a skirmish over Austria.

Things were moving along smoothly, and Hungary was developing a wine culture on the same level as western Europe. And, like much of western Europe it was hit hard by the phylloxera epidemic of 1882. Just as recovery from the rot was in full swing, the Soviets took control of Hungary. Quality went out the window, and quantity was en vogue (think boxed wine, folks). In 1989 Communism lost control of eastern Europe and Hungary was once again in charge of its own wine production.

Today, Hungary has 22 wine regions and 93 varieties of grapes, including the country’s regional wine grapes (Budai Zold, Furmint, Juhfark and Kadarka to name a few), with a full spectrum of wines. Hungary produces more whites than reds (though this is slowly changing) and are usually acidic. The Villany region of Hungary has become its Bordeaux.

We decided to purchase a bottle of Hungarian wine prior to our trip to introduce our palettes. It was a red, it was bold and it was far too over-powering for us. Perhaps, like the French, the Hungarians keep their best wines for themselves? For our first meal in Hungary we ordered another red. It was robust, and overwhelming. Maybe whites were more our thing? Acidic and burnt so bad that I got tears in my eyes. Certainly a restaurant would be the place to find a decent bottle? Not really. It was... rotten?.... flavored.

Call me a wine snob, I suppose. Or maybe spoiled? Having lived in California for several years I was able to get my lips around glasses of those elusive Screaming Eagles and Cakebreads. Keeping that in mind, I *should* try Hungarian wines again... but I’m not going to.


Hungarian Lager

Reportedly, Hungarians prefer wine over beer (however, it wasn’t reported if they preferred their home wine over their home beer). In any case, beer-making came late to Hungary. The first brewery wasn’t established until 1845 in Buda.

With that in mind I cracked up my first Hungarian ale. It was a Dreher. Wonderful. It was very light, without a bite or after-taste. Even Julianna (a non-beer drinker) stated that it was pleasant.

It was named after its creator, Anton Dreher, who developed this "Viennese" lager while still living in Austria. Dreher was born a family of beer-makers in 1810. He begin toying with bottom-fermented beer and presented his ale in 1840. His main competitor at that time was Peter Schmidt, who was already brewing in Budapest for a brewery named Kobanya. In 1862 Dreher was finally able to purchase Kobanya, but he died immediately after, leaving his empire to his son, Anton.

Within a decade awards began pouring in from Vienna, Paris, Sydney and further abroad. Emperor Franz Joseph bestowed a knighthood on Dreher. However, the last of the Drehers would perish in 1926. The company was then run by a consortium until the main brewery was destroyed in World War II. It would take eight months for the company to reopen. When the Communists took over after the war, the company was nationalized and it wouldn’t be until 1993 that the Dreher company would be under its own control.

A note about Viennese lager: Schwechater Lagerbier is much better known as "Marzen".

What Dreher achieved by the end of the 1830s was a beer that combined the clean palate and crispness of a lager with the paler hues he had admired in English ales. His marriage and adaptation of techniques produced a new style of beer-methodically bottom fermented and a copper-reddish-brown color. The precise recipe and flavor is not recorded and, in any case, he may have refined his new beer over several years. For instance, it is unclear whether he isolated a particular yeast at the beginning. Dreher called his new beer Schwechater Lagerbier, after the Vienna suburb home of his brewery, and its popularity grew rapidly-giving him the last laugh over those ridiculing rivals. Generically, Dreher's beer may for a time have been dubbed Wiener Typ (Vienna style) after his malting process, which produced a reddish caramelized crystal malt, but the enduring name for his style is Märzen.

—Graham Lees, All About Beer


Hungarian Coffee

Turkish is the strongest coffee we've found, and British is down-right watery, with France falling in the middle with good coffee. So, apparently, the Eastern European countries have the strongest coffee and it weakens as you go West. Infants could drink British coffee while Hungarian coffee will make your eyeballs explode.

Central Kavehaz

Built in 1887, this large coffeehouse on a busy corner has seen a lot of change. Rebels, artists and writers would gather here discussing the upcoming Revolution under brilliant chandeliers, surrounded by warm earth tones and over marble-topped tables. The staff was very busy (read that as crowded) but pleasant.

I had one of the best duck dishes that I’ve ever tasted. Crispy but tangy, and lacked the usual "game" flavor. Don’t skip dessert as they also have good chocolate (European style) mousse. And, their coffee was not over-powering. Very nice end to a day.

Address: Károlyi Mihály Street 9


The National Dish of Hungary

Gulyás is the Hungarian word for both "goulash" and "herdsmen", and is originally from the country. Cattle stockmen developed the thick stew/soup. Authentic gulyás consists only of beef, onions, paprika, tomatoes and green pepper. Potatoes and noodles would enter the dish later. Though the dish appeared on peasant’s tables it didn’t enter the nobleman’s diet until the 19th century and on restaurant menus until the late 1900s.

Though goulash appears on every Budapest menu, we tried a bowl at Pesti Vendeglo (Paulay Ede utca 5) near the entry point for the "Hop On, Hop Off" bus. The place was simply charming with deep colors and stone walls. And, as with most places in Budapest, at least one of the staff members spoke English.

The broth was bright burnt orange with a tinge of oil. It was lightly spiced, except for the generous dose of paprika. I could taste the small, but tender bits of beef. Included were potatoes (which absorbed the broth nicely), carrots, onions and tiny chunks of dumpling. It was much better than I had ever anticipated. And, with it being the cheapest thing on any Budapest menu (roughly $3), its a great choice for lunch.

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