Getting a Culinary Taste for Budapest
I found Taste Hungary online when I was looking for someone to recommend restaurants that were off the beaten track in Budapest. Since then, Carolyn and Gábor Bánfalvi have been my go-to resource when I want to find out anything about culinary Budapest.
The Bánfalvis founded Taste Hungary in 2008, after Carolyn published two culinary guide books to Budapest and Hungary. They were already gourmands but researching the books gave them an even deeper understanding of the food and wine of this country.
As Gabor told me, “Because of this, we realized we could help travelers plan their trip and show them around. We had a few clients in the beginning, and they spread the word about us and Hungarian food and wine culture. Now we have our own tasting room on Bródy Sándor utca, and have just celebrated our tenth birthday with a busy fall season.”
On a crisp, fall Sunday not so long ago, I joined a charming American couple named Barbara and Bryan Vincent from Phoenix, Arizona on the Sunday Brunch Edition of Taste Hungary’s Budapest Culinary Walk. Our guide was the wonderful Fanni Ungváry. Her English was perfect and she clearly knew her stuff.
We met at the Centrál Kávéház at Károlyi utca 9, close to the Ferenciek tere metro station. The Central is a satisfyingly airy, characterful coffee house built in 1887. I could have happily stayed at the Central for the entire morning listening to Fanni. I won’t tell you everything she said – you’ll have to take the tour yourself – but she was full of fascinating arcane knowledge. To whet your appetite, I’ll share two things Fanni told us.
Open all Hours
Around the time that the Central was built, Budapest was growing rapidly. The city’s population doubled every ten years. There weren’t enough rooms for the people pouring into the city, so strangers shared the rental of single rooms. One person would sleep during the daytime and work at night, another would do the reverse. Because of this, people needed to have places to go at any time of night and most coffee houses were open round the clock.
In the late 1890s, every sector of Budapest’s population had its own coffee house. The Central was, for many years, a meeting place for the city’s literary set. It was like a meeting room or office, where deals were done, and gossip exchanged.
Fanni even explained the history of the cakes we were eating. I had no idea, for example, that Eszterházy torte, made of alternating layers of buttercream and almond meringue, was named after a particular member of the Esterházy dynasty who had a sensitive stomach. Budapest confectioners were commanded to create something he could eat, and they invented what might be the first ever gluten-free cake.
I’ve spent a couple of bitterly cold, shouty nights in Budapest’s ruin bars but they’ve never appealed to me. Far better to experience one at a decent hour on a Sunday morning.
Fanni was pleased to discover I’d never been to Szimpla on Kazinczy utca, the original and apparently still the best of all the ruin bars. Even in broad daylight, packed with healthy looking individuals and families, Szimpla has a nice, funky vibe about it.
We began with a Unicum tasting. Or, rather, Barbara and Bryan did. I tasted Unicum in the dim and distant past and have no desire to do so again, although I’m sure it has the medicinal properties claimed for it. In any case, after a couple of Unicums, you’re feeling no pain anywhere in your body.
While Barbara and Bryan sipped their Unicum and tried not to pull faces, Fanni told us the story of the drink. Once again, I urge you to take the tour to find out for yourself. I’ll just say that it involves a certain Dr. Zwack, Royal physician to the 18th century Hapsburg Court, dastardly Russians, and justice being done.
Here’s a story Fanni didn’t tell us that I unearthed rooting around online and can share with you. Apparently, many Hungarian engineers worked in Libya in the 1980s. Libya is Muslim, and alcohol is strictly forbidden. The Hungarian engineers managed to convince Libyan customs officers that Unicum really was medicine. This worked like a dream, until an engineer who’d probably been on the Unicum dropped a bottle and the customs officers discovered the sticky, highly alcoholic truth.
After Fanni had led us into Szimpla’s colorful courtyard, she went to prepare a tasting of Hungarian cheese and meats. I asked Barbara and Bryan what they thought of the tour.
“We often take cooking classes in cities we visit,” Bryan said, “but this is much better. It’s far more personal and I love the feeling of actually being in the culture.”
After we’d sampled the delicious cheese and meats, we left the Szimpla. Next stop, a few meters down the street, was a food market. Before Fanni headed off to buy lángos, I made my excuses and left.
Don’t get me wrong, I love lángos, deep fried dough covered in garlic paste, sour cream, grated cheese and occasionally other slightly more exotic ingredients like mushrooms. But lángos is incredibly filling and I make it a rule to only have one a year.
Although I dropped out of the tour after a couple of hours, it lasts for four and ends with a wine tasting. I’m sure this is excellent. Taste Hungary offers a wide range of culinary experiences. You might like to try the Budapest Christmas market walk. Go to www.tastehungary.com to find out more.
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