Despite Hungary being a small country with under 10 million in population, it’s rich in hundreds-of-year-old food and wine traditions which make exploring here an endlessly delicious adventure. Hungary’s location in the middle of Europe—surrounded by Austria, Romania, Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Ukraine (and all of their unrelated tongues)—is the biggest factor in the wide-ranging and diverse culinary and wine culture. There are Turkish influences (from the Ottoman period), remnants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire (the era when the cuisines of many nations became intertwined),Jewish influences (which go so deep that the Jewish origin of many well-known dishes aren’t even considered). But there’s no question that Hungarians are committed to their classics, be they ingredients, dishes, or wines. While Budapest has so many impressive restaurants which do a fine job of putting a contemporary spin on things, here are a few ways attendees at the upcoming International Wine Tourism Conference (IWINETC) can experience the classic side of Hungarian cuisine and wine.
Visit a Market Hall
Budapest’s 19th-century Central Market Hall is not only architecturally spectacular, but it’s also one of Europe’s greatest markets. The brick structure, topped with Zsolnay roof tiles, is full of iron, glass, and open space. The basement holds butchers, fishmongers, and colorful pickle stalls with barrels of sauerkraut and more pickles than you may have ever seen in one place. The main level is where most of the action is, with three aisles of fruit, vegetables, and butchers. When it comes to meat, every part is put to good use (as you’ll discover on restaurant menus), bacon is considered vital, and cracklings are sold by the kilogram. Grab alángos (fry bread with sour cream and cheese) upstairs (and perhaps a shot of Unicum to wash it down). Another really special thing about Budapest is that most districts have their own smaller-scale markets, so good ingredients are abundant.
Eat Like a Local
You can start at breakfast by swapping out your bowl of cereal for a hard-core traditional Hungarian village-style breakfast of cheese, charcuterie, fresh vegetables, and thick slices of bread. As you’ll see at the market, the assortment of salami, sausage, bacon, and cured hams is impressive, so breakfast is another chance to taste it! A Hungarian lunch is not really complete without starting with soup. This is your chance to taste an iconic goulash (gulyás), a paprika-rich soup made with beef and potatoes. Like so many Hungarian dishes, it is simple and complex at the same time—elegant enough to be served at Michelin-starred restaurants, yet humble enough to be served at every red-checkered tablecloth eatery. Or go for a lighter vegetable soup or húsleves (consommé). For a main, try a classic chicken paprikás, foiegras, or one of the many stews (pörkölt) that are likely to be on the menu.
Make Time For Coffee and Cake
If you have nowhere pressing to be, find a seat at a great kávéház (such as Centrál) order a strong eszpresszó, and settle in. Try to picture what Budapest’s grand coffeehouses were like in their golden age back around the turn of the 19thcentury when there were nearly 600 of them in Budapest and they were centers of intellectual and social life, with writers and artists treating them as second-homes. Be sure to order cake. Hungary has one of Europe’s great baking traditions, and coffeehouses serve fancy layered cakes like Dobostorta (multiple thin cake layers with chocolate buttercream topped by a shiny solid caramel top) and Esterházytorta (layers of walnut cake and walnut cream). A RigóJancsi (a rich square of chocolate mousse sandwiched between two layers of chocolate cake and topped with a chocolate glaze) or Rákóczi-túrós (short crust and baked curd cheese topped with a lattice of meringue and apricot jam) are also fine choices.
And Drink Local, Too
Hungary is truly a country of wine-lovers where wine is part of the lifestyle. No meal is complete without it!Wine is produced in nearly all parts of the country, and the range (from sparkling, white and rosé, through orange, red, and amber-colored sweet wine) perfectly complements Hungarian cuisine. In the past few decades most of the country’s 22 wine regions have been getting back to focusing on growing indigenous regional grapes, and these often unpronounceable varieties are especially worth seeking out while you are here. Furmint, Juhfark, Hárslevelű, Kadarka, and Kékfrankosare some of the best known and successfultypes, which you’ll find all over. And there are so many other unique wines that can be experienced only here, such as Ezerjó, Kéknyelű, Zéta, IrsaiOlivér, cserszegifűszeres, and cirfandli. Be sure to devote some time to exploring Hungary’s sweet wines—after all, Tokajiaszú is a national treasure, hand-harvested (grape by grape), and only made in years when botrytis invades the vineyards, turning the healthy grapes into shriveled raisin-like berries.
Carolyn Bánfalvi is co-founder Taste Hungary (an award-winning food and wine tour company) and The Tasting Table Budapest (a wine tasting room and independent wine shop in central Budapest). She is also a food and travel writer who has written the culinary guidebooks Food Wine Budapest (Little Bookroom) and The Food and Wine Lover’s Guide to Hungary (Park Kiadó). Carolyn has written about Hungarian food, wine, and travel for publications including Saveur, Explore Parts Unknown, Afar, Gastronomica, Olive, Gourmet, CNN.com, and Frommer’s. She holds an advanced WSET certificate (and is just one exam away from her diploma). Visit The Tasting Table Budapest (BródySándorutca 9, Budapest 1088) to taste from its selection of unique Hungarian wines.