Beyond paprika

What flavours Hungary’s core city

We urban creatures tend to be hasty with our food. But every once in a while, a trip to another city will stretch our senses; a journey has the capacity to mirror, be it in a plate, in a clear-plastic wrapping or in an unpretentious bite, the dreams, culture and history of a place.  I’ve started on such a journey in Budapest, a city that knows how to give itself, how to arouse, how to trigger your dopamine. And how to leave you with no regrets.

A taste of diversity

The street shines unevenly under the afternoon sun, and at times, honks echo impatiently from the boulevard by the Great Synagogue. I’m walking through Budapest’s seventh sector, the Jewish neighborhood, where almost every building and wall talk about the troubled past of a community now counting more than 100,000 Jews – one of the biggest in Europe. What’s missing today is the wall built in 1944 around the Jewish ghetto, from which people were taken to Nazi camps or were left to face a life of deprivation.

But the borough didn’t linger in pain or commemoration – the locals know how to enjoy life, day or night. I’m given half of what’s usually a 4 hour tour and Andreea, my guide for the day, takes me to Gozsdu – a hub that blends history with the present, a row of buildings and courtyards from the early 20th century; the space that once hosted homes on the upper floors and workshops and boutiques at street level was abandoned, but restored later. Plates clamor signaling the approaching mealtime, but Andreea says lunchtime crowds are nothing impressive compared to Gozsdu’s midnight human boom.  US psychologist Barry Schwartz studies the paradox of choice and thinks that, the more options we have, the unhappier we tend to be – as once we choose something, we keep thinking of the things we refused. And Goszdu can make you really unhappy if you don’t have the time to go through all its 250 restaurants and coffee houses, parading in front of you on less than half a square kilometre.

“Alcohol won’t solve your problems, but neither water nor milk will”, writes in creamy white on a blackboard in Spiler Bar, one of freshest bistro pubs in Gozsdu, where one wall bleeds with red liquor bottles neatly lined in shelves and beer crates climbed on top of the other to improvise a colorful bar. Wooden floors support a venue with industrial vibes, but with enough rustic elements for you to feel homey. All was thought by Roy Zsidai. A relentless entrepreneur has smart clothes, a wavy hair he’s tamed with an appropriate amount of mousse, speaks perfect English and though very young, oozes a wise enthusiasm.

Gastronomy was already family heritage, as his family had opened their first restaurant, Pierrot, in 1982. And his summers spent in the US with his godfather taught him how hotel management works and opened his appetite to take Hungarian cuisine to the next level. Today he owns seven eateries in Budapest, some completely faithful to traditional dishes, others rebel and experimental. “It didn’t happen overnight”, says Roy, “yes, everything seems easy, funky, but it’s all hard work”, referring to Spiler and his most recent offspring, Spiler Shanghai, opened last June. While Roy also designed the venues, food is handled by a creative chef, who doesn’t just cook trendy for the sake of fame. “We use molecular cuisine techniques only if they make sense in a dish, but many times, you can’t read what we’ve done in a plate. It’s like Hollywood, you use all these special effects, but only if they fit the script”, says Roy.

Not far from Gozsdu, Jacobo, all floury from the pasta he kneads, speaks crisp, fast Italian, behind the counter at 2 Spaghi. “Mercoledi, gnocchi, venerdi, lasagna”, he lists daily specials offered in the tiny restaurant/deli store he opened with two friends a couple years ago. The three switched Milan with Budapest, liked the city and built up their tiny Italy; it has just a bit of the good stuff, the stuff that brings in fellow Italians, looking to lunch on ingredients sourced from their native land. And there’s not just the goldilocks pasta in the window, there’s also a wicked tiramisu, naked in clear plastic casseroles, flaunting its drunken ladyfingers straight at me. Its only competition might be the gelato-laden cart outside.

Photo: Adrian Catu

In a dress closely following her curves, Rachel Raj welcomes us to her bakery/lab/workshop. Daughter of a rabbi persecuted by communists, the young girl with a wide Anne Hathaway smile has carried on, for over a decade, her family’s Jewish recipes, helped by husband Miklos. Today, in the small pastry shop on Veres Palne street, Rachel combines her design skills with cake decoration, turning marzipan, not the sugar loaded fondant, she stresses, into Art Deco illustrations. But everything here revolves around cake. And after orbiting around the layers of cream displayed, I took a seat in a corner with my flodni, the centerpiece of Jewish baking. It’s like worrying about the best angle to tea-dunk your biscuit without breaking it – what’s the force one has to apply to the fork to let it sink all the way to the bottom, through all the layers of filling and matza, the traditional unleavened dough, so that it grabs a balanced bite of apple, ground walnuts, poppy cream and plum jam? I can’t figure it out, so I take a divide-and-conquest approach to the ingredients; the mosaic of tastes is surprising, my blood sugar doesn’t explode and crave the next mouthful, the cake paces me to observe its meeting of familiar flavors, with the plums having the last say.

Late nights out can leave you with a short memory, in a peaceful, resigned helplessness when morning come, even the space between finger and snooze button feels like light years. Last night I was on Dob. Dob Street is a diorama of Budapest’s sleepless nights – with shot bars where everything flows in frequent shots, where your pedaling limbs can pump your beer up the tap in a customized cart and the beer will lead the way (though the driver has to stay sober). I was on Kazinczy, on Sip, on Dohany, on all sorts of utcas that open up into romkocsmas, or better said, into ruin pubs that put Budapest on the fun map. I still have a mental glimpse of Szimpla’s dark passageway, an Ali Baba cave-style entrance, shadowy and rather boring at first, but leading towards a courtyard alight with spotlights and LCDs in what is the capital’s first ruin pub, initially a café opened in 2001.  It’s a club, a bar, a bistro, a coffeehouse, an event venue, indecently ill-matched, with re-purposed old furniture and dodgy sanitary conditions; it’s whatever you wish it to be, if you happen to remember last night. Ruin pubs were created to celebrate the area’s decaying buildings and occupied abandoned blocks; it revived the Jewish quarter, formerly dismissed as the city’s Cinderella. And they made recycling cool.

But things aren’t so cool the next morning. I can’t work without breakfast. And breakfast is scheduled at 9 am, when Edit, my Transylvanian-born guide, wants to introduce me to some Budapest nostalgia. It’s 7 30. I zap through TV channels. 8 05 am. Looking through the window I see a Chinese family tearing into puffy croissant pastry and sipping cappucino on the hotel’s terrace café. Outrageous. 8 15. My stomach feels like eating itself. 8 30 am. Open minibar. Damn it, too many drinks and some chocolate. Nem.

8 45 am. Edit buzzes me. We quickly get to Cserpes Tejivo, now maybe the most famous lactobar in town, opened by Istvan Cserpes a couple of years ago, defying the heavy McDonalds’ odour next door. The Cserpes family, making dairy products for the last 20 years and selling them in closed circles, refusing to enter supermarkets, decided to offer locals a modern replica of old lactobars, an alternative for cafes and bars during communism. Through the window shop I see a couple sharing the whipped cream topping a cup of chocolate milk. The espresso machine grinder growls, scores of chocolate pastry swirls go over the counter. It’s rare not to queue in the shop opened till 10 pm every day. Csaba designed the place and the other three locations in Budapest and tells me about Istvan’s passion for healthy food; yoghurts, fresh sandwiches, rice pudding, they all testify to it. He also says that, before they opened here, every eatery before them was put out of business by the neighbouring fast food. I ask him what’s his favorite snack in Tejivo; he leaves mysteriously and turns back with bars wrapped in chocolate-colored foil, cold under drops of condensation – Trudi is Cserpes’ interpretation of the Hungarian Turo Rudi dessert; teeth crack the dark chocolate crust into acid, lemony cream cheese. And I reboot.

Photo: Adrian Catu

Roots of Budapest

At no other time has the basil erupted like this, from its meaty, dark green strings, overpowering the warmth of the tomatoes and allowing their sweetness to linger in my mouth; this is probably the most unpretentious entrée I’ve had since I came here, and it happened thanks to Mattias Nemes. The farmer’s blue eyes lighten his sun-burnt complexion; he talks in a soft, but steady tone standing beside his veggie stall, where early-risers fill their baskets with wrinkled lettuce, aubergines and greens. Mattias comes here with his wife and their stall is one of main attraction points of the organic MOM Park market, set up on Csorsz street every Saturday, probably the biggest of its kind in Central Europe. After a long affair with mushroom growing, since the late 1990s, after attending a course in ecological agriculture, Mattias started growing vegetables, alongside his family, who owns over 50 ha of land. “The Sun’s energy that gets to us shouldn’t get tarnished on the way, so that inside us, it can also turn into light”, Mattias sums up his credo on biological farming and what makes him teach others as well. “We sell seasonal produce, not delicacies, about 50-60 different plants.” And more than 300 customers leave his stand with “lively” veggies. For the modern soul, the market is a breath of fresh air and offers something beyond the wealth of fruit, paprika-scented cured meats and hip raw-vegan foods – it gives you time, time for wandering around, for getting in touch with food beyond plastic covers, for tasting samples and throwing your taste buds in a tornado of flavours, salty after sweet, sausages and jams, cherry plums and almond cream.

Budapest regained its appetite for honest, traditional dishes, beyond commercial brands, even on the other side of the Danube. Every Sunday, on a tiny street behind the Opera house, a dozen or so of traders gather in the courtyard at Farm, a bar and restaurant, where they sell their products, not necessarily organic, but having the aroma and less-than-standard shape of homemade stuff. Vanessa and her boyfriend manage the venue and the market, the latter opened just two months ago, and use the courtyard with bluish shutters for movie and sports screenings. While Vanessa is putting together a plate with produce straight off the stalls, I’m introduced to the traders. The Szegedi family has been doing animal husbandry for almost 40 years now, in Danszentmiklos, a village south of Budapest, and their shop at Farm is not for the weak. To call them simply cured meats would be offensive. The young boy sharpening knives the size of samurai swords, with vivid tattoos peeking from under his sleeveless shirt, says that the products are not from mangalitsa, a pig bred for its fat; for the Szegedi ham has to be seriously meaty.

Next to them, Kiss Szabolcs carries his tanned Russell Crowe physique in silence, leaving me to point my finger at his products, constantly turning to Edit to help with translation. In a surreal scenario, he says that until a year ago he was importing coffee; now he has about 150 goats and 40 cows and makes organic milk and cheese. A self-taught farmer, he found recipes online and combined them. So far, he’s keeping a low profile, as he’s still testing the market. He dunked cheddar in red wine, letting it soak for months, he fermented cheeses to tame them for the grill, while sprinkling others with rose pepper or dill. And made a yoghurt out of this world, light, but filling, sharp but soothing.

Photo: Adrian Catu

Hungarian addictions

First I said this was an overpriced stinginess, as the pallet delved without any passion into the dark chocolate sorbetto, then into the coconut cream. The girl is bored, clearly. And in the most central of the center’s gelaterias, right across from Saint Stephen’s church. Maybe that was because I asked her for a cup and didn’t give her the chance to top a wafer with an ice-cream rose, the signature dessert of Gelarto Rosa. Because, when I come back to ask for a cone with vanilla, pierced with some salty caramel ice-cream, the young lady picks up the same pallet and embarks on a subtle dance of the hands which shapes a frozen rose that compensates all her ill-manners with this customer. I’m usually not fond of the psychological pressure of a wafer on the brink of collapsing under melted cream, but this sea salt punches the milk too well for me to be picky. After all, this is my second ice-cream in the last 10 minutes. Which should say something about its taste. Or maybe just about me.

Roses were also the staple for Matyas Szamos, more than 8 decades ago, when he started a factory with his name, shaping flowers out of almond paste and sugar. Things escalated, so Szamos became the name of Hungary’s biggest marzipan producer; but it’s not only the almond, a slender Venus among nuts, more related to peaches than to walnuts, that is worshipped from hometown Szentendre to Vorosmarty plaza. I pace from one window to another in Budapest’s biggest Szamos pastry shop, opened on the first level of a former bank; I count more than 30 different types of truffles and dozens of cakes that would break the heart of any sugar addict. What could be bad in a lemon ganache praline or in the crunchiness of a buttered macaroon in an Esterhazy spongecake?

Gabriella, Matyas’ daughter, switched from maths to managing the pastry shop chain, together with her husband and two sons. She takes me to the workshop that hosts cake decoration tutorials and chocolate and praline making classes. Haraszti Andor, the chocolate maitre, takes his cocoa seriously – you can see it in the rigorous display of bowls with cocoa beans and hanging wooden spoons in a washed-out chocolaty hue – and says “one has to taste everything”. Witty, a Hercules with not such a tight belly, he puts me to work. Out of the chocolate making machine that keeps it warm and poured on the cold marble, the creamy bliss needs a tender hand to mix it in circular motion, so that it will lower its temperature without losing shine. Layer after layer, the praline mould swallows first the chocolate that will wrap the candy, then the raisins soaked days at a time in Tokai wine, followed by marzipan, all sealed with a final touch of cocoa cream. Harasz says that nausea goes away quickly; but you can’t forsake chocolate, no matter how sick you might get from all the tasting. And this class, which usually lasts for about three hours, will make you appreciate each crust of cocoa, each internal fiber in a dessert.

Photo: Adrian Catu

The ultimate feast

How would it feel to work here?, I wonder as I follow Kateryna, the Ukrainian girl with deer-like moves, but with the assurance of a manager, who guides me through the Four Seasons hotel, opened ten years ago in Gresham Palace, facing Budapest’s Chain Bridge. The floor at the entrance is a mosaic of more than two million pieces, stained glass filters the afternoon light, the staircases are majestic, the building breathes out Art Nouveau, and a night here, is literally, priceless. But even mortals can spend some time here – in the lobby where plates and cups are just being set up, you can have high tea for about 20 euros, between 3 and 6 pm every day. There’s a catch though: careful with trembling hands around the Herend china – created by a famous Hungarian factory and collected by Princess Diana and Arnold Schwarzenegger. So lift that little finger, sip your tea silently and bite in style from English scones, vanilla choux-a-la-crème, miniature flodnis and plum strudels. For Hungarian flavours, try a pesto or olive paste-filled pogacs.

How does a Michelin star taste like? I think as I fidget on my chair at Borkonyha, an internationally-renown venue combining Hungarian liquor and food. It may be that the duck pate has cinnamon or the gizzards wear apples on top, but I want the outsider in the menu – polenta with cheese and spinach. Maybe to comfort myself, maybe to escape all that gourmet. My retina is already picturing the hearty dish with a nice plating; I open my eyes and get a reality check. Nested in a soup plate, the polenta balls have are rough and tanned on the outside and give themselves in as easily as a mousse, they become one with the cornmeal, pureed in a lighter color than its Romanian version; everything happens in creamy spinach that fills the plate half way up. I keep my eyes wide open, I eat, I stall, I munch; somehow, that marginal utility economists keep talking about – that one that decreases as you consume more of something – no longer holds water.

Hosted by a former bakery, Pierrot, the first private restaurant opened in communist Budapest and the one to kickstart the Szidai food business, elegantly floods a lush walled garden on a quiet street on the Danube’s higher bank. “Compliments from the chef”, whispers Tibor, the waiter, placing just a spoon in the center of a plate. I look at the curve of the handle and down the bowl, to the duck breast carrot mousse and search for both bird and root in an entrée that says one thing and does another. But it surely knows what to do: first comes the gentle carrot, only to soon unleash a smoky duck – a magic heritage from hedonistic Austro-Hungarians, and one of Budapest’s many wonders.

Article featured in National Geographic Traveler Romania, in the 2014 Fall issue.

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