There are defining moments in life that can completely change the way you interpret the world. They come when you least expect them, open you up to new possibilities and pave the way for a new, enlightened version of your former self to emerge.
It might be a welcoming smile in a foreign land, a random act of kindness from a stranger, or it could be something as simple as a pancake. For me it was the latter, and my moment of clarity came right after the main course at Gundel, Budapest’s (some say central Europe’s) premier restaurant.
Our hostess, Eniko, had mentioned the 110-year-old eatery was famous for its pancakes, but nothing could have prepared us for the exquisite, eyeball-rolling ecstacy that was our dessert. If I close my eyes I can almost still taste them today: the melt-in-your-mouth cake, the decadent almond innards and, the crowning glory, a healthy drizzle of chocolate rum sauce you would happily drown in. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the waiters presented each diner with a cigarette afterwards, such was the pleasure of these pancakes.
“Good, yes,” Enika said with a smug grin as she delicately dabbed a napkin to her lips. I suspect it was not the first time she had seen such speechless, satiated faces. She knew as well as we did that the benchmark for pancakes had irrevocably risen.
Pancakes aside (or as a side), the Hungarians whip up plenty more to tempt the tastebuds – tortes, chocolates, cakes and biscuits of every shape, size and flavour for example. Away from the dessert trolley, however, traditional Hungarian cuisine is a treat for those with hearty appetites. Shaped largely by the early agrarian and shepherd lifestyle, meats and vegetables, particularly game meats and potatoes, feature heavily in daily cooking as does paprika, sour cream and eggs. Then there’s the fact that Hungary is the third most senior wine producing country in Europe. As national menus go, it’s got plenty to offer, but try those pancakes and see if you don’t find the starters, mains and drinks just getting in the way of you and dessert.
The Central Market Hall
Opened in 1896, the city’s grand market hall, affectionately known as Budapest’s pantry, is one of the city’s top tourist attractions. A hive of activity, it buzzes with Hungarian housewives gathering the ingredients that will grace the dinner table that evening. An intoxicating blend of smells, sights and sounds, it’s the best place to stock up on all that is quintessentially Hungarian in the grub department. From the staple fruit, vegetables and meats, to spices (particularly paprika), breads, pastries, wines and the popular goose liver pate, you’ll find it here at a good price. Chocaholics note: you can buy chocolates here by the kg. If you’d rather have someone else do the hard work, the Fakanal Restaurant above the market dishes up what it likes to call a ‘gastronomical event’ daily for breakfast, lunch, dinner – and snacks in between.
Desserts are always served with a strong espresso, so it goes without saying there’s a vibrant café scene in Budapest. The most famous café and confectionary is the centrally located Gerbeaud (7 Vorosmarty Square), which has been serving up sweets, liqueurs, cakes, tortes and biscuits since 1858. ‘If you haven’t been to Gerbeaud, you haven’t been to Budapest,’ the locals say. The polished counter is lined with display cabinets of mouth-watering wonders that look almost too good to devour and the elegant decor and atmosphere echoes with a magic and charm of yesteryear that few coffee houses can match.
Wine fit for a king
Wine connoisseurs may be familiar with Hungary’s internationally renowned wines: the sweet white Tokaji Aszú and strong red Bull’s Blood (Egri Bikavér). Louis XIV, the Sun King, was so partial to the former that he dubbed it the ‘Wine of kings, the King of Wines’. Hungary boasts 20 historical wine-producing districts and the country’s annual wine production totals 4.2 million hectolitres. Popular drops include cabernet sauvignon, pinot gris, merlot, riesling, chardonnay, sparkling, rosé and many unique Hungarian varieties. Vineyards and wineries in almost all regions of the country are open to visitors for sales, tours and tastings. In Budapest, check out the Budapest Wine Society (Budapesti Bortársaság), I. Batthyány utca 59; the House of Hungarian Wines (Magyar Borok Háza), and the Prés Ház Wine Shop and Museum (V. Váci utca 10).”