When does food always taste best? When you taste… hungry! During out week in Budapest (pronounced with an -esht) Taste Hungary offered us a discounted (19,000 FT → 5,000 FT/ person) food tour of the city. And if they like truly not very good jokes, they can totally use that one I started with. Seeing as a food tour is just about the number one thing I could possibly want to do at any given moment, we accepted.
We arrive at the Central Market Hall just a few minutes before 10:00 AM. It looks like it could have once been a train station and sure enough, that’s entirely wrong. Instead it has retained its original commercial purpose since it was designed by Samu Pecz in the early 1890′s and it is clearly still a popular spot for locals and tourists alike. Our guide Judit appears flashing a copy of The Food and Wine Lover’s Guide to Hungary as identification. There is a maximum of six people per tour and today is a full one. The other four tourists give us something of a demographic shock. We’re expecting older, richer couples from somewhere close like the UK .What we get are Americans who are about our age. Two of them are even from Northern Virginia like me!
We start the tour on the second floor and Rachel breaks her fast on some Unicum. The other three women in the group partake as well while the other guy and I teetotal totally. This liqueur is often considered a national drink of Hungary and has a strong herb and cinnamon aroma. It is made from a secret recipe of 40 herbs which the Zwack family kept out of Soviet hands when they fled the country. During the socialist regime, a fake, communist Unicum was created. In the 1990′s, the Zwack family was able to return to Hungary and once again begin producing their original formula. This formula, in Rachel’s opinion, tastes kinda gross.
Luckily for Rachel’s alcohol tolerance, we soon move on the a lángos stall. Lángos is the ultimate food for someone who needs some alcohol soaked up. It’s a big piece of fried dough covered in toppings, most often sour cream and cheese. Judit bought two for the group. Unlike the lángos that immigrant Hungarians consume in Transylvania which has a sweet filling, in Hungary the snack is almost always savory.
Moving away from prepared foods and souvenir kitsch, we descend the escalator to the ground floor for an enlightening experience at one of the many overflowing cured meat counters.
We try the mystery sausages one by one. First is a a common Pick brand pork sausage. It’s a pretty good, though not very especially remarkable.
Next we have pork tongue. And seriously, if you like meat and have never had tongue, you’re really missing out. This one tastes much like pot roast.
Thirdly we have a pork liver pate, it reminds me of one of my favorite sandwich ingredients from when I was a kid. I’ve recently come to realize that when I ate braunschweiger in my formative years, I was eating liver (surprise! :O) .
Next comes a pork kolbas. It is intended to be like a sausage you might cure at home so the composite chunks are larger.
Then we try another kolbas. I take a bite and it is vastly superior to the previous one. It’s chewier, aged longer, and more heavily seasoned. “This one’s horse,” says Judit.
Finally, we finish our whirlwind tour of cured pig with a pork salami. Pork became a dominant meat in Hungary during the Turkish occupation. The locals realized that if they farmed a meat that the invaders (as Muslims) wouldn’t eat, it wouldn’t be in danger of being taken.
We are slowly wending our way towards the cheese counter when we come across one of the most unexpected parts of the market. Take a look, before you scroll past the picture, see if you can guess what it is.
If you guessed wild mushroom shop, you’re totally wrong! This little number is a free service provided by the government. People bring in whatever mushrooms they find in the wilderness, and a mycologist tells them whether they’re edible. Apparently these exist in food markets all over Hungary.
Our cheese tasting arrives. First is a fresh springy goat cheese. Next, a smoked, dry, moderately sour cow cheese. And third, a salty, grainy sheep túró. Túró, called quark in English, is ubiquitous in Hungarian cooking. To finish everything off is a much beloved Hungarian sweet, túró rudi which consists of the aforementioned cheese covered in chocolate.
For our last stop in the market, Judit takes us to the basement to view fish, wild game (!), and an admirable array of pickles. Most notable among these is the pickled whole baby watermelon.
And off we go to explore Budapest’s delicious underbelly. First off is a peek at the city’s growing artisan chocolate scene. We have one flavored with tarragon and one with sour cherry pálinka (a fruit brandy).
And so, after hours of eating, it’s time for lunch. This means Belvárosi Disznótoros, a butcher’s shop whose meat counter has been eclipsed by its meal offerings. Our meal consists of a veritable (brown) rainbow of meat. There is (uncured) sausage in paprika, liver, and blood varieties with mustard and horse radish. We have (succulent) duck leg with a sweet red cabbage. Also present are noodles with sour cream, (ever-present) túró, and, of course, bacon. And to round things out there’s a turkey ragu and a variety of pickles. There’s even a free sample of (American style) biscuits made with pork cracklings.
Since we’re all still starving (not true), we head to the venerable Auguszt for a plate full of cakes. As you might expect, we start with a túró cake. We soon move to a very Hungarian apricot poppy cake. The walnut cake is Rachel’s favorite while I prefer the custardy krémes cake. Not to be forgotten are the nutty Esterházy cake with it’s signature design and the Dobos cake which despite it looking like a drum and the name translating to drum, was named after its inventor, József C. Dobos.
Finally, to digest, we head over to what is by all appearances, a mad scientist’s candy store.
And it is soon time for the wine tasting, or for me, the fanciest-lemonade-of-my-life tasting.
Hey! Rachel here. Bear with me, as I am no wine expert but I am learning. Our wine tasting consisted of three different wines. The first was a Tokaji Furmint, a white wine from the Tokaj wine-producing region in northeastern Hungary.
Our final wine, shown above, was a Tokaji Cuvee, a dessert wine made from a blend of Furmint, muscat, and one other varietal that I didn’t quite catch properly. It had a strong sweet scent which reminded me of pear. The flavor, too, was very sweet, and the alcohol content was just 10.5%. I enjoyed it a lot and counted it as my favorite.
The wine tasting reminded me that I should really take a class or read a book about the art of wine appreciation because I don’t know what I’m doing. They did give us a sheet for tasting notes that asked very specific questions which I found very helpful. Now back to Jeff.
So, is it worth the money? If you like food and it can in any way be reasonably fit into your budget, do it! It was one of the Top Highlights of my Trip ®. If you are interesting in eating with Taste Hungary yourself, check out their website.
Disclaimer: As mentioned, we were offered a discount for this tour in exchange for a review. However, we really did enjoy it a whole lot and we are sure you will too! All opinions are our own.