On a visit to Hungary two years ago, I struggled to find vegetarian food of any quality, much less good quality, but on my most recent visit I discovered that the country once known for uninteresting meat and potatoes dishes is fast becoming a food mecca.
I began my review of the top new Hungarian restaurants at the Michelin star Borkonyha Restaurant, which the owners describe as “a blend between a French-style bistro and a contemporary family restaurant offering the best of Hungarian cuisine.” Tucked into a small storefront near Deak Ferenc Square in central Budapest, this restaurant does big things, as I discovered during a three-hour culinary romp that included an appetizer, soup, main course, and a dessert.
My meal began with a braised scallop on a bed of mango, over which cold Vichyssoise was poured. This was followed by an inspired appetizer of Sea Bream on a bed of risotto and beet root; topped with mussels, shaved truffle slices, pearl onion segments, and edible flowers; finished with a rich butter sauce. To my surprise, a second starter appeared: medallions of tuna resting on a bed of soured strawberries. Read More
Honey cakes. Even the name sounded delicious! I first encountered these traditional Hungarian treats during a visit to Hortobagy National Park in far Eastern Hungary. They lined a table in the tiny museum displaying local arts and crafts, enticing me with their adorable shapes: hearts, maidens in traditional dresses, chickens, pigs, horses, curved knives with intricately carved handles, and giant spheres trimmed in satin ribbon. They looked so delicious I couldn’t resist.
I peeled away the clear cellophane of the heart I’d purchased and bit down. The dough had been baked to a rock. I tried again and managed to break off a corner, then chewed, and chewed, and chewed some more. It wasn’t the delicacy I had imagined. After a couple of bites, I gave up.
Fast forward a couple of years and I was again visiting Debrecen, one of my favorite Hungarian towns. My friend, Nora Erdei, who works at the Debrecen Tourist Bureau, asked if I would be interested in visiting the workshop of the family who makes all the honey cakes for Hungary. I jumped at the chance; I HAD to know why these tooth-breakers were so popular.
I am on a rickety train, inching my way to Debrecen from the tiny village of Panyola in eastern Hungary. We are picking up speed now – making headway at perhaps 20 miles per hour. The 60 mile journey will take nearly three hours, with stops at every small town along the way. But I don’t mind; I have all the time in the world. Slow travel allows me to soak in the landscape.
I spy on backyards with enormous vegetable gardens and farm fields planted with chest-high corn and golden wheat, rippling in the breeze like a giant inland sea. The train spooks a pheasant, elegant in his turquoise cravat, who flees into a field of golden sunflowers. Hungary is the world’s leading producer of sunflower seeds and oil, and Szatmar county, where I have been been lounging for the past ten days, is its epicenter. In this achingly flat landscape, where rivers undulate toward the Ukrainian border, I have recovered my sanity and some of my physical strength. Read More
Most visitors to Hungary focus on the popular tourist destinations like Budapest and Lake Balaton, but with the help of my Hungarian friend, Zsuzsa Mehesz, I’ve had the great good fortune to see untouched parts of the country. On my most recent visit, she packed me into the car and headed for the Zemplen Protected Landscape in the northeast corner of Hungary. We began with lunch in the Tokaj Wine Region, a small plateau of volcanic soils near the Carpathian Mountains, so famous for its sweet wines that it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even under dingy skies, the view of vineyard-covered rolling hills from the Yellow Wine House Restaurant was stunning.
Before getting back on the road we strolled through the vineyards, our shoes sinking deep into the loamy brown soil as we parted the leaves on the undersides of the vines, searching for clusters of fruit. We didn’t have to look hard; bunches of chartreuse grapes hung heavy on the undersides, promising an abundant harvest. Read More
My friend, Ambrus, pointed out the black flag hanging just outside the church door. Someone has died in Panyola. Later, I mentioned this to his wife, Zsuzsa. “Yes, I know, they rang the bells,” she said. Curious, I asked if the bells had been rung once for each year of age of the deceased, as they used to do in some smaller parishes in England. “No, here the bells tell us if it was a man, woman, or child.”
This tiny village in Hungary’s far eastern Szatmar County has changed little since I last visited, nearly two years ago. It’s half-dozen streets are home to about 500 people, and aside from a small grocery store the only other commercial enterprise is the Panyolai Palinka Distillery, which produces some of the country’s finest fruit brandies from the Nemtudom (“I don’t know”) plums that grow only in this part of Hungary. The trees are heavy laden this year. “Even trees that have never produced are full,” Ambrus says. No one knows why. It is not related to rainfall or cold or heat; it’s just the natural cycle of things.
This is good news for the new owners of the distillery, who recently purchased it from the three local men who brought it back to life after it was abandoned following the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to Zsuzsa, the three men had a vision but lacked the necessary management skills. Sadly, the plant is not a source of employment for the town, as the new owner has brought in outside workers, with the exception of the brewmaster. Read More
Perhaps it was the fairytale I’d heard earlier in the day that put me in mind of ogres. Approaching Holloko Castle I felt like Jack, the steep path to the top of the hill serving as my beanstalk. The crenelated walls seemed more prison than castle and inside, as I descended into the bowels of the castle, I conjured a giant lying in wait around every turn, sharp teeth poised to make a meal of me.
My vivid imagination aside, it is said that while the castle was still being constructed a member of the Kacsics noble family kidnapped a beautiful maiden from a neighboring village and imprisoned her within one of its cold stone cells. Unfortunately for the nobleman, the girl’s nanny was a witch, and she made a pact with the devil to free her mistress. The devil commanded his sons to assume the form of ravens each night and steal stones from the castle until the girl was set free. Today the town of Holloko echoes this fairy tale; its Hungarian name translates to “raven stone” and the road leading to the village is marked with a bronze statue of a raven perched on a rock outcropping. Read More