Her mum, Herminia, was Hungarian and despite having six children she always found the time to make these marvellous Hungarian cakes to our utter delight.
Indeed, my first incursions in the kitchen were to make these delicacies handed down to me by her generous hand from authentic sources (she had these wonderful old recipe notebooks in Hungarian).
Even my mum sought her advice when preparing gulyás, which, by the way, is a generic term for a stew and not only refers to the Hungarian national dish.
I had even had her down to teach me Hungarian which, due to her having six kids proved to be quite impossible so I have yet to decipher the mysteries of the Hungarian language.
So, even though Budapest is as far from from Buenos Aires as you can possibly get, I always felt strangely familiar with it and when the opportunity came to visit, I jumped at the chance.
Armed with with my wallet-sized phrase booklet I arrived at Budapest’s Ferihegy International Airport which is the cosiest airport I’ve seen so far and not far at all from the city centre. We arrived in Terminal 1 and from there we caught bus 200 toward metro line 3 to catch the tube from the very last station, Köbánya Kispest.
A word of caution: the station is just opposite a dilapidated block of “council” flats remnants of the Communist era which are now house to a community of gypsies. I know this courtesy of Michael Palin’s most recent TV series: “Michael Palin’s New Europe”. Suffice to say it is definitely not a very nice area to wander around, alone or otherwise so if you must go there en-route from the airport, try to negotiate it asap.
I stayed at Bara Junior Hotel on Buda, the hilly side of the city, and I must say, I’ve never had better value for money for anything in my entire life!
The staff were really friendly and they went out of their way to appease my inquisitive culinary whims all in the name of blogging. I was introduced to the delicacies of Hungarian patisserie by a very friendly waitress called Vicky. Thus I discovered those delicious-looking pastries called csiga which, in my more than rudimentary Hungarian I think must mean “spiral”. These sweet little things come in a variety of fillings, including walnut and chocolate.
To my surprise they served a very nice Russian meat salad for breakfast (had to try it really), which wouldn’t have been out of place in a light lunch or picnic menu. The Russian salad, by the way, has nothing to do with the version I’ve known all my life which is surely derived from the Italian insalata russa: peas, cubed carrots and potato all mixed with mayonnaise, you know. This one had boiled beef and boiled eggs and it was very good indeed.
I also was gob smacked to find out how many Hungarians spoke flawless Spanish. Maybe it was because they overheard us speaking Spanish but they were always helpful and overtly understanding of the fact that we didn’t speak their beautiful but complicated language.
If you like folk art, you won’t need much encouragement here. What you do need though is a robust wallet for you will be tempted by absolute everything! I was delighted with the Christmas tree ornaments made out of bread dough, walnut shells or even twigs. It all had such a rustic feeling to it I felt as if I was going to decorate the Ingalls’ Christmas tree.
Along the pedestrian streets, the different restaurants offer mulled wine, although they call it plainly “hot wine” as it might be, I suspect, a direct translation from Hungarian. Needless to say that at this time of the year, with night falling at just fourish in the afternoon and the temperatures subsequently dropping, nothing could be more welcome than a hot cup of this delicious concoction.
Budapest also has the fastest escalators I’ve ever rode in my life. So brace yourself and be prepare to zoom your way out!
If I have to recommend places not to be missed one would be a little gem of a place not far from the Central Market called Café Europa.
This is a very atmospheric little café which sells delicious cakes and an even more delicious (if dangerous for your liver) hot chocolate. They had many cakes to choose from but I settled for a lovely little sajtós roló (cheese roll with a cream cheese filling in a sort of puff pastry). Other tempting cakes for your sweet tooth to look out for are: Barochos Linzer (a sort of peach pastafrola), Meggyes Torta (cherry cake) and, on the savoury side, the szendyich (yes, you guessed right!).
The owner is a very accomplished and talented photographer who has some of her black and white photos of her wanderings round the world on display in the café and she was a real inspiration to me. Somehow, you just don’t see photos like those anymore…
The other highlight of my brief visit was the Central Market Hall which I sadly visited on my last day in Budapest.
The market is simply amazing and I would have loved to live in Budapest if only to be able to shop there regularly. The market is huge (it is the largest of five market halls opened towards the end of the 19th-century) and you’ll be spoilt for choice when shopping there.
Things that are definitely a must are paprika (it comes in all shapes, varieties and colours) and saffron which I found extremely cheap.
On the ground floor there are the food stalls while on the first floor you’ll find the restaurants, various food, folk handicraft and souvenir stalls.
If you want to try authentic Hungarian food, snub the expensive tourist trap restaurants and head instead for the restaurant inside the market which serves traditional Hungarian cuisine at a very reasonable price and it even has a violinist playing traditional Hungarian melodies for the customers. It is frequented by tourists and locals alike.
Meat came in all cuts, shapes and sizes. We found many that are not available in the UK anymore such as tripe. They also sold pigs’ trotters and cheek. Also on the ground floor, there is a whole section of Hungarian pastries which I found amazing and there they were, my beloved csiga (this time almost the size of a football).
Incidentally, just opposite the market there is an Argentinian restaurant called Pampas and I simply couldn’t resist taking a picture of it.
It made me think really, if I had a restaurant in Budapest, I’d be pressed to find a better location for it. Just think of how fresh the dishes must be!
Budapest‘s size is good enough to walk around if you go for a short city-break but I’d definitely stay for at least four or five days next time.
www.single-serving.com (free online phrase-books)
Bara Junior Hotel Heygyalja 34-36, 1118 Budapest
Europa Café V. Szent István krt. 7-9.
Central Market Hall or Nagy Vásárcsarnok