Passion Points: Food/Wine
When Carolyn Bánfalvi, the author of Food Wine Budapest (Little Bookroom, $24.95) first moved to the Hungarian capital in 1997, she had the best introduction to local cuisine: home-cooked meals at the home of her then-boyfriend (now husband), prepared by his mother. More than a decade later, Bánfalvi, who runs the boutique culinary tour company Taste Hungary (www.tastehungary.com), says that the city’s dining scene these days is unrecognizable from what it was then. She spoke to Indagare about Budapest, Eastern Europe, and Hungary’s cuisine, which she thinks is one of Europe’s most under- appreciated and unknown.
How has Budapest changed since you moved there in the mid ‘90s?
It has changed immensely. The constant construction means that big stretches of the city have been renovated, old buildings have been restored, and new buildings have appeared. The city has also become more consumer-oriented since I’ve been here. While now there are few products or ingredients that I can’t get here, the downside is that all of the shopping malls have eroded the role of the traditional downtown shopping streets. Now that I have two young children, I think it is an even better city to live in (despite the bad state of the economy). There are tons of things to do for children here.
What are some of your favorite restaurants for a big night out?
Csalogány 26 (www.csalogany26.hu), named for its address, is one of my favorites. While it does usually have a few Hungarian classics on offer, the menu is more international in scope. It uses top-notch ingredients and a television screen in the dining room shows what’s happening on the kitchen stove. Csalogány is also one of my favorite lunch spots for its three-course lunch special that comes to a little more than $13.
Where would you send visitors for an authentic local experience?
Do what the locals do and have lunch at an étkezde. This type of restaurant is only open for lunch and serves simple, inexpensive, home-style food. The idea is to eat quickly, so table-sharing is the norm and coffee and alcohol aren’t always served. The best-known étkezde is Kádár Étkezde (Klauzál tér 9), but there are many more.
Are there places that have a hip scene?
Yes, I would recommend having dinner and then heading to the old Jewish quarter to go kert-hopping. These open-air bars are a Budapest phenomenon, springing up in empty buildings and serving inexpensive beer and wine. Some current favorites are: Café Bobek (Kazinczy utca 51), named for a Communist-era cartoon character, has tables in a green yard. Kőleves Kert (Kazinczy utca 35), which serves food from its own restaurant and the outdoor bar has swings for barstools and other playground-like effects. Around the corner, Mumus (Dob utca 18) is two levels, with a piano bar and barstools made of stacked beer boxes.
What are your must-sees for a first-time visitor?
The first thing a new arrival to Budapest should do is go for a long walk along the Danube bank to get oriented and to take in the fantastic views. In fact, I’d recommend walking whenever possible in Budapest. During my first years here, one of my favorite things to do was just get lost exploring the back streets, discovering things that weren’t in the guidebooks. Other must-do things for me are visiting the thermal bath-houses, exploring Margaret Island, and checking out the folk dance houses.
And what are the top culinary experience?
In terms of food, the most obvious thing to do is to visit the markets. If you only have time for one, it should be the Central Market Hall, but there are several others that attract few tourists. Spending time wandering around the markets can teach you so much about how Hungarians eat and live. Be sure to allot plenty of time for coffee and cake breaks, as Budapest has a strong coffeehouse tradition and its cukrászda’s hold a tempting array of sweets. And of course, drink plenty of Hungarian wine and have long, lazy meals.
What are some of your favorite Hungarian dishes and what should travelers try when visiting?
I have so many, it is hard to name just a few! During the summer, fruit soup is a favorite. The most common type is sour cherry, but it can be made from practically any type of fruit. I love halászlé (fish soup heavily seasoned with paprika) year-round. When plums are in season, I love szilvás gombóc (dumplings made with potato dough and stuffed with plums). And, peppers and cabbage stuffed with ground meat are classics that I can never get enough of. Foie gras is very common here, and restaurants often serve it a few different ways. For dessert some of my favorites are doughnuts made at home. In restaurants, everyone should try Somlói galuska (a concoction made from vanilla and chocolate sponge cake, nuts, chocolate sauce, vanilla cream, and whipped cream).
What was the most challenging aspect of writing Food, Wine, Budapest and what chapter are you most proud of?
One of the most challenging aspects was deciding which venues to include to make the book well-balanced. Considering that it wouldn’t be on the shelves for many months after I wrote it, I tried to include stable places that weren’t likely to close (which is an impossible thing to predict, especially in rapidly-changing Budapest). I am proud of the whole book—it is the first culinary guidebook to Hungary—but if I have to choose one chapter in particular it would be the first chapter, which is a primer on Hungarian food and includes lots of translations of Hungarian ingredients and specialties.
What are some of your favorite hotels in Budapest?
I like places with strong personalities, like the MaMaison Andrássy Hotel (a boutique hotel on Andrássy út, the city’s grandest boulevard) and the Gerlóczy Rooms de Lux (a small hotel located above the Gerlóczy Café, which has beautifully renovated rooms that feel more like apartments than hotel rooms). And if I really had money to splurge, I’d definitely choose the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace, which is in a gorgeous art nouveau building at the foot of the Chain Bridge. Even if you can’t stay there, it’s a great place to have a drink just to admire the building.
Where else have you traveled in Eastern Europe and what are some destinations you consider underrated?
I’ve been to Bulgaria, Bosnia, Croatia, Poland, Serbia, Romania, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and all over Hungary. To start, there are many worthy places within Hungary, which get little attention because travelers tend to spend almost all of their time in Budapest. I’d definitely recommend visiting some of the wine regions. My favorites are Tokaj and the areas around Lake Balaton. In southern Hungary, Pécs is a beautiful city with lots of art and culture. Not far from the Austrian border, Kőszeg is one of the country’s prettiest towns, with intact architecture, a castle in the center, and a Medieval atmosphere. Other Eastern European destinations that I think deserve more attention are Bulgaria and the Transylvania region of Romania.
Can you talk a little about Taste Hungary and the kinds of tours you offer?
Taste Hungary grew out of my books. As I wrote the books, my husband and I traveled around the country, visited so many wineries, and discovered so many delicious things and passionate people. We wanted a way to show travelers the best things that Hungary has to offer in terms of food and drink. We offer market tours in Budapest and food and wine tours in the countryside. The tours are highly personalized and are always done in small groups, so we can easily accommodate individual interests. We’ve never done the same tour twice, and that really keeps it interesting. We’ve arranged everything from a pálinka (fruit brandy) tasting for fifty people to arranging a few-days-worth of gluten-free meal possibilities for a client.
For more information about Budapest’s culinary scene and Carolyn Bánfalvi’s food and wine tours, visit her website: www.carolynbanfalvi.com.
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