Cuisine - A Real Mouthful
Hungarian cuisine is known all
over the world, but there is much more to our cooking than goulash soup and a
generous sprinkling of paprika. Down the centuries, Hungary’s top chefs and a legion of
committed grandmothers have drawn influences from Turkish, Slavic, French,
Italian, Austrian and German cooking. As a result, Hungarian cooking is
actually quite difficult to define. But there are some ever-present
ingredients, including tejföl (sour cream), túró (curd, often, but not always
sweetened), szalonna (smoked bacon or pork fat), cumin, caraway seeds, garlic,
sauerkraut, and of course paprika. Unmissable specialities include goose liver,
kolbász (spicy sausage), salami, palacsinta (pancakes, both sweet and savoury)
and paprikás csirke (paprika chicken).
In many families, soup is an
essential starter, and with good reason. Finding a bad soup is quite a
challenge and, surprising though it may sound, even sour cherry soup makes for
a refreshing summer appetizer. Main courses are usually generous and generally
meaty, and vegetarian options are often limited. Most menus do offer fish,
including local fogas (perch), and some soups, főzelék (vegetable stew), tészta
(pasta, often with potato, cabbage or curd) and pancakes are also vegetarian.
Whatever you do, don't miss out on dessert, particularly if it is Somlói
galuska – a sponge, chocolate, rum and cream delight.
We do have one word of warning:
Salad usually means pickled vegetables, green salad is a recent addition to the
menu, and does not take centre stage in traditional Hungarian cuisine. But what
many Magyars miss out on when it comes to vegetables, they make up for by eating
plenty of fresh (and often organically grown) fruit, particularly melons,
berries, cherries, peaches, apricots and tomatoes. It is worth avoiding the
supermarkets and going to a local grocer – or a market or market hall – for
something home-grown to snack on.
The Bikavér (Bull’s Blood) blend, exclusive to the Eger and Szekszárd regions, is the best-known of all Hungarian wines.
Legend has it that the name originates from the unsuccessful siege of Eger by the Turks in 1552, when the heavily outnumbered Hungarians
had nothing to drink but red wine. This proved to be to their advantage, their
red stained beards and wild eyes terrified the Turks, who thought they had been
drinking Bull’s Blood.
Unfortunately, the quality and
reputation of the wine suffered during the years of collective farms and quotas
that typified the Socialist era in Hungary. Since 1990 the improvement
has been nothing short of spectacular, reflecting a renaissance of the industry
as a whole. Many of the top Hungarian wine producers have a Bikavér in their
portfolio, names to look out for include Tibor Gál, Thummerer, Vincze,
Pók-Polónyi, Tóth, and Kőporos from Eger,
or Vesztergombi, and Takler from Szekszárd.
Despite the legend, the Bikavér name was first used as a brand name in
Szekszárd, not Eger,
and not until the 19th century. The Bull’s Blood of both towns
originally relied heavily on the Hungarian Kadarka grape. The blend that became famous and gained
international recognition contained a fiery combination of Kadarka, Kékfrankos, and Kékoportó grapes,
with perhaps some Medoc Noir added for extra body. This lasted until World War
II, following which quality control was cast aside in pursuit of larger
Modern Bull’s Blood does not usually contain Kadarka, the producers of the
high-quality versions now use Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot in the blend. The
precise quantities of the three or four grape varieties blended together tend
to be a closely guarded secret, adding to the wine’s mystique.
Described by Louis XIV of France as “the king of wines, and
the wine of kings”, Aszú even gets a mention in the Hungarian national anthem.
With good reason – it is one of the world’s finest dessert wines. Like a
Sauterne, Aszú is
made with grapes that have succumbed to the botrytis cinerea fungus, otherwise
known as noble rot. If conditions are just right – the convergence of three
rivers on Tokaj creates a unique microclimate, the botrytis mould causes sweet
grapes to dry out and shrivel. The resulting Aszú berries have a very high
concentration of sugar and rich flavours, and must be hand-picked to separate
them from unaffected grapes. It is the shrivelled grapes that lend Tokaji Aszú
its intense colour and distinctive range of flavours.
Only four varieties of grape are
permitted in Tokaji Aszú: Furmint,
Hárslevelű, Muscat Lunel and Zéta. The botrytised grapes are
mixed with dry wine or must to extract their flavours. On a bottle of Aszú
wine, you will see the word “puttonyos" preceded by a number. This refers
to the number of hods (a puttony is a 27-litre grape picker’s hod) of aszú
berries that are added to a 136 litre cask of must or wine during the making of
the Tokaji Aszú. Six is the maximum, and a six puttonyos Tokaji Aszú will have
the most intense, richest botrytis flavours. Even further up the scale, the
Esszencia makes do without the base wine entirely. These sumptuous elixirs have
wine critics waxing lyrical about sun-dried fruits, nuts, caramel and toffee,
as well as the mineral flavours characteristic of the grapes grown in this
region. Many people shy away from sweet wines, but they are missing out on a
Szamorodni, another speciality of the
Tokaj region, is made from bunches of grapes that contain some botrytised
grapes, but which are not separated by hand. It has some of the flavour
characteristics of Tokaji aszú, but can be sweet or dry.
You may perhaps be surprised to learn that Hungary also has a long tradition
of making sparkling wines. The best-known name today is Törley a company with a rich pedigree. József Törley studied in Reims and
started making sparkling wine in France,
before relocated to Budafok, just outside Budapest,
back in 1882.
A ubiquitous speciality throughout Hungary and the Hungarian enclaves of
neighbouring Transylvania, pálinka is the
generic name for the fiery fruit brandy often distilled by peasants from
home-grown plums, apricots and pears. Hungary’s most famous pálinka
distilleries can be found in Kecskemét.
Unicum is a special blend of herbs and
spices that Hungarians swear by as an aid to digestion, among many other
things. It is indisputably Hungary’s
answer to Marmite– you will either love it or you hate it. Even Peter Zwack, the man who brought his family’s original Unicum recipe back to Hungary after
the regime change, admits that the secret is to convince people to try it
Hungary's Favourite Grapes
Hungarian winemakers are increasingly
turning to internationally recognised grape varietals to break into the world
market, often with great success. For example, winemakers in southern Hungary,
especially in the sunny regions of Villány and Szekszárd, are now producing
Cabernet Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs to rival those of any European country. The
ever-popular Chardonnay is also grown on about 3,000 hectares of land, notably
in the Mátraalja and Balatonboglár regions.
Hungary also has a number of grapes of its own, many of which yield unique
wines that will surprise and delight. Most of these are white, reflecting the
country’s traditional emphasis on white wine.
Kadarka hails originally from the
Balkans, but is considered Hungary’s
own red grape. It was traditionally an important ingredient in the various
blends that make Bull’s Blood, but some producers are now using it to make single varietal wines. It
produces red wines that are low in tannin with an often spicy and sometimes
fiery taste. The best Kadarka wines come from Szekszárd.
Known as Blaufrankisch in Germany and Austria,
Kékfrankos can be found all over central Europe
but is the country’s most common red grape by some distance. A large number of
leading winemakers use this grape to produce pleasant, tart wines. Comparing
those grown in the north eastern Sopron
region with those from Villány in the south makes for an interesting lesson in
the power of terroir to affect a wine’s flavour.
A white grape that was marketed in the UK as “The Unpronouncable Grape”, the name
actually means “the spicy grape from the town of Cserszeg”. The grape yields highly aromatic
wines, with a bouquet that is often compared to wild flowers.
Thought to have originated in southern Italy or Serbia, by the mid 1800s Furmint
had become the dominant grape in the Tokaj
region. Because it ripens with a high sugar content, it is ideal for dessert
wines, and is an important ingredient in many Tokaji
Aszús. Some producers in Tokaj and Somló
also produce dry Furmints, which can have an alcohol content as high as 15%.
They can be fiery or very refined. A good example is Disznókő’s dry Tokaji Furmint.
Hárslevelű, literally “linden leaved”,
is an ancient Hungarian variety similar in character to Furmint. It tends to
yield softer, more aromatic wines and is grown primarily in the Northern Tokaj, Eger
and Mátraalja regions.
Something of a rarity, Zéta is grown on only about 62 hectares of land
around Tokaj, but is
one of only four grape varieties that are permitted in a Tokaji Aszú.
Sárga Muskotály (Muscat Lunel)
This is not actually a Hungarian grape,
but is another of the four grapes sanctioned for use in Tokaji Aszú and is prized all over
the world as one of the finest aromatic grapes. Tokaj wineries such as Degenfeld and Hétszőlő also produce very clear,
crisp and aromatic dry or semi-dry wines from this grape.
Juhfark, Hungarian for “sheep’s tail”,
is considered the stiffest, most rustic of Hungarian wines. This ancient grape
is grown primarily in the Somló
region, where it thrives on the volcanic soils, and yields robust, sometimes
fiery wines with high mineral content.
A variety with which the UK wine drinker
may be familiar – several companies and supermarkets have been importing Irsai Oliver in recent years. Wines
from this grape tend to have a delicate acid structure, and the aroma has been
compared to Muscat.
It produces fragrant, soft wines that are best drunk young.