Budapest isn’t exactly a mecca for gourmet foodies – and we can’t understand why. I know Hungarian cuisine doesn’t have the international appeal among gourmands as other cuisines, but it is delicious! The absolute highlight of our trip to Eastern Europe was a Budapest food tour.
Our Gastro – Budapest Food & Wine Tour Experience started in downtown Budapest, right off the mighty Danube River. The focal point of the Budapest culinary scene is the Central Market – a large, three-floor indoor market selling all kinds of foods. This isn’t a made-for-tourists market. We were visiting in October and found little old ladies in the Budapest food market buying their fall vegetables – leaks, root vegetables and squash. Summer cucumbers had been pickled were brought out and old men were lined up for them.
On the upper floor of the Budapest food market, we dove deep into the rich tapestry of Hungarian cuisine. But first, we started the tour with a little liquid courage: a shot of Unicum. Since 1790, Unicum is essentially the national drink of Hungary. It’s 40 herbs & spices give it a medicinal quality that touches the Hungarian soul. The Zwack family that manufactures the brew fled during the fascist and communist years, and the communists tried (unsuccessfully) to master the recipe. Once freedom returned to Hungary, the original oak barrel aged liquor came back. We’re not going to lie or sugar-coat it – it’s awful. My first sip resulted in uncontrolled gagging and a near accident. However, I’m happy to report that the company makes a plum version, which was much more agreeable. We didn’t love it, but we’re glad we tried it.
Fortified with a jolt of liquor, we moved on and encountered a nondescript stand on the upper floor of the Budapest Central Market with a huge crowd around it. In the stand, a guy was turning out small, personal pizzas. But these aren’t pizzas. This is langos and it’s practically the national dish of Hungary. We ordered the traditional fried flatbread with sour cream, cheese and garlic – assured by our Taste Hungary guide Katalin Hartai that this was the authentic way to enjoy the langos. And enjoy them we did!
People in Hungary love their meat and Hungarian cuisine uses a lot of pork. This dates back to the period when Hungary was conquered and occupied by Muslims from Turkey. The Turks would not eat pork, so it left all the deliciousness for the Hungarians! But Hungarian cuisine doesn’t rely exclusively on pork. At the meat shop, we dove right into the good stuff: spicy salami, regular salami, goose crackle, beef tongue, spicy salami of horse meat and even horse bacon. I think this probably my first time trying horse – it wasn’t bad. Our Taste Hungary guide noted that the pork would come later. But first, we needed a little dessert of the local cherry strudel (called retes).
Leaving the Budapest Central Market, we visited a series of small neighborhood businesses specializing in a number of Hungarian specialties, such as a shop selling sodas and jams from the Balaton Lake district. We also discovered a boutique chocolate manufacturer creating inventive concoctions, such as a chocolate with sour cherry and raspberry palinka. Palinka is a traditional fruit brandy in Hungary.
Our guide promised pork, and she delivered at a place called the Downtown Pig Feast. Now keep in mind that we’ve been eating for two hours already. Lunch consisted of regular sausage, liver sausage, blood sausage, suckling pig, a Mangalica steak (more on Mangalica later), plus a spread of side dishes including potatoes, salad and cabbage. I washed it down with the local beer: Arany Ászok. It was delicious and, by the end of it, we were absolutely stuffed. The focus on pork in Hungarian cuisine is a great thing!
The next stop on our Budapest food tour was the café Auguszt. Budapest is often called the Paris of the East and the comparison is a good one. Budapest has a rich café culture, just like Paris. Auguszt Cukrászda is a perfect example of this. In Budapest, locals gather in cafes to read the paper, sip coffee and talk. As you might imagine, the communists weren’t thrilled with the activity and most of them closed, but there has been a rebirth in recent years. But, it was in the café Auguszt that we discovered one of the more interesting aspects of Hungarian life. Every year on St. Stephen’s Day (August 20), a birthday cake is proclaimed for the entire country. A contest is held to crown the winner. Once a cake has been selected, the recipe is distributed to all the cafes and restaurants throughout the country. A person can go into restaurant or café and order the cake of the year. So, at Auguszt, we had the “Cake of the Year” – the Somló Revolution.
Our tour concluded at the Taste Hungary office for a wine sampling at their Tasting Table (& Shop). This brand new, beautifully designed space was the perfect place to sample the late harvest Tokaj wine with its golden color and residual sweetness. Yes, we bought a bottle to take home.
We highly recommend visitors to Budapest take the culinary walk tour as early in their trip as possible. Our guide shared with us a number of eating and drinking recommendations to occupy the rest of our time in Budapest. The tour was remarkable and was the highlight of our entire trip to Eastern Europe.
One of the recommendations from our guide was the Pesti Disznó gastropub the next day. We had sampled the Mangalica at the Budapest food tour lunch, but at Pesti Disznó we were able to explore its awesomeness. The Mangalica is perhaps the apex in Hungarian cuisine. Mangalicas are an ancient and rare pig breed that grows hair and looks like a sheep. And the Mangalica tastes delicious! The Pesti Disznó makes a life-changing Mangalica burger. Trust us. It’s that good. We almost went through a whole trip to Hungary without trying the Hungarian goulash, so we shared a bowl here. Pesti Disznó was a real find and allowed us to continue our education in Hungarian cuisine!
Budapest isn’t a major stop on the culinary map and Hungarian cuisine is often overlooked. But, on our Budapest food tour, we were completely surprised by the amazing, tasty delights we encountered. We’ll be back to sample even more treats in the future!
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While in Budapest, we explored the city as guests of Jayway Travel, the Eastern European travel specialists and organizers of our tour with Taste Hungary. As always, all the delicious opinions are our own.
Here are a few more delicious photos:
Have you been on a food tour? What was your favorite thing to try?