Tasting Budapest on a Markets Tour
After 11 months of our grand tour and ten foodie walks in London, Perpignan, Paris, Venice, Tokyo, New York, Mexico City, Cape Town, Istanbul, and now Budapest, we’ve concluded that a market tour with a local food expert should be the very first thing you do when you arrive in a place, especially if you’re staying in a holiday rental and settling in for a while.
For some reason, we can never seem to organize a tour until we’ve been in a place for a while and have already been shopping at the local markets and figuring things out for ourselves. The reason being we don’t have time to do any research before we actually arrive in a place, so it takes us a while to determine who is the best guide for the job. Now that we’ve done the research for you, you don’t need to make the same mistake!
The beauty of doing a foodie walk with a local expert the moment you arrive is that you can do one that covers local markets and specialty shops and get an introduction to the local produce and products, what to buy where, and what to do with what you’ve bought. If your guide is the author of the city’s culinary bible*, as Carolyn Bánfalvi of Taste Hungary is, then you can also pick her brain as to the best local eating and drinking spots.
We meet Carolyn at Budapest’s beautiful 19th-century Central Market Hall, one of Europe’s best food markets and long one of our favourites. The splendid building, which was constructed at the time of the World’s Fair, and has a towering ceiling and pretty ironwork, boasts scores of mouth-watering shops selling an array of aromatic paprika products, hanging salamis, tasty pork products, cheeses, and all kinds of other delectable goodies.
While the busy market hall is on most visitors’ must-do lists, it’s also where the locals do their shopping, often on a daily basis – doing as many Europeans do throughout the continent, buying what’s in season and buying only what they need to use that day.
It doesn’t take long to appreciate how important food is to Budapest’s locals. At the butchers, dairy, and fruit and vegetable shops, you will see either long lines (or rather, huddles) of locals, or locals taking a long time to explain to the shopkeeper exactly what they want or how they want something cut, sliced, or prepared.
As we elbow old ladies out of the way (um, well, actually, it was the other way around!) on our stroll around the market, Carolyn points out some of the finest shops and talks us through some of their specialties. Even though we’ve been to this market before, on this and previous trips, we still come away having learned a great deal.
We appreciate that pork is popular here – we’ve been eating our fair share of it since we arrived – but we weren’t aware that the Mangalica pork which we’ve been seeing on restaurant menus, is from the curly-haired boar-like Mangalica pig, which was almost extinct. Hungary is responsible for its renaissance and has been working with Spanish producers to develop and promote this rich, fatty, tasty pig. The pigs are fattened here in Hungary, where they feast on acorns, and are then sent to Spain where they’re cured. Mangalica is twice as expensive as the normal cured pork products, but (we’ve tried it, so trust us) it’s worth it!
We know that Hungary is one of the biggest foie gras producers, but what we didn’t know until Carolyn told us was that locals often sauté the foie gras and eat it cold with red onions. She explains that when buying the goose you can choose whether you want one that hasn’t been fattened or one that has; they have a different flavour obviously.
Mushroom foraging is popular in spring and fall, Carolyn says, and the locals (who love to make mushroom stew) take their mushrooms seriously. There are specialists who take people into the hills to pick wild mushrooms and every market has a mushroom examiner’s office (which she shows us) whose job it is to ensure that all of the mushrooms sold are edible. There’s also an impressive glass case display on toxic and non-poisonous mushrooms at the back of the market, which we’ve never noticed before, along with a small producer’s market.
Every market in Budapest has a small section at the back for the smaller growers, Carolyn says, and today we see little old ladies selling their jams, preserves, honeys, flowers, and cheeses. In the old days, Carolyn reveals, they also sold live animals here.
Carolyn points out an impressive-looking honey stand – there are apparently some 16,000 beekeepers in Hungary and countless types of honey – and the dairy section, where they sell vats of unpasteurised milk, and all different types of white cheeses. Carolyn warns us about the ‘saffron’ that all the guidebooks apparently recommend buying because it’s cheap – it is not in fact saffron at all, but safflower.
Next, we head downstairs to a floor we didn’t even know existed (“Most people don’t know it’s here,” Carolyn says), where shops specialise in frozen produce (game, venison, wild boar, etc); frozen, fresh and live fish (which are kept in enormous, crowded tanks); and pickled vegetables and sauerkraut.
The pickled vegetables – stunningly displayed in rows of big glass jars – are actually fermented and not pickled, as they are in Istanbul for instance. “Pickled vegetables are very much part of the culture here,” Carolyn tells us, “Locals eat them with everything but they love having them on the side of stews.”
Carolyn shows us an Asian supermarket, which is packed with all kinds of exotic goods, including spices, herbs and sauces, from all over Asia, as well as some products from the Middle East, Mexico, and South America. “This is heaven for expats!” she says. (If you’re staying in the area, there’s also a supermarket down here too.)
Back upstairs, we stroll along the fruit and vegetable aisle (which used to be known as the ‘poor man’s aisle’), where, among the perfect-looking produce, Carolyn points out the pre-packaged veg combos of parsnip, carrots and celeriac that are “the building blocks of most local soups”.
We visit a butcher’s shop specialising in pork. And it’s all here: smoked pork knuckle (popular in soup), pork jelly aspic, unprocessed bacon, tripe used in soups and stews, pig snouts, feet and tails, pork brains that are breaded and fried and eaten with mayonnaise, and pork crackling (eaten with bread and red onions). We buy some of that! We also buy some spicy salami from another nearby shop, and the famous Pick winter salami, which has white mould around it that is apparently helped along by the river air.
It was chilly downstairs and we’re freezing (note what the shopkeepers are wearing in the photos above!), so Carolyn suggests we head upstairs to warm up with a shot of Unicum at a typical worker’s bar. Invented in 1790 by Janos Zwack (to a heavily-guarded recipe), Unicum is a medicinal-tasting herbal liqueur that the locals swear by – for clearing the head, treating colds, and warming the soul. And it does the trick! Our body and soul taken care of, we head off to lunch to warm our stomachs…
Carolyn’s Market Walk generally takes in a visit to a second market (and she has a couple of options depending on your interests) and lunch at a typical worker’s restaurant in an area that you’re unlikely to get to otherwise. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to get to either, but we did dine locally with Carolyn, which we’ll report on in another story. Even if you’re not staying in an apartment, we highly recommend Carolyn’s walk for foodies interested in some snacks for the hotel room or edible souvenirs.
* Carolyn Bánfalvi is the author of Terroir Guides’ Food Wine Budapest and The Food and Wine Lover’s Guide to Hungary. She runs Taste Hungary with her wine expert husband Gábor. You can find out more about Carolyn at www.carolynbanfalvi.com and book Carolyn’s Markets Tour at www.tastehungary.com.