Three Days in Budapest: Christmas Markets, Food and Hungarian Wine
Founded by the Celts in the first century B.C. and eventually becoming a co-capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century before disappearing behind the Iron Curtain in the 20th century, Budapest has shaken off the weight of communism to become a tourist-friendly city with a thriving foodie scene. We took advantage of the slack week between Christmas and New Year’s to visit for three days and four nights.
Christmas markets in Budapest
The first of the two Christmas markets we visited was the one in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica. This Roman Catholic basilica is named after Stephen, the first King of Hungary (c 975–1038). His right hand is housed in the reliquary. The line to see the hand was very long, so we did not try.
The market itself had a mix of food, drink, clothing and souvenirs. Rosemary bought some gloves and we ogled the chocolates. We don’t visit for the shopping, tho; we go for the decorations and holiday spirit. We were not disappointed.
Hungarian food and wine
The Christmas markets are best seen at night, which leaves plenty of time during the day for sightseeing. Our favorite method of sightseeing is a walking food tour and, since Budapest has a vibrant foodie scene, we took three tours.
It’s a good thing that the food tours are also walking tours because we did not go hungry.
Hungarian currency: all those zeros
Depending on what device you’re using to read this, you may have noticed the prices on the sausages in the photo above. The prices ranged from 899 to 2999. But 2999 what? The Hungarian currency is the forint and, when I posted this, $1 US equals slightly more than 306 HUF (Hungarian Forint). So in the photo above, 2999 HUF is slightly less than $10 US.
Speaking of all those zeros: a quick detour back to Denmark
Prior to visiting Budapest, we visited Copenhagen. Danish currency, the Danish Krone, also uses a lot of zeros ($1 US equals about 6.75 DKK (Danish Krone)). It does take some time to get used to prices with two, three, four or more zeroes when traveling in Denmark or Hungary.
Both currencies have a lot of zeros on their bills, but what about coins? There are a lot of coins in Hungarian money, but one day in Copenhagen we realized we hadn’t seen any Danish coinage. How do the Danes deal with coins? We were curious, so Rosemary asked a sales clerk. The conversation went something like this:
- Rosemary: “Excuse me, this might seem like a silly question, but are there coins with Danish money?”
- Sales Clerk: “No, we Danes have no sense.”
Of course, the clerk really said, “No, we Danes have no cents” but it was much funnier the way Rosemary initially heard it.
And now, back to the food.
Speaking of cheese: Hungarian cheeses
Since Hungarians were originally nomads with livestock, cheese has been made since the 13th century (according to at least one source). We do love cheese, so we asked one of our tour guides if she could tell us a bit more about Hungarian cheeses. To which she answered:
“No, I can’t speak about Hungarian cheese because I am French.”
And we continued on our tour.
Another food tour began in Central Café. The café opened in 1887 and was a favorite meeting place of Hungarian writers, poets, scientists, composers and artists. While our guide was describing the literary world of 19th-century Hungary, we munched on these delicious cakes.
The cakes also demonstrate the history of sweetener in Europe. The one with the white top was made with honey, not sugar, from a recipe from before the discovery of the New World.
The one with the brown/orange top was made with sugar that was available ~ and outrageously expensive ~ after the discovery of sugar cane in the New World. Sugar cane was so expensive because it had to be transported across the Atlantic.
The final cake, a sponge cake (which looks like a brown “blob” at the back of the plate), was made with sugar from sugar beets. This kind of sugar was only available after a commercial process for extracting the sugar from sugar beets was developed.
According to our guide, the sponge cake was developed because one night a group of tipsy, very important Communist officials demanded a cake for dessert. The restaurant had already closed and the cook was cleaning up, but he knew better than to disappoint the officials. Taking stock of the ingredients at hand, he took leftover sponge (the cooking kind, not the cleaning kind), crumbled it up, then added whatever else was at hand: fruit, nuts, whipped cream, and chocolate sauce to top it off. The officials loved it.
However, according to the internet, the sponge cake was developed for the World Exhibition of 1958.
Regardless of the origin, our guide said that the sponge cake was his personal favorite because his mother used to make it for him whenever he wanted. The genius of this recipe is that it can be quickly made with whatever is available and it’s very inexpensive.
Picnicking in a Ruin Bar
After the Central Café, we went for a picnic in a “ruin bar.” What is a “ruin bar,” you might ask?
A ruin bar is exactly what its name says: it’s a bar in a dilapidated building (a ruin). Back in 2002, some entrepreneurs opened a bar/community space, called Szimpla Kert, in Budapest’s Jewish Quarter. In 2004, a much-bigger group of nearby buildings was scheduled to be demolished. The Szimpla Kert owners wanted more space, so they moved their pub into the bigger structure. They embraced the ramshackle aesthetic of the ruined building, added their own furniture and decorations, and built a thriving business. Today, the ruin bar aesthetic has been copied and is an integral part of Budapest’s food scene.
Hungary has a wine-making tradition that dates back at least a millennia but, despite that, Hungarian winemakers have had difficulty gaining a niche internationally. This is partly due to the hangover of the communist era, when quantity prevailed over quality and state-owned coops mass-produced cheap, unpleasant plonk. But it’s also partly because Hungary’s native varietals are not well-known outside the country.
Tokaj, the Hungarian sweet white wine
The one wine that is well-know is Tokaj, the sweet white wine. However, this too is incorrect, because Tokaj is one of Hungary’s 22 wine regions, not a kind of wine. The sweet white wine that is known as Tokaj is actually named “Aszú.” It’s delicious and we bought two bottles in duty-free when we flew home.
Villányi Franc, the surprising red wine of Hungary
During our visit, we had dry whites from the Tokaj region, native reds and a couple different Aszús. We also had a very delicious wine called “Villányi Franc.” The surprise? Villányi Franc is cabernet franc grown in Hungary’s Villány wine region. The Villány wine region is very hot, which helps the cab franc ripen reliably every year. Villányi Franc is quite delicious.
What about goulash?
One of the things that Hungary is most famous for is goulash. Rosemary had goulash several times during our visit and yet, I haven’t mentioned it. Why? The honest ~ and slightly embarrassing answer ~ is that I never managed to take a photo of any of the goulash. I focused on most/all the other dishes and completely blanked on Hungary’s most famous dish! Jeez (*palm slap to forehead*).
But we did have goulash and it was delicious. One of our guides explained that it’s traditionally a thick stew, not a soup. Goulash was developed by Hungarian cowboys who were out managing their herds, camping out for days at a time, so the hearty stew had to be made from what was available. For that reason, there are many variations of the recipe. Rosemary found that goulash was a very satisfying and fortifying dish on chilly December days.
If you get the chance, go to Budapest. It has delicious food, yummy wines and friendly people (plus history and architecture). You’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Photo of destroyed chain bridge taken by: készítette: id. Takács István (1946) Scanned by, lapolvasóval digitalizálta: Takkk (Takács István, 2008) – Hungarian Wikipedia, Magyar WikipédiaOriginal upload log; Eredeti feltöltési bejegyzés:2008. november 4., 22:52 Takkk (vitalap – szerkesztései – blokkolás) „Fájl:Lanc hid – Budapest 3 Febr 1946 Foto Takkk Hungary.jpg” felküldve, Public Domain.