“Rooster testicles,” says our guide, Anna, pointing to a tray of gnocchi-shaped gonads. “Very tasty, just don’t cook them in the microwave.” As any Hungarian chef worth their paprika knows, a rooster’s crown jewels are best cooked slowly in a stew.
These fine facts and more I learn on a culinary walking tour of Budapest with Taste Hungary. While the mental image of exploding testicles will linger for a lifetime, the tour, which includes eight tasting stops, lasts for four hours.
Our group of five meets at Budapest’s Central Market Hall, just down from Fovam Square on the Pest side of the Liberty Bridge. Built in 1896, this vast emporium houses three floors of fresh Hungarian fruit and vegetables, traditional delicacies, arts, crafts and souvenirs.
A shot of fiery Unicum, Hungary’s national drink made to a 232-year-old secret recipe, gets the tour off to a good start. At 40 per cent alcohol, it’s a very good start. As Anna talks about the various cultural influences – Soviet, Austrian, Turkish – on Hungarian cuisine she procures samples for us to taste. There’s fruit brandy, artisan chocolate with forest berries, smoked salami made from wooly-haired pigs, sour cherry jam with sprigs of lavender, tangy sauerkraut and acacia honey with truffle. As a sign of the times Anna provides individual plates, wooden forks and serving implements.
Almost every stall is strung with garlands of dried pepper pods, while the shelves hold jars of paprika powders and pastes. “To understand Hungary is to understand paprika,” says Anna.
Introduced to Hungary by the Ottoman Turks who conquered the country in the 16th century, paprika powder became the cornerstone of Hungarian cuisine and a source of cultural identity.
Anna explains there is a sense of pride from taking something introduced by an oppressor and making it your own. “Ours is a long history with few victories,” she says. “But we’ll always have paprika.”
The Richter scale runs from meek and mild to “Mad Steve” with a recipe for every occasion. Under Anna’s guidance we learn to discern the varieties through tastings of winter salami, stuffed peppers and goulash stew.
We also sample Langos, Hungary’s version of pizza. In what can only be described as a stroke of culinary genius, the dough is deep-fried not wood-fired, producing a chewy, crispy base.
Traditionally topped with fresh garlic, sour cream and grated cheese, it is the ultimate street food. “You’ll sometimes see it served with toppings such as salami and tomatoes or strawberries and Nutella,” says Anna. “But that’s how we spot the tourists.” Best eaten (devoured) with fingers, it is a belt-busting, sigh-inducing sensation.
Back outside we stroll along cobblestone alleys, passing University Square where, during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, students revolted against the communist government. Today, the square is marked by a book-shaped marble fountain, which appears to turn its own liquid pages.
We lunch at the nearby Belvaros Disznotoros, part butcher shop, part restaurant. It is popular with the university crowd for a quick bite. Quick being the operative word, as there is not a chair or stool in sight.
“Dallying is not encouraged,” says Anna, leading us to a tall “standing room only” table. We start with goulash soup, followed by marinated roast duck, pork legs and three types of sausage – paprika, blood and liver – served with sides of potato salad, potato crisps and mashed potato. It’s a bit stodgy for a warm spring day, but I can see its appeal on a harsh winter’s night.
Amid the leafy gardens of the Hungarian National Museum, we sit inside a gleaming glass house, sipping coffee and snacking on traditional pastries made by the Auguszt family, a name synonymous with sweets since 1870. Hands down, the two-layered Kreme (vanilla slice) with its velvety smooth filling and crisp pastry is the best I’ve ever eaten.
And yes, I have eaten a few in my time.
Our final stop is a wine and cheese tasting session in an original cellar beneath a late 19th-century palace. My favourite is the bold and complex 2020 Aldas Bikaver Superior (Bull’s Blood) from the Eger region of north-eastern Hungary.
“During the 40 years of communist dictatorship the mass-produced, state-run wineries almost destroyed our industry,” says Anna. “But since 1990 a new wave of wine-making has emerged.”
And that’s the beauty of a tour like this, there’s a taste of history, mystery and victory in every mouthful. Just hold the rooster testicles.
Taste Hungary offers a range of food, wine and culture experiences around Budapest and beyond, including the four-hour Culinary Walk and costs $US99 ($142) a person. Private and customised tours available. See tastehungary.com
Away from the bustle of the city centre yet within walking distance of many iconic landmarks, the Adina Hotel Budapest offers convenient, comfortable accommodation. Equipped with full kitchens they are ideal for self-catering after a day at the markets. Studio apartments from €76.50 a night ($115.80) for two. See adinahotels.com
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