Every relationship has celebrated milestones. Like getting brunch together after dancing it up at 80s night, few things cement the “this is getting serious” step like the first trip away together. Most couples choose a sunny, romantic destination. Mike and I? We went to Hungary. In October. Okay so maybe Budapest isn’t everyone’s first idea of a romantic city but whatever. Mike and I are goofy like that.
Our visit wasn’t driven by culinary travel, but we ended up having some of our favorite food-related experiences during the trip. Who would have guessed a tiny eastern European country could deliver a six-foot tall Michael Jackson statue made out of white chocolate? Or a wine destination with what might be the best Wine Goggled name on the planet?
Gerbaud – Thanks in part to its downriver Danube proximity to Vienna, Budapest has a striking coffee and pastry culture often celebrated in soaring salons fit for Marie Antoinette. Open since 1858, Gerbaud is the grande dame of Budapest salons. The light-filled salon was painstakingly restored in 1997 to look regally ancient. Gleaming floors lead our eyes up to a brillaint counterop filled with sugary delights. Taking a seat in the salon, we sat back as brisk waitresses flitted between tiny cafe tables with trays of pastel colored goodies and strong coffee. It was the perfect way to fight off jet lagg and ease into our vacation.
Szabo Marzipan Museum – A little way down the Danube from Budapest is a village known as Szentendre. This little village might be in guide books recommending a scenic getaway into an artists village, a chance to stroll through a small Hungarian community and take in tiny shops and ancient churches. All of these things are true but they don’t shout the town’s biggest feature from the rooftops: The Szabo Marzipan Museum. Could it be true? An entire museum with all of its displays intricately carved from almond paste? So true and so bizarre. Especially considering the chosen topics – countless classic Disney characters vied for attention next to Hungarian landmarks. But the creme de la marzipan had to be the borderline creepy Michael Jackson. Standing at life-size attention and captured during the King of Pop’s miltary-esque costume phase ,the piece is just strange. Deliciously strange.
The Valley of Beautiful Women and the Most Hilariously Formal Restaurant I’ve Ever Visted after the jump.
The Valley of Beautiful Women – Hungary’s most notable export may be Tokay, a sweet dessert wine most aligned to a darker Reisling. But the wine produced in Eger is worth a drink if only for the story that comes with it. Bull’s Blood wine is an odd mixture of grapes – Kadarka, Kekfrankos, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Kekoporto. You know, the wine basics. Bull’s Blood got its name from a 1500s legend in which Hungarian soldiers fortified their courage with alcohol before taking on the larger Turkish army. The Turks, upon seeing the crazed Hungarians charge from the castle with red-stained shirts, assumed their enemies drank bull’s blood and fled. So lives the legend of liquid courage.
About a mile outside of Eger’s city center lies a magical place called The Valley of Beautiful Women. Let me be frank: I don’t think this location comes by the name honestly. The women working there seemed lovely enough but the insane amounts of wine consumed in these quarters would be enough to make Andre the Giant’s great aunt look like a bonafide hottie. And why not? Dozens of wine caves dot the valley – which is really barely more than a courtyard – and age wines right inside. Locals saunter to their favorite watering hole with their own empty Coke litres – empty Coke litres! – and fill up for the cost of a few Hungarian coins. Families came out to play in the sun and set up shop with picnic baskets and toys for the kids. A band wandered from patio to patio playing classic Hungarian folk songs and old timers belted out their favorite lyrics. We spent a charming afternoon there and would have stayed longer if our livers could handle it.
Gundel – Hungary’s Communist past was as present as stale beer smell at a Sunday morning frathouse and it showed in the cuisine most known for peasant food. The casual restaurants we popped into throughout the capital were dotted with hearty soups, thick cuts of meat dressed in robust gravy, and surprisngly, lots of turkey. Traditional Hungarian cuisine stars paprika and wild game and we intended to sample it in highest form. Currency was in our favor and the entire country was a half-off sale: Hungary hadn’t yet converted to the Euro and the dollar was still strong (ah, the good old days). For our last night in the country, we decided to celebrate the trip with one splurge of a dinner at Gundel, a fancy schmany restaurant serving the best iterations of classic Hungarian cuisine. Or so we read. Mike spotted Gundel on Saveur’s 100 Best Restaurants in the World list and it was decidedly the only location on the list we could afford. Clearly fate had intervened.
Gundel is old school formal – operating with the restrained class and snootery typically reserved for scenes in romantic comedies (think Splash or Pretty Woman). A wandering string quartet serenaded diners. Men were asked to wear jackets and, should one not be prepared, a rental would be provided by the house. Older men courted much younger women. Service was exquisite and dinner was meticulously prepared, arriving with the unironic flourish of silver domed plate covers that made an echoing ring when they were removed. While the meal was delicious, I was fidgety all night. I secretly wished we could go back to the crass familiarity of the Valley of Beautiful Women.