Marvellous Market #3: Great Market Hall, Budapest

Great Market Hall - Budapest

The Great Market Hall in Budapest

You know a city is serious about food when it builds a giant, purpose built market smack in the middle of the city (Sydney are you listening? Take note please).

Great Market Hall - Budapest

The market’s beautiful interior, looking down on the ground floor

That’s what the Hungarians did in the late 19th century when they built the Great Market Hall. Despite some knocks during the World Wars, a renovation has kept it looking sharp as one of the most beautiful buildings in the city.

Great Market Hall - Budapest

Rows of immaculately displayed local products adorn the food stalls

But it’s what’s inside that is really exciting. While the first floor features local handicrafts including traditional Magyar dress and collectables, the ground floor and basement are dedicated to food. Rows and rows of glistening fresh produce, endless stands of paprika and chilli and plenty of local delicacies are enjoyed by locals and tourists.

Great Market Hall - Budapest

Paprika and pepper in every possible form

The paprika stands are works of art – sachets, tubs and tubes of the stuff (spicy or sweet) are carefully arranged in colourful rows along with strings of dried peppers and garlic.

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How can you not smile at the Smiley Shop?

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Owls, ghosts, cats, mushrooms and other random pickle shapes

One thing Hungarians LOVE are pickles. Pickles and sauerkraut. They have their own dedicated area – ‘pickle alley’ in the basement floor. What I especially love is the creativity involved, with jars displaying cute messages and smiley faces made from the pickles, plus a massive array of sauerkraut-stuffed pickled vegetables.

Great Market Hall - Budapest

Sauerkraut is measured by the pitchfork

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Getting souped up for winter

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Lifting the lid on Transylvanian ciorbă soup

Today is the first day of winter in Australia.

And it’s cold!!! Cold for Aussies means fifteen degrees. Brrrghhh.

It’s sprung up on us because we generally skip autumn and go from the rays of summer straight into a determined chill. It always takes me by surprise and yes, I’m subsequently writing this in a robe and slippers.

So it seems like the perfect time to talk soup and I have many fond memories to ladle out.

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Ciorbă soup housed in a dome of bread

Like this ciorbă de fasole cu costiţă afumată soup I had in Sighișoara, Romania last year. I’d heard about an infamous Transylvanian soup, in this case made with beans and smoked ham served in bread, and wanted to track it down. The soup was just as dramatic as the medieval fortress of Sighișoara itself and so delicious. I took particular joy in scraping the inside to extract broth-soaked bread, layer by layer.

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Filled with a heady bean, pork and spice laden soup

I only made it about halfway through before my stomach gave up. It filled me up for a day and was only 15 lei – around €4.

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Freshly served elk soup

My good old friend, Estonian elk soup, is the ultimate comfort food in a bowl, served alongside elk pies and pickles and accessorised with a complimentary Estonian wench to serve and rouse on guests.

I wonder if there’s a symbiotic relationship between how cold you feel and how much you enjoy your soup – I’d say definitely yes.

I remember feeling like an icy pole when I went to Iceland. And I was there in summer.

I constantly took refuge in the shops to momentarily melt and peruse expensive wool jumpers.

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Icelandic fish soup served on a delightful fish plate

In between I’d dart out for a hot dog and then some Icelandic fish soup which is rich, warming and full local seafood. My all-time favourite bowl was in Húsavík (the self-appointed whale watching capital of the world) with my friends Elfa and Siggi.

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That’s borscht at the front, vegetable soup at the back

My favourite soup for colour is always borscht and the versions I tried in Poland, especially at quirky milk bars, were sensational. The milk bars often serve a hot and cold version, both equally cerise and equally good, especially alongside a pierogi or five.

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A line up of traditional Hungarian soups

Now let’s talk about goulash.

But that’s not a soup; I can hear your muttering.

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Well in Hungary it is. Somehow the rest of the world misread the brief and turned it into more of a stew-like dish but on its home turf, gulyás is decidedly a soup. And boy do the Hungarians do an excellent job in merchandising this signature dish.

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Every festival or event you go to will have at least one stand with a cauldron-esque contraption full of the steaming stuff. They ladle out the beef and vegetable broth enthusiastically and serve it with chunks of bread.

Tureens of rich Irish seafood chowder

Tureens of rich Irish seafood chowder

I can’t talk soup without talking Irish seafood chowder. My most memorable bowl was in Doolin, a windswept cliff-hugging town in County Clare. Local seafood, tender potatoes and cream combine like some kind of x-rated threesome. It’s the only thing one should eat at the local pub with the bellow of traditional Irish music in the background.

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Perfectly chilled gazpacho

As a final wild card I’m going to throw in gazpacho – that’s for those of you on the other side of the world. I love love love gazpacho and don’t think I’ve ever had a bad version anywhere in Spain. This one came from Mallorca and the refreshing chill of the tomato, garlic and chilli was the perfect accompaniment to the hot sun of the island.

It almost makes me want to take off my slippers…

The Budapest bars that would be illegal anywhere else

Szimpla was Budapest's first ruin pub

Szimpla was Budapest’s first ruin pub

I remember the thought that flashed through my mind when I walked into my first ruin pub in Budapest.

This is an OH&S disaster, you would never see this in Sydney, or London, or possibly anywhere else for that matter!

That’s because ruin pubs, as the name suggests, lie within dilapidated shells of abandoned buildings. They predominantly sit in the old Jewish quarter which was left to decay after WWII. In any other city there would be a wrecking ball around the corner, but in Budapest some inspired drinkers decided they might be good for something and slowly they have turned into drinking and party meccas.

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The owl at Instant looks over the crowd protectively if not a little weirdly

This neighbourhood now includes dozens of ruin pubs, all characterised by flea market furniture, psychedelic interiors and an intense feeling you’ve just fallen down the rabbit hole.

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You could actually visit Instant every day, there is that much going on

I had two favourites, the first was Instant (pronounced Inshtant by Hungarians) which takes up an entire former tenement apartment . Within its 23 rooms it offers themed dancer floors, furniture pinned to the ceiling and giant flying owls overlooking the floor. They are fake but you’ll have to look twice.

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The slightly shabby façade of Szimpla

The second was Szimpla, which happened to be the very first ruin pub, kicking off the trend in 2001. It has a fabulous courtyard where you can sit in an old communist Trabant car, order from the vitamin bar, check out the graffiti art, catch films and theatre or rent a bike.

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My favourite part of Szimpla relates to food, of course, and was the farmer’s market that takes place every Sunday. Their mission is to connect the city crowd with local farmers and judging by the crowds, it’s certainly working.

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The giant courtyard is dotted with stalls laden with farm-fresh produce including cheese, fruit and vegetables, honey, cured meats, fruit cordials and homemade pastries. Vendors are friendly and they offer generous samples.

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I spent a good twenty minutes hovering by the truffle stand, if only because I couldn’t believe how many there were, how big they were and how cheap!

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I loved the truffle butter but seeing as I was not going to be near a fridge all day I opted for the truffle salt which had chunks of fresh truffle dotted throughout and proffered the most intense truffle scent I’d ever encountered. A good sized jar was 1800HUF or €4.50 – bargain! Read More

Hungarian Kürtőskalács

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A Hungarian kürtőskalács

Kürtőskalács

Not the easiest word to pronounce. The literal translation of ´chimney cake´ is a little easier on the palate.

These quirky cakes were created in the 15th century by Hungarians living in the Szeklerland region. This historic area is in the centre of present day Romania and still heavily populated by Hungarians, so both countries lay claim to this unique pastry.

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Freshly cooked kürtőskalács

Kürtőskalács are a popular street food snack in Hungary and a mainstay of festivals. The word is getting out and anyone from Sydney will probably be familiar with the chain Kürtősh which also sells these beauties.

Kürtőskalács Festival in Budapest

Kürtőskalács Festival in Budapest

Kürtőskalács are so revered in Hungary that they get their very own festival which travels around to the major cities. I thought I was dreaming when fellow kürtőskalác aficianado Neven and I stumbled across the festival in Budapest one sunny Saturday.

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Vajdahunyad Castle, Budapest

The festival was held at the stunningly beautiful City Park, in front of the Vajdahunyad Castle which was designed to look like a Transylvanian gothic castle.

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Lines for a kürtőskalács stretched across the park

It was the queues I spotted first. Despite there being at least eight individual stands selling kürtőskalács, the line for each was at least 100 strong. 

We were in our queue for 90 minutes! I don’t think I´ve even waited that long for a baked good.

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It did give me plenty of time to observe the production process though. Each one is handmade, taking at least ten minutes from start to finish and requires dexterity and patience.

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Dough is wrapped around a cylindrical wooden mould

A soft dough made from flour, milk, yeast, sugar, eggs and butter is rolled out and cut into wide strips. The strips are then wrapped around a cylindrical mould in an overlapping spiral motion. The wooden mould has been brushed with butter to keep the dough from sticking.

Kürtőskalács are spit roasted over the coal fire

Kürtőskalács are spit roasted over the coal fire

The pastry is brushed with more butter, rolled in sugar and placed on a rotisserie to cook above charcoal cinders.

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Pimp up your kürtőskalács with cinnamon, nuts, coconut or vanilla sugar

Each kürtőskalács takes around five minutes to cook through and achieve a glossy, caramelised crust. Once cooked to perfection, it will be finished off with your topping of choice; cinnamon, nuts, coconut or vanilla sugar. I´m always torn between cinnamon and nuts, both work beautifully with the pastry.

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Was this one worth the wait? I was a little disappointed to be honest. Due to the massive queues, the staff (understandably) were rushing the cooking process so ours was perfectly crisp on the outside but doughy and verging on uncooked on the inside. I basically stripped away the uncooked inner layer to focus on the outside layer and I was happy.

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The entire festival had a wonderful convivial feel and under every tree in the park was a family or group of friends devouring a kürtőskalács or two between them, tearing each one apart strip by strip.

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It was also the day of the Budapest Marathon so a couple of enthusiastic runners demonstrated just how how much they love these prized local treats by dressing in kürtőskalács costumes.

Has anyone tried a kürtőskalács outside of Hungary?