Hungry in Hungary

Saturday, June 20th , 2015

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My week in Hungary was mainly in Budapest, with an excursion to the Tokaji wine region. Budapest is a handsome city, with impressive architecture and the second oldest subway system in the world. The centre is quite compact and very walkable, divided into the Buda and Pest sides by the Danube. There are now four Michelin starred restaurants in the city, though one was closed for refurbishment when I was there and another had just lost its chef. I had a pleasant meal at Borkonyha Winekitchen, a fairly simple restaurant with friendly staff, though its Michelin star seemed a little kind. The other starred restaurant, Onyx, is much smarter (and costlier) and served an erratic meal. I also tried Olimpia, an absurdly cheap place in the outskirts of the city, and Kollazs, a restaurant in the beautiful Four Seasons hotel, where I stayed. Budapest is less well-known than Prague as a tourist destination, but has gorgeous buildings and is well worth a visit. The lovely ornate interior of the New York Café, for example, must be one of the prettiest in Europe.

Tokaji is a legendary wine area in the north-east of the country, producing the oldest sweet wines in the world. The climatic conditions there are perfect for botrytis, the fungus that causes grapes to shrivel and enables the very best sweet wines to be made. Tokaji wine is mentioned as long ago as the 16th century, though winemaking was going on here much further back, certainly in the 12th century and possibly earlier. In 1703 Louis XV described Tokaji Aszu sweet wine as “the wine of kings and the king of wines”. The region suffered a decline in the communist era, when most producers had to join a “collective” and quality declined, but after 1989 there has been a renaissance. I visited Istvan Szepsy, the doyen of Hungarian winemaking, and spent a fascinating day with him and his family; his sons run a separate vineyard. Tokaji is a pretty area and can be reached from Budapest in barely two hours due to the recently opened highway. You can even stay in the wonderfully named Botrytis hotel. As a bonus the area has a delightful Italian restaurant called Anyukam Montda, run by brothers who used to work in Italy, and import most ingredients from their weekly. The pizza was excellent and used superb Paolo Pitrelli tomatoes, a well-known producer from Puglia. The local chicken was also lovely, and this unassuming place was for me the most enjoyable meal of the trip. If you are planning a trip to the region and need expert advice then consider using the well-connected local food writer Andras Jokuti