I know I should write about Budapest (and I will), but I feel compelled to write more about food tonight. I’ve come to the conclusion, after three weeks, that the main food groups here are fat, sugar, bread, and meat. The food is delicious, but I’m not sure it’s quite as healthy as our instructor in Budapest claimed! The most ubiquitous foodstuffs are breads and pastries of all kinds, meats & fish, particularly the local fish, and fat. The last I mean literally, as in a booth at the festival with huge baskets of duck, goose, and pork cracklings for sale.
Fat also stars, of course, in the delicious sauces, soups and baked goods. Vegetables, particularly green veggies, are a little harder to come by. There are certainly vegetables (zöldseg) to be had: the main ones are peppers (paprika) of all sorts above all else, cabbage, onions (hagyma), potatoes (the wonderfully named krumpli). This is an agricultural country, so these are supplemented this time of year by luscious tomatoes (paradiscom) and such. Indeed, when you go into a market or grocery, the vast majority of the produce seems to come from Hungary. Only the tropical fruits come from elsewhere. This is great right now during the season, of course–there are glorious grapes, wonderful peaches, blueberries, etc., in addition to veggies of various sorts.
This weekend was the fish soup festival, or Halfesztivál, which gave me the opportunity to try more Hungarian specialties. This festival was begun 20 years or so ago by a local restaurateur who runs the premier fish restaurant (halászcsárda) in town.
Various local restaurants and bars set up booths selling food and drink, and there were lots of handicrafts as well. At the place selling the cracklings I bought a loaf of what I believe is pumpernickel bread (but no cracklings!). I had the fish soup, natch, which is eaten with a huge roll (of course). I also tried a Transylvanian specialty, the kürtöskalács. This is my new favorite baked good–heaven on a spit. You take some sweet yeasty dough, wrap it in spiral fashion around a wooden spit, baste it with a glaze (honey and egg yolk, and I think a bit of butter) and roast it over hot coals on said spit (rotisserie). When it’s browned nicely they roll it in sugar (and they might add other things at this point, such as ground walnuts or almonds, or cocoa), slip it off the spit into a cellophane bag, and sell it to you. Yum, yum, yum, is all I can say!!
The festival has a historical feature, too. It seems that Szeged is infamous for being the place where the last people were executed (burned at the stake) for witchcraft, in the 18th C. (I suggested that Szeged should become a sister city of Salem.) This was on an island or peninsula in the Tisza called today, appropriately, Witch Island. They call this Witch City and sell magnets and such to this effect. So for the festival, they have a giant cauldron of soup cooking in the traditional manner over a wood fire by the side of the river. And a “witch” parachutes in to bring the paprika for the soup (I kid you not). Indeed, a guy did parachute in.
Once he landed, he ran up (in witch costume) to the big cauldron, posed for pictures, and then ceremonially threw some paprika in the cauldron. And I suppose that marked the official start of the festival.
Some other tastes: In Budapest, where the Fulbright folks treated us royally to fabulous lunches and dinners, I tried several things for the first time. One was goose (which tasted pretty similar to the duck we had the day before), which we had at a medieval restaurant. Another was veal, which was in a fabulous soup (with lemon and tarragon) we had at dinner the first night. The soup at the medieval restaurant, almost as good, starred venison. We had savory and sweet strudels in a place famous for the same, where you could watch them make it.
And I had the most beautiful ice cream cone at a place that scooped it into the shape of rose petals–mango and raspberry, if you’re wondering. About double the price of most ice cream here at 550 HUF (c. $2), but well worth it!
Finally, I learned what the mysterious Pöttyös is. I’ve seen these things around; they look rather like a Mounds bar, so I have avoided them because I don’t like coconut. Turns out they are a chocolate bar called Túró Rudi that has a cottage cheese filling.
This was the brainchild of the dairy industry in the 1960s, apparently. (Did I forget to mention that they eat a lot of cottage cheese here?) I guess I’ll have to try one after all. They are apparently a favorite candy bar in Hungary, but found in the dairy aisle.
Okay, enough already about food for awhile. Next I’ll turn to more weighty topics (not that all the food I’ve been eating won’t be turning soon to weighty topics, haha). By the racket going on outside, I realize that I have missed a big fireworks display that must have closed the Halfesztivál for another year. But not to worry. Soon, no doubt, another festival will be upon us here in Szeged.
Update: I tried a Túró Rudi the other day; not a fan. Perhaps the cottage cheese filling is an acquired taste. No matter, there are plenty of other wonderful foods to eat here!