Budapest is full of courtyards, beautiful corners hidden in plain sight and joining magnificence with a bit of romantic decay. I am a sucker for this kind of architectural detail and when a tenant arrived and took an old lift up to one of the upper floors, I imagined living in such dubious splendour. The courtyard was typical of our Budapest trip – although we certainly enjoyed the fancy restaurants and the famously splendid buildings, the best parts were the slightly down-at-heel places and the simpler eateries. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think we uncovered insider’s secrets or got totally off the touristed paths. We were only in the city for a few days and Mama Lemur quite reasonably has less relish for trekking down alleys than I do. If we turned off the main trails, it wasn’t by far. Still, it’s an illustration of how easy it is to find moments of quiet beauty in this city, as well, as it turned out, of sublime meaty enjoyment.
One place I was dying to visit was the Mangalica és Társai Húspatika, a delicatessen and cafe dedicated to the Hungarian mangalica pig. The mangalica (or mangalitsa in English spelling) is a traditional Hungarian breed that has been compared to Ibérico pigs. It almost died out in Hungary in the twentieth century but has rescued in the last decades and is now quite widely bred for its fatty meat and delicate flavour. Mangalitsa pork is darker than regular pork, closer in colour to wild boar meat, and it is also healthier, full of monounsaturated fat rather than having the high saturated fat content typical of farmed meats. Mangalitsa pork is turned into an array of sausages, salamis and terrines, as well as producing top notch lard. After almost getting caught in an apocalyptic rainstorm, we made it (just) to the Mangalica house. The other Lemurs thought I was crazy and we should stop off in some random cafe, but I was determined…and clearly I was right to insist, weather be damned. The second we stepped inside and caught the beguiling scent of mangalitsa proscuitto, we knew we were at home.
It will come as no surprise that I went home with a suitcase full of mangalitsa products. Salami, paprika-coloured sausage, thinly sliced jamón, and a packet of what Americans call ‘head cheese’ – a chunky terrine in which bits of ear are visible. It’s lucky Hungary is in the EU and we’re allowed to import meat or we’d never have made it past the sniffer dogs with that lot.
As well as the deli counter, there is also a lovely cafe and we waited out the rain with some delicious mangalitsa sandwiches. I had mangalitsa steak with pumpkin seed pesto and tomatoes. It was simple but oh so good. The fatty meat is quite the revelation and I say this as someone who has obviously eaten a lot of pork in her time. The other Lemurs had mangalitsa burgers and seemed equally content.
The theme of animal fat contined when we went to Fülemüle, a Jewish-Hungarian place just south of the old ghetto neighbourhood. I ordered the roasted goose leg with cholent, while Mr Lemur went for the goose leg with latkes. This was one of those occasions that happen to food bloggers when the food looks so enticing that you eat it before you remember you were meant to be taking pictures. Oops. It’s a testament to the allure of goose fat, really, that we totally forgot the whole camera thing when we saw that crispy crispy skin. And the fat…Lemur friend K thinks I am letting the side down by not having realised before now just how sublime goose fat is. This may be true. Perhaps everyone else in the world knows this except me, but in my defence, although potatoes roasted in goose fat are very nice, they do not compare with eating mouthfuls of the stuff, perfectly suspended between rich meat and crunchy skin, cooked by experts in the anserine arts. We swooned.
The relationship between past and present in Budapest is clearly fraught. For every heritage pig breed rescued there’s a beautiful old building in disrepair, and as much as the city trades on Jewish tourists looking for their own heritage, the presence of anti-Semitism and racism isn’t hard to find. We narrowly avoided an anti-Roma demonstration, seeing barricades and police dogs in cages not far from the gorgeous old synagogues and homey Jewish restaurants of the ghetto. Visiting the semi-ruined Rumbach synagogue, we could feel the continuing tension between the richness of its decoration (designed by major Austrian secessionist Otto Wagner) and the historical reasons for its decay. It’s being renovated, but the money is clearly not there for a full-scale project.
It might be trite to see food and eating as a way into these complex politics but for someone with not a word of Hungarian, it’s as good an entrypoint as any. More cheeringly, on our last night, I enjoyed another cherished product of Hungary’s cultural heritage – a glass of Tokaj. We went to Klassz, a bistro run by the Budapest Wine Society. The food was nice, modern, unremarkable, but the wine was spectacular. I had a glass of Oremus 3 Puttonyos Aszú Tokaj from 2006, and it was truly one of the best wines I’ve ever had. The perfect end to a trip to a new and beautiful city…
Klassz, 41 Andrássy Ut., 1061 Budapest
Fülemüle, 5 Kőfaragó St, 1085 Budapest
Mangalica és Társai Húspatika, 50 Béla Bartók Ut, 1111, Budapest