2023 Grateful 25: A cucumber dinner

When the invitation came in, I didn’t read it very carefully. It was in Hungarian and I was in a hurry. I completely missed that it was to a uborkavacsora – a cucumber dinner.

Back in January 2022, I wrote a piece for the Budapest Times on Kiútprogram, a ‘non-profit limited company first conceived by entrepreneur András Polgár (Polgár Foundation) and Péter Felcsuti (former Chairman of the Hungarian Banking Association), both of whom were concerned about the widening financial divide in the country. The gap between the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor was (and still is) expanding at an alarming rate. They got with György Molnár (senior research fellow at the Institute of Economics, Hungarian Academy of Sciences) and worked out a way to adapt Mohammed Yunus’s world-renowned Grameen Bank model to Hungary.  The two-year pilot scheme was so successful that the EU wanted to commit to funding it for a further four years if the Hungarian government agreed to contribute 10%. They wouldn’t. So, the EU didn’t. Undeterred, the lads continued, and the programme is still changing lives, thanks to private funding.’

I’m a fan…and a supporter.

I hadn’t been in touch in a while so I was surprised but delighted to get the invitation.

We rocked up to Babka Deli, a place I’d heard of but had never visited. I don’t often find myself in the XIII district of Budapest and was surprised at how lively Pozsonyi út is. The street was bopping.

Cocktail glass with a yellow liquid and white froth on which sits a candied lemon. Glass is set on a table between a place setting. Inside the restaurant, people were already seated. The  frozen cucumber margaritas looked too good to turn down, and it would have been rude to decline. We said our hellos, chatted a bit, and then sat to experience my first uborkavacsora.

Like any event built around a cause, the speakers introduced us to the programme and the good it’s doing. Zsófi Mautner emceed the evening – you’ll recognise the name if you’ve stumbled across her Chili és Vanília gastroblog. She was asked to be an ambassador for the programme a couple of years back and embraced it with every ounce of the energy she exudes. She visited the growers, tasted their uborka, and was sold.

Every dish on the menu, the brainchild of Babka’s chef,  András Berényi, revolved around the humble uborka.

Place setting - two forks on left, two knives and spoon on the right - in the middle a white bowl with two handles on a place. In the bowl is a soup with white and orange and green visible

First up was a cold cucumber cream soup with goat’s cheese, toasted pumpkin seeds, and basil oil.

The conversation almost stopped, consumption punctuated by singular sighs of delight and expressions of wonder. Who knew cucumber could taste this good? Not me. I’m not a massive fan of goat’s cheese or cold soups or even pumpkins but the combination of these taste notes sang.

Waxed paper with the Babka logo in brown. On it sits beef tartare in a bed of oil and covered in a green leaf

Next up was THE best tartare I’ve ever, ever had. And I’ve had a few. This Angus beef and pickled cucumber tartar was accompanied by a warm flatbread. Absolutely delicious. If this were on their regular menu, it would make Babka Deli a destination restaurant for me. I’d come to Budapest, especially.

I was curious, though, to taste the pickled cukes that everyone was raving about.

Attila Nemesvölgyi, the vision behind Babka and Babka Deli, is a firm believer in social causes. He and Zsofi are doing their bit to connect the whole of Hungary through food. With the restaurants’ need for pickled cukes and Kiútprogram’s growers growing them, they simply needed an expert to make it work.

I’ve tried my hand at pickling and by all accounts my pickled offering pass muster. I’ve no shortage of takers each year. Maybe they’re being polite. mmmm… Hey, I eat my own pickles – and I’m fussy.

But their fermenter has a PhD in the subject! He certainly knows what he’s at.

Tray with pickled cucumber in the middle and two circular dishes of dill dip on either end. Oblong wooden tray is set between a place setting on a table with a water glass at 2 o'clock

The cukes were served with dips, as we were waiting for the main. Hand on heart, they’re good. They’re very good.

Babka Group buys a tonne of fresh uborka from the growers and then has them pickled to their recipe. A percentage of the sales of the jars of pickles go back to the growers, too – this year, it was 250k.

Zsofi asked and answered a question that had been rattling around in my head all evening – Where were the growers? Why weren’t they there? Apart from the fact that they live hours away – and that it’s their busiest time of the year – they mightn’t be all that comfortable being on show.

I have an aversion to organisations that trot out their beneficiaries to show what good they’re doing. Yes, I know that for fundraising, it could be argued that it’s a key part – putting a face and a name to the issue at hand, but with Kiútprogram as Polgár explained, it’s all about trust.

For many, it’s the first time ever that they’ve been trusted to do a job and deliver. And they need to be able to trust the program to do right by them, too.

But they hadn’t been forgotten.

Display of jars of pickled cucumber with white labels and black writing - KOVÁSZOS-UBORKA - the rest is illegible. A photo of a man with a hoe in the background to the right - he's wearing a blue shirt with a flat cap and has a beard. To the right is a the photo of a young women with long hair piled on top of her head in a bun. She's standing underneath a greet tree with white flowers. In the foreground are a number of postcards with roses on the front.

There were pre-addressed postcards on the tables for us to take home and write our own ‘review’ of the product, direct feedback as it were, sent straight to the producers. What a brilliant idea. I sent three off today.

High on cucumber and impressed by how the Babka Deli-Kiútprogram cooperation operates, we were served the main course:

plate of food - roast salmon sitting on bed of new potatoes - quartered.

Baked salmon in Fajszi paprika crumble, new potatoes with butter and chives, pickled cucumber and a cucumber roulade.

Salmon hasn’t tasted this good since my Alaska days.

I have a newfound respect for the humble uborka and am rethinking how I might use the stash I have in the cellar.

Am grateful for all the ideas and to Enikő and Ilona for making us so welcome.

silver bowl of what looks like ice cream with some red berries and a caramel wafer with a pink flower

Dessert was homemade dill-curd ice cream with candied cucumber and crispy wafers.

Oh and yes, we simply had to have another margarita.

Our table was unanimous. While everything was measured in varying degrees of excellent, it was the tartare that stole the show.

Curious to know what was on the menu last year? Look no further!

PS. It’s not all about cucumbers at Babka Deli – they’re channelling New York Deli vibes, too. Check out the menu.

PPS. If you’re looking for a trustworthy organisation to donate to, one that is really making a difference on the ground, check out Kiútprogram. They’re broadening their mentoring programme to include other entrepreneurial ideas that their clients come up with. Theirs is solid support. They could do with yours.


Talk to me...