Posts

2013 Grateful 49

Eons ago, in another life, the lovely MC et moi would go on a regular ‘posh night out’ in London. This usually consisted of frocking up, and booking a table at one of London’s fine dining establishments having first explored a suitable cocktail venue. I have fond recollections of cosmos at the Ritz, and roast lamb at Simpsons. Having found in VP a kindred posh-frock, white-tablecloth, silver-service spirit, this tradition has been revived, in Budapest, for 2013. And this weekend marked our first venture forth.

When we turfed up at Baraka, the restaurant at MaMaison on Andrássy, we were a little surprised to find we had the place to ourselves, but immediately reckoned that this would have a knock-on effect of attentive service and deep and meaningfuls with the sommelier and the waiter. Initially tempted by the degustation – a five-course tasting from the menu, with wine – actually having our minds made up for us, while tempting, wasn’t quite what either of us wanted.

When asked, the waiter assured us that he knew how to make a cosmopolitan and indeed could make a good, if not a great cosmo. When you think of the specific ingredients that make up this nectar of the gods – vodka, triple sec, cranberry juice, and lime – you have to wonder how it is possible to screw it up. Ever since those heady days in London in 2002/2003, I’ve been in search of the perfect cosmo and the highest I’ve rated any in Budapest is 8. Suffice to say that it was topped this night. And, the secret – according to our amateur mixologist – is to go a little light on the cranberry.

We discussed the wine. Or rather VP showed her extensive knowledge of all things grape-related while I dealt in the more perfunctory ‘white, dry, no berries’. Wine is definitely not my forte. Gyergy knew this stuff, though, and pretty soon had shown he had that rare ability in a man to anticipate just what it is I want when I don’t even know myself –  a glass of Szászi Endre Szent György-hegyi Muscat Ottonel 2012 (now on my list of favourite Hungarian wines). VP opted for a Landlord Chardonnay from Légli pince – a little too oakey for me. (Am impressing myself!)

IMG_0111

I started with Langoustine roasted with piment d’espelette, beef cheek, confit croquette, cauliflower, red pepper coulis, and arugula pesto. And, admittedly, after I got over the fear of having to leave a restaurant hungry, I did something I don’t often do – I ate slowly and savoured every morsel. VP enjoyed a gingered pumpkin soup with duck confit-canelli bean tartlette, with mango balsamic espuma.

Then the wine change. The part I dread. I know there’s nothing to say that I can’t keep drinking the same stuff throughout a meal, but those in the know say a wine should complement your meal. What to do? I simply don’t like red wine yet I’d ordered meat. After some more discussion, our man hit on a Dörgicsei Rozé Cuvée from Pántlika Pincészet. In my limited experience with sommeliers, I have found the vast majority to be a tad condescending, particularly, as is usually the case with me, it’s patently obviously that I’m clueless. Yet with VP holding her own in the bouquet stakes, I was actually getting an education. And knowing what she liked, her choice of a 2009 Merlot from Takler Pince in Szekszárd was a choice born from experience.

IMG_0113 (800x423)

For my main, I ordered mangalica: walnut crusted loin, braised cheek, glazed belly with wasabi potato, celery and pearl barley. Beautifully presented, my immediate thought was ‘this wouldn’t feed a pidgeon’. Again, I ate slowly, savouring each bite, enjoying my wine and the conversation  – which was by now becoming quite philosophical. VP was daintily devouring her date-crusted venison loin, red cabbage purée, onion confit, gratin potato french fries, Brussel spouts and cocoa sauce. A couple of more tables had filled up but this didn’t in any way diminish the discreet attentiveness of our waiters.

At this stage, I was surprised to find myself almost pleasantly full. Yet having seen the portions and recalibrated my perspective, I was confident I could fit in dessert.

IMG_0115 (800x599)

My New York cheesecake with cranberry, almond and caramel, was a perfect accompaniment to a glass of Vissy László Tokaji  Peres Furmint. We were the first to arrive and the last to leave and easily the most interesting guests that evening. So at Gyergy’s suggestion we tried a chocolate-flavoured digestif – and it was our undoing. Too thin, I thought. And I wisely left mine alone. Ye gods – could it be that I am finally growing up?

I’ve been to breakfast meetings in the States where the food was piled six inches high on the plate. I’ve been to Hungarian restaurants where you wonder if there’s a plate there at all. And I’ve had this type of haute cuisine where you can count the slivers of carrots on one hand (one other Hungarian experience still haunts me). Baraka has it all though – great food, excellent service, nice atmosphere, good-humoured staff, and portions that while they  may cause some initial concern, actually do what they are designed to do – satisfy.

You could do a lot worse in Budapest if you’re looking for somewhere to entertain a client or celebrate a special occasion.  If you’re watching your forints, it’s worth saving for….you certainly get value for your money.

This week, I’m grateful that I’ve finally learned to eat slowly, to really savour my food, and to put my portions in perspective. And I’m grateful for the revival of an old but not forgotten tradition. Thanks VP.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

In a green bottle, please

Landing in the town of Mór in northwestern Hungary on a Saturday afternoon in early November, you’d be justified in thinking that the world had ended. Loud calls of ‘Hello – anyone home?’ brought no one running to the streets. The place was deserted. Mind you, according to the Net, the place rocks at other times of the year so it’s worth keeping (or putting) on your list of places to visit.

We’d come in search of some Ezerjó – in a green bottle, please. This Hungarian white wine grape is peculiar to the region and, by all accounts, could give Tokaj a run for its money in the desert wine stakes… in a good year! The direct translation – thousand good. It doesn’t sound nearly as inviting… But you have to love a town that weaves empty wine bottles into its holiday garlands.

Having done a quick spin of the main square (and a rather lovely square it is – even if was completely devoid of life), we managed to find a man to direct us towards the wine museum, where, summoned by the front-door bell, our host and guide ran us through the cellars. Turns out, he is none other than Mr Bozóky himself – a first-generation winemaker issued of banking parents. The harvest is late this year apparently, so there was lots of empty space waiting to be filled. And he had wine ranging in price from 900 forints  to 100 000 forints. Something for everyone.

We didn’t do much to endear ourselves to him. My Hungarian saved me from dissing cuvee as a glorified punch (something the ill-fated MI failed to leave unsaid), but he seemed to enjoy the rather idiotic questions and our insistence on having our Ezerjó out of a green bottle, please. It was a pleasant way to spend 45 minutes or so and despite some earlier misgivings, we parted friends. So much so, in fact, that he presented Ireland (via mise) with a bottle of his award-winning dessert wine. I was suitably humbled. Of course, hindsight being 20/20 vision (thanks to Google and its ilk) had I known then what I know now, I’d have traded one of my bottles of Ezerjó for one of his 2011 sauvignon blancs…

There’s more to the Czech Republic than Prague

When I think Czech Republic, I think Prague. I did spend a couple of days in Kralupy once but that hardly qualifies as having seen the Czech countryside. Last weekend, I was in Valtice – a gorgeous Baroque town of about 4000 permanent residents and another 4000 cyclists [slight exaggeration for effect] who pass through on the weekends cyling the well-pedalled path between there and Lednice.

Valtice lies in the South Moravian region about 265 km south-east of Prague. Its claim to fame, in the history books, is as the seat of princes of Liechtenstain in the eighteenth century.   The castle is connected to the neighbouring manor of Lednice by a 7km avenue lined with lime trees. Alas, when the Habsburg empire collapsed, the princes lost their seats and when the Communists arrived, the castle was confiscated. Oh to have the power and take what you will – Like it? Want it? Seize it. Wonder how long it would take for the novelty to wear off?

It is a beautiful building and life here must have been nothing short of perfect. But to have it all and then to have it all taken from you – that has to hurt. To have been born into such riches and then lose them has to be difficult. It’s a little ironic to think that while our royals are thin on the ground these days, some of our monied nobels have of late found themselves in similar circumstances – having had it all and then lost it. I wonder what it is like to downsize from a multi-million-dollar home in the hills to a semi-detached in suburbia.

The Town Hall, like many of its kind, is quite a wonder. Built in Neo-renaissance style, it dates from 1887. Such a small town and yet such an imposing building. I’ve seen a lot of this in Hungary, too. Massive, ornate, impressive buildings built to house the town’s ruling class, symbols of power and wealth and perhaps, respect. Laughable that, when I think of the amount of respect I have for today’s rulers. Not enough to house them in a matchbox. How the tide has turned.

The town square is home to one of the first  Plague Columns built in Moravia. It dates back to 1680 and was built in thanks for the ending of the plague. The Virgin Mary (seen as the vanquisher of evil) stands atop, and on the bottom are four cardinal statues. I did have a fleeting thought as to what a modern-day equivalent would look like, were we to manage to banish the plagues afflicting our society – anti-Semitism, nationalism, racism…

The town centre of Valtice has been declared a national heritage site and has as its focal point, the parish church of the Annunciation of Mary which dates back to the seventeenth century. The lobby (if one can call it that) was open and then the entrance gated so you could see in but not get in. Another sad reflection of our times. Churches, once the refuge of sinners and sanctuaries for those in search of solitude and divine inspiration are now locked up and seen only through gridded gates. Perhaps if they divested themselves of their riches and once again became simple places of worship, there would be no need to lock them up.

Suitably chastened by my reflections, I went in search of  libation. This region is famous for its wines. And finding no-one in the wineshop who could speak English, I stood back and watched a local stock up for a party. Then I mimed my way through ‘Could I have one of everything he bought?’ and went away happy with my six bottles of vino just waiting to be discovered. Forget the ashtrays and the miniature plates – wine is the best souvenir you can bring home.

In vino veritas

Not too long ago, some friends of mine in Ireland – aka ‘de wimmen’ – told me that it would be pointless my going to France with them as I neither drank wine nor ate olives. I was a tad peeved at this but not put out enough to do anything about it. I was happy with the odd gin and tonic and the occasional pint of cider on a hot day. Wine was way too pretentious for me.

The age of innocence

Sometime later, I was in a pub in Oxford with a mate of mine who had recently returned from a trip to New Zealand. He had ‘discovered’ wine and was full of interesting snippets. For instance, did you know that the first vines were planted in New Zealand by a missionary named Samuel Marsden in the north of the North Island in 1819, but that the World Atlas of Wine in 1970 doesn’t even mention New Zealand? Well, now you do! Anyway, according to my mate, the Montana Sauvignon Blanc was as close as you can get to liquid perfection. So, putting personal preferences aside, I indulged him and tried it. Just a glass. That particular combination of green grassy notes and ripe tropical fruit mellowed me.  I enjoyed it. And what’s more, it was now just a matter of downing an olive or two, and I’d earn my place on the ferry to France.

The thin red line

This new-found sophistication – oh no, dahling, I’m not a Chardonnay girl – left me breathless and eager to venture further afield. I began to winter my way around the world of white wine, with an occasional summertime dip into a chilled Rosé. Thankfully I realized early on that I was in little danger of losing my fortune to the champagne gods as I’d rather an Italian Prosecco, a Hungarian Pezsgo or Spanish Cava any day of the week, especially on Sundays! And to those who say that it’s a wine’s duty to be red, I have no answer. The red-wine smell wafting from an open bag of wine gums turns my stomach and even the promise of a thimbleful of the 1945 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild Jeroboam – a bottle of which sold at a Christie’s auction in 1997 for more than $100,000 – wouldn’t entice me from my knitting on a Friday night!

After a while though, I began to notice something peculiar. I actually take on the personality of the wine I’m drinking and become even more susceptible than usual to word association. Give me a glass or two of a Chilean Sauvignon from the Casablanca Valley and, like Bergman’s Isla Lund, I find myself crying dramatically to the nearest Bogart: Kiss me. Kiss me as if it were the last time. Now in a crowded club in Budapest, this may be no bad thing, but not when you’re at a reception for a missionary priest just back from Santiago…

A glass or two of the Spanish Marqués de Riscal and I’m positively dangerous. Hands flailing dramatically like a real-life toreros, I’m liable to punch-uate each sentence quite forcibly, which is all well and good if my listeners are wearing gumshields rather than hopeful smiles. The last poor unfortunate to risk a bottle of Riscal with me is still wondering what hit him…

Being Irish, I’m allowed a little poetic license. We need little encouragement to tell a story, but a glass or two of the Italian Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi will literally have me saying mass. It’s as if I split in two: one part of me can hear the other half tell the stories and just sits back and laughs, all the while sipping. Sometime I really amaze myself. Convincing some Canadian sailors from the HMS Iroquois that I was a novice nun had me rooting in my purse for my rosary beads…

A dark horse

But it’s the white wine from the Hungarian pince Nyakas that has been my undoing.  I just have to see the head of that black horse to feel the stirrings of invincibility that will only later be reined in by insecurities. I’ve said before that Budapest has a peculiar energy to it – an energy that seems to make anything possible. There is a life bubbling beneath the surface of this city that emerges every now and then to push you just a little bit further than you’d thought possible. Hopes and dreams manifest themselves in thoughts and actions. Couple that sense of power with a glass or two of a Nyakas Pinot Grigio and I’m capable of doing or saying just about anything. Which is why I’m sitting here, munching olives, trying to decipher the illegible note I made in my diary last night – did I really book a ferry to France?

First published in the Budapest Times 26 April 2010