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Posted Sep 13 2010 12:00am

Mike and I recently spent the most amazing three days melting in Budapest.  

Temperatures soared, but that didn’t deter us from wandering the peaceful streets, scouting for good food and awe-inspiring architecture.

The more we travel, the more we realize we prefer to go without the standard travel guide.  Rather, we look towards friends, colleagues, and trusted internet sources for advice (for me, “trusted internet sources” are favorite blogs of like-minded travel and food fiends , select food magazines and, depending on the city, Chowhound or eGullet ).  Budapest was no different.  

After what I just stated, it seems shocking to admit that our first meal was at Tourist Central.  I usually try and avoid such establishments, but it was a three minute walk from our hotel and was known for having some of the best pastries in the city.  And when you wake up in the morning, having skipped dinner because you abhor any food within a twenty-mile radius of an airplane, a three minute walk to breakfast is just what you need.  

Café Gerbeaud  has been a Budapest institution since it opened in the mid-nineteenth century.  It’s interior speaks of it’s history as the center of the city’s bourgeois life: grand entryways, with crystal chandeliers, full of luxe fabrics in rich, bold colors.  Walking inside, I felt like a character in a Henry James novel - it was lush and ornate, and I, the casual American, was out of place.  The pastries were good, sure, but after several subsequent visits I would only recommend two: Dobos torte and the plum and poppyseed cake (Poppy seed = mák; Hungarians adore them and so do I.).  Mike also indulged in a late-afternoon hot-off-the-iron waffle cone filled with lemon sorbet; he immediately exclaimed that it was the “best waffle cone he’d ever had” (and he vehemently frowns upon anyone (especially me) who makes such sweeping statements) - it must have been good.

After breakfast we sought out the much-anticipated Nagyvásárcsarnok market.  I had heard about this market through several reputable publications, all of which referred to the enormous hall by a completely different name.  To further confuse matters, Google maps thought it would be fun to place each name at a slightly different location, leading us, poor sweat-covered souls, to infer that three fabulous markets were within a short distance of each other.  You can imagine my excitement.  You can also imagine my disappointment when after circling the area twice, the unforgiving noon sun beaming above, we found only abandoned buildings undergoing heavy construction.  We returned to the main building and took respite in a small store, standing by the refrigerator “debating which bottled water to buy”.  Once our bodies returned to a more tolerable temperature, we asked the shopkeeper about the three different markets; apparently, a single building or business having several names is completely normal in Hungary.  Oh joy, I thought.  (I learned long ago, while searching for the best soft-shelled crabs in all of Venice - getting horribly lost is an integral part of traveling you must learn to enjoy.  Or, at the very least, learn to smile, bear it and carry emergency almonds in your pocket.)

Luckily, the market was worth any trouble we endured.  The stalls were literally overflowing with gorgeous summer produce.  The sour cherries (meggys), tiny plums, apricots and fragrant heirloom melons were enough to make me swoon.  I was especially intrigued by the preponderance of the most petite root vegetables: tiny specimens of carrots, turnips, celeriac and, at practically every stand, parsnips the size of my pinky finger.  Around every corner was another pastry stand, selling cheese-filled strudel, savory scones (known as pogácsa, these little golden treats are insanely delicious), tiny cookies or elaborate sweets.  And there were butchers galore, each one highly specialized.  Depending on whether you were craving poultry, beef, sausage, or the much revered mangalica pork, you would seek a completely different stand or store.  Fascinating.

Speaking of mangalica pork, I will end this post by saying that that meat is unlike anything I have ever seen.  The flesh of this Hungarian breed is dark rosy, verging on red.  The meat is well-marbled and boasts at least four inches of fat on the back and belly.  I’d say it’s worth traveling six thousand miles for that pig alone.

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