When I think about the Christmas market I imagine a hot cup of hot wine, colorful wool cap and wooden toys. I don’t think of roosters’ testicles floating in a red tomato broth. Why would I when my experience of Hungary stretches as far as the Gay Hussar in Soho, with its wild cherry soup and fish dumplings.
Of course, but Hungary is an inland, carnivorous country, at this time of year, the soup in a huge hollow bread roll, pig knuckles with potato dumplings and sauerkraut, or fresh flat bread to garlic sauce, sour cream and Grilled cheeses are just the kind of inspiring fare you need for cold, open-air shopping.
There are 12 food and drink stalls in the middle of the centrally located Vörösmarty Square, flanked by 28 craft stalls selling artisanal products and crafts. Budapest may be a thriving city with pop-up cafes, craft beer bars and vintage stores, but the Christmas market, now in its 18th year, is resolutely traditional. There’s a craft-making crèche at weekends, where children aged 10+ can be left and, on Sundays at 4pm, a ceremonial lighting of an advent candle, followed by marzipan candies with Santa on the stage.
There are also skating illuminations near the St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where the smaller Christmas market opens this weekend and features a laser display neoclassical facade.
The wide choice of winter warmers on sale includes raspberry schnapps punch and apple cider. Restored by a blackcurrant rum punch – a wine-based winter tipple that is a sweeter alternative to the mulled wine on sale – I browsed stalls that look winter-wonderland cheesy, but hid some real gems. Among the riches I discovered tiny music boxes, hand-printed stationery, felt hats, handmade jewellery that you might actually wear, casserole dishes for roast goose or fresh bread, sour-cherry white chocolate and pink bubblegum marzipan. This was proper Christmas fare.
Ceramic Santa Claus smoking pipe is the most charming, while the real smoke-dried garlands are decorated with simple cream and gold by orange, red pepper, cinnamon sticks and bay leaves, and hand-painted trees. But it was the gingerbread stall that did for my cynical heart. Seen one gingerbread house in Ikea, seen them all, I thought. I spotted the gingerbread foxes, frogs and hedgehogs, and the stallholder, in top hat and fur coat, passed me one on a giant fake hand. “For you,” he beamed. The child in me cheered. “Take it!” and I did.
For Hungarian traditions, cakes and pastries are an eternal, traditional Jewish-Hungarian plum and poppy seed cake, washed down with hot beer and sour cherries.
The famous cafe Gerbeaud, the square on the north side of the Vorosmarty opening in 1858, attracted the raspberry and caramel almond pancake and signature Gerbeaud coffee – a layered glory apricot sauce, almond liqueur, hot chocolate and vanilla foam.
I then did (unintentional) penance in the Széchenyi thermal baths. Everyone raves about Budapest’s natural hot springs, which have been used since the Roman times. So, at 7pm, I jumped on the efficient city metro to this Baroque palace of a medicinal watering hole.
I hadn’t packed a swimsuit so I had to hire one, which was a bad start. I ventured outside, barefoot and virtually naked into -5C. Into the steaming, hot pool I hurried. But it was lukewarm. To say it took the glow off my Christmas shopping would be polite. I waited for 10 minutes and then sought refuge at the central pest of the Muzeum Restaurant, at the corner from the Hungarian National Gallery and the boutique hotel – Art, the former Brodie House, the Boss Nineteenth-century Graceland House.
From the outside, the Muzeum restaurant promises to fade the grandeur and foie gras. I went in and looked forward to a pessimistic dining experience, but instead, I was playing cocktail pianist Dean Martin in a baby grand piano.
Traditional dishes (grilled barracudas, catfish, goose legs) are drawn under the dome ceiling which fully captures the spirit of Old Hungarian. But my vegetarian main course of chili peppers and crushed wheat, creamy pumpkin and boletus with noodles, show the “modern Hungarian” trend, a mixture of old and new vegetables.
If you are careful enough to discover that seven different brunch at the Kempinski Hotel, the city’s first luxury hotel, has found this to be a culinary trend in this new culinary destination – despite the cock Of the testis is optional.
The Budapest Christmas Market is open every day. The process is open until December 29 and food stalls until January 1. Budapest Church of the Christmas Market runs on 2 January.