Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Three days in Budapest – and some tastings of older rarities

June 2011. The Vàsàrcsarnok market in Budapest is the biggest indoor market I’ve ever seen – as vast as a main line railway station and just as busy. Hundreds of stalls are festooned with almost every imaginable item of food, smoked, preserved, salted, tinned, or fresh. Arrays of ham hang like bloated wineskins, while below are ranged every conceivable cut of pork, beef, or lamb. It’s amazing to see just how many parts a chicken can be reduced to, while the profusion of vegetables, fruits, herbs, spices, and condiments includes quite a few items I don’t remember seeing before.

Not much sign of fish though. But then Hungary is landlocked. All the same, you hear of excellent river and lake fish (Lake Balaton isn’t very far away) but not even a red herring is to be glimpsed here, among this universe of victuals. Or maybe there is: on view at several stalls are stacks of what look like jars of Russian caviar but which, on closer scrutiny, proves to be a lookalike Hungarian product. There are at least two qualities: a cheaper one with a blue lid; and a dearer one decked out in gold. They cost a fraction of the genuine article, though are far from inexpensive. The lid of the gold-topped version shows a stylized sturgeon rampant against a background of large-grained caviar. All these jars are arranged as casually as tins of baked beans.

I asked around about prices. It transpired that some stalls asked twice as much as others for the very same product. Caviar emptor.

Budapest market

I tasted both qualities and was not impressed. It’s received wisdom that the quality of Russian caviar has plummeted in recent years. If that’s true, the Hungarian purveyors have done nothing to improve the situation. The grains of both qualities proved to be very small, scarcely bigger than those of the cheap lumpfish roe that’s to be found in supermarkets all over Europe. And both types lacked that special smoothness of texture, that luxurious glutinousness, that are the hallmarks of top-grade caviar. Not to mention the inimitable – and unforgettable – flavour.

Perfect caviar is delicious with the finest smoked salmon and can also raise a fine fish creation to celestial heights – provided pretentiousness is avoided. But there is no better way to enjoy it than nature, simply accompanied by blinis (buckwheat pancakes) or thin, lightly buttered toast. Some people sprinkle it with lemon juice and smother it with chopped onion and sour cream, thereby instantly destroying the caviar’s subtle and entrancing flavour. It’s a sad comment on the Hungarian products that chopped onion and sour cream actually made them taste better!

Top-quality caviar doesn’t come my way very often. One of the most memorable times was when Caviar House in London hosted a tasting of all major types of Russian caviar. The difference between each kind – all of them superb- was as pronounced as those shown by major grape varieties. I was also lucky enough to get lavish portions every time I dined in the home of Professor Nils Sternby in Malmö, Sweden (see my article “Through a Glass Lightly“, Nov. 2010). Best of all, though, was when I got the chance to obtain an ample amount of the real thing – a half-kilo tin – and thereby familiarize myself with it in all kinds of combinations and over a number of days. This is how it came about.

I was living ln Sweden at the time and one day a friend of mine, an alcoholic Indian architect, Hitansu, turned to me, gave me a beaming, slightly squiffy smile, and asked if I’d like to acquire some superb Russian caviar at a very reasonable price. He didn’t need to assure me that there was nothing in it for him: he was notoriously high-minded and wouldn’t have dreamed of making a profit from a friend.

Though impoverished at the time I jumped at the offer. When would I ever get such a chance again? The price asked, 100 SEK (about £60-70 in today’s prices, I imagine) would make a big hole in our budget but it was, after all, only a tiny fraction of the going rate.

What did have to be borne with fortitude was Hitansu’s control-freakishness and his love of melodrama. Relishing his pivotal, if brief, role in this minor transaction, he milked it for all it was worth. What should have been a simple handover was stage-managed by him into something that resembled the clandestine transfer of state secrets. What gave it all added piquancy was that the vendor was a Russian and the Soviet Union was still (to some) a sinister presence not so very far from Sweden’s borders.

“You are to go to Sverigehuset” (the Swedish Tourist Office) “at exactly 10 o’clock tomorrow morning”, he said. “You will see a middleaged man wearing a black astrakhan hat. He will be holding a copy of Dagens Nyheter in his right hand. You are to go to him, say “Hitansu sent me” and hand him an envelope containing 100 SEK. He will then give you the caviar and you will leave immediately.” Then. as he often did, he emitted a cry of “Whack-ho Smedley!” (his way of showing his grudging respect and aversion for the British Raj) and wished me good luck.

The exchange took place as arranged, both parties resignedly following Hitansu’s instructions in his role as Control. The Russian looked as embarassed as I felt. But my discomfiture soon vanished, giving way to exultation. I walked home through Stockholm’s medieval Old Town, almost enjoying the occasional bang of the heavy tin against my knee. “Tonight’s the night!” I told myself, relishing the prospect of caviar galore.

Back at the flat, exultation gave way to trepidation as my wife and I registered the tin’s extremely unprepossessing appearance. Its two halves were held together by a broad rubber band. Oily fluid had leaked from within, scumbling the tin’s surface with something that looked Iike congealed fish-glue. Not a pretty sight. Had I wasted my money? We cut through the band, which was half-perished, and took off the lid, fearing the worst. ln fact, the caviar was in flawless condition. The grains were large, almost the size of garden peas, the colour a misty green-grey. The flavour was indescribably delicious. Over the next week we tried the caviar in every conceivable way: with blinis, with toast made from different kinds of bread, as garnish with fine fish, or just on its own. We tried it with all manner of drinks, too; vodka, Swedish brännvin, off-dry German Riesling, Sancerre, dry white Graves, Alsace whites, sparkling wine, and genuine champagne. My own favourite match was caviar spread on thin toast, very lightly-buttered, together with a really good champagne.

But back to Budapest.

Prior to our arrival, a friend (a writer friend) had put us in contact with his Hungarian publisher who, in response to my e-mail, sent a Iist of authentic non-touristy restaurants in Budapest. “You should put Bock Bisztro at the head of your Iist,” he wrote. ” It’s the Number One choice. Great Hungarian food and wines. You must book.”

And book we did. The place proved to be so good, and so clearly authentic, that we ate there twice. It’s a cosy place with a rustic, farmhouse style, with solid furniture and a convivial ambience. An accordion player nodded us a greeting as we entered, and a Iively young waiter took charge of us and was soon describing the various specialities in excellent English. “Don’t hesitate to ask if there’s something you’d Iike to know.” He answered our many queries in detail; when he was unable to describe exactly how one particular dish was prepared, he disappeared into the kitchen to get the full lowdown.

They do a splendid range of hors d’oeuvres at Bock Bisztro. They include one of the best smoked hams l’ve sampled anywhere (surely similar to the “sweet Prague ham” that Escoffier praises so fulsomely in Ma Cuisine); first-rate black pudding; lentil salad; pork scratchings; stuffed paprika; beetroot salad; dried sausage and much else. The desserts were Iight and refreshing. Among a series of Hungarian wines we tasted were a superb Furmint, vinified dry in the manner of a white Burgundy and tasting Iike a meld of Chardonnay and white Rhône; a powerful. Cabernet-Sauvignon from the ViIIany region, made by the respected Attila Gere; an exceptional Cabernet-Franc from the same source; and two sweet Tokajis, one four puttonos, the other six. Both proved that this wine, at its best, is one of the world’s greatest dessert wines.

I resolve to return to Hungary one day, to sample more of its cuisine and make a much deeper exploration of its wines.



1966 CHATEAU LATOUR ****(*)
Level : into neck. Densely coloured, this looks about 25-30 years’ old. The bouquet, initially Iight, seems more in the elegant Saint Julien mode rather than Pauillac, suggesting damson, blackberry, dark chocolate, and cigarbox. There’s also a hint of clay. The flavour is taut and elegant, with noticeable acidity. The latter abates with contact with the air, and the flavour expands, showing incisiveness and real poise.

What happens next is typical of great, mature claret as it evolves – in decanter and in glass. The wine fills out, showing that ·the tannins are almost wholly absorbed, though still perceptible. There’s no astringency or bitterness.

It grows more complex, and fuller, by the minute, showing ever-increasing depth and complexity. The nose is now infinitely more nuanced, with notes of truffle, smoke, sweet black cherries. What must be a tiny proportion of Petit Verdot shows in a fugitive flick of Iiquorice. By now, the bouquet is really lovely, growing in volume and intensity all the time. A great Pauillac, with the constitution of a 25-year-old and the capacity to go on improving for another quarter-century.

The best of 10 bottles of this wine tasted over the past 20 years.

1990 CLOS DE LA ROCHE (Domaine Armand Rousseau) ****
The colour is a medium plum-purple with a gingery rim, the nose round and expansive, evoking wild cherry, plum and plumstone, carnation, and peony. On the palate, sensuous and fleshy, with lovely acidity. It expands steadily in the mouth, an interplay between fruit and oak creating hints of cinnamon and saffron. A noble Burgundy of effortless harmony, smooth and voluminous, showing Clos de la Roche power, with something of nearby Gevrey’s ferruginous spiciness. Caresses the palate. Delicious now but with power in reserve.

2005 BATARD MONTRACHET (Domaine Leflaive) ****
This has a rich yellow-gold colour and a full, luscious nose of apricot, chlorophyll, honey, and Iime peel. It’s a gorgeous, complex and buoyant Chardonnay aroma, full but without heaviness. The masterful flavour, with hints of pistachio, is almost excessively intense – time is needed to let inner fires burn down a little. A chunky wine at this stage, full and grapy, with the kind of emphatic power that’s the hallmark of a great Bâtard. Will improve for years.

1999 RIOJA GRAN RESERVA “LA GRANJA” (Remelluri) ***(*)
An intense, typically Tempranillo blue-purple colour, with slight browning at the rim. The nose is broad and vigorous, recognizably Riojan but not (unlike some others) in a caricatural way. It smells of bilberry, blackcurrant, graphite, and elderberry. The balanced, very svelte flavour has real distinction, and while packed with ripe, luscious fruit, it shows the kind of classic restraint so typical of really balanced wines. A distinguished Rioja for long keeping.

The colour is a rich, slightly orangey yellow-gold but without any hint of that sinister coppery tinge of oxidation. The big, lush bouquet presents a perfect sphere of aromas – apricot, orange, fig. A smell that’s both weighty and fresh.

Lush and mouth-filling, it tastes of orange and apricot and has a very long, orangey finish. No oxidation whatever.

1989 CHINON “LES CORNUELLES” (Serge Sourdais) ****
A beautiful glinting black-purple, this wine from very old vines has a weighty, “furry” smell of damson, violet, dark chocolate, and wet soil, with truffle and Iiquorice showing too. The flavour is quite full, juicily rich, and long. A lovely bottle, still with plenty of Iife.

1988 RIESLING “CLOS SAINTE HUNE” [Trimbach) *****
The rich, glittery yellow-gold colour promises greatness, the bouquet delivers it: mingled scents of orange, apricot, white truffle, and honey, all in perfect harmony. The flavour, wholly dry yet succulent, conjures up apricot, melon, tobacco, and spice. The aftertaste, faintly bitter in an agreeable way, is very mineral and exceedingly long. The wine just gets better and better, and increasingly youthful. The finish expands to incorporate a suggestion of melted butter and Brazil nut. A great Riesling.

© Frank Ward 2011

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