I tried to come up with a clever title for this post, but really, do I need anything more gimmicky than what it actually is–an entire festival devoted to Hungarian sausage and fruit brandy?
The festival is held at Buda Castle, an impressive arrangement of enormous gilded buildings on a a very high hill on the Buda side of Budapest. In the middle of the festival, just next to the main stage, is one of the most extraordinary fountains I’ve ever seen. Twenty-five feet tall and festooned with dead animals, hunting dogs, men in cloaks, and a goat, it is in turns awe-inspiring, absurd and a bit frightening, depending on how many shots of palinka you’ve had at any given time.
The entry is confusing, and a little expensive, but once through you have a wristband, a tiny stemmed tulip shotglass, and a “festival” card loaded with money for in-festival purchases. We went early Thursday afternoon, the first day of the festival. On the one hand, there wasn’t much going on. No bands until 6pm, and very few people who were not tourists attending. In fact, very few people period. On the other hand, this made what would normally have been a very intimidating situation much more accessible since all of the pálinka servers (who rarely spoke English, and our Hungarian is sort of limited to the terms below) literally had nothing better to do than to mime pouring and paying actions, stumble through explanations, and figure out whatever it was we were trying to order.
There were about twenty pálinka vendors, each with at least ten pálinkas to try, but usually more, and six or seven food vendors. We dove in, and learned a few things. First, some key vocabulary words:
Pálinka: if you didn’t know by now it is a distilled fruit brandy, 100% fruit, usually somewhere between 40-60% alcohol. Ranges from clear to light brown or brownish red.
Méz/mézes: means honey or honeyed. Many pálinkas have honey added to tone down the harshness. Probably used most on cheaper versions, it is quite good when well balanced.
Ágyas: pronounced AG-yash, it literally means in bed. The brandy is aged on a bed of fruit, which seems to make for a mellower, darker, often more complex spirit.
Érlelt: old, aged. These are usually darker and more complex, like in most spirits
Meggy: sour cherry. Szilva: plum. The Hungarians are obsessed with sour cherries and plums.
I learned that I preferred pálinka aged on fruit beds. I like it with honey, but only sometimes, as a heavy hand can make your pálinka taste like Kool-aid and vodka. My favorite I tried was a sour cherry agyas pálinka from a company called Bekesi.
We had some sausage. Note that for reasons we haven’t yet figured out, any Hungarian sausage with paprika added is also incredibly oily. Like when you cut into it, it looks like it is bleeding. And no, it’s not blood sausage–the woman at the sausage counter made sure to point the blood sausage out to us and steered us away, though I’ve had blood sausage I liked before. We also had a “traditional” dish that appeared to consist of spaetzel like potato or flour pieces coated with hot cottage cheese and topped with raisins and bacon chunks. My description makes it sound like something a four-year-old would make when you leave them alone in the kitchen unsupervised, but honestly it was pretty good, in a dirty, cheesy, hangover food-gorge kind of way.
Maybe all Hungarian food is really drunk food.
In a different post soon, Joe will “beverage nerd out” on some of his favorite pálinka.