The trip was organised through Open Trips, a site where you dream and design your perfect food holiday, recruit some companions and find help to get it organised.
Mád is close to Tokaj and some of the best wine in the region comes from this village. 15 foreigners descended on this quiet village to bemuse the locals, steal the wifi in their bar, relieve local winemakers of excess bottles and laugh at the ‘Balaton Bumm’ confectionery. There was a large contingent of south London food bloggers, a Berlin raw food expert, some UK wine merchants (distracted from their tastings by the promise of blood), and a German journalist ready to record the event.
Sights in the village were few; there’s a strangely baroque synagogue, recently restored and a poignant reminder of mid-century pogroms. A local Catholic man has ensured its protection. There were the local community gardens, raided by us for our dinners; the locals thoroughly sick of an endless tomato glut. And there was an English shop – we saw a number in Hungarian villages – where London clothing discards lay ready to ignite local fashion trends. At the entrance of the village was a modern tasting room funded by one of the wine producers, where we chewed the raw Mangalitza pig bacon and drank bottles of dry Furmint. Our wine experts declared it was as good as high quality Burgundy.
The guest house was quaint and folksy. A longhouse of bedrooms: old carved beds, embroidered confirmation dresses, crucifixes and religious paintings. A preserved well head in the orchard-garden, and a huge outdoor brick oven begging to be lit.
The first day we take an old coach via Tokaj to one of the rivers that runs across the plain to watch fish being caught in nets. These northern fringes of the Hungarian Plain are marshy. Watching from flat boats we see the fishermen retrieve their traps; carp and zander mainly. We kill and gut the catch which is then shallow fried by the family running the riverside restaurant. Stuffed with pickles, fish and wine we take possession of a metre-long zander, christened Ziggy the zander. This poor fish spends its final hours on the coach, lodging temporarily in the fridges of at least 3 vintners while we tour.
We take a stiff walk up the slopes of the Hétszőlő vineyard just outside Tokaj, which dates back to 1500. A pretty site with long views over the plain and marshland. We talked about and tasted the furmint and muscat grapes; then moved into Tokaj itself to visit their cellar, its walls covered in a matted black fungus. Communism massively disrupted the industry so there is little old stock in their wine library. It’s now owned by the same people as own Château Cos d’Estournel. We tasted a 5 puttonyos aszu; the botrytised wine the region is famed for.
The last stop is at a small winery run by a French family. Samuel Tinon shows us two sherry-like wines fermented under a flor. It is better than sherry – fruity and smoky: £20 & £40 a bottle. We are all hugely impressed. Finally another great aszu – over £50.
And then he let us taste his Eszencia. This is one of the rarest wines in the world, so it involves pipettes and teaspoons. It’s barely a wine at all; the sugar levels almost prevents fermentation, alcohol barely reaches 3-5%. This thick amber nectar is simply the juice of botrytised vine berries that runs off from the vats in which they are collected. Samuel described it more as a sediment in his barrels. There are stories of 16th century bottles which still exist – looted by the Nazis and then by the Soviets. Samuel’s bottles cost £450.
This is trip is partly about cooking and improvising. So the first evening is spent pickling kohl rabi, beetroot, celeriac, and lemon courgettes rescued from local gardens. Back at the guest house we make Lecsó over an open fire. This is a vegetable stew with local wax peppers, paprika and sausages, thickened with large numbers of eggs. Local wine makers bring their offerings.
On day 2 we have our totem fish to cook. I wash Ziggy in my shower. The large brick oven is fired up with logs (and with some difficulty) and he is roasted. The oven is shared with a tray of peppers, and our German raw food chef prepares a tomato and walnut salad. Local wine makers bring more of their own.
On the Monday we go foraging in the woods for mushrooms. The local ranger take us past hedges heavy with sloes into the oak and beech forest. It’s been dry recently so fungi are elusive. But we find bracket fungus, bleeding a thick red goo. We hear the wild boar and find a carcass. The two hunting trips are unsuccessful; on one they hear the boar, on the other they spot deer.
After a lunch of more Lecsó we walk into the village to a local butcher turned cheese maker. He shows us his cellar and we taste a range of cheeses. Those deemed acceptable to the local market are young, soft and flavoured. We prefer the more experimental and excellent Swiss-style and blue cheeses. Oh, and more wine.
The young mayor welcomes us into us into his new mansion for more cheese and wines. He’d built a two-storey viewing platform/summer house out the back with views over all the great vineyards of the town. The late afternoon light floods bright orange light into the green vineyard – quite beautiful. Across the other side of the village on a hill in a classed vineyard is another vast mansion. Not quite complete, said the mayor, who taunts us with its £150,000 asking price. And that includes 2 hectares of vineyard. Half the group is ready to put in an offer.
The mayor then takes us down the road to see a massive hole being excavated. It’s possibly the mayor’s meat larder or maybe his cellar. But it also seems to be a future tourist information point, a spa, and a centre for Segway tours. Anyway the EU is right behind it. In the cellar of the local library we’re treated to a meal of roasted goat and potatoes, while local wine luminaries ply us with more wine.
Amusing the Brits is the Hungarian for ‘cheers’ which sounded something like ‘I-shag-a-deer’ (in a husky accent). Strictly speaking it’s ‘Egészségedre’.