Lake Balaton is often referred to as the “Hungarian Sea” and holds a deeply meaningful place in the hearts of many Magyars. Only two hours by train from Budapest, it’s a place to get away from the urban grime and unbearable summer heat of the sweltering capital and immerse oneself in a weekend of bare feet and cool breezes. I must admit that seeing so many carefree, happy Hungarians in one place is strange and unnatural when coming from Budapest. Even the most suspicious and cynical malcontent of the bunch seems to leave his politics and general Central European gloom back in the city, where it belongs. The change is notable even when merely mentioning the Balaton to a Hungarian. The topic is like a pacifier. Eyes glaze over and the mind travels back to the days of childhood, those summer days spent playing in the lake.
I have those memories too. My grandfather’s family owned a timeshare in Balatonszéplak-felső on the southern side of the lake, a little house with a big front yard. The house was cleverly named Szakállszárító, which translates literally to “Beard dryer” and refers to a bench where old people sit in front of their houses in Transylvania. Although the house has been sold since my grandfather passed away, endless memories remain of hunting lizards in ditches alongside the road and spending whole days out by the water. The funny thing is that despite having spent so many summers by that lake, I never once crossed to the other side or really left Balatonszéplak-felső at all. This is typical, I think, to most Hungarian families: Great-grandpa claimed a chunk along the water and built a house there before the land was developed for tourism, quadrupling in price. Since then each generation of children and grandchildren have spent the summer at that house in that specific region with which they have come to associate their summers. Occasionally, entire trains cars full of rambunctious teens and tourists descend upon Siófok, which has gradually become the official party hub of the lake. But usually the Balaton-bound know exactly where they’re going and it’s where their family has been going for decades.
This was my first summer home after the death of my grandparents, the first July without the Szakállszárító. And for the first time I became curious about the other side. So I did one of these:
I crossed the lake on a ferry that runs from Szántód to Tihany, the latter of which is a small peninsula jutting out into the water on the western side of the lake. From there I took a bus to Balatonfüred with the intention to spend only an hour or two there before hopping on a southbound train to the Balaton’s major wine region, Badacsony, where I had a meeting set up with a wine maker by the name of Bence Laposa. I didn’t make it to Badacsony. And it wasn’t just because of the irregularity of the MAV train schedule. Balatonfüred is a town that locks you in with its beauty, a place where it’s impossible to spend less than 3 hours. A leafy green promenade along clear blue water leads to a bustling dock lined with sailboats. Two fisherman sit patiently, pulling a trout or carp or catfish out of the water every couple of minutes, while standers-by lean over the railing of the dock to watch. Lake and sky mirror one another and the horizon seems endless, but for the occasional cluster of ducks and swans disturbing the otherwise perfectly tranquil water. Live music from a stage in the town square nearby provides the place with a soundtrack. Everyone seems happy there and their happiness is contagious. Even alone it was a place I enjoyed immensely, a place where I found a calmness that has recently become quite difficult for me to attain.
Just a few steps from the stage on which a music festival was (conveniently!) held on the day of my visit is a wine hall named König Borház. It’s a local joint that seems like it’s been there for a while, where most of the guests are weekly or even daily regulars and on a first name basis with the women who run the bar. The place carries wines predominantly from the Balaton, of varietals very typical to the region: Olaszrizling, Szürkebarát, Kékfrankos, etc. Most of these are on tap and can be consumed in 1 dL and 2 dL quantities or as fröccs with seltzer added. Spotting a dry white from Badacsony, my original destination, I ordered it. I also ordered a snack that is particular to Balatonfüred and very popular there, especially when paired with wine. It’s something called velős pirítós and it’s one of two snacks offered at König Borház. The other option is zsíros kenyér, which is a slice of bread smeared with pork lard and topped with paprika and red onion. Zsíros kenyér is delicious, but available at pretty much every dive bar in Hungary. I decided to go with the one I hadn’t tried, the regional specialty.
Velős pirítós translates literally to “marrow toast,” in which “brain marrow” is understood. The pork brain is prepared with a pörkölt base, which means it is cooked with sauteed onions, salt, pepper, smoky paprika and something called cherry paprika, which gives it its bright red color. When the brain has reached a stewed consistency and most of the added water has evaporated, a thick layer of it is smeared onto a slice of toast, which is then re-toasted. This achieves a slight crunch on the exterior of the topping that is otherwise mushy and soft on the inside. It’s a dish I never knew existed, and when I asked the friendly bartender how it’s made she seemed taken aback by my lack of knowledge of what is such a popular and commonplace dish in town. I felt slightly less embarrassed when I asked around about velős pirítós in Budapest, where nobody seemed to know what it was either. Some guessed it was toast with bone marrow slathered on, a snack which old ladies particularly seem to enjoy. But no one knew of toast smeared with paprika-seasoned pork brains.
It was awesome. So awesome, in fact, that I finished the entire plateful despite having only recently had lunch. The crunch of toast made with real, crusty Hungarian bread held up against the moist mash of brains, which had a great solid exterior layer to break through before getting to the good stuff. The brains were not a smooth puree but a lumpy spread, with wonderful little pockets of fat and flavor that kept every bite interesting. The subtle muskiness of the brain was balanced by the perfect amount of smoky paprika and salt. The combination of Hungarian pörkölt and that funk of innards I love so much was enough for me to close my eyes and hum with delight after each bite, humming to nobody but myself at my table for one. Gosh…darn it, was it good! The thing kicked major snack butt on its own, but was especially wonderful paired with my very dry wine, the acidity of which was calmed down by the fattiness of the brain and subsequent crunch of toast.
The most ridiculous part of the entire velős pirítós experience was that the dish cost me $500 forints, roughly $2 USD. The 2 dL glass of wine was $200 forints, which is about 75 cents. The quantity was generous, more than enough to last me through the rest of the afternoon. The quality of both topping and bread, not to mention the attention paid to the seasoning was well worth at least three times that price. I guarantee if something like this was offered in a restaurant in D.C. with a French name slapped on and the plate garnished nicely, a tapas version would sell for $12, easily. As it were, the brain toast and wine at König was the perfect snack to slow me to a halt and put me in the right mood to explore this beautiful town.