Last week I was fortunate to have been invited to the Hungarian ambassador’s mansion for an event called the “Culinary Corner by Chef Merényi.” It begins with a selection of pálinka fruit brandies (distilled from pears and plums), somewhere in the range of 70 to 80 proof—this is how some Hungarians start their day, with a shot in the early morning hours, followed by working in the fields from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m., then breakfast. It certainly beats my bowl of Smart Start.
But this was not your typical diplomatic affair. First, five other guests and I were outfitted with aprons. Then, for the main dining, we gathered around the kitchen island where the award-winning chef Viktor Merényi provided a cooking demo and involved us in the meal (my task was to operate the pasta maker).
Years ago I visited Budapest but the only things I remember eating are a goose leg and pork belly. This time we had duck rillettes, goose liver brulée (minus the sugar, of course) with roasted chestnut coulis, and those tiny baked pogácsa. We then moved on to Hungarian fish soup (a rich red broth owing to fresh paprika) containing panko-crusted catfish, a morsel of lobster, and a derelye dumpling that made use of the pasta so expertly flattened by yours truly. The main course was a sort of Lamb Wellington—a phyllo-wrapped oven-baked rack of lamb (sous-vide) with cauliflower foam (yes, foam has even come to Hungary), and a delicately fried potato galette with a mushroom garnish. No, there was no goulash.
Aside from the traditional Christmas baked treats, the main after-dinner attraction were the three dessert wines, which the six guests were challenged to place blindly on a placemat—one was a Ruffino Moscato d’asti, another was a Koch Kunsági Jégbor ice wine, and the third was a Muskotály Premium Selection 2006 Tokaj. I knew the Tokaj would be the sweetest, but how to distinguish the ice wine from the Moscato? With one sip I immediately realized which one was the Italian Moscato d’asti because for decades now my parents have always had extremely sweet $10 bottles of Riunite or Martini & Rossi Asti Spumante for Thanksgiving. I’m not a fan of the stuff—but I recognized its relation to this Ruffino Moscato d’asti. In the end I got the three wines placed correctly and won a Gundel’s Hungarian Cookbook—and I truly have my parents to thank!
And special thanks to Anna Stumpf, the embassy’s congressional liaison officer responsible for this event intended to promote U.S.-Hungarian goodwill. I’d say it worked.
Photos by Zita Merényi-Bolla