Oct 12, 2010

Nagy Vasarcsarnok

On my last day in Budapest, I spent at least 30 minutes in the market, pacing up and down, having a Serious Talk with myself.  Sometimes I want to buy things, but I'm not sure whether I should.  This can lead to animated discussion, luckily the market is a suitable place.

The Central Market Hall (Nagy Vasarcsarnok) was designed by Samuel Pecs  in a historicist style: cheerful tiles, a clear roof spanning a vast open space,  unsubtly contributing to the Hungarian patriotic dream.  It has been bustling (well, mostly) with tourists, locals and everyone in between from 1897, and is high on my list of recommendations for anyone passing through Budapest.
The stalls maintain an interesting balance between specialising in tourist trinkets and selling real food, as you'd expect from a market.  On the ground floor are stalls packed with paprika, mountains of goose liver, and miles of salami (kolbász).  If you add the golden glint of Tokaj Aszú and the clarity promised by thin bottles of palinka, you have the stereotypical image of Hungary compressed into a few square metres, available to you for a mere few thousand forints.
But around the corner lies a selection of fresh vegetables that would intimidate most greengrocers.  And butchers with all the bits and pieces, including smoked pork tongue, rolls of salted pork and slabs of fat.   Geese and ducks, their breasts prominently displayed. Chickens dismembered in all possible ways.
Near the door a bent old lady sells freshly picked mushrooms, brought by the kilo from a forest somewhere not very far.

The top floor is the one with souvenirs: shirts and caps and hats and lace and all that.  Also a few vendors that sell food, ranging from traditional filled cabbage and stuffed peppers and the inevitable goulash, to more tourist friendly fare.  Next to them a spot where you can always pick up an early glass of wine, or perhaps something stronger.

I find the underground level the most intriguing, very few tourists explore this deep.  Carp yawn patiently in overpopulated tanks, while the heads of their freshly slaughtered friends glisten green on trays above.  One leviathan, post decapitation, its head as big as mine.  Trout rest on ice, herring float in jars.  It is too early in the year for game, so the mounted antlers loom above an empty stall.  And a pickle lady, surrounded by cabbage, peppers, cauliflower and gherkins in jars, bottles and buckets.  I really need a kitchen in this town. 
The object of my affection, and the subject of my Serious Talk, was the cured and smoked face of a pig.  Schweinebacke would describe it in German, but the British have long since banished certain body parts from their tables, and then from the language too.
Various factors had to be considered before purchase.  I first tried to predict the response of my house mates - they are surprisingly tolerant, but I don't want to push things too far.  Then there was the negotiation with the moustached man behind the counter.  Hungarian, German or English, in that order of preference.  Although I can only claim 50% proficiency in the language arena, I believed I would still succeed.  Pointing, smiling, weighing, the universal hand signal for careful wrapping so I can put it in my bag next to my formal shirt.  No problem.  I would probably not be able to discuss the finer points of what to do with all the bits, sadly.  The cheeks are quite fleshy, therefore easily applied.  The rest?  Various soups and stews, I suspect.  Good.  The transformation of pork into food has never challenged me. 

But then I wondered what the customs man would say.  The 800g of paprika is excusable, my fairly complete collection of kolbasz probably too, as we're all part of the EU family now.  The distilled beverages are probably safe.  But trying to explain body parts hidden in my luggage?  As food?  When it looks like muti?  It's not illegal, but it could be complicated.  I don't think the customs guys are selected based on their cultural open-mindedness*.   So I left it there.

It looked so happy. 

* I still love and respect them though (I have to pass through their gates regularly)


Marie said...

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaah, you LEFT it???

I laughed out loud when you go to the pig face. The story of he market was already a wonderful one but gold stars for the pig. Now that arcadia has explained a little bit about you and pigs in a previous post, I appreciate the Serious Conversation better.

I like it when you go to Hungary.

Imagine getting to a picnic, and out of the big white napkin comes...a whole pig face!

Jeanne said...

A smiley, Hungarian-style! ;-)

jvdh said...

M - you'll have to choose your picnic with care... Only open-minded pork lovers need apply.

I think I need to have a chat with the butcher down the road.

m-l said...

"I really need a kitchen in this town" - know exactly what you mean!

Ellen Zachos said...

Oh what I'd give for that mushroom selection!