There is an old Hungarian saying that if you dig a hole, hot water comes up. Throughout the alluring city of Budapest, thermal spas abound. The Gellert Hotel supersedes all competitors. Standing majestically on the banks of the Danube and at the foot of Gellert Hill, sits the marvelous Art-Nouveau spa.
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Often proclaimed as the “world’s greatest spa,” There is little to contradict such a bold statement. With every visit to these noble baths, find myself feeling more at home and at one with this city. From the hotel’s Panorama View Restaurant, the Danube River has settled to a serene and tranquil evening calm.
“Would you stop,” the lovely young lady sitting across from me playfully scoffed. “You sound like like a commercial for the Gellert.”
Laughter and a sense of joviality set the mood for our tasting. Today, I am joined by longtime friend and fellow sommelier, Nora Haumand.
“I promise you that if tomorrow is a sunny day, we will visit the Szechenyi Baths,” I assured Nora.
A playful smile filled her face. “Ah yes, their pool is my favorite.”
“There is one fact about Budapest that you most definitely must share with our readers,” Nora’s tone was matter of fact. “The history of our name.”
Budapest is actually comprised of two cities, Buda and Pest, with the Danube River separating them. What is also quite interesting is the Roman Empire ended with the hills that surrounded Buda; while the Hunnic Empire of Atila the Hun, began on the plains of Pest.
“Gregory, you have the soul of a Hungarian,” Nora flashed me a quick wink.
“I think my Cossack friends in Ukraine would beg to differ,” I paused to collect my thoughts. “Perhaps I was a Hun in a previous life.”
“No, not a Hun,” Nora quickly broke. “Most likely a Hungarian gypsy.”
We erupted euphorically. “Complete with violin, no doubt,”I toyed playfully. “What is for dinner, I’m famished. And more importantly,” I paused for effect. “What wines have you selected?”
As our server quickly set our table, I marveled at the spectacular feast set before us. Our dinner was comprised of various traditional Hungarian dishes that one would expect from so grand a meal, and so opulent a restaurant.
“Nora,” I called for her attention. “I have heard tell that two million people dwell in Budapest, but only two-thousand live.”
Her face brightened into a smile as she poured me a glass of rose. “And let there be no doubt which category we share.”
We began our meal with the customary bowl of Gulyas soup, accompanied by a delectable array of hot peppers, fatanyeros, grilled stuffed cabbages. nokedli, small dumplings, and roasted pork, all served with a generous helping of paprika. Nora also ordered hortobagyi palcsinta, a savory crepe filled with veal and served in saffron, a particular favorite of mine. Hungarian cuisine is always accompanied by an assortment of cheeses. Our table had been graced with turo, a type of quark, juturo, ewe-cheese, trappista, a semi-hard cheese, and palpusztai, a soft cheese.
“Are you ready for dessert?” Nora smiled broadly.
“Dessert?” I queried. “I’m stuffed.
“Gregory, shame on you,” she toyed playfully. “We are here to do a tasting on dessert wines.”
At length, I looked up, gave her wink and flashed an even grin. “If I must … I guess it’s back to the salt mines.”
Hungarian dessert wines begin and end with Tokaji. For most Hungarians, Tokaji wines can only be spoken of in the superlative. Part of the success of these wines is in fact due to geography. The country’s far north region, which borders Slovakia, boasts a unique climate. Due to the protection of the nearby Zemplen mountains, the foothills are known for their long warm autumns. Completely unique to this region are the mists that come in from the Boldrog River. These mists contribute to the creation of a perfect condition for the “noble rot.” The botrytised (aszu) grapes for which this region is famous thrive until picked as late as mid-November. The next step is to store the grapes in buckets known as ‘puttonyos,’ and crush them to a paste. Varying amounts of aszu paste are then added to pomace or a wine that is made from the region’s indigenous grapes. At this point, the mixture is then left to ferment. The resulting wine is then aged in small barrels. Another uniqueness in the making of this legendary wine are the storage facilities. Typically the barrels are stored in a soft volcanic tuff, on whose walls thick blankets of fungus regulate the humidity.
Our first selection was a Pannon Tokaj Forditas 2008.
“Egeszsegedre,” Nora toasted me. “I really like this wine. It shows apricot on the nose and fruit and honey on the palate. Though sweet, there is a bit more tannic acid than other aszu wines.”
“I like the fact that the Forditas can either be drunk now or aged for another 5-7 years,” my reply was one of certainty.
“I also like that it goes well with most any desserts.”
“Like our crepes, the Gundel Palacsinta filled with nuts and chocolate sauce,” I teased.
“But of course,” Nora flashed me a wide beaming smile. “I would also serve the Forditas at 50-54 degrees Fahrenheit.
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Keeping with theme of Aszu wines, our next selection was a Pannon Tokaji Aszu 3 Puttonyos 2004. This wine proved to be well-balanced showing lime, apricot, and botrytis on the nose. Citrus, honey, and fruity flavors on the palate. What really sparked my attention was how the flavors and fragrances of modern wine making and the traditional barrel aging are united quite elegantly. Our 2004 Pannon showed best at 50-54 degrees Fahrenheit. It can also be aged from 5-10 years.
“I knew you would favor this wine,” Nora paused to heighten my anticipation. “Not only does the wine go well with desserts and blue cheese, it also pairs nicely goose liver pate.”
Just then our waiter approached our table, and to my utter delight, he presented me with a small dish of my favorite foie gras.
Our last wine, a Pannon Tokali Aszu 6 Puttonyos 2004 a bit on the pricey side but a sheer delight to those who have imbibed and enjoyed this aromatic and intoxicating elixer. What makes this Tokaji so delectable is after pressing, the juice is fermented and aged in wooden barrels for at least two years. The resulting wine can be drunk now or aged 15-20 years.
“For me this is the dessert wine of dessert wines,” Nora’s delight was quite evident. “I would also chill it to 50-54 degrees Fahrenheit and serve it with sweets.”
I would agree that the wine is well made and I can clearly see why those who are enchanted prefer it. However, I’m afraid this wine is a bit too scented for my palate,” I shared my hesitation with Nora. “I also find the honey, citrus, and fruity flavors a trifle over powering.”
“Perhaps you should try it with some foie gras,” Nora chuckled. “it actually pairs quite nicely.”
“Touche,” I gave her a quick wink. “I need to walk off dinner. Can I interest you in a moonlight stroll along the Danube …”
“But that my friends is another story …”