Debrecen & Hortobagy
Crossing part of the puszta (plains) we travelled East to Debrecen, Hungary’s second city, where we dined that evening at the gourmet Ikon restaurant. With all ingredients sourced from within 30 km, I especially enjoyed the potted duck starter and the main course with Mangalica pig cheek, beetroot, lentils and mushrooms; served respectively with spicy Eger Battonage Chardonnay 2012 wine, and Osszetett 2014, with its red fruit flavours. Here we met Nóra Erdei, our friendly and helpful guide to the city and region.
As Nóra explained, Debrecen became the capital briefly in 1944-45 and is a predominantly Calvinist city. Its neo-Classical Reformed Great Church (1824) dominates the pedestrianized Kossuth square, bordered on one side by curving tram lines, which add to its attractiveness. Public transport is generally good in the city, with trams, trolley buses and cycle tracks; and it can be reached by train or road in 21/2 hours from Budapest. For a more natural scene, the large ‘Great Forest’ city park is 2km from the centre, and easily reached by tram. This has quiet wooded areas for sitting and walking, as well as a zoo, botanical gardens and a 50m swimming pool complex with jacuzzi, sauna and – yes, a thermal bath.
However, the unique landscape and ecology of the region, is best experienced in the Hortobágy National Park, about half an hour away by car or bus, or 40 minutes by train. This World Heritage area of puszta (plains) is the largest area of semi-natural grassland in Europe, with wide treeless pastures and wetlands. We had a superb view of this habitat and its traditional grazing livestock from a cart drawn by one of the local Hungarian Nonius horses, from which we could quietly approach flocks of unique spiral-horned Racka sheep and a herd of water buffalo. Grazing cattle of the ancient Hungarian Grey breed could be seen from the road.
The horsemanship of the traditional herders of the puszta is legendary, and we were treated to a brilliant display, including the famous driving of five horses; as well as having a chance to ride ourselves, under close supervision.
We were extremely lucky to be in Hortobágy in late October, as this is the migration period for over 100,000 Common Cranes, which rest for around a month here, on their way from Northern Russia and Finland to over-winter in North Africa and the Mediterranean. We saw several hundred cranes feeding on spilt maize in fields surrounding fish ponds in Hortobágy, while small groups flew overhead between fields, as did flocks of Greater White-Fronted and Greylag geese. As evening fell a White-tailed Eagle kept watch from the edge of a pond, while Curlews and Grey Herons foraged in the shallows.
Every evening the Cranes move to the fish ponds to spend the night standing in the water, where they are safe from predators. We could just make out the flocks arriving as night fell, with a few stragglers passing overhead as we walked back through the dusk, calmed by the tranquility of this unique spot.
Tokaji wines are the most well-known in Hungary, and we eagerly anticipated the wine tour and tasting on our final day at the village of Mád in Tokaj region, easily reached form Debrecen by train or scheduled coach. Our visit to the Első Mádi vineyard showed us the great influence of soil and variety, but also of the importance of careful husbandry and harvesting. Of great benefit to the vineyard is the micro-porous mineral zeolite – an important component of the volcanic ash-derived soil of the region. This absorbs water which is directly available to vine roots. Fragments of root can even be seen emerging from some of the of stones and rocks removed as obstacles to cultivation
Orsolya Kovacs, our expert guide, showed us how the sweet Aszú grapes, crucial as additives to the traditional Tokaji, are individually picked from bunches as they progressively exhibit the ‘noble rot’ (Botrytis), which concentrates their sugar content. Consumer taste is changing from the traditional sweet Tokaji wines to drier whites and the best local Furmint variety is the basis for many good dry wines without Aszú grapes, while ‘late harvested’ wine based on whole bunches will contain a varying proportion of Aszú, and of levels of sweetness. A new winery will from 2015 use stainless steel tanks to produce a produce medium quality wine, but the best single vineyard vintage wines are aged in Hungarian oak barrels.
We tasted the Első Mádi 2014, based on Sárga Muskotály (Yellow Muscat); the excellent very dry Mád Furmint 2014 – with citrus, and pear notes, and a honey finish; and the dry superb and smooth oak-aged Szent Tamas 2011, made from Furmint grapes from a single 3.5ha area, with a hint of apricot and soft tannins. The vineyard’s Gusteau restaurant menus are based around their wines, and we were served a delicious lunch. A little pork crackling fried in oil, creamed with eggs and served with onion marmalade awakened our taste-buds; followed by a starter of egg and caviar -stuffed dough with chicken in a yellow paprika and tomato sauce; and a main course of braised young beef with mushroom laska, creamed potato, carrot and parsnip and spinach coulis.
This whistle-stop tour left me longing to explore further and for longer all the things we saw and tasted, from the architectural and cultural gems of the cities to the vineyards and wild areas of the hills and plains. Access to most areas by rail and bus is good, roads are quiet, and food and drink are excellent and very reasonably priced. And relaxing and therapeutic salt baths are everywhere!