Ireland’s Young Chef of the Year 2019, the supremely talented pastry chef Gráinne Mullins, recalls a life-changing meal at a memorable destination restaurant.
I love food, but I especially love sampling new cuisines when I travel and explore new places.
The understanding you get from eating a delicious tagine in Morocco, or a bouillabaisse in Marseille, is something that cannot be experienced in the same way elsewhere.
Something special happens when you are enjoying the bright, saffron red potatoes – with too many dollops of rouille! – while overlooking the port in Marseille, for example.
Throughout my life meals have been changing my views. They inspire me, they teach me, and they certainly allow me to be transported.
One meal in particular that stands out to me is one I had in Babel, in Budapest, a couple of years ago.
I was attending a friend’s wedding in Nemti and I decided to extend my holiday a little further afield and have a break for myself to explore more of Hungary.
Throughout the trip the weather had been beautiful and I was really enjoying my time. My Hungarian friend, Agi, and her family had fed us the most amazing food and drink, almost all sourced from their garden. Preserving is of huge importance in Hungary and they were proud to show off their Pálinka and pickles.
When I got to spending some time by myself I was excited about what goodies I would stumble across in the city. On my first night I made a last-minute reservation for Babel, I had read about it in a guide book I'd found in my apartment. I rang to see if they had any available tables and I was lucky enough to get one for their last sitting.
From the moment I arrived, I felt as if I were entering into a very unique world. I decided to go for the ten-course tasting menu – with wine pairing – I was on holidays, after all!
The restaurant was comfortable, yet had a deeply luxurious feel. I was soon told about the restaurant’s philosophy, how they were going back to their roots, serving Hungarian food, but more specifically, Transylvanian cuisine. I would bet that most people don’t even know what this would involve ... neither did I.
There were potatoes, there was cabbage and there was even the most delicious bread and butter. Of course, these were all familiar ingredients, but using the traditions of pickling and fermenting, the flavours here were truly elevated.
The meal was also a journey through chef István Veres’ childhood. István has previously worked at L’Arpège, Paris; L’Ortolan, London; Maze from Gordon Ramsay, also in London and at our very own Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, in Dublin.
The bread was not too far from our soda bread and served with delicious butters: leek, pine and “bio butter”. The amuse bouche embraced the traditional sour cream and red cabbage that’s served in Hungary but in a teaspoon-sized mouthful. It left me craving more and excited to discover how the chef's culture and traditions were going to be showcased.
Chefs came and went, explaining dishes with incredible detail, and that’s exactly what I love to hear – the passion when someone gets carried away talking about every intricate detail.
Meanwhile, my sommelier, who was showcasing amazing Hungarian wines, clearly loved his job too, and the pairings were exciting and balanced.
It was very much an interactive meal. For the sorbet course, I had to use a pestle and mortar; broths and sauces were poured tableside and at one stage a blowtorch even made an appearance.
The whole experience was exciting and I didn’t for a moment feel lonely, even though I was dining by myself. I actually enjoyed the fact that there was no one there to interrupt my dining experience! It was a moment where I could sit back and enjoy some beautiful food, in beautiful surroundings.
Meanwhile, the atmosphere was just perfect, but it was the showcasing of Hungarian culture that so impressed me. It made me rethink what inspired me from a young age, the walks on the beach, foraging for blackberries, making elderflower cordial ...
As chefs we are inspired by our surroundings, our life experiences and very much by our childhood and the flavours that are familiar to us .. that sense of home comfort. Having these experiences and memories transcribed into a delicious gastronomic meal was a moment that made me step back and realise that even in the finest restaurants we can have those feelings of nostalgia or even experience someone else’s.
My meal had been complex, yet comforting and from what I had learned from Agi it seemed that the cooking absolutely respected and embraced Hungarian tradition and culture, something that I wanted to apply to my own work at home, but from an Irish perspective.
After a final glass of Szicsek Pálinka (cherry), I left with an overwhelming sense of happiness, excited and looking forward to discovering more of Budapest’s culinary treasures.
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