The Gastronaut group, an organization of gourmet journalists, winemakers and leading Croatian restaurateurs, took over the south of Hungary over the weekend to explore the gastronomy, wine, wellness and culture the region has to offer. TCN was lucky enough to be at the forefront of the excursion.
Croatian club Gastronaut, founded by Karin Mimica, organizes themed culinary events for travelers and lovers of gastronomy. Even more lucky for TCN, this is not the first Gastronaut trip we have participated in, with Gastronaut excursions to Ozalj and Medjimurje already putting a few notches in our belt. Taking any Gastronaut offer that comes our way, the trip to the south of Hungary was extra special and without hesitation, we embarked on the journey with 40 fellow gastronome.
After a 4 hour drive to Pecs from Zagreb, the Gastronauts were greeted in Pecs by Vesna Haluga, Croatian Consul General in the Republic of Hungary, and Mark Kincses, director of the Tourist Office of Hungary in Southern Europe. From there we made our way to Foter Coffee and Wine where we were welcomed with Hungarian wine and bites (the menu has a wonderful selection of Croatian wines to boot). A short walk through the main square took us to the Pecsi Galeria for the Zlatko Prica exhibition. Prica was a Pecs born Croatian, with the exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Next stop was the Croatian club August Šenoa where we were greeted with prominent representatives of the Croatian community who reside in Pecs, including the President of the Croatian Club, Director of the Education Center, head of the Department of Croatian Language and Literature, a Croatian spokesman in Hungarian Parliament, and Director of the Scientific Institute among others.
The Croatian club was sure to make us all feel right at home, serving up a Šokac bean-stew family style. In addition, we tasted a plethora wines from Hvar by Andrija Caric, part of PZ Svirče, and even some Dalmatian songs were sung! An interesting part of the meeting was the presentation on the number of Croatians actually residing in Hungary. The number of those who speak Croatian as their mother language was 37,885 in 1941, and as of 2011 there are only 13,716. Croatian nationals in Hungary elevated from 4,177 in 1941 to 23,561 in 2011.
Three Gastronauts also had to opportunity to present their respective tourism projects, including Edo Maržić from Pag Camp Simuni, Sinisa Križanec from Bežanec, and Pavo Jerkovic from Villa Neretva.
A beautiful and sunny morning saluted us for a full day of sightseeing and cultural attractions ahead, and of course, culinary treats. We began with an exploration of the Zsolnay Cultural Center. The International Manager of the space, Gábor Móczár, greeted us with coffee and cakes, and informed us on the current and ongoing cooperation between Croatia and Hungary. Partners in cultural projects regarding the arts, partnership plans for the future between Croatia and Hungary include a tour with the World Youth Choir, joint projects with Rijeka and Zagreb, and an international symposium with a direct focus on the region.
Here, we discovered the cracks and crevices of the premises, which was surely too hard to cover in the few hours we spared.
The “Golden Age of Zsolnay”, a magnificent ceramic vase collection, was full of color and history – a definite favorite of the group.
We then embarked on a sightseeing tour of Pecs, making sure to get a glimpse of UNESCO World Heritage sights such as Cella Septichora and the Basilica of Pecs.
Lunch was had in the village of Hosszuheteny, a short ride away from Pecs. Almalomb restaurant, a modern space with rich cultural heritage, is family owned and operated, sourcing all local ingredients in an intimate setting. A unique aspect of Almalomb is the 19th century water mill tucked away in the back of the space.
Here we were fed an exquisitely rich soup made of potato and cheese, a filet of chicken on a bed of celery puree and parsley pesto, and a selection of fine cheeses for dessert. A wonderful fine white wine was paired with lunch.
Onto Karl Microbrewery in the town of Mecseknádasd where we enjoyed a tasting of Karl beers. Karl Microbrewery brews small batches of beer from 100 to 120 liters, with the annual total coming out to about 6000 liters. Many of their beers are infused with unique ingredients such as chocolate and honey.
To continue our Sokac evening we carried on to Jaksics Wine Cellar. Greeted at the bottom of a steep hill by young girls dressed in traditional Croatian folk costumes, a trek to the top was met with traditional tamburica music which filled our ears, dancing which occupied our feet, and homemade rakijas that most definitely tickled our tastebuds. When we finally sat for dinner, we enjoyed another Šokac bean stew and a selection of Jaksic wines. A good time had by all, and the bus ride to our next destination of Harkany was a sleepy one. We arrived at Thermal Hotel in Harkany before midnight.
Day 3, otherwise known as the day filled with even more wine, kicked off with a morning at leisure (or to use the hotel’s wellness facilities) before heading to wine taste at the Villanyi Franc & Franc Festival. Held at the Vylyan Wine Estate, the festival welcomes Europe’s best Cabernet Franc makers. We tasted some of the best flagship wines of the region, with winemakers from 10 countries including France, Italy, Turkey and Croatia on display.
With not much other than wine in our tummies, we made our way to winery number two: Bock. We were met almost immediately with lunch, a meal that happened to be a favorite amongst many of the Gastronauts. Lunch was complete with a portion of Mangalica pig, a Hungarian breed of domestic pig that was stewed to perfection on bed of pasta made with cheese and sour cream. With just enough room left for dessert, we enjoyed a delicious chocolate cake. Of course the Bock wines were close to perfection, and we tasted our way from white to red. We even got to meet Jozsef Bock!
After lunch we were led down to the cellars of Bock winery which was truly an added treat. Perhaps the most majestic wine cellar many of us have seen, the underground resembled a chapel – the acoustics in there were unreal! Art covered the walls and paintings colored the floors beneath our feet – I am certain we won’t forget this one.
A quick trip to Siklos castle and its Vinarium were next, and while it was dark by the time we arrived, the gothic chapel was a picture of perfection, complete with original frescos on the wall. The wine museum was also truly special, and before we knew it we were on our way to imbibe at dinner.
A dinner most of us have been waiting for, we arrived at Tenkes Csarda for a traditional Hungarian meal in a traditional setting. Old chandeliers and dried peppers lined the ceilings of the interiors and the birthday being celebrated in the room next to us helped us to keep on celebrating ourselves.
The first course was foie gras which was made from the same goose breeder the restaurant has used for 26 years. Next up was a peppery fish stew, noodles with truffles, baked noodles with cheese, and a Hungarian “angus” beef cooked in a dark gravy and topped with cream. And for dessert? Cake! The wines were of course wonderful and from the region, beginning with a rose and finishing with a red.
We embarked on our final day of the journey before we knew it, and day four met us with, well, more good wine and food! Before heading to Blum Winery for lunch, we made a quick pit stop to a picturesque “winery and pub” lined street where many tasted and purchased bottles of wine for home.
We finally reached our final lunch destination, Blum Winery: a family owned winery since 1989. A truly traditional experience that made everyone feel just as if they were home, we were served a lentil and meat stew, followed by cabbage rolls and a side of spicy cabbage, and a dessert plate of apple strudel, poppy seed cake, and an exquisite cheese cake. After dinner we took a stroll through the cellar, tasting the wines along the way on our walk lit by candlelight. Our group even christened the cellar with a traditional Dalmatian song!
Sad for it all to be over, we extend a big thank you to Karin Mimica, Mark Kincses, and Anett Szabo, as well as everyone that helped make this experience one to remember. We can guarantee you that even a few days later we are still full, red with wine, and on cloud nine from this wonderful experience. Cheers!