At Budapest’s Christmas market, I’m suddenly reminded of the toast my mom used to make when I was little — crunchy and buttery, and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.
Though the taste is familiar, this is a souped-up version of the childhood treat: a giant, hollowed-out cylinder of dough almost as tall as the boots I’m wearing with a consistency somewhere between a doughnut and a churro. I can’t pronounce the Hungarian word for them, Kürtőskalács, but these pastries are also known as “chimney cakes” — a fitting name, I think to myself, as Christmastime approaches.
But Hungary’s version of Santa Claus is St. Nicholas, and he doesn’t shimmy down chimneys on Christmas Eve to deliver presents to little boys and girls. (Of course, Santa Claus — and many of the traditions and folklore that surround him — derive from St. Nicholas through a happy series of mistranslations and elisions).
Instead, in Hungary (and in many other, mostly European, countries), it’s December 6 — St. Nicholas Day — that children eagerly await. On the eve of that night, they choose their best pair of shoes to leave out for the bearded and mitred saint to fill with candy and small toys. If, of course, they have been “good.” If they have been “bad,” they get twigs or wooden spoons.
When I ask a Hungarian friend — a local tour guide who can condense the history of Austro-Hungarian empire into (a hilarious) five minutes — if she left out her shoes for St. Nick, she responds with an emphatic, “YES, WE DID!” So, did she get sticks or candy in her shoes? “Both,” she says. “Some candy and some sticks. I was good and bad.”
The award-winning market has just opened when I arrive. Back home in New York, at the Union Square or Columbus Circle Christmas markets, my elbows are at the ready to jab through the masses. But, here, it’s downright pleasant, with ample room to amble along and stop and smell the flowers — or vats of mulled wine and hanging pomander balls of oranges and cloves.
Rules are strict at the market, where you can pick up authentic, hand-made gifts from scores of stalls. Every product on offer must receive the official seal of approval from the Association of the Hungarian Folk Artists, so there’s a level of quality you won’t see at most other markets.
I run my hands over stacks of smooth wooden cheese boards and serving platters, picturing myself as hostess, presenting a selection of extra sharp cheddar, creamy brie, cold grapes, and sliced breads to my guests. This cheese board alone could make me the Martha Stewart of Greenwich Village and make my kitchen catalog-ready!
The next step is to see if I can afford it. I quickly convert forints into dollars in my math-averse brain and come up with $15. But it can’t be $15. Something this beautiful would cost at least $100 at Williams-Sonoma. But my iPhone currency converter app confirms it.
I strike up a conversation with the man in the stall. “Do you make these yourself?” With mild indignation, and a crinkly-eyed smile that betrays it, he replies: “Of course I do! I chop down the tree myself and make them all!” After hearing about his home, 30 miles outside the city, that doubles as his workshop, I’m more than sold.
I buy the board and think of all the parties I’ll throw. I’ll respond casually, of course, when asked where I got it.
“Oh, Budapest. At the Christmas market for fifteen bucks.”