It’s famed for its goulash, but there is far more to Hungarian cuisine than this dish alone. The speciality of southern Hungary is halaszlé, a blisteringly hot crimson-coloured soup with huge chunks of carp, catfish and zander floating around in it. With the Danube, Drava and Tisza rivers yielding the fish, and the paprika produced on the surrounding plains, halaszlé is something of a regional cultural trademark, cropping up in bus-station buffets and village pubs as well as the finest restaurants.
The unofficial capital of halaszlé is the Danube-hugging town of Baja, a popular staging post on the way to the fish-teeming wetlands of the Forest of Gemenc. Soup cauldrons are bubbling away throughout the year in the restaurants of Petöfi Island, a popular recreation spot reached by bridge from Baja’s main square.
Each establishment keeps the details of its halaszlé recipe a closely guarded secret, but the results are broadly the same: huge bowls of rich red liquid served with belly-expanding portions of pasta – the latter frequently smeared with liberal portions of cream cheese. The roughly hewn lumps of fish will probably have bones, skin and fins still attached; picking out the succulent white meat only adds to the sense of epicurean ritual. All in all it’s a messy business. You may well laugh at the kiddie-style bib offered to you by waiting staff, but refusing it could have fatal consequences for your favourite shirt.
Southern Hungary’s consumable riches don’t just stop with the fish: incendiary brandies from the local cherry, apricot and pear orchards make for an irresistible range of aperitifs. And Unicum, the coal-black herbal concoction distilled in regional capital Kecskemet, is guaranteed to settle your stomach no matter how much of the stew you’ve managed to get through.
The best time to be in Baja is for the halaszlé festival on the second weekend of July, when the town square is filled with locals cooking up a storm in big iron pots over open fires. For more information on Baja contact the local tourist information centre (+36 7942 0792).