The gala dinner on 17 January, took place at the Museum of Fine Arts, inaugurated in the presence of Emperor Francis Joseph, on 1 December 1906. It is a magnificent venue with spacious and reverberating rooms, historical paintings and magnificent works of art. On arrival guests were greeted by titbits, a cold orange juice and Vincent Prestige Brut 2005, a sparkling wine from Garamvári Vineyard (Balatonboglár). The dinner was preceded by the show Hungarian Rhapsody by the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble established in 1951.
The wines served during the gala dinner come from the Balaton wine region. Viticulture in the area dates back to the Roman Province of Pannonia. The wine region covers a total of six historic wine districts, each with unique features, located on the northern and southern shores and west of Balaton. Their overall surface is approximately 33 thousand hectares, of which 11 thousand are in production.
The climate and soil of the Balaton wine region are primarily favourable for white wine production, but the area is also home to top quality red wines and considerable volumes of sparkling wine, as is proved by Garamvári, a brand served at the dinner.
Wines and Dishes of the Gala Dinner
1) The wine: ’Gesztenyés’ Rajnai Rizling 2007 (Ottó Légli, Balatonboglár)
'Gesztenyés' (Maroon Orchard) is the name of a Rhine Riesling vineyard of barely four hectares. 2007 made a special vintage, with assorted bunches including berries affected by Botrytis cinera, which makes the first encounter with this Rhine Riesling singular and particular.
The wine was accompanied by fresh green salad, dressed with white wine vinaigrette, which rested on halved seedless grapes and splendidly fried cubes of goose liver. “Healthy” should suffice as the sole observation about the green salad, but the goose liver deserves much remark. Goose liver is now considered to be a genuine Hungarian ingredient, even if its consumption dates back to ancient Egypt. Remarkably, French gourmets in the late 19th century identified not only Tokaj Aszú, but also goose liver as two Hungarian export items that deserved mentioning as worthy foreign products even on the culinary maps of France.
It is common knowledge that it is quite risky to select a wine to match a salad, especially one dressed with lemon, vinegar or vinaigrette. That is frequently the reason why no wine is offered and glasses are rather filled with champagne (or chilled sparkling mineral water) to match salads in terms of fizziness and acidity. I was pleasantly surprised though by the outburst of fraternity between Légli’s Rhine Riesling and the salad, especially its noble ingredient, goose liver.
2) The entrée was followed by “Cream of split green pea soup”.
By lack of another wine, the soup was coupled with the Riesling of the entrée. Split peas (Pisum sativum), a species of the legume family, whose dried yellow and green varieties are also consumed during winter time, should deserve more attention due to both Hungarian tradition and our yearning for the spring, which will definitely arrive in a few months to lay our tables with the often praised fresh green pea soup.
Peas were grown as early as the Bronze Age in the Carpathian Basin. Nomadic Hungarians probably came to know it by mediation of some Turkic people, as the Hungarian word “borsó” is also of Turkish origin. A few hundred years ago peas had garden and somewhat smaller field varieties. Once harvested, the crop was dried for storage and was mostly cooked as ‘kasha’. The cream pea soup at the gala dinner differed markedly from its predecessors in that our forefathers would mostly cook and eat peas together with the skin.
The soup was served with Ricotta cheese and basil filled ravioli. The combination yielded a pleasant, tasty soup.
3) The wine: Nagy-Somló furmint 2008 (Imre Györgykovács, Nagy-Somló)
Including basalt and basaltic tuff mixed with Pannonian sand and loess, the volcanic soil of the Nagy-Somló wine district lends local wines a unique character. Classified as a Hungarian speciality, Furmint is the most valuable grape variety of Somló Hill (and Tokaj). The young plantation lies close to the hilltop below the rocks. The wine shows fruitiness as well as territorially determined mineral and salty character. It has a long after taste.
Composed to match the wine, the main course was a crispy saddle of wild boar set on a block of creamy potatoes, wearing tomato and rosemary ornaments and oven roast at 165°C just before serving. The platter was complete with penny bun (Boletus edulis) mushrooms and some gravy. The wild boar is a big game variety that populates almost the entire Balaton region. It is common in Somogy and Zala counties and also in the Bakony Hills lining the northern shore. The hunting season for wild boar is currently in progress.
Although the wine was chosen from the north-western part of Balaton and the wild boar was the offspring of the forests of Somogy, a source of excellent game, they formed a perfect pair. Juniper berries, a classic spice used to flavour wild boar dishes, were complemented with rosemary and bay leaves. Most cook books would recommend red wine to go with venison. White wine may be an unusual choice, but uncommonness often breads surprising outcomes, and this gala dinner was no exception. Imre Györgykovács’ wine managed to bear down the prejudices or, I could say, the “wild boar cum potatoes and penny bun” picked no fight with the Furmint and decided to go down for a peaceful accord.
Zenit is a grape variety bred in Hungary (1951), which lends itself to producing a wine with a pleasant bouquet, rich aromas and a full line of fine acids. It is also frequently affected by Botrytis. Áldozói Zenit Főbor is made of late harvest grapes from the Áldozó site, a supreme location with registered designation of origin. As a name, “Főbor” had been used in Hungary from the rise of the Árpád Dynasty up to the 13th century to denote a special sweet wine with sun-dried fruits on the palate, made of ripe, late vintage grapes affected with Botrytis. It is a true speciality.
As every dinner normally does, this gala also progressed to the stage when dessert was served: “an apple and cream torte” with a hint of apricot jam and a slice of fruity farmhouse cake. This dessert was a first experience for me although I had frequently met its constituents, such as the cinnamon flavoured apple bits of the holiday season and the cream of moderate sweetness. The wine served with the dessert was sweet, but not suave, typical of Aszú wines. On first impressions the dessert overwhelmed the wine, which classic rules say should never happen, but eventually, the lingering cinnamon in the after taste of the apple and the wine settled down in harmony as the makers had expected and calculated.
A pompous venue, precious wines and a precisely presented dinner capture the gist of the evening at the Museum of Fine Arts. The series of dining occasions of the EU Presidency continues this week with two high ranking gala dinners: one hosted at the National Gallery and the second will re-visit the Museum of Fine Arts.
Péter Györkös is Hungary’s Permanent Representative to the European Union. Diplomats carry their duties wherever they are ordered by his superior officers, but Péter Györkös has a “personal attachment” to his present assignment: for more than twenty years, he has been monitoring closely the process of European unification and has actively worked for it in his successive positions.