wine, colourful woolly hats and wooden toys. I don’t think of roosters’ testicles floating in a red tomato broth. Why would I when my experience of Hungary stretches as far as the Gay Hussar in Soho, with its wild cherry soup and fish dumplings.
But Hungary is, of course, a landlocked, carnivorous country and, at this time of year, a cold one. Goulash served in a huge, hollowed-out bread roll, pigs’ knuckles with potato dumplings and sauerkraut, or fresh flat bread lathered in garlic sauce, sour cream and grated cheese is precisely the sort of heartening fare that is required for nippy alfresco shopping.
There are 12 food and drink stalls in the middle of the centrally located Vörösmarty Square, flanked by 28 craft stalls selling artisanal products and crafts. Budapest may be a thriving city with pop-up cafes, craft beer bars and vintage stores, but the Christmas market, now in its 18th year, is resolutely traditional. There’s a craft-making crèche at weekends, where children aged 10+ can be left and, on Sundays at 4pm, a ceremonial lighting of an advent candle, followed by marzipan candies with Santa on the stage.
There’s also ice skating by the illuminated St Stephen’s Basilica nearby, whose smaller Christmas market opens this weekend and features a laser show on its neoclassical facade.
The wide choice of winter warmers on sale includes raspberry schnapps punch and apple cider. Restored by a blackcurrant rum punch – a wine-based winter tipple that is a sweeter alternative to the mulled wine on sale – I browsed stalls that look winter-wonderland cheesy, but hid some real gems. Among the riches I discovered tiny music boxes, hand-printed stationery, felt hats, handmade jewellery that you might actually wear, casserole dishes for roast goose or fresh bread, sour-cherry white chocolate and pink bubblegum marzipan. This was proper Christmas fare.
I was charmed by a ceramic Santa smoking a pipe, out of which real smoke blew, by the garlands made out of dried orange, paprika, cinnamon sticks and bay leaves, and the hand-painted tree decorations in simple cream and gold. But it was the gingerbread stall that did for my cynical heart. Seen one gingerbread house in Ikea, seen them all, I thought. I spotted the gingerbread foxes, frogs and hedgehogs, and the stallholder, in top hat and fur coat, passed me one on a giant fake hand. “For you,” he beamed. The child in me cheered. “Take it!” and I did.
Since cakes and pastries are a timeless Hungarian tradition, I was tempted by a piece of flódni, the traditional Jewish-Hungarian plum and poppy seed cake, washed down with a hot beer with sour cherry.
Next, I nipped into the famous Cafe Gerbeaud, which opened on the north side of Vörösmarty Square in 1858, lured by its raspberry and salted caramel tower of macaroons and its signature Gerbeaud coffee – a stratified glory of apricot sauce, apricot liqueur, hot chocolate and vanilla foam.
I then did (unintentional) penance in the Széchenyi thermal baths. Everyone raves about Budapest’s natural hot springs, which have been used since the Roman times. So, at 7pm, I jumped on the efficient city metro to this Baroque palace of a medicinal watering hole.
I hadn’t packed a swimsuit so I had to hire one, which was a bad start. I ventured outside, barefoot and virtually naked into -5C. Into the steaming, hot pool I hurried. But it was lukewarm. To say it took the glow off my Christmas shopping would be polite. I managed little more than 10 minutes, then sought refuge in the Múzeum restaurant in central Pest, round the corner from the Hungarian National Gallery and my boutique hotel – the arty, upcycled Brody House, set in a grand old late-19th century palatial residence.
From the outside, the Múzeum restaurant promised faded grandeur and goose liver. I went in, expecting a gloomy dining experience, but instead, I was greeted by the sound of a cocktail pianist playing Dean Martin on a baby grand piano.
The traditional dishes (roasted pike, catfish, goose leg) served beneath a painted, domed ceiling perfectly captured the spirit of old Hungary. But my vegetarian main course of stuffed peppers with vegetables and bulgur wheat, creamed zucchini and ribbon pasta with porcini, showed how the trend for “modern Hungarian”, a cuisine mixing old and new, has really taken hold.
I was surprised to find seven different offerings of brunch at the Kempinski Hotel, the city’s first luxury hotel, only to discover that it is a culinary trend in this new foodie destination – though roosters’ testicles are optional.
Budapest Christmas market is open every day. The craft stalls are open until 29 December and the food stalls until 1 January (budapestinfo.hu). Budapest Basilica Christmas market runs to 2 January. Rooms at Kempinski Cornivus Hotel cost from £99 per night (kempinski.com); and at Brody House from £59 per night (brodyhouse.com). BA flies from London to Budapest, from £88 return