Magazine article The Spectator

The Gay Hussar Caviar Kaspia

Magazine article The Spectator

The Gay Hussar Caviar Kaspia

Article excerpt

I'M not sure how Petronella convinced Ed and me to spend a weekend in Hungary for the Opera Ball. Neither of us can waltz, let alone polka. I hate the Magyars' obsession with dumplings, and my husband loathes white tie and sausages. But then the deputy editor mentioned a restaurant. If Ed and I promised to have dancing lessons, she would take us to dinner at Gundel.

The first celebrity chef of the century came from Hungary and was called Karoly Gundel. He was the Marco Pierre White of Eastern Europe. Combining the new French influence with a dash of old paprika, a few Italian gnocchi left over from the Renaissance and the Austrian obsession with pastry, he came up with a Hungarian cuisine that swept across Europe.

For 30 years Gundel produced exquisite Lake Balton stuffed pike-perch and black sausage with scrambled eggs. Then it was taken over by the communists who managed to make the goulash as appetising as licking a rusty radiator. Six years ago it was revived by Estee Lauder's son, Ronald, and George Lang, owner of the Cafe des Artistes in New York. Many of the old recipes, such as Tournedos Franz Liszt, made with local goose liver, were retrieved from the cellar.

It was snowing hard when we arrived at Gundel with Petronella and her mother, the historian John Casey (our only professional polka dancer) and the newly married Spectator editor and his wife Virginia. As Lady Wyatt recalled the day the Russians invaded her house and tried to rape her aunt, the waiters bought the most delicate of mushroom soups on Zsolnay porcelain. As she explained how her mother had ordered them to pray, we tucked into goose liver with silver knives, and by the time we had arrived at her escape to Britain we had finished our goose, duck and wild boar.

Normally I would flee any establishment where a gypsy band tried to serenade diners between courses, but this band was different. While Petronella sang, we ate pancakes covered in chocolate sauce, filled with cherries and flambeed in rum. The waiters were dignified and as decorous as the turn-ofthe-century masters on the walls.

I returned home convinced that the only way to get through the rest of the winter was to eat large quantities of Hungarian food. My books listed Polish restaurants, Austrian coffee-houses and Croatian cuisine, but the only Hungarian restaurant I found in central London was smothered in fairy lights and full of gnome-like men leaping around in lederhosen.

The problem is that Hungarian food is now as popular as Spam fritters or bread and dripping. Breaded mushrooms, fish dumplings, pickled carrots and diced potatoes no longer seem to titillate the tastebuds. Even the Time Out guide to Budapest begins, `No one would ever come here just for the food.'

The only hope seemed to be the Gay Hussar in Soho. This old Labour establishment was around before Budapest's 1956 uprising. It was where Tony Crosland wrote his alternative economic strategy on a tablecloth, and Tom Driberg spent much of his life chatting up young men. This surely is the most louchely seductive place in London. It has something to do with the red velvet banquettes, faded pink silk wallpaper and gold brocade curtains. Sitting side by side is like eating in bed. The night we went, the place was packed with stunning young girls wearing scarves and smudged red lipstick. They were accompanied by older men wiggling their bushy eyebrows over their fifth glass of red wine, as their ties fell into their red cabbage. …

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