The first time we met Gabó Bartha and Ákos Szokolai from the Budaházy Winery in Mád it was over a fabulous meal that she had prepared for us in Mád, paired with Ákos’ wines, naturally. Before meeting in person we had been corresponding by email about shared interests in food, cooking, and Tokaj for a few months. Since then we have been lucky enough to enjoy their thoughtful approach to cooking (enhanced by their lovely wines) many times, and the winery is always a favorite stop for our wine-touring guests.
It was fitting that Gabó was one of the very first people to help us break in the new kitchen at The Tasting Table in September when we hosted a #winelover BYOB dinner there, and now she is back with Ákos. Together they are busy shopping at the market, unpacking their stash of ingredients that they carted from Mád, and preparing for the dinner that they are hosting tomorrow at The Tasting Table.
We took this chance to ask Gabó a few questions about her distinctive cooking style, which has incorporated many influences starting from her childhood in Transylvania, up until the past nearly four years that she has spend living in the tiny village of Mád, in the Tokaj wine region.
Gabó notes that she could write a book on this topic. It certainly would be a book that we would be happy to read!
How did your growing up in Transylvania influence your cooking style?
There are several components: Influences of an era, then of a region, and of my family.
The era was mainly during Ceausescu’s dictatorship. We had to make nearly everything from scratch, because the food industry was very basic plus there were severe food shortages in the shops during the darkest years of the regime. But scarcity also meant richness, especially viewed in retrospect. We had access to excellent basic ingredients, some of which are maybe on the brink of disappearance by now. This meant a lot of shopping at the market, where piles of nettles, wild garlic, wild sorrel, and monk’s rhubarb were sold everywhere in spring (and still are). There were other foraged goodies throughout the year, things that nowadays come back through the door of pricey delicatessen shops.
Heirloom apples and other fruits were a normal thing, but they have hardly survived by now. The produce was great, varied, and came from subsistence farmers who were still using old methods of farming. This is where my stubborn insistence for the best, freshest, healthiest ingredients comes from, and also my patience for and familiarity with cooking.
Transylvania is a fantastic heritage to have in the kitchen, due to its mixed population—Hungarian, Romanian, Saxon, Roma, Jewish, Armenian, Ukrainian, and more—and its historical openness to difference, including curiosity towards other ethnic cuisines. I have lived in three different regions of Transylvania, and even those meant different influences and inspirations. At my birthplace in deep Transylvania, the Székely region (“Seklerland”), there was a lot of foraging, and witnessing poor women’s wisdom with wild plants and using everything in the kitchen.
There was no waste, and a great resourcefulness. Birch sap was a particularly haunting childhood memory that I managed to tap for myself again now in Mád, Tokaj. We collected hazelnuts, picked mushrooms, gathered herbs for tea, and my father taught me a great deal about plants, also medicinal plants. Moving to Baia Mare in the Maramures region (in the northwestern part of Romania), meant a much stronger Romanian influence. Whole lambs went down for Easter, stuffed and roasted. The neighbor, a newly urbanized peasant woman whose family still had buffalos and whatnot back in her village, would come over with jugs of buffalo cream. She would march through our apartment until she found me, even if I was taking a bath, to hand me the jug. We enjoyed our fish roe salad, with shiny, pungent black olives in it. We also had sour soups, in the style of the Romanian kitchen. What comes from my time there is an awareness of tradition, more precisely, of several traditions.
An important ancestry that runs in my family is the Armenian one. Having soup with churut was a tradition at the houses of my great grandparents, and then in my family. Churut is a rare and hard-to-make ingredient, but it is the cornerstone of a Transylvanian Armenian’s identity. It is an ingredient, which is grated into hot soup, made with milk fermented for more than a month until it is lemon-sour, and then reduced with lots of herbs, and finally dried. I started to make it myself when I moved to Mád. This awareness of my very mixed ancestry has made me open to all kitchens, food markets, and recipes.
Spending time in the back of the pharmacy (where one of my grandmothers worked) sniffing and tasting things perhaps also contributed to developing some kind of analytic and lab-like approach in connection with food. One of my grandmothers baked with particular gusto. My mother, whom I still call for recipes, eats with great dedication, and my aunt was good at making things up and cooking in a “fusion” way.
How has living in Tokaj for the last (nearly) 4 years affected the way that you cook?
In Mád everything I do is food-related—from starting a monthly artisan market (the Tokaj Hegyalja Piac) to organizing seed-swaps, Slow Food events, gardening, preserving, foraging and enjoying it all. I also cook for the guests of the Budaházy Winery, and a few other wineries, such as Lenkey.
Cultivating the garden of the winery means immediate access to many ingredients, and this immediacy makes a great difference. I grow around 100 kinds of plants, and I use more herbs than ever. Leaves have become one of my specialties. I never thought that cooking for guests would involve so much leaf sorting and tearing! My salads sometime have about 30 kinds of leaves in them, all straight from the garden. My tarts feature many leaves and herbs. Also, churut is based on herbs. I make a classical version and then versions with a twist.
So we are back to Romania in a way. In Mád there’s nothing interesting in the shops, but everything is around … if you search for it. There are some great small producers and some good mangalica sausages, salamis, and cheese. By now I have gathered my sources for pretty much everything from fantastic river fish to quail, goat, and incredible cheeses.
When in Budapest, I never miss going to good old Hunyadi square farmers’ market. Check it out!