There’s a wonderful passage in David Foster Wallace’s essay “Shipping Out” where the writer, sent on an exotic cruise by his editor at Harper’s Magazine, describes his Hungarian waiter, Tibor. We learn that it is Tibor’s humble ambition to save his tip money and return to Budapest to open a “Newspaper-and-beret-type sidewalk cafe that specializes in something called Cherry Soup.”
Since its publication, we confess we have kept an eye out for this cafe in Budapest. But as time goes by, it seems increasingly unlikely that a cafe dedicated to meggyleves, or Sour Cherry Soup, will, or should, appear. There may have been a time when such a venture seemed viable, but that time is gone, as soup bars like Bors Gasztrobár, which serve more international fare, have captured diners’ imaginations and pocketbooks.
But as every Hungarian knows, there’s no better way to enjoy the summer’s seasonal fruit bounty than in a cold fruit soup. There are lots of variations —cherry, peaches and raspberries make frequent appearances on their own, but a melange of fruits are also wonderfully refreshing when cooled and served as a starter for a summer meal. The cream of the bunch, however, is meggyleves, a traditional concoction of the tart fruit with sour cream, sugar and flour that make good use of Hungary’s prolific sour cherry harvest at the end of spring, beginning of summer. As a cold soup, it is perfect in the hot summer sun.
Cherry soup, rightfully, is seasonal. It should be made with fresh sour cherries, along with a mixture of sour cream, sugar and spiced with spices like cinnamon. And while various recipes encourage the use of frozen cherries as a substitute, its vibrance, which comes from the freshness of the cherries, is one of the main attractions to this dish. Besides, who wants to eat a cold soup in winter? There is something childlike in the concoction, like a soup a small girl would dream up for her dolls on a bored summer’s day. Cherries have always been part candy, part fruit. In a soup, they bring a sunny brightness that is both sweet and acidic. But like a dessert, meggyleves is best enjoyed in moderation, then fondly craved when it’s not available. This means of course that one of its delights, apart from its scarcity, is that it is one of those rare sweet dishes that is eaten as an appetizer.
The sour meggy differs from cseresznye (regular cherries) in that it has a tartness which keeps the sugary soup from becoming too cloying (note: you can also find cseresznyeleves). That said, it’s not a subtle soup. Nor is it wholly Hungarian. Many countries around Europe claim a similar cherry soup, from Austria to Poland, Slovakia and Germany. Perhaps it is most popular in Hungary, though, due to the abundance of sour cherry trees across the country.
Because it is sweet, it is a favorite of children, and because it is a favorite of children, it accrues some feelings of nostalgia after those children have grown. Perhaps Tibor was really just homesick, and realized the unlikeliness of his plan once he returned to Budapest. Actually, though, it would be an ideal soup for a cruise, refreshing those who spend their days in the sun, fortifying them with vitamins that are traditionally scarce on the high seas. Who knows what Tibor did with his money? Maybe he is behind one of the new craft breweries so popular with young Hungarians, or rode the wave with one of the many burger joints. Or maybe he opened the cafe after all, and we just haven’t found it. We hope so, and there are worse ways to spend a day than wandering the streets of Budapest looking for sour cherry soup.
In season, meggyleves is often found at small lunch canteens around town in the summer. We recommend trying spots in the market halls, like the Lehel Íze Gyorsétterem at Lehel Market Hall. But Budapest’s many fine restaurants—such as Rosenstein and Gettó Gulyás—also serve sour cherry soup in season. Or pick up a bag of cherries and make your own pot of meggyleves! There are general guidelines on how to make it, but the exact recipe changes pretty much in every household. Some like to add canned sour cherries or a bit of red wine, while others add a scoop of vanilla ice cream to make it even more decadent. Here’s our basic recipe. How do you like to make cherry soup in your kitchen?
MEGGYLEVES (SOUR CHERRY SOUP)
- 1 kg sour cherries
- 4 Tbs sugar
- 1 Tbs flour
- 1 generous cup of sour cream
- 5-6 cloves
- 2 star anise
- 1 cinnamon stick
- Zest of one lemon
- Pinch of salt
- In a large pot, cover the well-washed, pitted sour cherries with double the amount of water and add the sugar.
- Then, in a spice-holder, add the cinnamon sticks, cloves and star anise, along with the lemon zest and pinch of salt and bring it all to a slow boil (about 25-30 minutes). Reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer until the fruit is soft, about 6-7 minutes. Remove the spice holder.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the sour cream and flour with a 1/4 cup of hot cherry liquid from the pot. Add another 1/4 cup of liquid and whisk until the mixture is smooth, then slowly add the rest of the soup, constantly stirring so no lumps form. Set aside to cool, stirring from time to time, then place in the refrigerator until well chilled.