Like a love affair, there are certain dishes you don’t know you adored so fully until they are gone. Usually they are approached with some caution; you’re not sure what it is that tempts you in that direction, because maybe the attraction is accompanied by a bit of repulsion. I am thinking of dishes like foie gras, and a personal favorite: csontvelő, or bone marrow. A good csontvelő is worth a trip across town for, worth planning an evening around. You may have to, because it is not the easiest dish to find.
First, it’s important to distinguish csontvelő from velő. If you see velő piritos, velőrózsa or simply velő on the menu, you may not be getting marrow, but brain. Velő may or may not be a homonym (which are rare in Hungarian), depending on who you ask. But Csont means bone, and only bone, so if bone marrow is what you want (and trust me, it is what you want) then don’t leave it to chance, make sure it’s csontvelő.
Csontvelő, when you can find it, is served at most restaurants as an appetizer, though it may well arrive on a platter with enough bread to make a meal. We recommend sharing csontvelő. And if it’s a date, we really recommend sharing, as no one party should be consuming that much garlic. A good csontvelő comes with a portion of pickled garlic, not to mention red onion. It’s heady stuff, dare we say, close to the bone. Speaking of bones, you will likely be served your marrow in the bone. If you are not squeamish about seeing where your food comes from, it’s hard to do better than a solid, hefty, piping hot bone as a serving vessel. Cut from beef shank bones, they arrive looking like small tree stumps on the platter. But each one is filled with viscous rich molten marrow, the consistency, if we are being generous, of pudding.
That’s when the fun begins. You can use teaspoon or butter knife to extract the fatty marrow from the bone to spread on toast. I’ve seen the uninitiated hold the hollow bone up to their mouth and blow, resulting in a pretty unsavory mess on the plate. While this isn’t recommended, it does get the job done.
Csontvelő takes effort, and some imagination to enjoy. If you’re not up for the task, or find bone marrow unappetizing, perhaps consider that you may have already developed a taste for it, as marrow is a crucial ingredient in such dishes as Vietnamese pho, as well as in Italian Osso Bucco, not to mention csontleves, or, Hungarian bone broth soup. In truth, if you haven’t tried csontvelő, you are missing out. Marrow is buttery, rich goodness, coating the tongue with deeply flavorful fat. And it’s hard to get more essential and unadulterated dining than eating straight from the bone.
Of all the times I have had csontvelő I can’t remember what I had afterwards as an entrée. It’s a dish is so striking in presentation and flavor, it’s a hard act to follow. Like anything that sumptuous and pleasurable, the last flavor doesn’t arrive on the tongue, but with the memory of a great meal gone by.
For a dependable csontvelő we recommend the Pozsonyi Kisvendéglő and Kéhli Vendéglő. Hungarian writer Gyula Krúdy, who was a regular at Kéhli, wrote a well-known passage about eating bone marrow which became a dramatic scene in the 1971 film Szindbád, based on his life. It’s worth watching even if you don’t understand Hungarian (perhaps in preparation for your own foray into eating bone marrow?)