Book review: Lost Prestige

Lost Prestige, by historian, diplomat and former Hungarian Foreign Minister Géza Jeszenszky, now published in English translation, is a book about reputation. Using British perceptions of Hungary in the years leading up to the First World War, it seeks to examine more broadly the relationships between states, and how international reactions to particular events can shape universal judgements. We have all become used to seeing opinions presented as general consensus by a manipulative Press, or appearing to have traction on an unedited social media, but what does this really reveal? We are in a hall of mirrors, Jeszenszky suggests. And behind this, as the silvering on the mirror, lies moral posturing or vested interest. 

No mirror is perfect: every looking glass, however well made, distorts the image, sometimes in subtle ways. Nor is the person who looks in the mirror an impartial spectator: they are looking for a reflection that will show them what they want to see or that will flatter their sense of self. 

The specific conundrum with which Jeszenszky grapples is this: In 1848, Hungary rebelled against Austria, demanding its constitutional freedoms. Hungarians gained wide international support, particularly in Britain, and came to be seen as a noble people standing up bravely against oppressive and absolutist masters. By 1914 this reputation was in tatters and it was Hungary, rather than Austria, who was regarded as authoritarian and chauvinistic. How did this happen?

If we cannot see things directly ourselves, we rely on mirrors and lenses for information. Lost Prestige is an examination of how the perception of things and the way those perceptions are presented can alter the course of history. Immediately after 1848, Hungarians were largely telling their own story. The anti-Habsburg revolutionary Ferenc Pulszky spent his exile in Britain and his wife Theresa wrote a best-selling memoir in English. The architect of the revolution, Lajos Kossuth, toured Britain and America giving talks to enthusiastic audiences. But although reactions were widely favourable, the Habsburg empire was nevertheless still seen as integral to the European balance of power. Voicing public support for plucky Hungary’s bid for independence was one thing, but Britain’s mandarins were privately pleased when in 1849 Russia stepped in to crush the revolution and to restore the integrity of Austria. A fully independent Hungary was not in Britain’s interests. It was a romantic idea, perhaps, but not a sensible one. In the first years of the 20th century, however, two influential British commentators appeared: Henry Wickham Steed (Vienna correspondent of the Times), and R.W. Seton-Watson, a journalist and campaigner. Initially both men were great champions of Hungary but over time their attitudes became more and more critical. Their conclusions not only swayed the opinions of the British public; they also began to influence British foreign policy, in Hungary’s disfavour. How and why?

By the 1890s, Hungary was no longer the underdog. She was widely seen to have received a “good deal” in the Compromise agreement of 1867, when the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary came into being, but the huge bulk of her non-Magyar population—Croats, Slovaks, Romanians and others—lacked political representation. International sympathies now turned to these marginalised minorities. Britain had another reason, too, for deploring Hungary’s attitude: internal conflicts between Magyars and non-Magyars blinded the country as a whole to the external threats besetting it. In holding up a mirror to Hungary, Britain hoped to see a bulwark against German ambition. Instead it saw selfish, Magyar-centric chauvinism, an arrogant assumption that the prosperity Hungary enjoyed was all of her own making, and petty quarrelsomeness with Austria in demanding more rights for herself while denying those same rights to her non-Magyar peoples. Hungary’s obstreperousness in obstructing the proper workings of Parliament and stubbornly insisting on a Hungarian language of command (instead of German) in the Hungarian army (despite the fact that almost half of its soldiers were not Magyars) was widely deplored. For decades the existence of a united Austria-Hungary had been central to British policy, its dissolution unthinkable. Britain now began to think about it.

It was at this point that Wickham Steed and Seton-Watson came into their own. The Monarchy’s Slavs, Wickham Steed reported, were more reliably anti-German than the Hungarians. Partition of Austria and the creation of new buffer states along ethnic lines might be a better safeguard against German domination of the region. The creation of such states would bring the added advantage of liberating peoples groaning under a system of repression by Hungary which Seton-Watson described as “without any parallel in civilized Europe”. This book does not directly blame Seton-Watson or Wickham Steed for the outcome of Trianon (the post-WWI treaty by which Hungary was deprived of two thirds of her territory, millions of her citizens and a significant proportion of her natural resources), but it was Britain who led the charge towards the dismemberment of the Habsburg empire and it did this even before the War was over, for example by entering into treaties with Italy and Romania, enticing them over to the Allied side in return for territorial reward. Jeszenszky quotes a telegram sent in January 1915 to the British Embassy in Bucharest by the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey: “We have already declined to entertain any suggestion of Hungarian independence that would prevent satisfaction of Roumanian national aspirations as regards Transylvania.” It was a done deal. What Britain did not see was that there is no such thing as “the Slavs”. Croats, Serbs and Slovenes do not always think alike and their interests are not necessarily the same; nor are those of Czechs and Slovaks. Prophetic voices such as that of the intelligence officer Leo Amery, warning that breaking up Austria-Hungary would create a “new Balkan” of weak, unstable states which would “sooner or later lead to another war”, were ignored. 

Britain was an imperial power not known for championing the self-determination of the peoples under her dominion. How dare she, one might ask, attack Hungary on the subject of the way she treated her minorities? Wickham Steed excused himself by maintaining that his attitude was directed purely and simply by British national interest. As he saw it, a Hungary which worked in harmony with its nationalities would be a stronger ally against Germany. One that was at daggers drawn with them was a danger to Britain. Seton-Watson’s attitude was more personal. He had friends among the non-Magyars in Hungary and the horror-stories they told him led him to see everything in black and white. His Racial Problems in Hungary (1908) was shocking and convincing but it was also exaggerated and factually selective, “a passionate piece of polemical writing”. Hungary was certainly unlucky in making an enemy of him, since he was more of an activist than a historian. He orchestrated the bombardment of Austro-Hungarian troops with leaflets showing proposed new national borders and urging Slav and Romanian soldiers to desert and join international legions. Murky tactics. But Jeszenszky notes that Hungary was fooling herself in clinging to the notion that she was or could become a homogenous nation and her tendency to see all manifestations of national feeling as separatism, and thus to crush them, merely served to fan the flames.

In some ways this book is a portrait in non-fiction of the plot of Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy: a wilfully blind elite class of Magyars refusing to see how hard the people they oppress (both the national minorities and the working classes) are longing for their destruction. And Jeszenszky pulls off a rare feat: he makes parliamentary history into a page-turner. But quite a lot of background knowledge is taken for granted and readers not already familiar with Hungarian history will need to look things up, because Lost Prestige is not a history book, it is a book about image: about how Hungary was viewed and judged by external media and about how it failed to turn the mirror on itself to see how big its warts really were.

The Paris Peace Conference made many mistakes. In Central Europe, multiple peoples were living “overlapping and mixed and it was next to impossible to create States uniting all the members of a nation and having no large minorities that had their own distinct language and identity.” Human nature is universal and after Trianon, Hungarians found themselves minorities among the peoples they had tried to Magyarise. But what would have happened if Hungary had appeased its nationalities? Would concessions have prevented the break-up of the Hungarian lands? Or merely accelerated it? The opinions that become history are all about perception. Perceptions drive events. Tony Blair and the spin doctors were right: it is crucial to put the right gloss on things. 

The English translation of this book is timely. How is it that Hungary has once again alienated the world’s press, when in 1956 and 1989 it was lionised? Are we seeing a repeat of 1848 and 1914? It is always tempting to look for historical parallels. The UK’s vote to leave the EU unleashed intense confrontation between leavers and remainers. Can similarities be seen with post-Dualist Hungary? Does today’s European Union approximate to the federation of states that some early 20th-century observers believed was the solution to Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia and European equipoise?

And to what degree were Seton-Watson and Wickham Steed’s analyses fair? Reputation is a fragile thing, an “idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving” (Othello). Hungary, as Jeszenszky points out, was neither so liberal before the turn of the 20th century nor so reactionary afterwards as British commentators portrayed it. But instead of angrily blaming the mirror for distortion, he suggests, a better response is to consider instead whether some of the faults it shows might actually be there. We should take Jeszenszky’s concluding lines to heart: “Self-awareness that also rests on criticism from others is essential to individuals as well as to nations.”

Lost Prestige: Hungary’s Changing Image in Britain 1894–1918, by Géza Jeszenszky. English Translation by Brian McLean. Published by Helena History Press, 2020. Reviewed here by Annabel Barber.

Hungarian pioneer of hand-sanitization

How many of us today, while methodically washing our hands in the hope of staving off Covid-19, think of Ignác Semmelweis? How many of us have even heard of him? Semmelweis (1818–65) is not widely known around the world but he is a familiar name in Hungary. Budapest’s medical school is named after him and he has gone down in history as the ‘saviour of mothers’ because his pioneering methods saved many women and infants from death by puerperal fever. Semmelweis’ theories were revolutionary for his time. And now, his insistence on the importance of disinfection to halt the spread of contagion has been brought once again under the spotlight as we are once again reminded of its importance. Semmelweis was ahead of the curve in his grasp of the importance of hand-washing: his hunch was borne out by significant decreases in the rate of mortality on obstetric wards under his supervision. Despite this, his idea was rejected by the established medical community, who were offended by the suggestion that a patient’s death could be imputed to the medical staff’s personal hygiene. What made things more difficult for Semmelweis was the fact that he was a practitioner, not a scientist. His theory could be explained as a hunch that seemed to work but he had detected nothing through a microscope that could furnish scientific explanation and proof. He never gained the reputation he deserved during his lifetime. In fact he suffered some kind of mental and emotional breakdown and began lashing out in print at the ignorance and obstinacy of the medical fraternity. In the end he was transferred to an asylum in Vienna, a move supported by his wife, who was no longer able to cope with his tantrums. He died very shortly after his admission, perhaps as a result of ill-treatment.

Semmelweis’s former home in Budapest is now a museum of the history of medicine (described in full in Blue Guide Budapest). His theory, of course, is fully recognised today. Named after him is the phenomenon known as the Semmelweis reflex, the human tendency to reject or ridicule new ideas if they fly in the face of accepted convention.

An Artist of the World

Portrait of the artist’s wife. 1918. Private collection.

A rare treat for lovers of portraiture: a small show entirely dedicated to the work of Philip de László (1869–1937) is currently running at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest.

On the face of it, this should not seem altogether surprising. Hungarian gallery exhibits works by Hungarian artist. Not a headline-stealer, you might think. But the extraordinary thing about de László is, that this is the first exhibition devoted to his work to be mounted in his native city for almost a hundred years.

De László was the last—and for many, the finest—portraitist in the Grand Manner. His biography is a true example of life mimicking fairy-tale. Born into a humble family in inner-city Budapest, he rose to become the most sought-after portrait painter of his generation. He married an Anglo-Irish girl, Lucy Guinness, and settled permanently in England in 1907. During the course of an exceptionally successful career he painted more than 4,000 likenesses: heads of state (many of them crowned), lords temporal and spiritual, celebrated hostesses, heroes of the battlefield—and was much honoured in recognition, receiving the MVO from Edward VII and a grant of arms from Franz Joseph (to name but two of the 22 distinctions heaped upon him).

The sixteen works on display in this small show, all from de László’s mature period, represent a tiny fraction of his total output. His pace was feverish and scarcely slackened, except when he was interned as a person of ‘hostile origin’ during WWI. The portraits, both from public collections and on loan from private ones, are well chosen, a mix of the famous, the not-so-famous and the fascinating to google. Among them are Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (when Duchess of York), Cardinal Mariano Rampolla (whose path to the papacy was blocked by Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary) and General Artúr Görgei, anti-hero of the Hungarian War of Independence of 1849. But the success of a portrait need not depend on the fame of the sitter (only think of Frans Hals’ Laughing Cavalier). By no means all of de László’s subjects were household names, but with an artist of his skill, that is irrelevant. De László was brilliant at capturing a likeness. His portraits flatter but never falsify. The face is everything, and it is made to speak volumes. ‘Wonderfully clever,’ was Margot Asquith’s verdict on her portrait of 1901, ‘and much more interesting than I am’. This is possibly because there is so much left unsaid. Unlike, for example, Pompeo Batoni, the popular Italian portraitist of some hundred years previously, who threw suggestive contextual paraphernalia into his backgrounds (hunting dogs and fragments of Grecian urn, to anchor his subjects in their ‘milords-on-the-Grand Tour’ personas), de László rarely uses extraneous props. The result is an impression of irresistible glamour. De László may have had extraordinary powers of psychological penetration but he also got to the essence of his sitters by the simple expedient of chatting to them. Many became lifelong friends. One gets the impression that sitting for him was fun. Unlike Sargent, who ultimately disliked a lot of the people who made his reputation, Eeyore-ishly admitting that ‘Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend,’ de László’s experience and approach was entirely the opposite. He liked people. He was a showman, garrulous and energetic. A lovely touch in this exhibition is a little cine film snippet that shows him darting about his studio with quick, robin-like movements.

There is also a sense of the thrill of the chase. One of the aims of the De Laszlo Archive Trust is to complete the Catalogue Raisonné of all de László’s works, the whereabouts of many of which are still unknown. But when a lost painting does float to the surface, the excitement is palpable. At the opening night of this exhibition, four generations of one family were present in the room: the sitter and her children staring out from one of the portraits and the grand-daughter and great-grand-daughter among the assembled guests. The group portrait in question had only just come to light, in eastern Hungary. Hiding in plain sight. But de László is not well known in his native country. Partly because he left it and made his name outside. Partly because the monarchs and prelates of the age he depicted were hopelessly bad cadre under Communism. Not all of their reputations have recovered (Admiral Horthy, Mussolini, Kaiser Wilhelm II) but as de László himself insisted—in a remark which has become famous and serves as the title of this exhibition—he painted people, not politics. And nowhere is this more obvious than in the portraits of his family. The portrait of Lucy (their relationship was not without its trials but remained devoted) is an exceptionally accomplished work, using the device of the mirror to play with ideas of reality and illusion, the paradox of the viewer viewed. Perhaps this little jewel box of an exhibition does something similar in the variety of ways it displays its artist to us. De László is manifoldly manifest. These are his portraits, of course. One of them is even a self-portrait. And then there is the cine-clip. But he is present in three dimensions too, in the form of a small sculpture by Paul Troubetkzkoy. A lovely example of the limner limned.

I am an Artist of the World runs at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest until 5th January.

The Seuso Treasure: a new display

Readers of these blogposts might have noticed our interest in the Seuso Treasure. We freely admit it. After all, these fourteen pieces make up what is arguably the finest trove of late imperial Roman silver in existence. And now, in a keenly-awaited move, it has become one of the permanent galleries at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest with an impressive and spacious new display.

Since 2014, when the first seven pieces of the hoard were repatriated by the Hungarian government, we have written plenty about the silver and its convoluted history. To read about that, see here (also linked at the bottom of this article). This post will talk exclusively about the new display, which opened last week.

What is immediately striking is the solemnity. The visit begins in a long corridor, flanked by artefacts and information panels that give context and set the scene. The experience is a little like entering a processional dromos or sacred way, leading to an ancient temple or tholos tomb. At the end of the corridor is the inner sanctum, where the silver itself is displayed in a space made mysterious by plangent music. The air is thick with the silence. Custodians are keen to remind visitors not to take photographs. It is almost as if we were being inducted into an Eleusinian mystery, with the injunction never to divulge what we saw and heard when we return to the less rarefied atmosphere of our ordinary lives. Certainly not share it on Instagram!

Whereas the previous display of the silver was cramped, with the pieces crowded together, almost as if mimicking the tight packing in the copper cauldron in which they were found, the new exhibition arranges the items far apart. Those which clearly belong together (the Hippolytus situlae, for example) are displayed side by side. The others are their own islands.

And now they are joined by the famous Kőszárhegy Stand (illustrated below), an adjustable four-legged contraption, a sort of luxury camping table, made of silver of the most extreme purity, purer than sterling. It was discovered near the village of Kőszárhegy, close to the putative find-spot of the Seuso Treasure itself, in 1878, during the chopping down and digging out of a plum tree. It was in a fragmentary state: two legs were unearthed together with most of two of the crosspieces. Restorers originally assumed that it had been a tripod, and integrated it accordingly. It was only when it proved impossible to prevent persistent cracking that the Museum team realised that it needed a fourth leg to make it stable and correct the tension. Two of the legs and X-shaped crossbars that you see today are original. The other two are restorations. The challenge is to detect which are which.The Kőszárhegy Silver Stand, in the Hungarian National Museum’s booklet on the Treasure.

The stand is an extraordinary piece, well over a metre high and capable of being adjusted to hold the largest of the Seuso platters. It is thought that it could have been pressed into service in a number of ways: to hold plates laden with good things at an outdoor feast, for example; or as a washstand bearing a silver basin and water pitchers. Its marine-themed iconography would support this view. Each leg terminates in a cupid figure riding a dolphin. Halfway up each leg is a sharp-beaked aquatic gryphon. The finials are decorated with silver tritons, clutching conch shells in huge-fingered hands, with water nymphs seated on their backs, naked but for a chain around their necks and a billowing veil above their heads. One of them holds an apple, the attribute of Aphrodite. As the information panel tells us, the Roman or Romanised Celtic domina who washed her face at this stand would have been flatteringly reminded as she did so of her own uncanny resemblance to Paris’s chosen goddess.

The Kőszárhegy Silver Stand, in the Hungarian National Museum’s booklet on the Treasure.

But the wealthy elite of Roman Pannonia were not goddesses or gods. As the central scene on the famous Pelso plate shows, they were a fun-loving bunch of mortals. They enjoyed picnicking in the open air beside Lake Balaton, scoffing freshly-caught fish and washing it down with beakers of wine. They loved their dogs and gave humorous nicknames to their horses. They threw banquets to show off their silver to each other, and display their erudition when it came to Graeco-Roman mythology. The characters that Seuso—whoever he may have been—chose to depict on his tableware, as reflections of his own attributes, were the great warrior Achilles, the great huntsman Meleager and the great reveller Dionysus. The women of his household are associated with Aphrodite, the Three Graces and Phaedra the temptress. These were people in love with life and merrymaking. So why the solemn atmosphere and the doleful music? Where are the dancing girls and the Apician stuffed dormice? The title of this display is “The Splendour of Roman Pannonia”: a good one; Seuso could certainly do bling. What he and his family left behind is ineffably precious. As well as revere it, we should also enjoy it, throw ourselves a little into the mood of carefree frivolity that these gorgeous pieces evoke.

The story of the Treasure on blueguides.com

Website of the Hungarian National Museum

Hungary Food Companion

The brand new Blue Guide Hungary Food Companion is now out. A handy lexicon of Magyar food vocabulary, with a miscellany of culinary information (and a few traditional recipes) thrown into the pot alongside.

Hungary typically has blisteringly hot summers but curiously no real summer cuisine. A cold fruit soup made from strawberry, apricot or sour cherry, followed by stuffed marrow or stuffed paprika, is about as light as it gets in the traditional repertoire. Summer is also the season for “főzelék”. As the interwar court chef Sándor Újváry noted, “It is needless to list the types of főzelék that belong to the domestic culinary repertoire and which are prepared on a daily basis in so many kitchens: they are all universally known…and the perfect preparation of these well-known types of főzelék requires little effort and few ingredients.”

Sounds good. But what is a főzelék? The name roughly means a boil-up, which is essentially accurate: a főzelék is a dish of boiled vegetable, sometimes puréed and sometimes not, mixed with a roux and eaten with a spoon. Almost any vegetable can be used, from the humble potato (krumpli) to the more highly prized asparagus (spárga). On menus, you will commonly find cabbage (káposzta) főzelék, spinach (spenót) főzelék, pumpkin (tök) főzelék, green pea (zöldborsó) főzelék. In the market this morning we found yellow string beans (vajbab). So yellow string bean főzelék it was to be.

Here they are in their raw state:

And this is the recipe we followed to turn them into főzelék.

1. Wash and chop the beans, into sections roughly 2–3cm long. Cook them until tender in lightly salted water (we had some leftover chicken stock, so we used that instead).

2. Prepare the roux. With a wire whisk, combine flour and sour cream and powdered paprika. We used three heaped teaspoons of flour, one heaped teaspoon of paprika and two tablespoons of sour cream.

3. Drain the beans, retaining the water. Then gradually add the water to the roux, mixing all the while.

4. Put the mixture on a low heat, stirring until it thickens. Add the beans. Salt to taste if necessary. Serve.

This is what it looked like.

Simple but delicious.

Life in Color

“Florette’s Hands”, 1961. © Ministère de la Culture France/Association des Amis de Jacques-Henri Lartigue, France

This summer’s most charming show in Budapest is an exhibition at the Capa Center of colour photographs by Jacques-Henri Lartigue (1894–1986).

Lartigue, the son of an amateur photographer, received his first camera at the age of nine, a present from his father. He went on to take photographs all his life, encouraged by his father, who gave him support and equipment and, when he was 18, a Pathé cinecamera.

Lartigue neverthelesss chose a career as a painter and—at least to begin with, partly thanks to his vivacious and well-connected first wife Bibi—enjoyed a successful career in painting and set-design, hobnobbing with artists, writers, journalists, people from the world of film and the theatre, and all kinds of bohemians and hangers-on—not to mention a wealth of minor and major celebrities, as the shot of Cocteau and Picasso at a bullfight in 1955 makes clear.

Lartigue’s colour photography is so refreshing because it reflects little of this life-in-the-fast-lane image. What we see are candid shots of his friends and family, wives and lovers, the view from his bedroom window, holiday snaps, everyday scenes: the sort of thing people might put up on Facebook today, in other words, though snapped with a much acuter eye than most, as the shot above, of his third wife Florette’s painted nails holding open an Italian magazine with an advert for nail polish (1961), amply demonstrates. There is an an honesty and a joy in everything captured by Lartigue’s lens. The 20th century that he presents is an era of imperceptibly-occurring but irreversible change, an end of innocence—and at the same time an age of unaffected beauty and instinctive glamour. Unlike the century that the history books reveal, the photographs in this show present an age of fun and laughter.

Lartigue’s colour photographs were exhibited for the first time in 1954. The real break, though, came in 1962, when Charles Rado (a Hungarian, incidentally), founder of the Rapho photographic agency, showed a body of Lartigue’s work to John Sarkowski, head of photography at MoMA. A solo exhibition and a feature in Life magazine followed. Lartigue’s fame was assured.

The earliest photographs in this show are family lineups from 1912–14 in Pau, Chamonix and elsewhere in France. We also see soft-focus shots of Bibi, with pink roses and red lipstick, and then again at a corner table with a wide sea view in the Cap-Eden-Roc hotel in Antibes. It is impossible to give highlights. Different shots will appeal to different people. Mine were a grim-faced nun lugging an invalid in a dog-cart to Lourdes (1957), laundry flapping wildly outside slum dwellings in Rome (1960), a solitary cyclist on the Appian Way, an elderly Breton widow in traditional black cylindrical headdress sitting incongruously under a red beach umbrella with a bottle of commercial orangeade and a garishly plastic, duck-shaped swimming ring (1970). Striking too is the view of the snowbound Mégève viewed through a gigantic ice-beaded spider’s web and a Palladian villa at Dolo on the Brenta Canal between Venice and Padua, looking, in 1958, utterly derelict and desolate. Today, spruced up, that same villa offers B&B.

Between 1979 and his death in 1986, Lartigue bequeathed his entire photographic oeuvre to the French government. How fortunate that this body of private, intensely personal work did not find its way into a rubbish skip! As the shot of “Florence Pauly, my paintings”, taken in Havana in 1957, shows (though unfortunately, for copyright reasons, we can’t show the image here), Lartigue deserves more from posterity than to be remembered purely as a painter of floral bouquets.

“Life in Color”, an exhibition of the colour photographs of Jacques-Henri Lartigue, runs at the Capa Center in Budapest until 1st September.

Baroque-era spinach patties

Anna Bornemisza (c. 1630–88) was the daughter of an army captain, a noblewoman in her own right and, by marriage (in 1653, to Mihály Apafi), Princess of Transylvania. The story of her husband’s family, and the turbulent times they had to deal with, is covered in Blue Guide Travels in Transylvania: the Greater Târnava Valley. Anna was clever and highly educated. In fact, some historians accuse her husband of having no interest in or understanding of politics and of leaving key decisions to his nimble-witted spouse. Whatever the truth, Anna was also a devoted wife and mother of 14 children (only one son survived to adulthood). She wrote detailed household accounts, which have survived, as well as a famous cookery book (in 1680). Whether or not the cookbook was intended for the instruction of others or whether it was more notes for herself of successful recipes, I do not know. Perhaps the latter, because the recipes are far from detailed, and even by the standards of the times give almost no practical help. Her recipe for ‘Spinach Cake’, for example, reads as follows:

Take spinach. Wilt it in water and squeeze out the liquid. Add parmesan cheese and grated bread. Add mace, pepper, egg yolk and buttermilk. Cook and mix together. Make a cake from it and when it is cooked, serve hot.

It is difficult to make something when you have no idea what it is meant to look like or how it is supposed to taste. How to decide on quantities? We made ‘spinach cake’ for two. By ‘spinach cake’, we assumed a kind of patty, and we added the ingredients proportionally, in order to give it a stiffish consistency. That meant, for half a kilo of spinach, two egg yolks and about three tablespoons of breadcrumbs, with enough buttermilk to make it all stick together without turning to concrete and plenty of grated parmesan (interesting that the recipe specifies parmesan: what does that say about 17th-century trading relations between Tranyslvania and Northern Italy?). We didn’t use mace. It seemed more practical to opt for grated nutmeg, to avoid ending up with hard, gritty bits in the patty. It’s also worth noting that the recipe does not call for salt. And it does not need it. The parmesan fulfils that role.

It is very quick to make. Result? It doesn’t look very elegant or appetising but it tastes delicious. If we had had a set of chef’s forming rings, we could have shaped it better. But we didn’t.

Perfect paprika chicken

István Czifray was the nom de plume of István Czövek, master chef at the court of the Palatine Joseph, Habsburg governor of Hungary in the early 19th century. Czifray’s book of recipes and household tips (including instructions for making perfumes and pomades) first appeared in 1816. Soon to be entitled Magyar Nemzeti Szakácskönyve (Hungarian National Cookbook), it went into numerous editions, the last coming out in 1888. It is an important landmark in the annals of Hungarian culinary history. Czifray includes a recipe for the signature Hungarian dish of paprika chicken (paprikás csirke). Since we had recently eaten this dish at Kárpátia, and old-fashioned restaurant in central Budapest whose opulent interior decoration is a sort of pastiche of the Hungarian Parliament and the Matthias Church, and where tourists’ eardrums are cheerfully assaulted by the squealing of a gypsy band, we were curious to see how Czifray’s recipe measured up.

The Kárpátia version of the dish looked like this:

Ours wouldn’t look quite like that. We weren’t planning to make galuska (that’s a subject for another post). The key thing to get right was the sauce.

Here is Czifray’s recipe:

“Pluck and draw a pair of young chickens. Wash them and cut into equal-sized pieces. Lightly salt these. Finely chop an onion and in a copper skillet fry in butter until translucent. Add the chicken pieces and half a dessert spoon of paprika powder. Cover and steam until tender, shaking periodically. Sprinkle with a little flour, add a scant quantity of meat broth and a few spoonfuls of sour cream. Leave to cook on a low heat, carefully skimming off the foam that forms on the surface. Then serve.”

As with many old recipes, it is hazy on precise quantities and gives no information about cooking time. This is something you either have to know from experience or guess.

We didn’t take whole chickens, we began with chicken legs, bought from the butcher that afternoon. Apart from that, we followed the initial instructions, chopping a bunch of spring onions and sautéeing them in a thick wad of butter in a heavy casserole pan (cast iron, we didn’t have copper). Half a dessert spoon of paprika powder sounded rather little, but anyway, we didn’t add much more (maybe a level dessert spoon). It was good-quality paprika, from Kalocsa.

Covering and steaming without the chicken pieces sticking to the pan is tricky. You might want to—as we did—add a little of the meat broth at this stage. We put in a large ladleful of chicken stock that we had made a couple of days previously.

“Cook until tender” is a difficult instruction. How long is that? To be sure that the chicken is cooked through, you want to cook it for at least 45 minutes in total. We reckoned half an hour at this stage, and then a further 20 minutes once the sour cream and flour have gone in.

Sprinkling with flour and then adding sour cream sounded like a recipe for lumpy sauce but oddly enough it worked fine. You really only need a scattering of flour. For “scant quantity” of broth, we read about 200ml. But if it starts drying out, add more. A good tasty stock won’t spoil the dish’s flavour. “A few spoonfuls” of sour cream we interpreted as three or four generously heaped dessert spoons.

We stirred all this in, left the chicken on the lowest flame for a further 20 minutes or so. We didn’t need to skim off any foam—none formed. But we did add a little more salt.

It looked like this (see below). And it was excellent. Even though the sauce didn’t look as flawlessly smooth as Kárpátia’s, in fact it tasted better. The Kárpátia version lacked the spring onions, which really make all the difference.

A spring recipe from 1891

In some ways Ágnes Zilahy (1848–1908) is the Mrs Beeton of Hungarian cookery. Her publications of recipes, along with tips on household management, made her a household name in her own lifetime and her Valódi Magyar Szakácskönyv (Real Hungarian Cookery), a book of explicitly Hungarian dishes (i.e. not derived from other cuisines), went into a second edition within seven months of its release in 1891.

The daughter of a well-to-do lawyer, Zilahy was suddenly flung on her own resources with her father and all eight siblings died, leaving her alone in the world at the age of 18. Her first husband squandered her fortune; her second marriage was also unhappy and ended in divorce. She eked out a living as a glove-maker until persuaded by Count Sándor Teleky, a hero of the Hungarian Uprising against the Habsburgs of 1848–9, to compile her recipes into a book. This she did and never looked back. We decided to test one of those recipes out.

It’s late April and the markets are beginning to fill up with fresh produce. We chose Zilahy’s recipe for stuffed marrow. She in fact titles the recipe Töltött ugorka, “stuffed cucumber”. But we couldn’t really imagine stuffing cucumbers. Marrow it had to be. Her instructions begin as follows: You need a green “ugorka” as long as a span, well-grown and thick but still young and tender.

So far so good. Next step:

Remove its skin and cut it in half lengthways. Allow one “ugorka” per person. Remove the seeds from the centre.

That part was easy. Now for the stuffing. Zilahy recommends leftover roast pork or beef, which should be finely minced, seasoned with salt and a teaspoon of crushed pepper and mixed with 120g of “rizskása”. Here comes the perennial problem with modern cookery: we don’t make enough use of leftovers, or, when we come to pick something from a recipe book, we don’t have any leftovers to work with and have to start from scratch.

Why is this a problem? Not only because of waste, but because of flavour. Leftover roast pork, whose flavours have had time to develop and coalesce, would be much tastier than the fresh minced pork we had bought from the butcher that same morning. To make the meat more savoury, we sautéed it in oil with diced onion, salt and pepper, some dried sage and crushed caraway seed.

Now for the “rizskása”. This “rice gruel” is difficult to translate. It is essentially a dish of boiled rice flavoured in some way. Zilahy’s cookbook has two separate recipes: for rizskása with onion and rizskása with mushrooms. We chose the former as we had no mushrooms. All it involves is boiling up rice in salted water and mixing with glazed chopped onions and parsley. One thing to note: here, as for most Hungarian cooking, it is best to use medium-grain rice. Long-grain rice is not glutinous enough and the ingredients won’t combine and adhere properly.

Back to Zilahy’s recipe:

Mix the meat and rice well together, then fill the hollowed out marrow halves with this stuffing. Place the stuffed marrows together in a large casserole, with the stuffed side facing upwards. Then fill the casserole with warm salted water and immediately add to the liquid six spoonfuls of strong vinegar, otherwise the marrows will fall apart when cooking.

We did all this, the only difference being that instead of warm salted water we used warm chicken stock, again afraid that our this-morning’s meat would not be flavourful enough and needed some external help.

When the marrows are cooked, add a lightly browned roux made from an egg-sized amount of fat and a large wooden spoonful of flour. When the roux is hot and beginning to brown, add a cup of cold water to it, to stop it from going lumpy. Quickly pour this over the marrow and cook together for a few minutes.

Zilahy gives no indication of how hot the oven should be (or indeed if the marrows should be cooked in the oven or on the hob), nor how long the cooking will take, nor whether the casserole should be covered or not. We chose to bake them uncovered and—because we hadn’t followed her advice of removing the skins—the process took an hour at 200ºC. But ours is a very old oven. In a more efficient fan oven, it should take less. Not covering the pan meant that the meat stuffing went pleasantly crunchy on top.

Zilahy recommends serving this dish with sour cream (tejföl) and beef topside (sült felsál). We didn’t think we needed yet more meat with it. But the sour cream was wonderful.

Gellért 100

Poster advertising the new wave pool.

The title of this engaging small exhibition, on show at the Museum of Trade and Tourism (MKVM) in Budapest, celebrates the centenary of the famous Gellért hotel and baths. Housed in magnificently tiled and decorated late-Art Nouveau halls, the baths are one of the most popular destinations on every tourist’s itinerary. But they still cater to a local clientèle too: as you line up for your ticket, you will see a special queue for people with doctors’ notes, coming here not purely for recreation but to take the cure. In this, the Gellért remains true to its roots.

The curative thermal waters on this site have been known for a long time. In the Middle Ages, St Elizabeth of Hungary used them to bathe lepers. The Ottomans prized the waters too: there was an open-air mud bath here, which, after the Turks were expelled, became a place where horses were treated for distemper and, by the 19th century, a resort of ill-repute. A new spa building was built in 1832 (in fact it is still there, under Gellért Square, though seldom open to the public) but it was not until the construction of the Liberty Bridge (originally Franz Joseph Bridge) over the Danube in 1896 that the area really began to take off. The bridge attracted the developers and the area was cleared. On show in the exhibition is a charming photograph of an improvised summer dance floor, pressed into a secondary role as a cowshed. This, along with numerous cottages, taverns and summer villas, all fell to the wrecking ball.

A tender to design the new baths complex was won by two architects, Artúr Sebestyén and Ármin Hegedus. Their designs were completed in 1909, on a floor plan by a third architect, Izidor Sterk. Construction, delayed by WWI, was completed in 1918. Vintage posters on display make it clear that the business of marketing Budapest as a ‘Spa City’ has been in full swing since the early 1920s. In 1927 a wave machine was installed in the outdoor pool (the original mechanism is still in operation) and in 1933 the palm court and mini-golf course gave way to an indoor pool and whirlpool.

The baths were always intended to be used for recreation as well as therapy and their decoration was lavish and opulent. The huge vaulted halls were designed to recall the massive, overarching spaces of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. Visiting the baths today, one is still reminded of an Alma-Tadema painting.

Romantic re-creation of the Baths of Caracalla by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912). The Gellért Baths in their heyday were harking back to something similar.

Budapest suffered greatly in both world wars and the Gellért shared the same fate. In 1919, Romanian army chiefs took over the hotel during their occupation of the city. When Admiral Horthy rode into Budapest later that same year, he used the hotel as his headquarters. In WWII the hotel was used as the German military HQ, which made it a target for Allied raids. By the end of the war, the hotel was a burned-out shell and the ladies’ section of the baths was completely wrecked (though fully restored, it is much less ornate than the former men’s thermal section—and today the baths are fully unisex).

Plans to rebuild the hotel to modern, more Rationalist designs (drawings of these are on show) came to nothing and the exterior was restored more or less as it had been. It partly reopened in 1946. In 1948 came nationalisation, since when the hotel and baths ceased to operate as a single unit. Today the hotel is owned and run by the Danubius group while the Budapest municipality is in charge of the baths.

The hotel foyer when the hotel first opened. ©MKVM

In its heyday the hotel rooms had all had hot and cold running water and in the suites, the bathrooms offered three types of water: municipal mains water, thermal water and carbonated water. The mineral content was found to corrode the pipes, however, and the practice was discontinued. Between the wars the hotel restaurant was run by the celebrated Gundel. On show are ice buckets, guest books, monogrammed crockery and menu cards, including that for a gala luncheon in 1933 at which Mussolini was the guest of honour. He ate eggs in aspic, chicken with salad and roast potatoes, and a chestnut cream slice.

Also on show are posters, pamphlets, souvenir keyrings and other knick-knacks, a restored neo-Baroque bedroom and some marvellous archive photographs, showing the hotel both as it was in the glamorous years before the Second World War, and as it became after the 1956 Revolution, when all the old furniture and fittings were thrown on the scrap heap and the interiors were remodelled in a brave new minimalist spirit.

The gallery of the hotel foyer after its remodelling, in 1961. Photo: Fortepan

Everything is excellently captioned and the wall texts are perfectly brief and informative. If you are in Budapest this winter—and especially if you plan to visit the Gellért Baths and/or are staying in the hotel, come and see this show.

“Gellért 100” runs at the MKVM in Budapest until 3rd March. Review by Annabel Barber, author of Blue Guide Budapest (which contains full coverage of both the MKVM and the Gellért Baths).