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A taste of Hungary's history in Budapest's sumptuous coffeehouses

A family finds sweet fulfillment on a trip to Hungary that includes stops at ornate Budapest coffeehouses featuring delicious pastries and memories of a flourishing Jewish community.

April 29, 2012|By Daniel Robinson, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • The Central Kavehaz cafe, founded in Budapest in in 1887, serves desserts including Dobos and Sacher tortes.
The Central Kavehaz cafe, founded in Budapest in in 1887, serves desserts… (Daniel Robinson )

BUDAPEST, Hungary —American coffeehouses are prized for their quick service and fast Internet — ideal for people on the go. But a century ago, European cafes were places to linger amid Gilded Age opulence. Nowhere was this more so than in Budapest, where some of its great historic cafes have survived economic crises, war and Communism.

My wife, Rachel, and my mother-in-law, Edie, had never been to Hungary, but they had been hearing about Budapest and its grand avenues, delicious pastries and vibrant Jewish community all their lives: Edie's parents were born here in the 1890s. Traveling with us in August on our voyage of reconnection was our infant son, Yair.

Both of Edie's grandfathers had died in the 1930s — by that time, Edie's father, Joseph, was already in New England — but her grandmothers lived to see the virulent anti-Semitism of the following decade. They were alive and well when the U.S. entered World War II in late 1941 — until that time, letters could be exchanged — but at war's end there was no trace of them. Edie remembers her father's grief upon being informed after the war that they were dead.

It was in search of prewar Jewish Budapest that we visited the vast and spectacularly ornate Dohany Street Synagogue. Built in the 1850s, this Moorish-style complex is where Joseph married Edie's mother, Louise. Next door at the Hungarian Jewish Archives Family Research Center (www.milev.hu), we made inquiries about the family's fate, but a search of Jewish community records turned up no new information. In early 1945, the bodies of 2,281 Jews, most of them unidentified, were buried in 24 mass graves in the synagogue's tranquil, ivy-covered courtyard. Perhaps, we thought (and hoped), this is where they lie, shaded by weeping white mulberry trees.

A quirk of history had made it possible for us, quite literally, to follow the footsteps — and coffee cups — of Edie's maternal grandfather, Vilmos Balla, a prominent Budapest economist and journalist. He wrote a dozen serious tomes about grain prices, agricultural taxes and other matters of economic import in the waning years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the time, editors and journalists often met — indeed, ran entire newspapers — from tables in their favorite cafes. That's how he came to write his only book that is still in print, a history of Budapest's coffee shops, published in 1927 and reissued with vintage photos (and 797 footnotes) in 2008. We decided to reconnect to the city by visiting some of his old haunts.

We found a single copy of Vilmos' book, "A Kaveforras" ("The Coffee Source") — on sale — at a bookshop called Alexandra on Andrassy Avenue, Budapest's Champs-Elysées. Coincidentally, the shop has one of Budapest's most ornate cafes on its upper floor. In Vilmos' time, the late 19th century hall, now occupied by Bookcafe Kavezo (kave is the Hungarian word for "coffee"), was part of a Parisian-style department store, so it's not mentioned in his book about coffeehouses, but the extravagant spirit of his gilded age is present in spades. Unfortunately, the neo-Renaissance murals, the gilded ceiling and the mirrored walls were more dazzling to look at than the pastries were tasty to eat.

The most outstanding cakes we found in Budapest, by far, were those served in a cafe that Vilmos did write about: the Central Kavehaz, founded in 1887. A century ago, intellectuals held court under the soaring ceilings, arguing passionately about the issues of the day. In our time, the Central's most epic confrontation takes place in silence inside the sparkling pastry case, pitting Budapest's iconic cake, the multilayered Dobos torte, against its bitter(sweet) Viennese rival, the richly chocolate Sacher torte.

Seated on maroon banquettes at a white marble table, we staged the confectionary equivalent of a heavyweight title fight. For the sake of convenience (and deliciously aware that we were committing sacrilege), we placed both contenders on the same porcelain plate — like having Ali and Frazier stay in the same hotel room the night before the big bout, you might say — but our tiny table was too small for any other arrangement.

The two triangular cakes, edging into each other's personal space, eyed each other with a mixture of aloofness and loathing. The Sacher torte, the word "Sacher" inscribed on top in looping chocolate script, proudly displayed its two layers of dark brown cake, separated by a thin smear of apricot jam. A pinkie's width away, the caramel stratum atop the Dobos torte gleamed a transparent orange, contrasting with the dull sheen of its five layers of yellow-white sponge cake, each sandwiched between layers of chocolate buttercream.

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