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Friday 7 January 2011

Das ist ein Unikum ! Memories of Hungary and Unicum‏

The agency I once worked for in Austria had a sister business down the road in the Hungarian capital, Budapest - there were all sorts of stories and legends about it, but two of my favourites are these:

- that it had been opened in 1988 before the fall of communism (true) with the MDs of the two businesses smuggling in computers from Vienna in the car, sitting at the border with poker faces and a boot full of contraband IT equipment

- that the agency was sited in what had previously been a school - a kindergarten, in fact - and later on some of staff who came to work at the agency had actually been to the kindergarten where they now worked.

Over the years, I drove down from Vienna to Budapest many times and gradually fell in love with the country and the hospitality of its people whose ancestors were horseback warriors from central Asia.

I never picked up more than a few phrases of the language but I recognised enough food-related words as Slavic in origin to be able to tease my Hungarian friends that it had taken the civilising influence of the Slavs to teach the ancient Huns to settle down and cook their food rather than just hunting, pillaging and eating raw meat.

Hungarian food certainly is hearty by tradition, but I had many good and several excellent meals in Budapest as well as learning to love the wines which are well-made again since the fall of communism and, in the case of Tokaji, deliciously rich and sweet.

All these memories of Hungary came back to me over Christmas when we discovered an old but still perfectly serviceable bottle of Unicum whilst visiting my parents.

Unicum is dark herbal liqueur made using more than forty herbs, some distilled, some macerated; the drink is then blended and aged in oak casks at a factory in Budapest for over 6 months.

It is made by Hungarian drinks company Zwack and the name, according to legend, derives from the pronouncement of the Habsburg monarch Joseph II on first trying it in 1790 - Das ist ein Unikum !

Thick and dark in the glass, it is foreboding and medicinal on the nose - this is not a drink for the faint-hearted; there is briefly some initial sweetness on the palate but this is swiftly followed by a wave of potent, rich and powerful bitter herbs, rather like chewing on sage and rosemary.

It can be either sipped and savoured as a digestif or knocked back central European style as an aperitif - as I was taught to do by our Hungarian Managing Director on the terrace of a lovely restaurant on a hillside on the Buda side of Hungary's capital in a 38 degree heat one summer.

In any case, it does need to be served chilled, otherwise the bitterness is just too much.

Unicum is not yet widely available in the UK, but can be found and costs around £20 per 70cl bottle.


Zwack - http://www.zwack.hu/index2.php?set_lang=en

Unicum (in Hungarian) - http://unicum.hu/start.php

Unicum on Wine Searcher - http://www.wine-searcher.com/find/unicum/0/uk

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