The Good Life in Aggtelek National Park Part 91: Visit to Some of Balaton National Park's Certified Local Producers
This week we had to go down to Csopak in the heart of Balaton National Park for a meeting of all national park certified product coordinators for the 10 Hungarian national parks. Six months ago it was held in the Őrség. Csopak is home to a number of top-notch vineyards, including Tamás, Jásdi and Söptei, and that is why it has been a starting point for me for years on bike tours along the northern coast of the lake. However, I have never been to the Park directorate offices before. Besides the meetings, we had the opportunity to visit several of their certified producers and also do some sightseeing in less well travelled sections of the Park.
The first place we visited was the Levendula Porta in Kékkút, a working farm run by the very funny and energetic young couple Eníd and Tibor Keszthelyi. Competition is very steep at Balaton, especially in the lavender and cordial market, but the couple have come up with exciting new products and services so that they can support themselves on several pillars. Not only do they make lavender cordial, but also rosemary and rose - all of which were delicious - but the rose was a clear standout. I would have purchased a bottle of the rose cordial (1500 huf/0.5 litre), but my colleagues beat me to all of this year's remaining 4 bottles. They also do a range of milk products including aged semi-hard cheeses, yoghurt, fresh milk and mozzarella. Programmes include a Lavender Stroll, Cheese Yourself, accommodation, and a Breakfast Terrace. Because this is a working farm, it is open to visitors only at specific times, so please check their webpage before just showing up. Tibor said that, "We do not ever finish our daily chores, we just give up" - something Kata and I can concur with. One of their biggest challenges, and one I see faced by local producers here at Aggtelek National Park as well, is getting their neighbours to buy their products. Their 250 HUF for a litre of fresh milk that is cheaper and healthier than store bought and also supports your neighbour seems like a no-brainer, but it just does not happen. Their 3000 Huf for a kilo of fresh high quality cheese is also a bargain. In Aggtelek, local producers sell their cheese and milk for half that, and still their neighbours buy more expensive Tetrapak UHT milk imported from Poland by the case instead. If just 10 neighbours would buy cheese or milk a week it would make a huge difference not only to the local producer, but for the community. Blocking your neighbours from being successful can be classified as a national pastime.
The next stop was to the Gyógynövény Völgy (Valley of Medicinal Herbs) in Zanka. The centre conducts research, tours and courses as well as maintaining a gene bank of Balaton region seeds. We enjoyed a cup of fig leaf tea (one of about 1200 types of tea they can mix for customers according to their desires or medical complaints) while Tamas Takats and Laszlo Vargha introduced us to the complex and its activities. Besides the teas, they also manufacture herbal wines and vinegars, grape seed oil, herbal chocolates and pâtés. Plans are also in the works to add a café. They work closely with local producers to create new products incorporating different herbs. For example, we sampled a unique Pinot Gris from Gergely Szabó's Vineyard in Zanka flavoured with, among other things, orange peel, rosemary, mugwort, clove, rosehip, cinnamon and bastard balm. Down in the drying room a vast array of cardboard boxes and jars contained the dried herbs or "drugs" as they called them. A visit here would not have been complete without a walk through the garden. We donned our raingear and windbreakers and ventured out among the raised beds in the forms of spirals, boxes and even Noah's Ark. Humungous gourds (2 metres in length) hung from rafters of an open deck, and tomatoes grew in the vineyard. I finally saw what buckwheat and watercress plants look like. Every plant is labelled and enabled with QR codes for audio tours.
In the evening we were treated to wines from the Tamás Vineyard. Since the younger generation has been cooperating in the venture, a myriad of new organic products have been launched by the venture accompanied by professional marketing and advertising. The wines have been joined by cordials, jellies, jams, ciders, vinegars, herbs and chutneys. While I was not particularly impressed by the Italian Riesling or Pinot Gris we tried (I prefer his reds), the lavender, ginger and elderflower ciders were good, as was the green walnut cordial. The ciders are grape-based rather than apple-based.
The following afternoon we took a tour of the inner Tihány Peninsula. The wind and rain battered us as we made our way along a goat path for a tremendous view of the inner lake which until then I had no idea existed. Our very good and informative guide Réka took us to the caves of religious hermits established by King Andrew I. While this is one of the less visited areas of the Balaton National Park, extensive paper tissue litter showed that a toilet in the area might at least be worth considering. At the end, we were welcomed at the Lavender House, the park's newest visitor centre for hot tea. I was very happy to see aerators integrated into the water taps, a cheap water conservation solution that can save up to 80% of water use but still only rarely seen anywhere in Hungary.
If there was any disappointment in the trip, it was the overreliance on lavender as both a tourist attraction and product. The market is glutted. Lavender is not even a native Hungarian plant, and the Park just finished planting another 30000 lavender plants last week. With almost everyone producing lavender products in the area, I do not know why locals do not concentrate on other main ingredients instead. For example, Tihány used to be covered with almond trees. Almonds can be processed into almond milk (for the lactose intolerant), almond flour (for the gluten intolerant), marzipan and any number of other products.
Thanks to Balaton National Park for their excellently organised and interesting meeting.