Taste Lake Balaton – A talk with Ms. Edit Babik, General Secretary of the Hungarian Tourism Association Foundation, about the publication "How Lake Balaton Cooks".

stories Barbara H. Kormos / Photos: Csaba Toroczkai

Eighteen restaurants, four pastry shops and two wheels – these few words sum up the essence of the book "The Way Lake Balaton Cooks", published at the end of last year. The reality is, however, that it is much more than a cookbook: it’s a collection of the best of Lake Balaton's dishes from the double perspective of gastronomy and bicycle tourism, presented through outstanding photography. The pictures are complemented by recipes and personal stories of the eatery owners, making you feel as if you were sitting on the terrace of their restaurants, enjoying the panorama of Lake Balaton, and listening to them in person.

How did the idea for "How Lake Balaton Cooks" come about?

We had a fortunate meeting of minds with the publishing house How to Cook, whose books we already knew. They have been producing gastronomic publications for over 20 years. The concept of cooperation took shape through several conversations with them when the Hungarian Tourism Association Foundation wanted to promote the Balaton region through gastronomy. We agreed to do it with a twist: to introduce Lake Balaton by way of a cycling tour with one or two tourist attractions near each restaurant.

So, gastronomy and cycling tourism are clearly at the heart of the publication: the former is served by recipes, the latter by QR codes and maps. Why did you choose these two Balaton attractions?

Lake Balaton is the best-known tourism brand in Hungary, second only to Budapest, the capital, and it's not the lake alone that attracts visitors to the region. Many people travel to the area for its gastronomic offer, which has now become a general motivating factor in tourism. Balaton is also a cyclist's paradise. There are eight hundred kilometres of cycle paths within a twenty-to-thirty-kilometre radius of the lake. More and more people hop on their bikes and cycle around the lake, occasionally moving away from the shore to explore more distant attractions.

You are one of the co-authors. Tell us about the background work? How long did it take to produce the book?

It was a challenging obstacle course. Just as we made the final decisions and were ready to start our tour around the lake, we ran into the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. Restaurants were closed for quite some time before they were able to open again. When they were locked down, we couldn't make any progress because there were no kitchens and no staff. When they finally opened, they were full, and everything revolved around the return of customers. Understandably, they had no time for us. Perhaps this why the publication is so people-oriented: the hospitality industry had come a long way, and so have we, during the time we worked on the book. We worked with enormous highs and lows for a year, sometimes going full steam, and then, when everything closed down, we also came to a complete stop. Gabriel and Violet Őszy-Tóth have a tremendous amount of experience and did a great job on the publishing side. I would especially like to highlight the work of our two photographers. Ati Boldog took beautiful food photos and portraits of the hosts while Zoltán Vanik presents the reader with excellent cycling and landscape photos.

What criteria did you employ to select the restaurants for publication?

Balázs Csapody, a curator of the Foundation and president of the Pannon Academy of Gastronomy, helped us with the selection. It is a colourful range of venues: the book presents a variety of styles and cuisines, from beach bistros to boutique hotel restaurants. The restaurateurs who run the eateries are just as colourful. Their portraits fully reflect this. On one page a single-minded restaurateur looks at the reader with a piercing gaze, while on the next another owner’s big smile tells you that he will go to great lengths to satisfy his guest. But I leave it to the book to tell their personal stories. Turn the pages, and you'll discover a variety of life stories of interesting people, and extraordinary cuisines.

The book explicitly features restaurants that are open all year. It's an open secret that it aims to promote the Lake Balaton region in all seasons. Where do we stand on this issue at this moment? Are Lake Balaton and the region authentic four-season attractions?

Many people are working very hard for this. Apart from the restaurants in the book, many other operators are also working towards this end. The number of pages were limited, so, unfortunately, we could not introduce everyone. It is, however, safe to say that gastronomy and wine culture are now a four-season attraction around the lake. Service centres to support bicycle tourism will open in the near future: two, in Balatonfüred and Balatonföldvár, will be completed before the summer high season, and the third will open in the second half of the year in Keszthely. Tour offers, maps, and background services for more comfortable cycling will be provided for the visitors all year round.

What is your relationship with the lake?

My family has a holiday home on the south shore. Every visit is like therapy that begins when we turn off the motorway and the wrinkles on our face begin to disappear even before we arrive. When we manage to get away from the capital, we are in constant motion around the lake. The local people are particularly dear to me. Meeting and talking to them is so different from the capital. I especially love to take a rest at Lake Balaton in autumn and spring.

Which is your favourite place to visit among the attractions in the book?

I love the panorama from the Xántus János Lookout Sphere (Gömbkilátó) in Balatonboglár. I always long to go back to the Káli Basin, and paddling is fun on Lake Balaton, but visiting the Tapolca Cave Lake was also a great experience for me.

At the end of the book, there is a glossary of words that describe Balaton. What is the first word that comes to your mind when you think of the lake?

Memories. My memories and those in the book, as narrated by its characters. The stories that are included in the book and those that are not. Memories of sunsets, fishing experiences, flocks of swans floating on the lake, of reeds bending in the wind. Of ice skating on Lake Balaton, the music that masts and ropes of sailing boats make in the harbour, the colourful rubber mats floating on the lake, the scones on the beach and the gourmet wine dinners in the evening. When we who have been to the lake close our eyes, we see these pictures. It’s lovely that we all have our own personal, individual story that makes our connection to Lake Balaton special.

As part of the BalatonBike365 tourism development programme, three new cycling service centres will open before this year's summer season in Balatonfüred and Balatonföldvár, and the third in Keszthely in the second half of the year. There are 50 recommended paths for cyclists, linking them with service providers. An active-tourism network will be created around Lake Balaton, with a variety of gastronomic, leisure, natural, history and cultural attractions. The first BalatonBike365 Fest will take place in mid-June, aiming to showcase the diversity of Balaton bike tourism and the network of related services once a year in a multi-day and multi-site event.


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