He didn't even put his cigarette down as he lowered the dark-blue plums into my canvas bag. Neither had he let me pick them out myself, but they were sweet enough, their jelly-like flesh held in place by tight skins with the soft, grey bloom of autumn. The market in Budapest looked much as it always does: glossy peppers balancing precariously, red and gold tins of paprika in soldierly rows set against white lace, good cabbage, mouldy melons. Yet this time there was more. A gypsy woman, skin wrinkled like the bark of an old oak tree, was giving me the beckoning finger.
Her makeshift stall was a hymn to foraging: three sorts of mushrooms, including cepes like freshly baked buns; sweet mousserons the size of magic mushrooms for scattering over an omelette, and a plump, orange-capped variety I had always wrongly assumed to be poisonous. Two wicker baskets offered purple-black sloes for gin and tiny rowanberries for jelly. I did my best to explain to her about Heathrow's customs policy.
You fly over a small section of Hungary's vast coniferous forest as your plane comes in to land. Acres of dense, dark green, of which I continue to promise myself a further inspection, perhaps even finding my own mushrooms (earlier in the year they have apricot-coloured chanterelles, too), but somehow I never manage to get beyond Budapest's dusty cobbles and the mesmerising view from its bridges at dusk. Not that I am much of a mushroom hunter anyway, having once almost killed myself with an unfortunate 'Oh-it-will-be-all-right' attitude to identifying (in)edible fungi.
The gentlest of the stallholders was a young bear of a man with a display of recently dried chanterelles, slim envelopes of saffron stamens like rusty needles, and thin slices of black truffle for you to try. There are delicate black horns, too, as crisp as dry seaweed, and slices of cepe - those fat penny buns again - for beefing up soups and onion-based stews.
Eating in Hungary can be like sleeping in one of those hotel beds that has too many pillows. You risk being smothered to death by a surfeit of generosity, particularly for those of a sweet tooth and for whom no scone should remain unturned. (I unfailingly fall for the apple strudel, served with cold custard and aerated cream.) Pork, paprika and peppers rule. The pork is the star of the market, hanging in fat-bejewelled sausages and chubby knuckles for braising with cabbage and caraway. As a rule, the pork here is cooked slowly, promising - though rarely reaching - a seductive richness. In some restaurants the meat will be braised with sliced onions and jagged strips of pepper, coloured with the ubiquitous sweet red spice and brought to the table in individual versions of the ancient bograc, the black iron pot with handles that Magyar cooks used to hang over the open fire and which now arrive reassuringly encrusted with the ghosts of stews gone by.
Tins of paprika are easier to pick up than a packet of cigarettes, though it is worth dipping a damp finger into the diminutive glass tasting bowls first. Paprika packs less of a punch than its brilliant carmine hue suggests. A traditional recipe can demand as much as a tablespoon for each diner to instil the customary warmth and smokiness. Though that can also be introduced by frying off smoked bacon with the onions or by the inclusion of dried mushrooms. The darker, hotter variety of paprika is more rare, and often used with more restraint than one might like.
At home I occasionally make a stew using the backbone supplies of Magyar cooking: onions, dried mushrooms and lean pork with a healthy number of red peppers. I give it more smoky clout than you find in Hungary, but then I wouldn't dream of suggesting any hint of authenticity. It is simply a cool-weather stew with one foot in Budapest.
The soured cream that can turn up on rounds of hot eggy-bread at a cafe breakfast, alongside the thick pancakes eaten in the afternoon and in tiny white icebergs in your brick-red gulyas soup, is sold from open bowls. At home I use it to finish my stew. A country's food is inevitably a product of its geography and climate, which here means a lack of seafood (though there are plenty of pike and perch from the rivers) and a need for starch. Such factors also bring with them a backbone of food that glows red, rust and gold on the market stalls, offering warmth and comfort even before you start cooking.
A Hungary-inspired stew
Gulyas, or goulash, means 'cowboy' and was traditionally cooked over an open fire. My paprika-scented pork stew - you could use beef - departs radically from the classical dish. I include dried mushrooms and cook it in the oven on a low heat, giving it a particularly deep, smoky flavour. We ate this last night with a light, fruity red wine, followed by the last of the season's Marjorie plums served on their leaves. Serves 4.
3 medium onions
2 tbsp olive oil or dripping
a medium-sized hot chilli
a heaped tbsp sweet paprika
800g cubed pork (shoulder or leg)
1 tbsp flour
a large handful of dried porcini or other dried mushrooms, soaked in 400ml of warm water for an hour
2 large mild red peppers
400g can of plum tomatoes
200ml stock, white wine or, if nothing else, water
a level tsp caraway seeds
wide noodles or unbuttered boiled potatoes to serve
Set the oven at 140C/gas mark 1. Peel and thickly slice the onions and soften them slowly in the melted fat in a deep, heavy-based pan - they should be soft and crushable, and a pale and appetising gold. Chop and seed the chilli and stir into the onions with the ground paprika, and cook for a minute or two. Remove from the pan and set aside, leaving behind any fat you can. Turn the heat up a little, add the cubed meat to the pan, and let it colour on all sides, adding more fat if you need to.
Return the onions to the pan, sprinkle over the flour, cook briefly, then stir in the mushrooms and their soaking liquor. Cut the peppers in half then each half into three, then stir them in together with the tomatoes, liquid and caraway seeds. Bring everything to an enthusiastic simmer, season generously with salt, then cover with a lid and transfer to the oven. Leave it, unpestered, for a good hour and a half. Remove from the oven and check the meat for tenderness, and remove some of the fat from the surface. Pour the soured cream over the top and stir once so that the surface is merely rippled with the cream. Serve with the noodles.