“Sweet dreams are made of these, Who am I to disagree? I travel the world and the seven seas, Everybody’s looking for something…” The Eurythmics, 1983
I don’t know exactly when or where this started. Perhaps it was in high school, although I think I may have been hooked many years earlier. From my earliest memories, New York’s streets were replete with them. Along with kosher hot dogs and knishes, every yellow and blue umbrella’d Sabrett cart sold them. In the seventies, after I spent a few years overseas, I returned only to find they had disappeared, replaced by some frozen ersatz version, a substitute as unauthentic as a New York Yankees cap made in China.
Pretzels have a heralded history in Europe going back to the Middle Ages. More recently, Pennsylvania-Dutch immigrants to the U.S. brought their pretzel-making skills with them from Europe giving us the hard pretzel with its longer shelf life. My personal favorite commercial pretzel is Splits, which I discovered in Maine just last year. They are crunchy, salty, baked to be hard, and oh, so delicious.
But it’s those large soft pretzels that I have a true passion for. That personal relationship probably started on the streets of New York City many years ago. It was rekindled in the late 90s on a business trip to Munich, Germany, while walking through the English Garden there. I saw pretzels almost the size of basketballs, so big in fact, people would stretch their arms through them to make carrying them easier. A huge cold glass of Bavarian beer in each hand made this necessary.
Naivety led me to think I’d readily find real pretzels here in Budapest. I thought I was on to something, but what look like pretzels here are pastries made of bread, and basically just as dull. They are, in fact, taking up loads of shelf-space in nearly every bakery here. Hungarians love them. But for me, they’re just a mirage of the real deal.
I then took my search to Prague, surely I would find pretzels there to go with their great Czech beer. A weekend’s worth of sleuthing around that city proved unfruitful. Yes, there was great food, world-class beer, and an endless supply of their beautiful garnet jewelry. But tragically, no pretzels.
Then it was on to Krakow. Certainly I could find pretzels in that wonderful, old Polish city. Yes, there were plenty of street vendors selling something that looked like pretzels, but sadly, here too, they were more like circles of bread.
I returned to Budapest having given up all hope. I’ll return to Germany again someday, I thought, but for now, I’ll just have to put my search on hold. I just couldn’t keep putting my heart on this emotional rollercoaster any longer.
Then out of the blue, came a social media contact from a friend. “Steve, check this out, I think this place has them.” I was reluctant to be falsely seduced. But, jeez, the link she attached had a photo that looked just like the real deal.
Off to Buda we headed. Looking for an old-school Bavarian restaurant a few blocks up from the Danube. We sat ourselves down in the heavily wooden German-style eating establishment. I ordered a beer and some sausages, and with trepidation, asked if they had pretzels. There was a pause, would my heart be broken yet again? “Of course,” she responded, “They’ll take about 15-minutes to bake. How many would you like?”
They were everything I could have hoped for: big, soft, warm, with just the right amount of salt sprinkled along the inviting brown curves. We ate three as appetizers and took another four home with us in case the world came to end that evening-at least I would have my real pretzels with me in my last remaining moments on earth.
I’ve stopped looking of course. I know where to find my soft, glorious, authentic, Bavarian pretzels. They await me just across the river in Buda, a short metro ride from my flat here in Pest. The world seems like a better place now.
My sweet dreams are made of these. What, I wonder, are your sweet dreams made of?