Tucked away behind the hypermarkets off the road west out of Budapest, the Budaörsi Halpiac is not what you might expect.

It is all things piscine rolled into one. There is a bistro serving the freshest fish you will find anywhere in Hungary, a small delicatessen selling seafood-related produce at a reasonable price, and then there is a fish-processing plant, the beating heart of a business that serves the whole country.

Péter Palotás greets me for a tour. Once a chef in Budapest, he is now the general manager of this venture. He is also a co-owner of the Big Fish restaurant in Andrássy út. I have always loved seafood. Maybe I’m strange,” he laughs.

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Of course, there are logistical challenges to getting seafood into landlocked Hungary. “It takes one to two days for the food to get from the harbour to Budapest,” Palotás tells me. That’s if the fish is coming from the nearest coastline, in Croatia. But that’s rarely the case these days. Overfishing means the Adriatic Sea has little to offer.

Most seafood now comes from much further afield, with New Zealand a major supplier. It is flown into Frankfurt then driven to Budapest, everything carefully packed in crates with crushed ice.

I ask about sustainability, as almost half of all seafood made for the global market is now produced through aquaculture.

“Many of the products we buy are farmed, because the seas are emptying,” says Palotás. “Although Hungary and other Eastern European countries are not really ready to take notice of sustainability and ecological welfare, we make sure our seafood is sustainably sourced.


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“We have more customers now who are worried about that, for example Jamie Oliver’s restaurant in Budapest.”

Salmon is the most popular fish, much of which comes from the Bergen or the Nordland region in Norway, taking two to three days to arrive here at its final destination.

The 400-square-metre processing plant is where the action happens. We don some hygienic clothing and delve into the fishy cove.

“We keep everything barcoded so that if there are problems with the product later down the line we can trace the source,” Palotás tells me. “There are high-tech machines for packing the fish, where after it is filleted and portioned it is sealed in air-tight packets. This is where de-boning and vacuum packing happens.”

The Budaörsi Halpiac is the market leader for seafood imports in Hungary, supplying such top restaurants as Nobu, Onyx and Costes. Fresh seafood arrives here six days a week, and the processing work starts at five in the morning, usually finishing by 8am.


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They also sell their own product, under the “Selfish” brand name, to retailers such as Interspar. “Our trout won a global award in Paris for ‘most innovative product’. How ironic that a landlocked country wins this prize?” Palotás laughs.

“We have four food technologists working for us who help us figure out the best ways of food processing, and a special type of active water developed in Japan to sanitise and rid the product of bacteria before packaging it.”

On a common week, three tonnes of seafood pass through here. “Our strong point in the market is that we can look online at the catch and decide how much to buy,” says Palotás. “We get regular emails from distributors and constant updates from ports about what is selling at what price, and can negotiate on the price per kilo.”

He has seen the market grow exponentially since he started out as a chef in 1992. In the late 1990s he got involved with a Norwegian company expanding into Hungary. But spotting a gap in the market and wanting to go it alone, he had the idea to establish a fish-importing plant.

“The market for fresh seafood has grown a lot in this last year. Our sales have grown 25%.” Changing attitudes have driven the trend, as Hungarians turn away from more traditional earthy meaty fare to healthier options.

While eating seafood is still an up-and-coming trend in Hungary, the Budaörsi Halpiac even supplies smaller Hungarian cities such as Pécs, Szekszárd, Veszprém and Sopron.

As we close our interview, I sit down to sample a delicious lightly pan-fried salmon steak with salad at the bistro attached to the plant, a simple dining area with about ten metal tables, covered by a canopy.


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After local people and workers took an interest in trying fish in the Halpiac, Palotás decided to do some small-scale seafood tasting to complement the wholesale business.

The result was the Dokk Büfé, now a seafood bistro open at lunchtime on weekdays. The trucks that occasionally pull up to unload seafood only add to the authentic atmosphere and are a testament to the freshness of the product.

The Dokk Büfé also offers better value than the restaurants uptown that serve the very same product. “People escape here from downtown for lunch. They see us unload the trucks and the fish is on ice. People can see it’s really fresh,” says Palotás.

Seafood fishing courses are currently offered in Hungarian and will shortly be available in English.

Please contact the Budaörsi Halpiac on (+36) 23 428-664. The Dokk Büfé is open 11am-3pm from Sunday till Thursday and 11am-6pm on Fridays and Saturdays.

http://thefishmarket.hu/

www.facebook.com/Halpiac

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