Geese and New Wine
November 11th is St. Martin’s Day in Hungary (Márton nap), a traditional feast day celebrated by tasting the new wine and eating geese. This day falls right around the time when the geese born in the spring and early summer gain their necessary weight and are ready to be slaughtered. It is also the time when the first new wines are opened after the season's grape harvest, making it a perfect pairing for the St. Martin’s Day festivities. Throughout the month of November many restaurants offer special St. Martin’s Day dishes and winemakers proudly show off their first new wines. St. Martin’s Day traditions date back hundreds of years and there are several tales surrounding its origins and the connection between St. Martin, the geese and wine.
The story of St. Martin
According to legend the story begins with Martin, the son of a Roman tribune, who was born in the city of Savaria (near Szombathely, Hungary) in the Roman province of Pannonia around 316-317. On a cold night in Amiens, France serving as a soldier for the Roman emperor, Martin saw a scantily dressed beggar and offered up half of his warm cloak so that he wouldn't freeze to death. That night Jesus appeared in his dreams as the beggar dressed in his cloak. The dream confirmed Martin’s faith and he eventually left the army to serve god. His good deeds and his compassion and empathy for the poor became legendary and by popular demand he was appointed to be the bishop of Tours. Martin was so humbled by the news that he hid in a stable full of geese to avoid the deputy coming to pick him up. The geese with their loud honking made so much noise that his whereabouts were soon uncovered and Martin was ordained as Bishop of Tours, France in 371. He dedicated the rest of his life to help the needy.
According to another legend the St. Martin’s day traditions date back to Roman times when November 11th marked the end of the farming season and the beginning of the winter quarter in the Roman calendar. The Romans celebrated Aesculapius, the God of healing and medicine, by slaughtering geese the sacred bird of Mars, the god of war. Geese were frequent companions of Roman war gods, as they once saved Rome with their honking from a Gaul attack. They also made their way into the Christian calendar, based on old etymology of their roman name ‘avis Martis’ the bird of Mars (the god of war), as ‘Martin’s Bird’.
The story of the geese and the wine
The first written account of a St. Martin’s Day goose-feast dates back to 1171. Beyond the legends, in those days there were several more practical reasons for why geese were meant to be slaughtered and eaten in November. The St. Martin’s Day celebrations meant the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the winter rest for the farmers and their fields. The servants and the maids received their annual wages plus a goose, as the growing flock of stuffed birds had to be culled before the winter. According to folklore one should eat fried goose at 11:11 am on November 11th because as the saying goes "One who does not eat goose on this day remains hungry throughout the year". Feasts were held throughout the country to ensure a successful harvest and plentiful food and drink for the following year. The roots of this tradition can be traced back to pagan animal sacrifices held at the end of the harvest season, which were later adopted by Christianity.
Although St. Martin wasn't associated with wine during his lifetime, the St. Martin's Day festivities fall in line with the time when the season’s first new wines are opened. This is probably the reason why several wine traditions are also part of the St. Martin's Day celebrations and why he is also known as ‘the judge of new wine’, meaning that this is the time when the new wine is ready to be drunk. Today, St. Martin is considered to be the patron saint of France, soldiers, horses, riders, geese and wine makers.
Dishes to try and restaurant recommendations
There are plenty of events and activities held throughout Budapest and Hungary to mark the annual St. Martin’s Day celebrations. Most restaurants in Budapest and around the country offer a special St. Martin’s Day menu, so be sure to try a traditional dish like roasted goose leg with steamed red cabbage, roasted goose liver or smoked goose breast. Other goose dishes to try include goose cracklings, roasted goose liver in cranberry sauce, goose liver terrine with pear, goose leg stuffed with goose liver and dates, oven baked goose wings and cholent.
Here are some restaurants that offer a special menu during the St. Martin's Day festivities in Budapest: Borkonyha, Bock Bistro, Café Kör, Fülemüle, Rosenstein, Macesz Huszár, Kőleves, Borbíróság, 21 Restaurant, Remíz and Náncsi néni.
You can also enjoy the St. Martin’s Day festivities at the annual St. Martin’s Day Festival held at Vajdahunyad Castle.