Red. The brightest, most luscious carmine red was staring back at me from across the field. These cherries were far too good to be true. Like little crimson beads of perfectly ripe temptation, I couldn’t help but creep my way across the grass, attempting to look innocent in my sly, cherry-sneaking mission. I managed to refrain from this debauchery the first few days my family and I stayed in a quaint B&B tucked in the bountiful wine-terraced hills of Eger, Hungary, next door to a cherry-infested Garden of Eden. The abundant branch hung tantalizingly over the fence, and by day three, it was all over for me. The minute I popped one in my mouth, I couldn’t stop. I didn’t know flavors like that existed. Hand over hand, I picked the branch bare. Oops.
Suddenly, a rustling on the other side of the fence roused me from the taste bud dance party ensuing in my mouth. I stood perfectly still, hoping, just hoping that whoever owned these cherry trees wouldn’t see me. Clearly, cherry euphoria clouded my reasoning and of course the rustler spotted me, red handed. On the other side of the fence, I saw a figure. I saw skin. Too much skin. After closer inspection, I realized the figure was an elderly man wearing nothing but a bright blue, sparkly speedo glinting in the summer sun. He waltzed up to the fence and offered me a gigantic bowl of delicious, plump cherries aplenty. My eyes grew wide. He spoke a few sentences in Hungarian at light-speed that I couldn’t even hope to comprehend, and began waving my family and me over.
Fast-forward 10 minutes. My family and I found ourselves standing in front of a perfectly circular door cut into a hill down an alleyway, reminiscent only of the hobbit holes of Middle Earth. We crouched and entered one by one into the icy world beyond. The dampness of the cavern filled our nostrils as we struggled not to slip in our ill-chosen summer footwear. We climbed down a spiral cobblestone path as our new friend lit the way with candles mounted on the stone walls. We spiraled down the slippery slope for what seemed like hundreds of feet. At the bottom of the abyss was a beautiful and mysterious cave. Barrel after barrel of homemade wine and other Hungarian alcoholic pleasantries lined the perimeter of a circular room at the bottom. The wearer of the speedo (who was thankfully now wearing pants) produced a long glass tube from behind a barrel that seemed all too fragile for his leathery, working hands. He inserted the glass straw into a barrel and began to syphon the deep burgundy wine from the barrel. He created a suction with his thumb at the top and one by one, gave us each a taste of the wine through the straw. It became clear that these wines were a source of pride and honor for his family that have been carefully cultivated for generations. We tasted young wine, old wine and even a potent Hungarian spirit made from plums called Pálinka. The red wine, called Egri Bikavér is only made in Hungary, and its name can be translated as the “Bull’s Blood of Eger.” We spent at least two hours with this man in his family’s cellar, communicating through body language and lots of smiles. At the end, I handed him a 5,000-forint note to thank him for the experience. He pushed my hand away and instead offered me a bag full of homemade pogácsa, flaky Hungarian bacon biscuits. One unbelievable flavor after another.
As we left the cellar, the warm summer sun brought us back to reality. My eyes focused on the hills beyond, and I noticed dozens and dozens of hobbit holes just like the one we had emerged from. Almost every single family has a wine cellar in Eger, each a different color, a different shape. A rich piece of Eger culture and tradition had been so generously revealed to us by our neighbor with a green thumb for cherries. That day in Eger stands out vividly in my mind just like those bright red cherries in the backyard caught my attention that day. The hospitality of our neighbor, despite my thievery, humbled me. He wanted only to share with us a piece of his family’s traditions and expected nothing in return. I will remember this man for more than his alarming weekend wear, although the image of the bright sparkling speedo is also quite memorable. That day in Eger was inspiring, resonating, and revealing in more ways than one.