When Tibor Éliás was a child he helped his mother roast coffee beans, and then ground them in her antique coffee grinder. When he was six years old, he broke the grinder's glass drawer, and vowed to replace it for his angry mother. "You can't find such things anymore," she said to him. But he searched, and over the next 50 years he acquired a collection of more than 10,000 antique Hungarian food- and drink-related objects, all the while searching for that little glass box. His collection is arguably the biggest and best of its kind in Hungary, even bigger than that of the Hungarian Museum of Commerce and Catering. But about a year ago, his sweet little museum, which was such a labor of love for Éliás, shut its doors.
It had been a long time since those doors had regularly been open to the public anyway. Despite being on Szentendre's tourist strip, few even seemed to know the place existed. The room where the collection was displayed sat above the Nosztalgia Café in this town just outside of Budapest, and was locked for some time because Éliás couldn't afford to pay the salary for an attendant. An opera singer in his other life, he owned the café since the late 1970s and claimed that it was the first privately-owned cafe in the Communist bloc.
He sold it, along with his beloved collection, to a buyer who, he told me at the time, "has the money and interest necessary to improve the place." Éliás was so deeply attached to the museum that he previously turned down offers from people wanting to buy individual pieces because he believed they'd lose their meaning if they existed out of the context of the whole collection. He sees it as a part of the Hungarian national heritage. Sadly, so far there have been no signs of the place re-opening.
"Every piece tells a story," he said. Éliás knew them all.
The collection was called the "Dobos Memorial Gastronomy Museum" in reference to the most prized possessions: personal papers, photographs, letterhead, inscribed books, and baking equipment that belonged to József Dobos, the great 19th-century Hungarian cookbook author and pastry chef who created the Dobos torta, a fancy layer cake stuffed with chocolate butter-cream and topped with a layer of crispy caramel.
The building that held Dobos' shop in Budapest no longer exists, but Éliás had the marble plaque declaring it the birthplace of the Dobos torta. He walked me through the collection just days before he sold it. It was fantastic, and the room really was much too small for it, with bottles and boxes shoved too close together behind dusty glass cases, and piles of cake forms and baking equipment practically piled on top of each other.
"Every piece tells a story," he said. Éliás knew them all. He could place the pieces in context, so that they become much more than a simple old box of cigars, for example, but the cigars that were made for Károly IV, the last Hungarian king. There were no signs telling visitors any of these fascinating details; they were only in Éliás' head. The oldest piece in the collection was a 12th-century flour millstone, and the exhibition began with a myriad of honey-making equipment and tools for making traditional honey cakes. There was equipment for making candy, ice cream, cake, and parfait. There were dozens of coffee roasters, coffee grinders, and coffee makers, some from the era of the 16th century Turkish occupation when coffee arrived in Hungary.
There was a shelf of 18th-century cookbooks, a variety of old soda water bottles (a Hungarian specialty), unopened bottles of Tokaji wine from 1904, beer bottles from the early 20th century when each village brewed its own, boxes from the famous Gerbeaud pastry shop, an original plate with restaurateur Karoly Gundel's name on it, and mementos from once grand Hungarian coffee houses which disappeared during wars and decades of communism. When asked where one or another of his pieces came from, Éliás responds: "Who knows? After 50 years, who remembers?"
An old woman walked into the café a few years ago with a bag full of what might have looked like junk to anyone else but Éliás. "I heard that you buy every kind of rubbish," she said, and pulled out that little glass box which had eluded Éliás for so long. "After 44 years the coffee grinder finally met with the drawer again." Now, if only we could once again see all of these mementos of Hungary's culinary past.