Budapest's Great Market was built to showcase the wares of the Austro-Hungarian empire. From goose livers to garlic doughnuts, it still offers an incredible array of delicacies. Illustrator Michael Frith paid a visit. Introduction by Adam LeBor
A place to buy everything from a live carp to a langos (a savoury doughnut smothered in garlic and sour cream), Budapest's Nagy Vasarcsarnok (Great Market) is central Europe's most spectacular food hall, home to almost 200 stallholders. When sunlight streams in through the glass and steel roof, the rows of stalls seem to stretch away for ever, offering a vision of a plentiful future overflowing with foodstuffs. A decade on from the collapse of Communism, the Great Market is testimony to capitalism's vibrancy, at least where varieties of food are concerned, offering a range of local and international delicacies unimaginable under the old system.

Over 30,000 shoppers pass through its doors each day to be greeted by stern-faced peasant women hawking fresh vegetables at the entrance, home- produced carrots and potatoes still caked in soil, chemical-free and grown by traditional methods, although the sellers wouldn't understand what the word "organic" meant. Despite the increasing presence of Western supermarket chains such as Tesco and the Austrian Julius Meinl, many shoppers still prefer the Great Market. It's partly because of the low prices - important in a country where pounds 300 a month is considered a good wage - but also because, from 7am until 6pm, the Great Market buzzes with banter, bargaining and a beguiling selection of goods.

Opened in 1897, and inaugurated by Emperor Franz Joseph, the finest craftsmen in Hungary were used to erect an ornate three-floor edifice for all the culinary glories of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Back in the Hapsburg glory days there was even a canal running down the centre of the hall, so that barges could be diverted from the nearby Danube to unload their wares. But wartime damage took its toll and during the drab decades of Communism the building became increasingly dilapidated before closing in 1991. Following its renovation, it reopened in 1994. In 1984, Lady Thatcher had handbagged bemused Hungarians there about the benefits of the free market, annoying her Communist hosts. But the stallholders loved her and, for once, she was right.

Fine wines, salamis, marble slabs of yellow cheese, live fish and goose livers can all be had, as well as exotica such as half a dozen kinds of soy sauce, for Budapest's growing Chinese community, and thick cotton tablecloths, hand-stitched in Transylvania. Adventurous visitors can try a chunk of the huge, white, artery-clogging blocks of pure fat, sometimes laced with a thin pink line of bacon, that Hungarians love to smear on bread for breakfast. It's easy to spend hours here, starting with a dawn eye-opener of wine or palinka (home-made fruit brandy) before haggling with the traders from the countryside. Housewives clutching string bags shop for the family dinner; secretaries pop in for lunch, their high heels clacking over the shiny tiles; businessmen slide sneaky bottles of palinka into their briefcases. Away from the tourist traps, it's a place to take the true pulse of a dynamic, changing metropolis.

Budapest babushka

This stall was located in an anteroom off the huge hall, but the heavily- wrapped babushka who ran the stall caught Michael Frith's eye. "This room was quieter than the main hall, with a few small stalls selling one or two things - honey, cauliflowers, half a dozen apples, a bit of paprika," he recalls. Frith painted this scene from life, but found himself in trouble when he tried to communicate with the woman: "She started to shout at me. The men around just shrugged their shoulders and smiled. I have no idea what I did wrong."

Salami and stereotypes

Many of the booths were piled high with produce, making it hard to catch more than a glimpse of the traders. This salami stall (right), with its goods hanging from the ceiling and stacked under the counter, afforded a better view. "The market was immense, bigger than I've ever seen before, and had this Gothic structure," says Frith. "The smells in the air were spicy and the whole thing was open, with the only partitions being these rows of stalls. After a while they become very much the same. The people were the main thing - what struck me was their friendliness." The next day, Frith sat at a bar on the mezzanine level of the market, beside stalls selling embroidered linen. "I was following this woman [below] around because I wanted to paint her traditional gear and heavy black boots. It was hard to determine her age; she could have been 50 or 70. There were quite a few people looking like you might imagine a stereotypical Hungarian, generally of an older generation."

Weighing it all up

This woman's archaic scales (right) demonstrated that old traditions were alive and well - no European directives here, thank you very much. The atmosphere was hectic and most shoppers were there with a purpose, but a few had gathered to chat (below right). "They were easy targets. They sat there for ages and were quite animated, but oblivious to me," says Frith. "There were little self-contained pockets of people in this huge expanse, which lent a certain intimacy to the space. I noticed that a lot of men were doing the grocery shopping, like this guy [below]. He amused me because he was wearing these trainers and a tracksuit, yet he was overweight and had probably never seen a gym in his life."

Warm smiles, hot chillies

Every stall has one product in common: chilli peppers. They were on sale at this stall along with all manner of paprika: dried, pickled or stuffed into sausages. "This stallholder couldn't speak English, but she posed for me and later joined me for a drink," says Frith. "She was being cheeky about me to her friends, asking them to pose for photographs. It felt a bit like the Sixties in England: the produce was abundant, reasonably priced and people were very friendly. On one evening, I got quite drunk with the stallholders. They were only giving me these small glasses of rum, but the drinks were stronger than I'd anticipated." n

Captions by Rachelle Thackray