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Red Gold & Spicy

There is no shortage of paprika in Hungary

I experienced some of that Hungarian fire my first morning visiting the Kalocsa region, about 90 miles south of Budapest, near the Danube River.

Kalocsa is one of two major paprika-producing regions in Hungary. The other is Szeged, a large city farther east, on the Tisza River. Both have the right combination of good soil, temperature, rainfall and sunshine needed to grow paprika. So, is there any difference in the paprika produced by the two regions? With some heat, my interpreter Tony Fekete replied, “In Szeged it’s called paprika. In Kalocsa it’s called red gold.”

Paprika (Capsicum annuum L. var. Longum) is a member of the Solanaceae family, which includes tomato, potato and tobacco. The genus Capsicum is highly adaptive and has evolved in a variety of locales far different from its origin in the tropics of South America. Hungarians distinguish between two kinds of paprika: one for eating, be it raw, cooked or marinated, and the other for grinding into the powdered spice known throughout the world as paprika.

In the 18th century, it came again to Hungary, this time as an herb from the Balkans.

Paprika is synonymous with Hungarian cuisine, yet it is a comparative latecomer to the country’s long, richly flavored food culture. Columbus gets the credit for first bringing Capsicum, and other members of the Solanaceae, to Europe from the New World. Called Indian pepper, it was regarded as an ornamental plant with possible medicinal uses. In the 16th century, it was used as a seasoning, mixed with other spices, on the Iberian Peninsula. Elsewhere it was a prized garden ornamental and naturalized, as such, both across Europe and the Turkish empire. In Hungary, it appeared in aristocratic gardens around 1570 as a rare exotic called red Turkish pepper.

The first recorded use of paprika, a Bulgarian diminutive of the Latin piper (pepper), was in a 1775 garden book by Josef Csapo who wrote that peasants ground paprika pods into powder and flavored their food with it — so did fishermen and shepherds. In the late 18th century, Ubaldus, a Capuchin from Austria, wrote of the Kalocsa area: “The spice in their food is a red beast called paprika that burns like the devil.” In the 1820’s, recipes using paprika first appeared in Hungarian cookbooks. By the mid-1800’s, the peasant spice, with its characteristic color, aroma and flavor, had taken over Hungarian cuisine and, eventually, the cuisine of Central and Eastern Europe.

In Homokmegy, a village about six miles from Kalocsa, it was almost harvest time for Tamás and Katalin Fekete, Tony’s parents. Retired farmers, they still plant about three-fifths of an acre of paprika each year. Row after row of the low bushy paprika plants was covered with fiery red conical fruit. Compounds called capsantin and capsorubin give Capsicum varieties their red color when ripe; another, called capsaicin, gives them their characteristic hot taste. Paprika is either sweet (mild) or hot. Tony’s parents grow the sweet paprika for which Kalocsa is famous.

Growing paprika is labor-intensive, from germinating the seeds to planting the delicate seedlings around 10 April. Sprinklers make irrigation easier, but the amount of sunshine and rainfall the tender plants gets is critical, as are warm temperatures. Harvesting, which takes place from mid-September through early October, is still done by hand. Family and friends each year help the Feketes pick the ripe fruit, in return for powdered paprika.

Once picked, the paprika is dried. In the past, farmers threaded the fruit into garlands, then hung them under eaves to dry for about two months. Growers now use heaters, which cut the drying time down to a week or so, or send the fruit out to a commercial dryer. Those who still hang paprika to dry do it for decoration. The Feketes have their paprika dried, but do their own milling. They sell the spice to family, friends and acquaintances.

Hungary produces about 8,000 tons of powdered paprika per year; about half is for domestic use and the rest for export, to Asia, Europe and North America. The annual per capita consumption in Hungary is about one pound; a pound of paprika typically costs about 1,000 forint or $5.

The Feketes’ average yield is about 550 pounds of powdered paprika and sells for about 500,000 forint or $2,750. That is the equivalent of 10 months’ average wage in Hungary. Red gold, indeed.

In the Kalocsa region, per capita consumption jumps to two to three pounds. The Feketes top even that, using about 11 pounds of paprika per year for making their own sausages and in various gulyás, paprikás and other traditional stews and soups. “The only thing we don’t use it in,” quipped Tamás, “is milk.” Katalin also makes a local specialty called paprika kalács, a roll with a filling of paprika and sugar.

Paprika in hot wine is a local remedy for cold and flu, much as paprika in brandy was the peasant’s medicine for almost all ailments. Another peasant favorite was bread spread with lard and sprinkled with paprika. It remains a lip-smacking favorite today. Katalin Fekete taught me a variation, however, which turned out to be one of the best souvenirs of my stay: paprika and salt on a slice of bread. No lard, no butter, nothing. Just good, fresh bread, paprika and salt. The keys, of course, are quality and freshness. Spice paprika should always be stored in a cool, dry place and used within six months.

The town of Kalocsa (population, 19,000) is known both for paprika and folk art, including embroidery, lace, folk costumes and wall paintings. The busy Paprika Museum has displays on the history, cultivation and processing of paprika. One of the most famous persons in that history is Albert Szent-Györgyi, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who proved that fresh Hungarian paprika is a rich source of not only vitamin C but also vitamins A, B and P. His research demonstrated what Hungarian peasants perhaps knew long ago, that paprika is good for the appetite and good for the health.

From windmills to Danube water mills to steam mills, paprika processing has, since the late 19th century, been increasingly mechanized and automated. No matter how automated the process, however, in the end the expertise of the miller is essential to blending the final product. I visited a small family-owned mill in Bátya, where in 1820 the first land mill was built. As the owner showed me around his tidy operation, joking with the women bagging freshly milled paprika, he apologized for not taking me out to the fields. All the tractors were being used for the harvest, which had already begun. His 125 acres border the Danube, whose loamy soil, he said, is better for growing paprika than the sandier soil of Szeged. Kalocsa paprika, he added, has a sweeter taste and richer color.

Though generous with his time and knowledge, the miller declined to give his name or that of his company. In the past 10 or so years, the two big paprika companies in Kalocsa have been involved in several scandals involving adulterated paprika. Both the scandals and the damage they did to the Kalocsa name angered and upset him. The day I met him was the first time in three years he had agreed to talk with a member of the media.

“If you have a small company,” he said, “you are able to work honestly, maintain quality and keep your customers.” His company does it all, from using its own seeds to growing, picking, drying, milling, packaging and shipping.

“Paprika is god,” he added, “at least here in our region.” Early the next morning, I swung by the colorful farmers’ market, where everyone seemed to be buying paprika, then hurried to the paprika festival. Since 1998 Kalocsa has held a paprika festival each September. The final day featured a cooking competition, judged by a team headed by Laszlo Benke, a popular TV chef from Budapest and head of the St. Stephen Red Pepper Order of Kalocsa.

I had imagined some nouvelle cuisine kind of cook-off and was in no way prepared for the 50 or so “iron-kettle” chefs, tending their pots over wood fires, who lined the edges of the grounds. This was food for the Hungarian Great Plains, for vibrant people at home in the grander scheme of things. It spoke of Magyar tribes moving across the steppes. Then, too, there was that ox roasting on a spit in a corner.

Tilly Lászlo, the 2003 winner, worked on a stuffed pig’s head and a pork crown stuffed with “old noodles.” Gribek Lójos, from Budapest, showed off his version of Déryné rakott káposztája, stuffed cabbage à la Mrs. Déry, named for Rosalia Déry, a 19th-century actress who hated stuffed cabbage until she tasted these. It required a fresh-killed pig and goose and took three days to cook. Ingredients included goose liver, haggis, intestine, liver, kidneys, smoked meat, cabbage and barley.

Other “name” entries included a fish stew, named for a famous Danube fisherman and made by two priests from the cathedral in Kalocsa, and a fish “ravioli” stew named for a famous poet, who was a neighbor of the chef’s great-great-grandmother. There was goat stew, a Romany version of chicken paprikás and another from Serbia. From the Hortobágy steppes came duck tongue stew, cooked by two men dressed in the sweeping pants of the region.

I picked Mrs. D, the Romany woman’s chicken paprikás and the priests’ fish stew all to win, and they did. The grand prize, however, went to someone whose kettle I never even saw. Shortly after the judges finished their rounds, festival visitors feasted, for a nominal fee, on the dishes. The food went quickly, even that ox.

After I returned to Pennsylvania a month later, aflatoxin, a carcinogen that occurs only in paprika from the tropics, was found in warehoused supplies of Hungarian paprika.

The Ministry of Health recalled the spice from all stores and warned restaurants to take paprika dishes off their menus.

The ministry told the public, meanwhile, that one would have to eat a pound of contaminated paprika a week for it to be harmful.

But the country was in a state of panic. For one thing, there was no paprika anywhere. At first, a friend emailed, no one could understand it, but then people became very, very angry.

The tainted samples came from three of the largest paprika producers, in Kalocsa and Szeged, who were suspected of illegally cutting the domestic product with a cheaper import from Brazil.

I thought immediately of the miller in Bátya, with such pride in his work and passion for his product, and of how he must have felt to have the Kalocsa name again besmirched.

Three months later I was back in Hungary. The scandal was over and paprika was everywhere.

Jacqueline Ruyak frequently travels to Slovakia.

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