Hungary: Pork and Paprika

I’ve just spent a week galavanting around a village called Mád, which is in Tokaj, in North Eastern Hungary. They make a lot of wine in Tokaj, a whole lotta wine. I think I drank most of it. The landscape is striated with rows of meticulously tended vines, parted now and then by orchards, forest, farms and teeny little bars where men drink tulip shaped glasses of pálinka at 10am in the morning.

I went on something called an Open Trip, which means a flexible itinerary had been laid out for me but despite reading it er, once about 2 months prior to actually travelling, I didn’t really know what to expect of the food. I’d previously been introduced to langos, but aside from that all I could really bring to mind was goulash and paprika. Paprika, paprika, paprika. Oh and sour cream. And mangalitza pigs. And chicken paprikash. Okay so a few things, but still. I had no idea what it was like to eat ‘every day Hungarian’. I am guessing also that some of you don’t know and it follows that you might like to so here we go. Hold tight. Ingredients and their uses comin at ya. What follows, just so we’re clear, is limited to my experience of one region, during a few days,so please don’t get upset if I’ve missed out that wonderful sausage, cheese or seasoning your mother, your mother’s mother and your mother’s mother’s mother have been using for decades.

Let’s start with a biggie, then – paprika. The flavour of Hungary; the pepper that has an earthen depth of flavour and a sun-baked quality that sets it apart from others. Hungarian paprika is considered the best in the world. It’s used to flavour, well, pretty much everything. Aside from salt, pepper, bay and caraway, the Hungarians don’t seem to use that many other dried seasonings in their cooking.

There’s ground paprika, obviously, both sweet (used at the beginning of cooking) and hot (used at the end). There are the chopped peppers in jars. They do what they say on the label. Then there is Eros Pista (I think a brand name?), a paste of the peppers, their seeds, and salt, which is used as a condiment at the table. The fresh mild, green peppers are also used this way; we had them chopped to prickle a clear soup where red peppers were considered inappropriate as they would ‘darken the colour’. Finally, there is a sort of smooth and sweet tomato paste in a tube called ‘piros arany‘, which my friend says is not used so much nowadays except by ‘a certain generation who won’t cook without it’. You know when people say ‘oh I have a secret ingredient in my chilli con carne’ and it turns out to be ketchup or Worcestershire sauce or something? Well I can imagine piros arany used in the same way.

And so to Mangalitza pork. This has suddenly started to pop up in the UK (at least in London) but trust me, if you’ve got Hungarian friends, you’ve been hearing about these pigs ever since you met them. This is certainly some of the best pork I’ve ever eaten and we all know I have many points of reference. The fat is the kind of thing you want to wrap around everything you eat and I guess it wraps itself rather effectively around the Hungarians during harsh winters. It’s wonderful once smoked (again the Hungarian friend gifted a slab) and wow, just WOW. See ya later, Italian lardo. I also had a hulking great piece of shoulder in a restaurant called in Budapest which I will be thinking about, dreaming about, writing songs about perhaps. It fell apart to reveal crevices of silky fat. As if not content with tasting incredible, the pigs look pretty fly too – check out those piggy afros. I believe you’ll shortly be able to order this precious meat from Turner and George and from the menu of Pitt Cue Co. in Soho.

(photo reproduced under creative commons license – mike byford)

The fat of the pig (any pig) is highly prized. I joked with my friend that the first step in any Hungarian recipe is ‘heat some lard in a pan’ and he laughed as if I was a bit mad which I think means that it’s pretty much true. The Hungarians don’t produce oil, and they don’t produce butter so you know, pig fat it is.

Making pork scratchings. As part of the trip, a pig was slaughtered (by a professional) and the group spent the day butchering and using up every single part of the animal.

Yes, that is a layer of lard on a layer of pastry. We made Hungarian style lardy cake, and ate it dusted with icing sugar and dipped in raspberry sauce.

There were lots of sausages; the curly ones above are filled with offal. We also made some flavoured with…actually I bet you can’t guess. It begins with p. Come on, now…p, p, p, paprika!

Ribs. Just look at that liquor.

Now I mentioned that the Hungarians don’t seem to use a huge amount of dried spices but they do make use of other flavourings and one of them of course is garlic. The way they use it interesting however; they have this thing called ‘garlic water’ which is – yes – a SHITLOAD garlic, mixed with water. Okay so it makes perfect sense when used in a brine for the hams and skin you see below, but the first time I saw my mate sloshing it over langos (pics further down) I thought he’d lost the plot. The meat will sit in this mixture for a month, turned every day. Peckham Bazaar has designs on the hams, so with any luck (read: getting them through customs) they’ll be on the menu in the near future.

And so to the langos, a snack made and sold on the streets.

A disc of dough is stretched…

Then deep fried (!)

Then topped with whatever you have chosen. I went for garlic water, sour cream and cheese. For breakfast. I know. For more about langos and a recipe, read my post here.

We also went foraging in the forest for shrooms which I was, frankly, terrified about. Everyone knows that wild mushrooms are DANGEROUS and the poisonous ones look just like the edible ones and there’s no antidote if you find you’ve eaten a whole fly agaric plus something that was bright blue with pink spots and you’re miles away from anywhere and arrggggggghhhh shit shit shit fuck shit arghhh.

S’ okay though, we had a mushroom man (real name: Bela Kedves). He set us free in the forest and when we found something we would just shout ‘MUSHROOM!!’ and he would run over in his army boots brandishing his knife and either say ‘AH!” or ‘NO EAT!’. Our main bounty consisted of this rather scary ‘bleeding liver’ mushroom. No prizes for guessing why it was so named; the thing was genuinely leaching red juice onto our hands from the ‘cuts’ and its spongy flesh felt like a living wet tongue. Weird as hell. They need to be soaked in water for an hour or two to remove tannins, then they can be sliced and cooked like a beefy portabello. We tasted one plain and concluded it needed the standard mushroom treatment, i.e a good frying in butter and garlic. Once that was done it tasted like…a mushroom fried in butter in garlic, which I was happy with, all things considered. Also, no-one died. Do I really need to say that you should never go mushroom picking without a professional to let you know what is edible and what isn’t? A book isn’t enough. Don’t do it.

I didn’t expect to find any cheese in Hungary, mainly because I’ve never heard of any Hungarian cheese. Well come on, have you? The cheese maker we visited (a guy named Sandor Bodnar) told us right from the word go that “the Hungarians are not ready for cheese”. Bless him though, he’s a man on a mission to change their cheese hating ways. Once part-time, now full-time cheese maker (he is also, incidentally, the man who slaughters the pig for us the next day), he is one of only 3 people in the entire country making cheese on the same scale and of the same quality. He uses 300-400 litres of milk to make 30 kilos of cheese – roughly 3 cheeses a day, all year round. We started with his soft, flavoured cheeses, which is what appeal to the Hungarians right now. The ricotta-textured truffle infused number was my favourite; quickly re-named ‘truffle fluffle’. He’s having to put fruits like cranberries in youthful soft cheese as a starting point, and is trying to ‘build up’ the Hungarian palette to appreciate stronger, matured, pure cheese flavours. His examples of these – currently named ‘Tokaj cellar aged cheeses’ because, well, they don’t have any other names, are good. Rinds are washed with salt and then palinka (brandy – it’s what the Hungarians do with their fruit). He says these cheeses impossible to sell in Hungary right now so I do my duty by shovelling down as much as possible.

Truffle fluffle (real name: Zsendice)

There are some other noteworthy ingredients too, but I’m going to come up with some recipes so I won’t wang on about them too much now. The first is goat. Now I thought I ate a fair bit of goat but woah, nowhere near as much as the Hungarians. We had it potted, we had it falling apart tender wrapped in cabbage, we had it stewed slowly with cabbage and quince. As for the fish, well, they’re a landlocked country so it’s river fish all the way and despite the team coming back with a true hulking beast to cook for dinner, I don’t know what it tasted like as I was elsewhere getting hammered. I shall leave you with a picture of a some truly beautiful vegetables that we made into salsas, pickles and sides and just ate, as they were; I have not doctored the colours in the photo.

Recipes soon. Oh and some weirdy dried milk and herb stuff -I dunno what that is yet. I may even write about the wine. What? Why are you hiding under the sofa?