Monthly Archives: October 2016

Goulash – a tasty history (16)

That the use of pepper, a good and cheap alternative for the expensive black pepper, was widely spread by the end of the eighteenth century is abundantly clear from the church registers of Érsekcsanád, a village near Kalocsa, where in 1770 quite a number of people appear with the family name “Paprika”. Almost certain is that the plant came to Hungary with the Balkan Slav peoples who came in the wake of the Turkish occupying forces and settled in the south of present-day Hungary, where the plant thrived particularly well in the favorable dry climate and rich black soil of the floodplain of the Tisza and the Danube, especially around the towns of Kalocsa and Szeged. In a book by the medic Jószef Csapó from 1775, “Új Füves és Virágos Magyar Kert” (The New Hungarian Grass and Flower Garden), we read that paprika is commonly grown in vegetable gardens and is, dried and crumbled, used to spice the meal. That widespread domestic use can be derived from yet another name used to this day for paprika: kerti bors or garden pepper.

As in the course of the 19th century the demand for paprika increased, for which the growing popularity of goulash will certainly be partly responsible, the plant was cultivated on a large scale trade. Although paprika is spread over large parts of Hungary, Kalocsa and Szeged were the main centres of production. Initially, as we have seen, paprika existed only in the superlative of the taste “sharp”. This was due to the production process, whereby the peppers were first dried and then pulverized. For a milder powder, which was especially in demand by foreign customers, it was necessary to separate the seeds from the pulp. Various methods were devised to separate pods and seeds by sieving or rinsing. Nothing gave a satisfactory result until someone hit upon the brilliant idea to “split” the pods immediately after picking, before they were dried. By cutting the peppers lengthwise the pulp could simply be folded back and the seeds easily removed. The pods were strung on a thread and hung to dry. The seeds were dried separately, after which the pods and the seeds were separately crushed. So the sweet, mild powder of the pods and the sharp powder of the seeds could be mixed at will to obtain the desired final product. In the 1930s they managed to grow milder varieties of peppers, which made the labor-intensive production process of separating pods and seeds unnecessary.

Goulash - a tasty history (16)

Initially, the powder was only exported to the countries of the Danube monarchy. In 1884 János Kotányi set up a wholesale business in Döbling, Vienna, with a paprika mill that was staffed with workers from Szeged. It was a great success, and in the twenties the company opened branches in Germany and the United States. During World War I, when the import of black pepper virtually came to a halt, the demand for Hungarian paprika soared. The production of the powder began to assume such enormous proportions that it became painfully obvious that something had to be done to protect quality and reputation, for it was not exactly so that the whole of Hungary was blessed with the same rich soil and many hours of sunshine as Kalocsa and Szeged. In addition, tricksters out for a quick profit imported the much cheaper paprika from Spain to resell it as the real stuff, sometimes not even taking the trouble of mixing it with paprika from Szeged or Kalocsa. Experimental stations were set up in both places to check quality and origin of the powder on the basis of the chemical composition. In 1934, the government came to the rescue by declaring Szeged and Kalocsa “closed zones”, which meant that paprika that was not unadulterated originating from those areas could not be sold under that name.

Production on a gigantic scale began in the years of communism, when the paprika production was nationalised in 1949. The small paprika mills were shut down and were replaced with large centralized state-owned enterprises in which the entire production process, from plowing and sowing to harvesting, drying, grinding and packing was mechanized. When the Soviet Union fell apart, the Comrades made themselves scarce and the Eastern bloc countries got their freedom back, the demand for paprika decreased dramatically. That was actually good news for the quality, because today the production process passes off largely by hand again.

© 2016, Marcel Wick

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Goulash – a tasty history (15)

Paprika spread from Spain quickly over the Habsburg countries, but it still took a long time before it reached Hungary, which was under Turkish rule since the disastrous Battle of Mohács, 29 August 1526, in which King Lajos was killed along with the flower of the Hungarian nobility. Three years later the Turks stood at the gates of Vienna, and the smoke plumes and the death cries that rose from the surrounding villages left no doubt about the intentions of their visit. The city did not fall, but the relations between the Ottomans and the family Habsburg had so far dropped below freezing point that there could be no question of a friendly exchange of exotic plants.

Goulash - a tasty history (15)
How the peppers did reach the Ottoman lands can not be said with certainty. Perhaps the Turks came into contact with it during their attempts to oust the Portuguese from the coast of India, who formed a serious threat to their monopoly on the pepper trade since Vasco da Gama’s successful expedition. More likely is that they learned about the plant from Venetian merchants, or maybe the seeds came to Turkey via the northern trade route through Holland, the Baltic and Russia. In Germany the plant was -under the name of siliquastrum (¹) – first mentioned in 1542 by Leonhart Fuchs in his “Historia stirpium Commentarii insignia” (Noteworthy reflections on the history of plants). According to Fuchs the plant was, although only a few years known in Germany, already widely used in ornamental gardens.

In Hungary we come across the plant for the first time in 1569, when a noble lady by the name of Margaret Széchy, famous for her collection of rare plants, placed an order for vörös török bors, red Turkish pepper, for her ornamental garden. Which proves, by the way, that the plant reached Hungary by way of Turkey. Other names that were used are pogánypaprika and tatárka bors: pagan pepper and tatar pepper. The priest, philosopher and linguist Albert Szenczi Molnár (1574 – 1634) also called it Turkish pepper, and under that name we find the plant in the “Posoni kert” (the garden of Poszony), a book from 1664 about gardening by the Jesuit János Lippay. The garden in question was the then famous garden complex surrounding the summer residence of the elder brother of János, Count György Lippay, Archbishop of Esztergom and Primate of Hungary. In his “Hungariae antiquae et novae prodromus” from 1723, Lutheran clergyman and uomo universalis Mátyás Bel calls it no longer Turkish but Hungarian pepper, and writes that it is so sharp that it can blind you if it gets in your eyes.

The name “paprika” appears for the first time in a Slavic dictionary in 1742, and later, in 1758, in an inventory of the convent of the Franciscans in Szeged. In 1780 the Capuchin monk Peregrine Ubaldus, traveling through Sárköz, the area around Kalocsa, describes in an unflattering way the locals, who seem to him more like “aquatic animals than people, unrepentant descendants of Huns and Mongols, heretics, who live in mud plastered houses and feed on dried fish and raw lard”. He adds: “Condimentum ciborum est una rubra bestia, quam bobriga vocant, sed mordet, sicut jabolus”. (“The seasoning of their food is a red beast called bobriga, but stings like the devil”).

(¹) The name, siliquastrum (“big pod” because of the elongated fruit), Fuchs adopted from Pliny the Elder’s “Natural History”, although it is unlikely that the plant Pliny described was the same. Other names that Fuchs gives are “piper Hispanum”, “Piper Indianum”, “Calechutischer Pfeffer” and “Indianischer Pfeffer”.

© 2016, Marcel Wick

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Goulash – a tasty history (14)

Since the 19th century scientist have been searching for a remedy against scurvy, a nasty disease from which primarily ship’s crews suffered on their long journeys. Since the 18th century it was known that citrus fruit was effective, but what the active substance actually was remained a mystery. In 1907, two Norwegian medics did research on Beriberi, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin B. They gave guinea pigs food consisting exclusively of grains, which contains a lot of vitamin B, after which the animals, to the surprise of the researchers, showed symptoms of scurvy, a disease that until then was detected only in humans (¹) . They further discovered that the symptoms disappeared when they supplemented the diet with fruits and vegetables.

Goulash - a tasty history (14)
Thanks to this discovery, animals could be used in research on scurvy, and in 1927 the Hungarian physician and biochemist Albert Szent-György could from the adrenal glands of animals isolate a substance he called “hexuronic acid”. The substance appeared to be identical to a substance that could cure scurvy, which some years earlier was isolated from lemon juice. It was known as “vitamin C” or “anti-scurvy vitamin”, but the chemistry was still a mystery. In 1932 it was established that Szent-Györgyi’s hexuronic acid was indeed identical to the “vitamin C” from citrus juice. Later that year, Szent-Györgyi discovered that paprika -a common ingredient of his Hungarian diet- is a rich source of hexuronic acid/vitamin C. On the basis of the powder which, in contrast to the adrenal glands of animals- was available in inexhaustible quantities, the exact structure of vitamin C could finally be determined and was the name of Szent-Györgyi’s hexuronic acid changed to ascorbic acid, from a=not and scorbine=scurvy.

Incidentally, after Szent-Györgyi’s discovery further research on peppers has shown that the fruit has more healing powers. For example, it may help to lower the blood pressure, is rich in anti-bacterial components, anti-oxidants that could assist the immune system and could, because of the high content of capsaicin, be beneficial against cancer. It is a stimulant, gives energy, helps keep cholesterol levels under control, is conducive to good digestion and is, because of the high content of carotene, also good for the eyes.

Well, they already knew that in Hungary. Aa early as the 17th century, the powder was used as a medicine, not only against ailments like colds, a weak stomach, rheumatic pains and breathing difficulties, but also against the dreaded “morbus hungaricus”, a highly contagious disease that was later identified as typhus. In 1831, paprika was deployed to fight a cholera epidemic. The records do not disclose whether in the latter two cases it had a real impact, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. Even abroad, its healing powers did not go unnoticed. In 1838 Dr. J.F. Osiander, a professor of medicine at Göttingen University, suscribes in his “Volksarzneymittel”, the “tägliche Gewürz der Ungarn” (daily condiment of Hungarians) for stomach disorders such as heartburn, cramps and hiccups. The goulash itself (“The Gulyás-hus of the Hungarians, a powerful national dish, in which bacon, roast beef and peppers play the leading role”) is recommended by the professor as a beneficial drug for impotence. As an extra benefit it is stated that the dish stimulates the wine thirst, and who wouldn’t subscribe to the good doctor’s favourable opinion of the healing powers of the grape? Certainly not the fishermen of the Danube and the Tisza, who since long mix a spoonful of the powder into a glass of hot red wine as a medicine against colds, both for healing and prevention.

(¹) Most animals have, unlike humans, a gene in their DNA, the so-called gulonolactone-oxidase gene, which enables them to make vitamin C. Apart from us, humans, some birds, bats and monkeys miss that gene too, as do guinea pigs, as we have seen.

© 2016, Marcel Wick

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Goulash – a tasty history (13)

The word, paprika, is adopted from German, where Friedrich Kluge in his “Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache” (Etymological dictionary of the German language) from 1883 informs us that it is borrowed from the Hungarian language in the course of the 19th century, which in turn, got it from Serbian, where it is a diminutive of the word for pepper, pàpar, which comes from the Greek word πέπερι, péperi, which -as we have seen- is derived from the Sanskrit pipali. In English, unlike in German or Hungarian, the word is used for the powder only, not for the pods, which are called peppers.

Goulash - a tasty history (13)
Capsicum annuum, to use the scientific name, is a plant that can thrive in many climates and occurs in many variations: bell-shaped, pointed, large, small, red, yellow, orange, white, purple, and runs in taste ranges from the mildest bell peppers without any sharpness to the hottest chillies. That spiciness owes the fruit of the capsaicin. Capsaicin is an alkaloid that stimulates the nerves on the tongue that are sensitive to heat and pain, which results in the burning, hot sensation. That spiciness is usually classified according to the Scoville scale, devised by the American Wilbur Scoville in 1912. The test goes like this: a certain weight of dried paprika is dissolved in alcohol to extract the capsaicin and then dissolved in sugar water. That is given to a panel of five tasters, with an increasing concentration of the extracted capsaicin, until the majority can taste the sharpness in a solution. The sharpness degree is based on the solution, given in multiples of 100 SHU (Scoville Heat Units). The ordinary bell pepper scores 0 on this list. The jalapeño has a Scoville value between 2500 and 8000 and the Serrano is doing 10,000 – 23,000. In comparison, the “Madame Jeanette”, for instance, scores between 100,000 and 350,000, and the hottest pepper in the world, the “Caroline Reaper”, has a maximum value of up to 2,200,000 SHU.

But paprika is not just a spicy condiment. It is also incredibly healthy, as the Hungarian physician, biochemist and Nobel Prize winner Albert Szent-Györgyi discovered.

© 2016, Marcel Wick

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Goulash – a tasty history (12)

Meanwhile the Portuguese, since the middle of the 15th century, were trying to find a sea route to India. In 1498 Vasco da Gama managed to reach India via the Cape of Good Hope and, what was more, to come back again in one piece. With a cargo of pepper, which amply covered the costs of the enterprise. Portuguese spice trade boomed. That soon attracted the attention of the competition, and it wasn’t long before Portugal was elbowed out of the market by aggressive entrepreneurs from Holland and England, who protected their newly gained monopoly with cannon and coastal forts. The Venetians and Genoese, until then the main importers of Oriental goods, were marginalized.

Now that the Italian city-states found themselves left empty-handed, efforts were initiated to find new trade routes to the Indies. It is no coincidence that John Cabot (the discoverer of Newfoundland, born as Giovanni Caboto) as well as Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci all came from Italian trading cities. Cabot, who moved to Venice at an early age, was, like Columbus, Genoese by birth; Vespucci came from Florence. Columbus was the most successful of the three. He gained the support of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, who had united their kingdoms in which, thanks to Columbus’ discovery, would become a veritable superpower: Spain.

Goulash - a tasty history (12)

An abundant flow of gold and silver was the most enviable treasure the New World earned the Spanish Crown. But along with these precious metals all sorts of curious things came to Europe that would ultimately prove to be of far greater value, like tomatoes, potatoes, corn, green beans, pumpkins, cocoa and -last but not least- chili peppers.

© 2016, Marcel Wick

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