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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