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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