The name, goulash, derives from the Hungarian word “gulya”, meaning a herd of cattle. The vast Hungarian plain was since the Middle Ages the place where large herds of beef cattle were grazed. These animals were driven each year to the cattle-markets of Austria and southern Germany, where a growing population was no longer able to meet its own meat demand. The Hungarian cattle -huge beasts with enormous stamina- were ideally suited to be transported over such long routes, as there had to remain enough flesh on the bones to make a good price at destination. The central place where those herds were brought together after their journey through Hungary was Vienna, where they were traded on the Ochsengries, a pasture near the Stubentor on the banks of the Wienfluss. A part was taken care of by the Viennese butcher’s guild, the rest moved on along the Danube to cities like Nuremberg, Ulm and Augsburg. The transport of all these animals were entrusted to the gulyás, the cowherds, and here lies the origin of the goulash. It was a simple stew that required little cooking gear: a cauldron and a spoon; and ingredients that were available on the spot, in the first place, of course, meat. Initially, the dish was called “gulyáshús”, “cowherd’s meat”, which later became gulyás: goulash.
The ingredients of a real Hungarian goulash, also called -after the cooking gear- “bográcsgulyás” or “cauldron goulash”, are few. They consist of no more than a little lard, some onions, beef, paprika, potatoes and water. The lard is melted in the cauldron over a fire. Then the chopped onions are cooked in the melted fat. Next the meat and paprika are added, plus a lot of water. A lot, because a real Hungarian goulash is actually a kind of soup; not the stew with the thick sauce the rest of the world came to know as goulash. The whole is brought to a boil, seasoned with salt and some caraway seeds and then it’s only a matter of waiting until the meat is tender. The last half hour the potatoes are added, so that everything is done at the same time.
That is the recipe as we know it since the beginning of the nineteenth century. As to what originally was cooked in the billies of the cowherds, opinions are divided. While beef was always available, it was costly and intended for export. It is more likely that the cowboys ate the much cheaper mutton, of which large herds were also grazing on the puszta. Everyone can agree about the onions, and the same goes for the caraway seeds and the water. Lard, too, was available in sufficient quantities, for they also used it to grease their skin to protect it from the elements. That leaves us with the paprika and the potatoes.
Peppers and potatoes are native to America and were introduced in Europe after Columbus’ happy discovery in 1492, i.e. not before the sixteenth century. Initially this gulyáshús will therefore have been no more than a simple soup of meat and onions, seasoned with salt and caraway and maybe with black pepper, a spice that has been known in Europe since antiquity. The goulash as we know it has come into existence since pepper reached Hungary. That went -for reasons we shall see later on- with a long detour, so it was not before the late 16th century when it gradually began to seep in. The plant was originally grown exclusively in the pleasure gardens of wealthy amateurs. It was in the course of the 18th century that the plant began to appear in the vegetable gardens of the peasantry. From then on it went quickly, because the spicy powder was a lot cheaper than black pepper, which -in contrast to paprika- doesn’t thrive in the European climate and had to be imported from India.
The potatoes took some time, too, to settle in. As with corn -also of American origin- it was a crop that was grown because of the relatively high yield per square meter, but the people who were supposed to eat it were suspicious, to say the least. Initially, it was considered as no more than fodder, or at best as food for Joe Bloggs who couldn’t afford anything better. In fact, potatoes have long been considered to be poisonous. Which is not entirely false, because while the tubers are edible, the stems and berries of the potato are indeed toxic.
© 2016, Marcel Wick