April 28, 1999

In Szeged for Paprika Season: Harvest Hungary's Red Gold


SZEGED, Hungary -- Driving south from Budapest across the Alfold, the Great Hungarian Plain, you pass men walking behind horses, guiding plows through earth the color of Hershey bars. The willows are wearing gauzy-green spring outfits, and the forsythia is blooming. It is March, planting season in paprika country.

By tradition, seeds go into the ground or into hothouse beds on or shortly after St. Gregory's Day, which is March 12. And this is a region where tradition continues to be served, although some of the horses have been replaced by tractors.

My wife, Betsey, and I saw hundreds of long, low plastic tunnels full of tiny, pampered pepper plants. Come Sept. 8, the Nativity of the Holy Virgin, the paprika peppers will be ripe, ready to pick by hand (tradition served once again).

Some will be threaded into garlands, like the chili ristras of Mexico, and hung on the eaves of houses or elsewhere to dry; more will go into commercial ovens for the same purpose. After a month, those on the strings will clack like castanets in the wind, and their color will have turned a deep, lustrous scarlet.

Eventually, the dry pods will be ground into the familiar brick-red powder.

"The garlands are not just there for tourists," Dr. Gyorgy Somogyi, a botanist who works for the State Paprika Research and Development Department, told me. "It's the same as with flue-cured tobacco. Air-drying is slower but definitely better. Peppers are still 50 percent sugar when they're harvested. Air-drying them gives the sugar a chance to turn slowly into complicated flavors, instead of turning into caramel."

Paprika doesn't amount to much in the American kitchen. Most of us use it to brighten up pale, monochromatic foods like cottage cheese, yogurt and deviled eggs. That, and maybe to spice a goulash every two or three years.

Too often, what we buy in the first place is coarse, second-rate stuff from Hungary or elsewhere, lacking in depth and piquancy, and almost always we leave it in an opened container to dry out in the deep recesses of the spice cabinet.

But for the Hungarians, paprika is a way of life, a source of flavor as indispensable to their cuisine as lemongrass is to the Thais and basil is to the Neapolitans. One of the greatest Hungarians, Dr. Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, won the Nobel Prize for discovering that paprika is a prime source of vitamin C, which he named ascorbic acid.

That explains the lustrous skin of Hungarian women, his countrymen will tell you, and the very long lives of a people whose diet is loaded with animal fats, starch and sour cream.

Each Hungarian consumes a pound of the stuff a year.

A thousand richly savory, richly reassuring Hungarian recipes begin with onions sizzling in fat, followed into the pan by several teaspoons of paprika. Paprika goes into the fisherman's soup and gulyas (goulash) soup the Hungarians love, giving them both tang and body.

It is the essential ingredient in paprika chicken, a dish that conquered the world after Escoffier served it in Monte Carlo in 1879. It goes into the famous Hungarian salami, giving it its distinctive rosy color.

Talk about comfort food. I can't imagine anything more comforting than the szekelygulyas, an inspired blend of sauerkraut and goulash, rich in paprika, that they serve at Kehli, a red-tablecloth tavern near the Danube in Budapest. But maybe that's just my Mittel-European roots showing.

"Onions, paprika, garlic, lard," murmured Gyorgy Laszlo, the executive chef at the Hotel Inter-Contintental in Budapest. "The holy quartet. I even use them in omelets at breakfast."

For generations, Hungarian paprika was considered the world's best, far superior to that produced in Spain, California and Mexico. But the Communists gummed up the works. Today Hungary controls only about 6 percent of the world market, down from 25 percent in the 1950s, and its paprika no longer automatically commands a premium price.

Things are starting to change. Small, private mills are opening, like the Rubin company here. It was started six years ago in a garage -- shades of Hewlett-Packard! -- by four partners, each from a different profession. They have long since given up their day jobs, and their new plant grinds paprika using traditional methods six months a year, three shifts a day.

Old plants are hustling to keep up. The Szegedi Paprika Co., the successor to a former state monopoly, was recently taken over by the company that makes Pick salami. Behind massive steel doors inside the old factory, with its crumbling, gloomy stairwells, a modern facility has been installed, all gleaming stainless steel and immaculate white tile. It could be an emergency-room operating theater.

"The Communists concentrated everything in a few big factories, and they emphasized mass production," said Eszter Salamon, a vivacious Szeged lawyer who is organizing a farmers' co-op in a bid to restore standards and improve farmers' incomes. "Price mattered to them, not quality. So there was no incentive for the farmers to take the pains needed to grow great peppers.

"The factories have been privatized, and attitudes are slowly changing. The mill owners still want to buy cheaply, but there are seven or eight of them here now, instead of one. Eventually, we hope, competition will improve quality, and our farmers will be paid more if they grow the best they can."

Paprika is planted in more than 13,000 Hungarian acres, and most of the 4,000 families that till them are smallholders, as always.

The narrow, cone-shaped pods from which paprika is made grow on shrubs about two feet tall, turning from yellow-green to red when ripe. They are thick-skinned and leathery, utterly unsuitable for eating raw. The plant is a member of the Capsicum genus, Capsicum annuum, var. longum. A cousin of tobacco, tomatoes and potatoes, it is, like them, a native of the Americas.

(The nomenclature is a nightmare. In the rest of the world, the word "paprika" means only the powder; in Hungary it is also the word for all of the numerous fleshy varieties of peppers, including the green bell pepper.)

How paprika got to Hungary is the stuff of myth, legend and controversy, but it seems likely that Columbus or one of his sailors brought the first seeds across the Atlantic. From Spain the trail led to Italy, Turkey and Bulgaria. Either the Ottomans or the Bulgarians apparently introduced the plant to Hungary.

"Amid this welter of conflicting evidence," wrote the Hungarian-born restaurateur George Lang in his exhaustive study, "The Cuisine of Hungary" (Atheneum, 1982), "we are sure of only one thing: before Columbus, paprika was unknown in Europe. For all intents and purposes, therefore, let us consider paprika a delightful fringe benefit of Columbus' discovery of America."

However it got here, it found a home in the flatlands around the towns of Szeged, on the Tisza River, and Kalocsa, on the Danube, both close to the Yugoslav border. These towns have more sunlight than any others in Hungary, about 200 days a year, with plenty of rain in May and June, plenty of hot weather in July and August.

The Tisza, a lazy, meandering river like the Mississippi, is just as prone to flooding -- some sections of Szeged have been under water this spring. The flood waters enrich the soil.

Paprika is paprika, you might think. But no. It is almost as complex as the Hungarian language, which is related only to Finnish and Basque, as far as anyone knows, and sounds like something falling down stairs.

According to Somogyi, the botanist, the best paprika comes from plants that are started indoors, then bedded out in April or in May. With that head start, he said, they ripen earlier, in August, when the sun is hot.

"That gives them 30 percent more pigment and flavor than the later harvest," Somogyi explained. "With paprika, the redder the better."

But most emphatically not the redder the hotter. Hungarian paprika is made in a number of styles, ranging from eros (fiery) through feledes (semisweet) to edesnemes (premium sweet), which is most commonly used in cooking. If Hungarians want their food spicy, they often add dried, crumbled cherry peppers.

At the city museum in Szeged, which has a collection of paprika memorabilia, they show a film in which old women complain about having to douse their hands in water to stop the stinging from handling hot peppers.

Until 1859, it was worse: the seeds and veins of the peppers, which contain the heat-producing substance called capsaicin, had to be removed by hand. But in that year the Palffy brothers invented a machine to do it. And starting with the early-20th-century work of a scientist named Ferenc Horvath, the Hungarian breeders have gradually bred the hot out.

As things now stand, there is no premium-grade Hungarian paprika available on the American market. Several Hungarian brands, including Budapest's Best and Pride of Szeged, are sold in fine-food shops and some supermarkets, and they are superior to most of the products sold under familiar brand names or house labels. But they don't have the deep, round flavor, with more than a hint of the taste of fresh peppers, that you find in Hungary.

"What you find here," says Lang, "is mid-level commercial quality -- acceptable, but nothing to write an ode about. As with wine, as with other things, the best comes from small growers and small mills, which produce small quantities of the finished product, mostly consumed at home."

Most paprika, even in Hungary, is ground from the stems as well as the shells of the peppers. That's one shortcut that lowers the quality, and we saw it everywhere. Another, equally undesirable, is using metal grinders instead of old-fashioned millstones.

Bitterness is a constant danger with paprika, induced by too much heat. In the milling process, a certain number of seeds are crushed along with the pods. They yield oil, which keeps the temperature down and keeps the color bright. Water is added, bit by bit, to do the same. The miller must walk a line between slight caramelization, which produces a malty aroma and a certain sweetness, and overheating, which produces an acrid, unpleasant aroma and flavor.

A hint of that aroma clings to the paprika factories, especially when grinding is under way. Both Betsey and I, unused to it, found ourselves coughing and sneezing repeatedly, and the sharp smell clung to our clothes and our hair for several hours after we had left the premises.

The battle against bitterness must continue in the kitchen. Laszlo, the Inter-Continental chef, said he always adds a little water to the pot when he adds the paprika. Kalman Kalla, the executive chef at Gundel, the capital's leading restaurant, said he sometimes puts the paprika in only after the meat has begun cooking, if he wants to preserve the paprika's color and bite.

Paprika starts to deteriorate almost as soon as it has been ground. Lajos Lakatos, one of the top officials of Kalocsa Paprika, the biggest Hungarian producer, demonstrated that for us.

At his sprawling factory in Kalocsa, a charming old town with a cluster of pastel-colored Baroque buildings at its center, a table was filled with dozens of saucers, each containing a sample of a different grade of paprika. They had been sitting out overnight.

When he gently scraped away the paprika on the surface, it was obvious that it had begun oxidizing. The paprika beneath was ruddy red. What had been exposed to the air was tan.

There are no dates on paprika packages, but here are a few rules to follow in buying and handling it in the United States. Buy it in small quantities. Buy it in tins, if possible, rather than glass (light is also an enemy). Close the tin tightly after use, and store it in the refrigerator.

Hungarians, as must be evident by now, love their food; Joseph Wechsberg, the much-travelled gastronome, envied them. Born in Czechoslovakia, raised in Vienna, both close by, he once said that "to be a Hungarian is a permanent delight." But they are picky picky picky about their paprika. They have a saying, Lakatos confessed to us: "One paprika for the mother-in-law, another for the mother, a third for the wife."

Kalla and Laszlo both said they preferred paprika from Kalocsa, and Lakatos, eager to press a competitive point, said he thought the alkaline soil around Kalocsa helped grow better peppers. Lakatos also mentioned that Kalocsa peppers grew up, while Szeged peppers grew down. But he conceded that the differences were hard to distinguish, all other factors being roughly equal.

"Tasting blind, I can tell Hungarian from American," he said, "but not Kalocsa from Szeged."


Adapted from the Kehli tavern, Budapest,

Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
One-third cup finely chopped onion
1/4 cup sweet Hungarian paprika
Pinch of hot Hungarian paprika, or cayenne
1 1/2 pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon minced fresh dill
1/2 Italian frying pepper, finely chopped
1/2 ripe tomato, finely chopped
3 pounds packaged (refrigerated, not canned) sauerkraut, rinsed and well drained
1 1/2 cups sour cream
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour.

1. Heat the oil in a 4- to 6-quart saucepan or casserole over medium heat. Add onion and saute until translucent, about 3 minutes. Remove pan from heat, and add 2 tablespoons water and the sweet paprika and hot paprika. Place pan over low heat, and saute 3 minutes. Add pork, garlic, caraway seeds, dill and 2 more tablespoons water. Cover, and cook until pork is tender, about 1 hour, stirring occasionally and adding a tablespoon or two of water if it seems too dry.

2. Add chopped pepper and tomato to pan. Cover, and cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Uncover and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add sauerkraut and toss gently to combine. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for an additional hour.

3. Combine sour cream and heavy cream and mix well. Transfer half the mixture to a serving bowl, and refrigerate until needed. Add flour to the remainder, and stir until smooth. Add to pan. Cover and continue to cooking, stirring occasionally, for 15 to 20 minutes. Garnish with a dollop of the reserved sour cream mixture, and pass the remainder separately.

Yield: 6 servings.