In Depth, 19/08/2021

Kalocsa, the Pepper Capital of Hungary

Although I am not so familiar with Ukrainian pepper culture, as compared to neighbouring Hungary. But I imagine both are fairly similar. There is plenty, as witnessed, in the sunshine-filled arable plains of Zakarpattia. Most notably in Velyka Dobron which is a small village far from the hilly peaks and close to the Hungarian border. As for seeking out where to go for the best peppers in Ukraine, that’s a mission to fulfil for next time.  

Regardless of where in this part of Europe they are from, “Peppers” (as known in English) are frequently better known elsewhere as “paprika”, or something similar to this effect. As abbreviations will vary from place to place. As will the tastes which can also vary, depending on local soil conditions of each region where produced. This matter should not be confused with black pepper, which is another, separate matter altogether.

The main species of pepper or paprika, known as “Capsicum annuum” in Latin, are generally red, yellow and green. A colour scheme also follows when the peppers are grounded to powder and dried out. The eventual granulated spice colour range varies from deep reddish-brown to bright orange-red, depending on which cultivars, or varieties, are used.

Should you be travelling in Hungary, and you are searching for the acknowledged best, make your way to Kalocsa, a quaint, off-beat, provincial town with a Baroque setting. What’s more, this charming, unruffled sunshine-filled locale has two other features, folk-art and a proud cuisine culture that also leads the way to this earthy place, which still remains from the main tourist trails.

There are other similar places nearby such as Szeged that deliver copious quantities of paprika in the same way because similar conditions allow. Much locally produced paprika is harvested in September and is generally smooth and milder when compared to Mexican chillies, top-range Indian curry powders and so forth.

To find out more about “paprika paradise,” requires a two-hour, 140-kilometre drive southwards from the Hungarian capital along the dusty Number 51 road, which runs directly parallel with the River Duna. It was simple enough to find the central Szentháromság tér, the Holy Trinity Square, which features the main and impressive Kalocsa-Kecskemét Főegyházmegye, the Archdiocese Catholic Cathedral, before all else.

A few metres further on is the tourist information at Szent István utca, which is where to go if one is interested in additional paprika research, as it is clearly local heritage. Inside the bureau is an excelling exhibition hall with plenty of paprika content. Then proceed to the paprika museum and the Népművészeti Tájház folk-art museum, which are both short walks away. If your search for the paprika phenomena identified by its colour, aroma and flavour is still on, the specialised shops and restaurants await your arrival.

Larger scale paprika production in this area began in the early 20th century. Nowadays much local produce is sold around the world.  Paprika has a symbolic role in national gastronomy, being rich in colour and exciting in flavours. The following are the different varieties, and they come in a fine, soft-textured powdered form:

  • Top of the range is the “Kalocsa Aranya,” which means “Kalocsa Gold”. Available in mild/ sweet as well as hot varieties, this highly aromatic blend gives the overall best taste, colour and aroma to many meat, fish and vegetarian dishes.
  • The “Különleges” (Special quality) variant not only has a splendid mild aroma but also boasts the brightest red of all the paprika varieties.
  • “Kosher paprika” is unique in that each product comes with a stamp and serial number.
  • Probably the most popular, with a slight fluctuation in taste in the mouth, is the “Csemege,” with its touch of mild spice. This is generally used in many households in Hungary.
  • “Édesnemes” is a delicate spice and preferred by those who like a sweeter taste.
  • Félédes” is a semi-sweet variant that is mildly hot, and thus perfect for those who don’t want to get too carried away with anything riskier.
  • The “Csípős,” which means “pungent”, is the more desired hot one.
  • For those with endurance, the hottest of the lot is the “Erős,” meaning “strong.” It is light brown.
  • Finally, there is the “Rózsa,” the rose paprika, which is recognisable by its pale red colour and yellowish shades. This comes with a strong aroma that suggests it will be hot but is in fact milder than expected.

However, it would take a connoisseur, rather than me with my limited culinary noesis, to distinguish the paprika ambit in a more sophisticated way. For better descriptions, take this matter to the local experts when there.  As for storage, it’s best to keep all pepper products in a cool, dark, dry place and consume them within a year of purchase.

When on the road and searching for the best pepper/ paprika dish here in Hungary. Here are some prime examples of delicious and fortifying local dishes that have excelled worldwide, perhaps due to this magical home-grown ingredient. One is the highly prized chicken paprikash, commonly known as “Csirke paprikas.” And then there is Fisherman’s soup, known locally as “halászlé.” Local stews are referred to as “pörkőlt.” These and many others should all ideally be served with salads. All this makes me wonder what are the famed Ukraine pepper specialities?

For the vegetarians, I recommend “paprikás krumpli,” a fine potato dish cooked up with onions and served up with paprika. Alongside “lecsó,” a Hungarian ratatouille, frequently made with heaps of peppers, onions and tomatoes.

During the summer, it is traditional in this part of Europe to cook outside whilst sitting around a large cooking pot hoisted by chains over a small campfire, and make the internationally renowned Goulash soup, or “gulyásleves,” as known locally and as commendable as Borscht soup. This can be made in several ways, as long as it consists of chopped meat, tomatoes, carrots, onions and garlic. Add noodles or rice and sour cream into the mix and enjoy.

Goulash is not only a Hungary speciality. Another example is the Serbian variant, made up with cabbage and seasoned with oregano, giving the goulash another direction with taste. I am yet to sample a Ukrainian version. I look forwards to doing so.

Originally, peppers came from Turkey but some historians claim Portugal is the true origin. “Paprika” itself has been a favourite in Hungary since the early 18th century. It is inexpensive and plentiful (when in season), easy to find, and has always been welcomed by the rich and privileged as well as the poorer classes alike.

The main reason why some paprika brings a mild to hot burning sensation to the mouth is due to a chemical release, called “capsaicin,” which can be extracted from the plant. However, hotness is not the only diagnostic relating to capsaicin, as this characteristic within the paprika also has medicinal value, and can be used as a painkiller. In recent times, it is now possible to produce oil from pepper seeds, which is ideal for salads and marinades. Due to a high level of antioxidants, pepper seed oil has an inflammatory effect and delivers health benefits too, such as improving eyesight.

Consuming peppers and paprika is excellent for well-being. Freshly picked peppers have high amounts of Vitamin C and will make one feel invigorated.

When in Hungary, pick up some locally produced paprika paste and sauce varieties, such as Piros Arany, Erős Pista, Haragos Pista and Édes Anna, which come in varying degrees of strength and flavour. Usually, these brands are widely used for sandwiches, in a similar vein as “Marmite,” an old favourite from England, and are usually as salty. Apply these also to various soups, grilled meats and vegetables by spreading over. Finally, grounded pepper is an essential ingredient used in many locally produced sausages and salamis, and found everywhere around this region.

Although there are variants, many paprika powders are typically less pungent than Spanish ones, as well as smoother and cooler than many curry powders.

Local paprika and peppers alike are all excelling, alongside the equally rich red, green and yellow flavoursome Californian peppers that have also found their way here. For this and more, take yourself to either Kalocsa, Szeged, or sleepy local paprika growing hub across the Chop border and experience something special and unique when there.

Finally, should there be a pepper culture in the Kharkiv region? This will give me much to look forward when it comes to next time.  Then I can really compare notes.

Text and photos: Alexander Stemp