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After a long flight, we finally arrived at Ferihegy Budapest airport. We had been delayed for about 3 hours. The first thing you notice about Hungary is when you drive to the city from the airport is the communist influence is still everywhere. The drab, run-down buildings are everywhere. Even though communism ended some years ago, it’s actually quite depressing. However, once you hit the downtown area and the Danube, you can see the change, smart shops, coffee bars, pastry shops, cool, well-dressed people mingle with trendy young students. We stayed in a bog-standard Global hotel chain hotel, as it were, proof that things are changing for the good.

The first stop was to the world-famous Grundel restaurant, probably Budapest’s most famous restaurant.

Set in the Budapest city park, you can eat authentic Hungarian food in fabulous surroundings. Even the Queen and the Pope ate here on a state visit. The restaurant was set up by Karoly Gundel. Here we met sous chef Peter Baranyai, a larger than life chap who had been cooking at the restaurant for many years. We filmed making the classic, authentic Goulash. What I noticed about the dish Peter prepared was the use of the great raw product. Great veal, stock, paprika, onions and garlic that was it, just simmered for about 2 hours, that’ it simple but very good.

He also showed me a simple chicken dish with chicken paprika sauce, and a light soup just finished with a little paprika and oil. The overriding feature of all the dishes I saw being prepared was the fact the delicate flavour of the paprika is not spoilt by frying this fragrant spice. This is an absolute no-no. At no point must the paprika touch the heat of the oil. This would become apparent when we finally got to Szeged and the paprika factory.

We then filmed across the river in the smart Buda area, a very touristy part of town and strumbled across a fabulous pastry shop called Ruszwurm. The shop has been making desserts, cakes, and pastries since 1827 and has changed hands many times, but the quality of the products has not changed over the years. I had to try several of them, and of course the most famous Hungarian pastry Dobos Torte.

A delicate sponge cake layered with buttercream and topped with caramel triangles was very good indeed. But, of course, no trip to Budapest would be complete without a long lunch or afternoon tea at Gerbeaud, probably one of the world’s most beautiful tea shops/restaurants.

The crew and I tried almost all the cakes on offer. They were superb, the Dobos Torte was pretty spectacular, and probably the best I have ever eaten.

The next day we were up early and drove the 4 hours to Szeged, the home of Paprika. The first 2 hours of the journey, we travelled on motorway style roads, then onto very rough roads, occasionally overtaking several Trabant cars, much to the delight of the sound man Dave Lindsay and director Simon Whittaker. We passed through many small towns and villages, stopping for a hearty breakfast of rustic sausages and fried potatoes. Really simple and very tasty, finally arriving early afternoon at the Szegedi Paprika factory. Two things hit you when getting out of the car, the wonderful smell of grinding sweet paprika and the awfulness of the building and the area. It looks like a prison with straight walls, very small windows and slightly falling to pieces. It was quite scary.

PAPRIKA Facts

  • Paprika was completely unknown in Europe until the discovery of the Americas.
  • Paprika was first used in Hungarian dishes during the Napoleonic wars. Peasants used it instead of pepper after Napoleon had set up his continental barrier
  • The first pepper plants arrived in Hungary in the 17th century, supposedly brought by the Turks who occupied the country at the time.
  • All plants then were grown under strict guard in large central courtyards and Hungarians found propagating plants for their own use were decapitated.

Once inside the factory, your nostrils are overwhelmed with the pungent sweet smell of grinding paprika peppers. The factory is very small and compact, and immaculately clean and organised. As we toured with the manager, I became aware that paprika comes in 8 or 9 grades. Wow, in the UK, we only ever use 1 or 2 varieties. The grades vary from the special bright red variety used for brighter perfumed dishes to hot, brown, slightly yellow variety.

Funnily enough, a lot of restaurants serve the best paprika on the tables in restaurants not to eat but to feast your eyes on. Traditionally the peppers are picked and dried in the sun, strung together in huge strings, then carefully ground and tasted to blend. Then, at the factory, the peppers are oven or kiln-dried to save time.

We filmed and tasted various grades of paprika; we then went for lunch in a local restaurant, eating Goulash and pancakes.

The town of Szeged is a beautiful place, the main square packed with clean, well looked after streets and shops. The area has a large student population due to being one of the largest universities in Hungary. In addition, the town has a museum dedicated to the history and production of paprika, well worth a visit.

Thanks to Christopher Columbus, paprika arrived in Hungary in the second half of the 16th Century and was originally grown as an ornamental plant. However, it took about 100 years before the plant was cultivated as a herb. Together with the work of Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, the famous Hungarian scientist who was researching & growing peppers in the region, paprika as we know it was born.

Paprika has come a long way in the past 250 years. The four main reasons why the plants thrive in the area are the careful selection of the plants and breed the peppers themselves to get the flavour, colour and aroma right. Secondly, the soil around the river Tisza, the red pepper strains grown there thrive. Thirdly, the amount of sunshine the area gets. The area around Szeged gets some 2000 hours per year, and finally, the pure love and devotion that the Hungarians lavish on their plants and the growing of the peppers. At the turn of the century, almost every garden grew paprika peppers. The best plants seeds were carefully selected, stored and grown the following year, and so the process went on year after year.

More PAPRIKA Facts

  • Paprika has only been used in cooking in Hungary since the 18th Century.
  • Escoffier was responsible for introducing paprika to western cuisine in 1879; he had the powder sent from Szeged to Monte Carlo in the kitchens of the grand hotel.
  • Never add paprika to hot cooking oil. Always remove the pan from the heat, and then add liquid before returning to the stove. The reason for this is paprika has a very high sugar content and will burn easily, thus changing the flavour and also taking on a nasty brown colour.
  • Most restaurants place paprika on the table, which is meant to feast your eyes, not your stomachs.

This dish is very simple to make. It’s basically a soup that is unthickened. The name Goulash means gulyas, meaning herdsman, but over time the name gulyas has (goulash meat) is, to say, a meat dish prepared by the herdsman. Today gulyas refers to both meat and herdsman. Cooking in the kettles is men’s work.

From the middle ages until the 19th Century, Puszta was home to massive herds of cattle. In their tens of thousands, they were driven to Europe’s biggest markets in Moravia, Vienna, Nuremberg & Venice.

Slaughtered cattle on the way were turned into gulyas has all cooked and eaten from the traditional kettles, all eaten with wooden spoons. Today markets all over Hungary sell this traditional cookware.

Contacts:

Ruszwurm Cukraszda Pastry Shop
Nyitva: Minden Nap
H-1014 Budapest, Szentharomsag utca 7.
HUNGARY

Grundel Restaurant
H-1146 Budapest
Allatkerti ut 2
HUNGARY 1146

Paprika Museum
10 Felso Tisza-part
Szeged
HUNGARY
Tel 36 62 426-023

For more information contact www.szegedipaprika.com

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