Spicing up the paprika market!
Paprika, a powdered spice for cooking, is such an intrinsic part of Hungary, it's cooking and the fiery nature of the people themselves that you may be surprised to know that the Paprika industry in Hungary has gradually fallen over recent years. While the homes of local market gardeners used to be wreathed in drying Paprika (see picture) in such areas as Batya in the flat lowlands south of Budapest, it is today a rare sight.
This was partly due to the rising competition from other producing countries, such as Brazil and, Serbia and China, and partly attributed to the lower prices and thus made this cottage industry less appealing. At the same time it seems there may have been a bit of nifty manoeuvring by foreign firms, where imported paprika which underwent a grinding process within this country in order to be labelled "product of Hungary"! Thankfully, such tricks are to become a thing of the past.
As reported in the international press, some small producers have once more started to cultivate red peppers for Paprika on a trade scale. The first customers are restaurants and individual gourmands, but it is also hoped to break back into the international market. A quality approach has been taken very seriously, so that the advantages shine through: great flavour and strength and cultivation that is absolutely organic and free of preservatives.
The process has been likened to wine-making in that the skill and care of the producers has a huge effect. The peppers must be ripened on the vine and picked at the opportune moment, have the stems removed by hand and then be dried slowly at a low heat. It takes 20 or more days for the sugar to caramelise and become a red colouring agent. Grinding is carried out carefully after the peppers have been sorted. The paprika one finds in the supermarket is weaker in this respect, as it is often coarsely ground and thus includes stems and seeds. The weather is also important, and whereas 2012 was too hot and produced average paprika, 2013 is apparently very good indeed!
Visitors to Hungary can also help to support these traditions and care, through attempting to buy only locally-produced paprika and not from international supermarket chains.
In order to find out more about this favourite spice, one can visit the Paprika Park in Röszke, near Szeged, 170 km south of the capital, or the Paprika Muesum*, in Kalocsa, also in south-central Hungary, though a little closer to Budapest. There is also a famous Kalocsa Paprika Festival, held in the same town, annually in mid-September. (*the museum is open April-October)