Cleaning Out the Basement–Paprika

Hungarian Paprika Through the Ages by Zoltan Halasz, Corvina Press 1963

Hungarian Paprika Through the Ages by Zoltan Halasz, Corvina Press 1963

A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika.

–Diana Vreeland

A few Saturdays ago I visited that venerable Washington institution, Adam A. Weschler and Sons auction house. For 120 years, the estates of D.C.’s cave dwellers have been sent to the winds by Weschler’s. I love their creaky old wooden floors, the motley crew that shows up to the Tuesday morning auctions, and the musty smell of the place.

I also love that you can preview and put in a written bid. On the Saturday I previewed, tables were covered with books–stacked and slanting–and every title made me drool. Some I already had, and many I wanted.

With admirable restraint I bundled up only six books and filled in a bid sheet. After all, I didn’t even have bookshelves yet. This one caught my eye. We had a delicious trip to Budapest a few years ago and I liked this book’s trim size, sprightly illustrations, and personal passion.

From a heroically translated wikipedia page, I gleaned that Halasz was a workman journalist, who wrote, edited and translated during WW2 and through the interesting post-war era. He died at 92 in 2007. He wrote tourist and history books about Hungarian wine and food, and was the historian when George Lang reconstituted Gundel.

In this book, he traces paprika’s travels around the world, tracing the pepper’s appearance in nearly every cuisine. And, not surprisingly, he finds that though Hungarian paprika is “not the most ancient variety, is certainly the variety of the highest grade with respect to nutrition and qualities of relish.”

In fact, writes Halasz, Hungary developed sweet paprika, first through meticulous processing that removed the hot veins, then by cross-breeding sweet eating peppers with spicy seasoning peppers. He visits the centers of Hungarian paprika–Szeged and Kalosca. The town of Szeged, ground between the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans, persisted, growing paprika on the surrounding great Hungarian Plain, and using it to spice fish, drawn from the rivers. In Kalosca, on the Danube, Italian, Turkish, and Magyar settlers established a paprika market gardening tradition that united them at the table as Hungarians.

Halasz goes on to describe the planting, harvest, and preparation, as well as the culture and traditions surrounding them. He discusses the health and nutritional debates surrounding the spice, and then how to cook with it–fish soup, gulyas, and stuffed cabbage–from rough peasant dishes that evolved into refined court and restaurant dishes.

And here’s how to make your goulash more gulyas. Use paprika the way Hungarian cooks do–either in a creamy roux or added to browned onions, either of which can be the foundation of your dish.

About Appetite for Books

read, cook, eat, repeat
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