Down to Earth: Hungarian Paprika

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illustration by michael eagleton

The surprising taste of real Hungarian paprika is not at all like the tasteless red powder found in American ­supermarkets.

For several years, we have hosted exchange students at our farm. For the past two years, our students have been Hungarians. As Eastern Europe struggles to adjust to freedom and a free-market economy, its students are eager to gain hands-on experience in America.

Each of our Hungarian students holds degrees in agriculture and came to the United States specifically to study herb growing and marketing with me. Both came with good book knowledge but virtually no experience with the plants.

Akos, our first student, was thirty years old and well traveled. His family has lived in Hungary for at least 873 years. Akos was full of questions and curiosity about every plant, bird, lizard, crawfish, or turtle he encountered. He became lord of the garden, allowing no weed to grow, no herb to go unharvested, and no flower to bloom without admiration. During his nine months here, he learned about several herbs that we import from his country, including shavegrass (Equisetum arvense), blessed thistle (Cnicus benedictus), hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), and others.

Peter, our second Hungarian student, arrived last year, fresh from ­studying vegetable production and ­determined to expand his working knowledge of the seasoning and medicinal herbs. His family are newcomers to Hungary, having resided there only 400 years or so. Like Akos, Peter also kept the gardens neat and orderly. He was so astute about which plants needed attention that he spoiled me; I relied a good deal on his observations.

Before we began hosting students, I knew nearly nothing about Hungary. I did know that paprika was a popular seasoning and that genuine Hungarian paprika, given to me from time to time by friends, has quite a surprising taste. I guard my little packets of the real thing so well that sometimes I can’t find them at all.

In Hungary, both students emphasized, paprika is ever-present on the table as salt and pepper are here. ­Paprika may be hot, mild, or even sweet, but it’s not at all like the tasteless red seasoning we purchase under the name “paprika” here. In fact, both men burst into laughter when they ­tasted what passes for paprika in U.S. supermarkets.

In Hungary, every family mixes its paprika differently, using a few of this kind of pepper and a few of that, grinding them into a crimson, flavorful powder. The families of Akos and Peter proudly use paprika formulas that have been passed down for generations; many families grow the paprika peppers themselves with secrets of cultivation passed down along with the seed.

Peter’s father, an agricultural consultant, faxed numerous articles from Hungarian agricultural bulletins to me, which Peter kindly translated. From them, I learned that some paprika peppers are determinate–they produce all of their fruit over a short period–while other varieties are indeterminate and produce throughout the growing season. Growers harvest entire plants of the determinate varieties and hang them in sheds to let the moisture and strength of the plants pass into the fruit. When the peppers are completely dry, they are stored whole until ready for grinding. Indeterminate peppers, by contrast, are picked and dried individually.

After returning home to Hungary, Peter sent me several samples of paprika blends and promised to send seed through agricultural channels. I’m excited about trying different kinds of paprika pepper, although our intermittent humid spells may not be ideal for them.

I’m sure that I’ve learned more from the visiting students than they could possibly have learned from me. Having them here reminds me of how vast the world is, how different our seasonings are, and of how many herbs remain to be tried. This year, we’ll have another visiting student from a different culture, and I eagerly await our future garden sessions.

Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.

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