After an evil 20th century of two world wars, dismemberment of empire, one or more revolutions (depending on your definition) and finally a new kind of freedom, the people of Hungary are rediscovering their favorite cuisine. Believe it or not, it’s Hungarian food.
This Central European country’s love affair with its own recipes, its own products and definitely its own wines will be on display May 10-11, 2016, when the culinary world comes calling for the Bocuse d’Or chef competition. Though some of the dishes the chefs will be cooking are French – the very name “Bocuse” requires a reverence for classical technique long taught in French or with a French accent – don’t be surprised if the Hungarian love of paprika sneaks in, along with produce, along with sausage and other meats, along with Hungary’s passion for its heritage.
“A Hungarian gastro-revolution has been in progress for decades,” says chef Zoltan Hamvas, who serves as president of the Hungarian Bocuse d’Or Academy. “The best people of the profession are united in order to renew Hungarian gastronomy. The organization of the Bocuse d’Or European final selection in Budapest will be an important milestone for our revolution.”
A “revolution” certainly seems appropriate, as we learned recently sitting at a back table with Hamvas and fellow Hungarian chef Tomas Szell, honored with Bocuse d’Or success this past year. To talk about Hungarian cuisine with these two chefs is to talk about Hungarian history, and that’s to talk about the 20th century. Early on, after World War I, that meant the loss of national pride in the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – not to mention the loss of territory that gave Hungarians some of their favorite food products. After making another poor choice of allies in World War II, Hungary found itself part of the Soviet zone behind the Iron Curtain. This it didn’t enjoy one bit.
However, unlike others who didn’t enjoy being Soviet satellites, the Hungarians did something about it. They launched an ill-fated revolution in 1956, eventually crushed by Soviet tanks just as the Prague Spring would be crushed a dozen years later. If the Soviet overlords were anti-Hungarian-culture before the 1956 revolution, they despised it after and sought to erase it from the earth. Fat chance of that, fired back the Hungarians, even when it had to be in stunned silence. Hungarian cuisine, however, became an almost-banished affair.
Beginning with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the coming of freedom, along with the sometimes-baffling free market economy, in 1989, the people of Hungary slowly re-embraced their roots in both food and wine – literally with a vengeance. In wine, it meant clearing out the cheap grapes that covered hillsides and the ineffective techniques that produced high volumes of low-quality Soviet wine, replanting not only with better grapes but with native ones. Legendary regions like Tokaj could again demand global attention, thanks to a combination of native-born and imported winemakers from France and even California.
In food, as originally in France and Italy and then decades ago with New American and specifically California cuisine, the emphasis was on local and traditional. Paprika started to turn up outside chicken paprikas and goulash, the two most famous traditional recipes – a reminder that this most “Hungarian” of ingredients came in with the hated Ottoman Turks during 150 years of occupation. So things go in the Old World. Today, a glance at a Bocuse d’Or promotional booklet turns up so much more than paprika. There’s water, salt, honey, pork from “happy” Mangalitza pigs, lamb, Herend porcelain to serve from (we enjoyed a visit to the factory), and the high-octane fruit spirit known as palinka. Hungarians are rightly proud of all these things. Whether you’re indulging yourself with Old World fine dining at Gundel in Budapest, restored some years back by Hungarian-American restaurant guru George Lang, or spooning up stew in the humblest country café, someone will tell you about what grows nearby and why it’s the best version anywhere.
Hungary is hopeful that, with the most talented chefs coming from all over Europe for the Bocuse d’Or competition, more and more of them will become aware not only of Hungarian history and culture but of foods and wines they can put on their menus back home. “This offers Hungary enormous opportunities and genuine marketing value, which will help the development and professional recognition that is increasingly important in the area of cuisine,” says Budapest mayor Istvan Tarlos. “Hungarian cuisine is one of the highlights of Hungarian culture. It is varied withy creative foods that offer a unique and characterful world of flavors.”