It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the quantity of sausage on offer in Budapest’s Central Market Hall, the largest and oldest covered market in the city. It’s the Noah’s Ark of salami, with meat of almost every animal stuffed inside some sort of intestine. Naturally, pork predominates, but I find donkey, horse, sheep, duck, goose, deer, cow, chicken, turkey and even fish all hanging from the stalls, which form the nucleus of the market. And just in case you fancy making your own, around the periphery you’ll find everything you need: butcher’s shops selling fresh meat and sausage skins, spice stalls adorned with strings of red paprika and garlic, their counters heaving with piles of caraway, pepper and allspice.
Kolbasz is the generic Hungarian word for sausage, but every region has its own recipes, all with different names depending on whether they’re fresh or how they’ve been cured. What we usually call salami are the dried or smoked variety, usually with various amounts of added paprika, giving them a degree of heat ranging from mild to very hot. They’re a deep part of the Hungarian psyche, as the country was settled by people coming from the East on horseback. For these semi-nomads, it made sense to carry dried meat on their travels, which they could nibble in the saddle or add to impromptu stews. This tradition carried on after they’d settled, as sausages were still the food of choice for shepherds and herders, who spent most of the year away from home.
Back in the Central Market Hall, I’m overwhelmed by choice, but fortunately the stallholders are only too happy to provide me with samples and give me some history. They tell me that in the days before refrigeration, animals were slaughtered in the wintertime, when the weather was cold, and the meat had to be preserved and processed as soon as possible. The hams were preserved using traditional curing methods, but the rest of meat was turned into sausages. Most were made from coarsely ground pork, beef or lamb with added ingredients including black pepper, allspice, white pepper, caraway, nutmeg, marjoram, cayenne pepper, sugar, salt, garlic, white wine or even cognac. The key addition was paprika, which is the defining characteristic of Hungarian sausage.
In front of me I’ve got a tray of seven different slices of salami. They range in color from bright pink through a shade of beige to dark brown, some studded with large lumps of fat, others more finely grained. I’m told that the key difference is the amount of paprika, and sampling each one, I can certainly taste the difference. I get some mild heat from the lighter slices, but the darker ones cause my mouth to feel like it’s on fire. Interestingly, the meat flavor is more in the background, and it’s the type and amount of spice that determines the overall flavor.
I’m interested in how they’re made and learn that once the mixture of ground meat and spices is stuffed into its casing, usually the small intestine of pig, the embryonic sausage is then hung overnight to allow the flavors to develop. Next is the smoking, usually over a fire of beech chips, and a long maturation process in carefully controlled conditions. This can last as long as 100 days, and a white fungus known as “noble mold” forms on the casing. Pick is one of the most famous manufacturers of this winter salami, and the company is so proud of its product that it opened a museum in the town of Szeged to celebrate. It goes without saying that this region also has a reputation for the best paprika in Hungary.
As I wander the market, I’m intrigued by a hairy pig’s head in front of one of the stalls, with a sign saying Mangalica (“I feel good”). Apparently, the head is from a special breed of pig that’s unique to Hungary and was developed in the 19th century by crossing Serbian and Hungarian native varieties with wild boar. It’s easily mistaken for a sheep as it has a thick woolly coat, unique in the pig world, but it was almost extinct by the 1990s. Demand had dropped off as the Mangalica is one of the fattiest pigs in the world, with 70 percent of the carcass consisting of fat. Communism favored meatier animals over fattier ones, and they stopped being reared. Fortunately, people recognized that the animals were in danger. Farmers were encouraged to keep the breed alive, and customers began to relish their superior meat.
For a proper tasting, I go to Restaurant Kissbende, a newly opened bistro in Budapest next to the Parliament building. The restaurant sources its products from tiny farms around the country; the specialty is a Mangalica cold plate with peppered salami, paprika sausage and cured hams. The animals are mainly free-range and live on a diet of wild pasture, wheat, corn and barley, so the meat is high in omega-3 fatty acids and natural antioxidants.
The ham is deeply red and highly marbled with creamy white fat, and it easily melts in the mouth with a slightly sweet, subtle flavor that isn’t overwhelmed by the spice. Kissbende’s co-owner, Zsofi Bende, explains that because of the high fat content, cured Mangalica pork products spend a longer time maturing, which deepens the flavor without losing moisture. As I tuck into my slices of salami, with a glass of organic local wine, I recognize that I’m in the presence of the Hungarian King of Sausage.
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