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Lucy Antal is a maker of preserves, a lover of food, and a writer.  She runs the food blog Grab Your Spoon, and can be found selling her preserves at Lark Lane Farmers’ Market in Liverpool on the 4th Saturday of every month.

In a guest article for Locavore, Lucy writes of Hungarian cuisine, memories of pan-European food runs with her family, and a recipe for a proper goulash.

Ask someone to describe the food of Hungary and the most common association is paprika, followed by goulash, a Western reinvention of the original Gulyás soup. This is the mere tip of the culinary iceberg that is Hungarian food.  I grew up eating Hungarian food as my “normal”, which in 1970s Liverpool it certainly wasn’t.  Hungary is an ancient Central European nation that once ran an empire stretching as far South as Naples, and included Croatia, Transylvania, Poland, Slovakia, and had parts of Serbia, Romania, and the Ukraine in its territory. The cuisine also reflects the rule of the Ottoman Turks in the 16th C, invasions by the Mongols in the 12th C, the association with the Hapsburg empire and Austria , and a long established Jewish population that reached back to the reign of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.  This melting pot of people, cultures and ingredients has created a distinct culinary style that embraces a nomadic past of cooking over open fires, together with more refined elements borrowed from Italy and France, the addition of Turkish spices and breads, and an Asiatic sensibility of balancing sweet and sour flavours with salt, heat and fermented dairy.

I have fond memories of my Hungarian father filling the car with favourite foods on our annual summer visits to the Balaton. Yes. We drove from Liverpool to Hungary every year, accompanied by endless opera and if we were very good, the one pop cassette he would tolerate, the Best of Boney M.  I still know every word and the intro of Rasputin catapults me straight back to the middle seat of my dad’s Beamer, fighting with my sisters and waving at any car with GB plates spotted en route. We brought back Hungarian foods that were husbanded and hoarded to last as long as possible until the next visit. Kefir – that sour fermented miracle food recently ‘discovered’ by The Archers and horribly mispronounced by Susan Carter (it’s keff-ear not keff-fear) – was lovingly wrapped in newspaper and foil to survive three days driving across Europe and then used by my father to make more. I still have the ancient Tupperware tub he used to stuff in the airing cupboard every week. We usually remembered it was there but on occasion it did go wrong… Trust me, fermented milk that’s exploded all over the cupboard in your bedroom has a scent that lingers no matter how much you scrub.

Dad also packed up bushels of pork products.  Téliszalámi or winter salami – a name with a nod to the time of year it was traditionally produced – is a close-ground salami made with Mangalitsa pork, pepper, garlic and allspice and cured in cold air (winter) and slowly smoked to form a dry cured white rind. We had our own meat slicer in the kitchen growing up; téliszálami had to be sliced as thinly as possible, so that the fat literally melted on the tongue as you ate it.  Hungarians love fat. Pork or goose. Both resided in our fridge and were used in abundance.  Szalonna was bought in slabs and eked out over the year. It’s Hungarian bacon, but to be frank, you have to look very hard to find any meat  – it’s made from back fat, complete with rind, and is smoked for longevity. It’s a starting point for many dishes as the medium for frying meat or vegetables but it’s also treated like dripping – roasted on the fire and then slapped onto bread with a slice or two of pepper or radish and a sprinkling of salt. Look, I never claimed this was health food.

Another essential part of my parents’ food purchasing was the Gyulai kolbász – a beech wood smoked sausage made with pork, caraway, pepper, paprika and garlic; available both as a mild and spicy version.  Think chorizo with the accent of the Count from Sesame Street. Thinly sliced, kolbász would be layered up with potatoes, hard boiled eggs, lard (obvs), sour cream and paprika to make the Rakott Krumpli bake, which solves all known hangovers.

Lest anyone reading this be convinced that Hungarian food is basically lard with a bit of spice added, let me introduce you to the other item we smuggled home every year. Jade green pointed peppers that are not the same as the ubiquitous bell pepper. Light green, almost white, these peppers are sometimes known as Turkish or Yellow Wax peppers and they were definitely not available in the UK during my childhood. I find them hard to locate even now, occasionally spotting them in the Turkish shops of Liverpool.  Brought to Hungary by the Turks back in 15 something (along with paprika), these peppers are eaten by Hungarians for breakfast and supper, sliced thinly with a little salt. They are the base of an Hungarian stalwart – Lecsó  – a thick vegetable stew made with onions, tomatoes, peppers, garlic, paprika and ok yes, some of that Szalonna lard.  Not dissimilar to ratatouille, Lecsó is used as a pancake filling, served semi warm with sour cream and bread as a lunch dish, as an accompaniment or as a starting point for other dishes.

The other use for the green pepper is in a salad. Hungarian salads are served alongside main dishes, and all share a common theme – the use of vinegar and sugar to lightly pickle. Instead of using oil, the dressing is made from white vinegar, water, salt, white pepper and sugar – poured over thinly sliced vegetables such as cabbage, cucumber, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce etc, left to stand a little and then served sprinkled with paprika and a small dollop of sour cream (oh come on, you knew that was coming). The sweet sour combination cuts the richness of the accompanying food, lightly “cooks” the vegetables and brings a bit more fermentation into play.  A typical example of how this works comes with the dish Paprikás Csirke with Nokedli and Uborkasalata – a rich slow cooked chicken dish, heavy with paprika, is tempered with sour cream, egg noodles (similar to gnocchi or spaetzle) and served with a thinly sliced cucumber salad.

I’ve only scratched the surface of this cuisine, I haven’t discussed the thin filo-esque pastries, stuffed with sweetened cabbage, the multi layered cakes (OMG the cakes…), the kifli (breakfast rolls whose shape echoes the Islamic crescent) nor the abundance of vegetable dishes which owe some of their heritage to the wandering Gypsy population, with a lentil dish straight from Southern Asia that’s totally a dahl.  Nor the freshwater fish stews with a bite of paprika that would test a seasoned chilli head, or the deep fried savoury yeast bread Lángos. Locavore might let me loose on these pages again so here’s a recipe to try in the meantime – the Antal Gulyás Soup.

This isn’t the goulash some folk will be familiar with – a Western version of this Hungarian classic turns it into a thick beef stew with all sorts of unnecessary additions. No, this is what I consider the proper version – a hearty soup with chunks of potato, meltingly tender beef and a spicy paprika kick designed to feed, soothe and invigorate. It’s hugely economical as well. I used 250g of lovely organic shin beef from Forster Organics (based in St Helens –, which cost me all of £1.81.

The Antal Gulyás recipe – serves 4, or 2 greedy types…

250g shin beef

1 large onion

1 red pointed pepper (this should be the green Hungarian type but the red ones are more easily located)

2 large baking potatoes

1 litre of beef or lamb stock

1 tsp caraway seeds

2 tbsp paprika

1 dessert spoon of lard

Salt and pepper

Halve, then slice onion thinly til you have a tangle of half moon slices.  Do the same with the pepper. Heat the lard in a deep, oven-proof casserole dish and add the caraway seeds. Once they start to pop and release their scent, add the onions and cook for 5 minutes over a low heat. Cube the beef and add to the pot. Stir well to brown the meat and then add 2 tablespoons of paprika. Keep the heat low – be careful not to burn the paprika – and add the red pepper.  Season with salt and pepper. Stir well and add the stock. Bring to a simmer, then cover and put into the oven to cook on a low heat – 160C/ 140c fan/ GM 2/ 325F for an hour.

Peel the baking potatoes and slice into thin chunks. Add to the soup and stir well. Leave to cook for another hour until the potatoes are tender. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.

Serve, steaming hot with a hunk of bread to dip. If you are feeling the need, add a heaped tablespoon of sour cream to each serving.

PS, haven’t forgotten the non meat eaters – you can make a fab vegetarian/vegan version substituting veg stock for the beef stock, sunflower oil for the lard and 500g of field mushrooms (the big chunky ones) for the beef. Use 1 tsp of dried dill instead of the caraway seeds and follow the recipe above.

For the Grab Your Spoon website, click here.

Find Lucy on Twitter here.