Though brought up in England I am genetically 75% Eastern European and thus have an innate love of pork. Shopping for ham the other day my eye was drawn instead to a rack of cured sausages. And then to the red-white-and-green Pick logo on a Mangalica Hungarian Paprika Sausage at the back. I bought it, of course.
It was completely delicious but not the sausage I have always associated with Pick.
Every year throughout my childhood, just before Christmas my Hungarian great-grandmother sent my family a case of red wine, several boxes of chocolate, and one large Pick salami. My father gorged happily on the chocolate. The wine was saved for visitors. The salami, for my sister, my mother, the dachshunds and I, was an object of desire.
The salami was over a metre long. It came wrapped in cellophane, boldly decorated with the red, white and green of the Hungarian flag. Stapled at the top was a loop of sturdy string and this was used to hang the salami, reverently, on one of the higher hooks on the dresser. Here it could be admired by everyone at the dining table, and the dogs, who lay gazing up at it with wide, moist eyes.
Unwrapping and first tasting usually took place in the week before Christmas, on a day when my mother had brought home poppy seed rolls. We sat around the table with rolls broken and thickly buttered. I stood on a chair, brought the salami down from its hook and laid it on the sacrificial table alongside a large wooden board and a sharp knife. At this point there was some debate between my sister and me over the unwrapping of the cellophane. She favoured removing it in strips to preserve the festive colours for as long as possible. I, guided by a wholly imaginary mental image of a Hungarian farmhouse kitchen, felt it would be more correct to remove the cellophane altogether. Usually my mother tore it off while we were still discussing it.
Now came the first slice, through the dusty papery skin, and into the deep red meat, evenly flecked with clean white fat. This slice was important. It was too thick to put on bread and included the twisted chewy end. It was a desirable prize and one my sister and I argued over. The only consolation for the loser was that if they kept their wits about them they would have a strong claim on the other end, a metre and roughly a fortnight away. The first slice, whether it was the end slice or not, was an intense experience. When you slice salami yourself you can’t help creating a slice ten or even twenty times the thickness of a supermarket slice. Our slices were so thick and chewy that they induced a contemplative state. This was always one of the most peaceful moments in the run-up to Christmas.
Unwrapping never took place at a regular mealtime. It could happen after a particularly long dog walk, a tiresome shopping trip, or on a Saturday morning for ‘second breakfast’. Throughout the life of the salami we continued to eat it in this ad hoc fashion. At that time our living room was on the first floor, so my sister or I would go on mad gallops downstairs during TV ad breaks to fulfil each other’s orders: “one piece of toast with butter and two slices”, “two pieces of toast with no butter and three slices”, or “just some slices, four or six, with the paper left on”. I think the reason the salami never became part of regular meal-times was that it just tasted too good. Nothing really goes with it, or to put it another way, there’s almost nothing you can eat with it that improves the flavour*. Bread has some practical advantages though. Chewy rolls and butter slow you down, and toast gently warms the salami, softening the fat and releasing more flavour.
The Hungarian name for this particular style of salami is téliszalámi, meaning ‘winter salami’. This is because the salami was traditionally cold-cured – that is hung in cold air while being gently smoked. The filling is finely chopped Mangalica meat and fat mixed with white pepper, allspice and garlic. What my sister and I thought of as ‘the paper’ is actually sausage casing which grows a white, powdery mould during the curing process. The fact you ideally make this salami in winter when the air is cool gives a new resonance to the fact we were given it as a Christmas present. Perhaps my great-grandmother was continuing a family tradition.
Thanks to the label on the sausage that caught my eye at the supermarket I have now realised it wasn’t just the curing and flavouring of the salami that made it good, so much as the meat (and fat) itself. The pig that went into the sausage and the winter salami was a “curly haired Mangalica pig”. The label went on to explain that “there are relatively few registered Mangalica livestock which means a limited number of these special sausages are produced”. I spent twenty minutes this morning (over breakfast of thickly-sliced paprika sausage on toast) looking up the Mangalica online, and to my horror and delight found out that this is not only a very delicious animal but also very charming. I am a committed meat-eater – I think meat-eating is human nature, or to put it another way something most people will do when they get the chance and can afford it – but this animal made me question my position for a few minutes at least.
They have curly woolly coats:
They have intelligent, cheerful faces:
They really love mud:
The piglets can be spotted:
Or, like wild boar piglets, even striped:
Of course, the Mangalica would not exist if pork-loving Hungarians had not bred it in the first place. That spotty boar-like piglet coat made me wonder if they might be quite an ancient breed. The answer is yes and no. The wild boar is not a very distant ancestor of the Mangalica but it is a grandparent, or great-grandparent rather than a parent.
Until the nineteenth century Hungarian pigs lived much like their wild boar ancestors. They ranged semi-wild and semi-free over the unimproved pasture, forests and marshes of the great Hungarian plain and up into the Carpathians, chomping on undergrowth, acorns and beech mast until they were two years old.
At this point they were rounded up and brought back to the farm to be slaughtered. The meat was free-range and organic, and no doubt tasty but also tough and lean. There was a market for a fattier, faster-growing pig, more suited to curing and sausage-making and the royal Archduke József set out to create one at his Kisjenõ estate. József crossed the tough and hardy native Bakonyi (I don’t speak Hungarian but that name is surely no coincidence) and Szalontai pigs with a lardier Serbian breed called the Sumadija.
The resulting Mangalica was a pig with a prodigious capacity for putting on fat. Mangalicas were grazed outdoors on grass and stubble for about a year, then put on an intensive diet of barley and maize. Fed in this way, by the time they were two years old and ready to be slaughtered they could weigh up to 200kg. That’s a lot of lard. One of the biggest fattening farms was in Szeged, and it was there, with the help of migrant workers from Italy that the Pick salami-making business was set up in 1869. The Mangalica was first choice for salami-making for the next sixty years at least.
But times and tastes change and in the 1950s Mangalica numbers dropped. I haven’t been able to find a clear explanation of this. Maybe more alternative fats to lard became available. Maybe Mangalica pigs didn’t do as well in collective farms as other breeds. Or maybe people were more interested in obtaining fresh meat than preserved, lard-rich meat. But whatever the reason for the decline there is no need to panic – the Mangalica is on the rise again. It has been imported to the US and the UK to be kept as a pet and as livestock but more importantly it’s having a Hungarian renaissance which supplies the Pick factory and smaller producers too.
I’m strongly considering attending next February’s Mangalica Festival in Budapest, where you can see prize-winning pigs, buy gigantic pork steaks from outdoor barbecues and buy hundreds of different salamis . While I’m there I might also pop to the Pick Museum at Szeged. But that will all have to wait for next year. This year I will mostly be eating thick slices of salami on buttered toast and hardening my heart against the delightful Mangalica pig.
NOTE: the information about the history of the Mangalica comes from an entertaining, informative and charmingly translated article by Dr. Radnóczi László. Read it here.
* While nothing goes with winter salami like another slice of winter salami, this is a great thing to do with the paprika sausage:
For two people:
2 cooked cold potatoes, in small cubes
half a paprika sausage, cut into semi-circles
salt and pepper
2 tomatoes, sliced
Melt about 2 teaspoons of butter in a medium-sized frying pan. When it’s gently bubbling drop in the potato and sausage. Stir occasionally until the potato is hot and the fat in the sausage is starting to melt. Crack in the eggs. Add salt and pepper. Stir the eggs very gently, even half-heartedly (think of this as stirred eggs rather than scrambled) until the eggs are just barely cooked. Eat immediately with the sliced tomatoes and lots of strong coffee. A breakfast fit for an Archduke.