Indoor: The taste of ... paprika - Hot pods from Hungary

Nikki Spencer samples eastern Europe's red gold
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The Independent Online
They call it piros arany, or red gold, and for centuries it has been an essential ingredient in Hungarian cuisine. About 10,000 tons of paprika are produced annually in the eastern European country, of which 50 per cent is for home consumption.

Hungarians get through a staggering half-kilo of the hot stuff per person per year - but then, unlike most spices, which are used by the pinch, Hungarian paprika is added by the teaspoonful.

Paprika is made from dried sweet peppers. Opinions vary on how and when the Capsicum annuum plant first arrived in the country. Some say it came from India via Turkey, others credit Christopher Columbus with its introduction.

Either way, it is mentioned in documents dating from the 16th century and its consumption increased due to Continental blockades during the Napoleonic Wars, which compelled Europeans to find a substitute for pepper.

Most of Hungary's paprika pods are cultivated around the towns of Szeged and Kalocsa on the Great Plain, where abundant sunshine gives the pods their deep concentration of colour and flavour. If you visit this region, about 120km south of Budapest, in September and you will see the green fields transformed into a carpet of vibrant red.

Commercial harvesting is carried out by machine and the pods are then dried in industrial driers before being milled. However strings of pods are also hung outside most homes, where they are dried in the sun for personal use.

In the town of Kalocsa, which is widely promoted as Hungary's paprika capital, there is a museum dedicated to the history of the spice. Here visitors learn that paprika not only flavours and colours food but also has significant nutritional qualities. It was during experimentation with the plant that Dr Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, of Szeged University, discovered that red paprika contains more vitamin C per gram than is found in oranges or lemons.

The Hungarian paprika industry hit a rocky patch in 1994 when traces of lead oxide were found in a third of all samples. Unscrupulous dealers, it transpired, had been zapping up poor-quality paprika with red paint.

This has now been resolved, and the problem of adulteration is at an end, although competition from other paprika-producing countries, such as Spain, is getting fiercer.

Paprika pointers

There are many different types of paprika available in Hungarian shops and markets, including rose and apple, but the really hot one is cherry. Usually, though, paprika is sold by strength - hot, strong, mild or sweet - and generally, the more fiery the colour, the greater the quality.

The paprika museum is at 6 Szent Istvan Kiraly in Kalocsa. Open from April to October, 10am-5pm.

For a taste of Hungarian paprika in Britain, visit The Gay Hussar, 2 Greek Street, London W1 (0171-437 0973). Goulash is always on the menu at this restaurant, which was a favourite Labour Party haunt in the Seventies.