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Paprika panic

If it’s about paprika, it’s news in Hungary. The national spice, paprika, is a key ingredient in most Hungarian meat dishes-and in some, the main ingredient. Life is unimaginable without it: you’ll find matching salt, pepper, and paprika shakers on every restaurant table, and in the home. Apart from politics, there are few subjects that can arouse such strong feelings in Hungarians as the subject of how to cook with paprika.

A__

But on Thursday 28th October the worst happened: Hungary woke up to hear that the government had banned the sale of the spice. It was announced that the paprika in shops and even their own kitchens, and on dining tables throughout the country, may contain poison. Not only was the problem of what to cook and eat, but there was also the risk of becoming ill.

The moment the news broke, the leading opposition party called for an investigation into the scandal. Two months previously, sixty tons of imported paprika, contaminated with a poisonous fungus called aflatoxin, had been discovered, but apparently no action had been taken. Meanwhile, some producers had illegally mixed these cheaper varieties with their own local produce, to make up for a bad summer and poor pepper crops, Now, Hungary’s market position as one of the world’s leading paprika producers, with exports of over 5,000tons of ‘red gold’ a year, worth around €13 million, was under threat.

B__

To the outside world, the word ‘paprika’ only refers to the rich red powder made from the dried capsicum annuum L.red pepper. In Hungary, however, ’paprika’ also refers to their range of fresh peppers, which are eaten, cooked and stuffed, chopped raw and added to soups, or as an accompaniment to bread, cheese and salami. Of the powdered form of paprika, the form that was banned, there is a “sweet” variety, used to liven up soups and stews-such as the national dish, goulash-with its flavour and colour, and a ‘hot’ variety, typically sprinkled onto egg or potato salads for decoration, or used as a key ingredient in spicy red sausages.

C__

The 2,000 or so hours of sunshine which reach the Hungarian Great Plain each year are perfect for the cultivation of capsicum annuum L. As they mature, the peppers change from green to brown and finally to a rich red. Traditionally, these were dried in early autumn on long threads of string against the whitewashed walls of every house. Nowadays, however, the peppers are dried in factories and crushed to powder between stones and steel cylinders. The seeds of the pepper are added in varying quantities to determine the degree of spiciness of the final product. Production is centered in the south of the country the two “paprika capitals” of Kalocsa, which has a paprika museum, and Szeged, where paprika production employs 3,000 people, and where you can visit the world’s only paprika research laboratories.

So back in October, a vital part of Hungarian life was under threat. Thousands of worried citizens, frightened of illness, phoned the National Ambulance Service. Despite being told that the amount of poison was minimal and harmless, one mother told a newspaper that this was like asking people to drink bottled water containing 99% mineral water and 1% sewage.

D__

Eventually, after the interviews with top paprika-producing executives, the Hungarian “FBI” tracked down those responsible for the crisis. Two weeks on, government officials stated that they believed they had the problem fully under control.

One by one, products containing paprika were tested. By early November, paprika products were slowly beginning to make their way back to the supermarket shelves. And not one person had been admitted to hospital.

Eight months later, a number of individuals were fined a total of €40,000 for misleading consumers, and, to ensure lasting safety for all housewives, the government enforces strict regulations on the industry concerning spot checks and product labeling.

So at last, Hungarians, whose economy, culture, and pride is represented by the red powder, could celebrate together over a kettle of goulash. As they say in Hungary: One man may yearn for fame, another for wealth, but everyone yearns for paprika goulash.

Business One: One, Oxford University Press


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