At the Paprika Festival in Kalocsa, Hungary, 2011

In between two chapters of “Chasing Chiles,” I set out on my own path along the pepper trail in Europe.

This stop, the Paprika Days (a.k.a. Paprika Festival) of Kalocsa.

Located in the middle of the Southern Hungarian Plain, this town is a center of Hungary’s paprika cultivation. Only the other Hungarian center, Szeged, is better known.

Kalocsa, though, is also one of the few European (and international) pepper places with its own celebration of those pods.

No Chilli? Chilli!

As in so many places where chile peppers have become a part of life, it would actually be quite easy to miss them.

In spite of their shiny advertisement-red color, and exactly because they are nearly ubiquitous, they just disappear into the background.

Walk around for a bit, though, and you…
…find entire backyard gardens dedicated to paprika plants,

…see sacks of peppers hanging on roof eaves to dry,

… get a whiff of onions and chilli cooking here, a dose of paprika being ground to powder there.

Or spot the chilli trading grounds, stretching your camera over a wall…

Kalocsa is also home to its very own Paprika Museum.

Kalocsa Paprika Museum

If you read one of the other articles about a visit to Kalocsa and the festival, and came away with the notion that it’s all very touristy, this museum is to blame. Or rather, the tour operators who seem to cart entire busloads of (mainly American) tourists through Kalocsa on their way along the Danube.

The museum is small, as I’ve heard more than one tour guide complain, but apparently an essential stop.

To me, it was a fascinating mixture: on the one hand, it really is small, and the gift shop takes up quite a bit of it – especially in terms of usable exhibits, given that all but some labels are described only in Hungarian.

On the other hand, the chile pepper ristras hanging from most roof beams give its attic location quite an atmosphere, and some of the exhibits were truly worthwhile to me…

Admittedly, I was looking to see what a Külü, the early paprika powder grinder was like – and the one they had in the museum was fascinating, with its “pestle” part made of an entire, not-so-small, tree’s lower trunk/root area.

The Kalocsa Paprika Festival

The same theme continued with the festival itself.

It is nothing if not local, which is exactly what gives it considerable authentic flavor (even for an event which has only been held since 1989 or 1998, or some time like that).

The puszta region means horse-riding herders with whips, local costume (and particularly in Kalocsa, with very nice embroidery on the women’s dresses) – and of course, when you talk of Hungary and paprika, goulash cannot be far. Or actually, what the world knows – somewhat wrongly – as goulash (which would be a thinner soup here at its origins) is actually pörkölt?

Anyways, the main way the paprika itself is celebrated and held high at this festival is in the cooking, eating, and judging of different versions of that dish.

There is little of the apocryphal “which is hotter?” of chili cook-offs, but the diversity of preparations, the looks, aromas and flavors were fascinating anyways. Or actually, to me, all the more fascinating. – There are no hot sauces, certainly no capsaicin extracts, here. Just the local kinds of mild and hot, ground and fresh, paprika in the starring role, on a base of meat and onion – and Hungarians getting together to eat, drink, and be merry.

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