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History of Paprika Cultivation and Processing in Hungary

Red/Chili Pepper, paprika can be planted in two different ways: transplanting bedding plants or sowing seeds. When growing bedding plants, they usually sow the seeds around March 12, on Gregory’s day (Gergely napja). The seeds can also be sown directly into the field. Back in olden times they didn’t apply mulch on top, just covered it with rags, but since the introduction of the plastic foil, this is widely used to help germination. A hotbed can also be used, in which case the seeds are sown in a garden-frame close to the house, protected from the draft and the occasional frost. The seedlings are grown in these foil-covered hotbeds, then after May 12, they are transplanted outside.


When the seeds are sown directly outside, this is done in May. A folk ritual connected to sowing the paprika seed was called, hempergőzés (the roll in bed), and it had to do with the married couple going home after sowing the paprika seeds to make sure that some other seeds are also adequately sown, to secure not just a good paprika crop but an offspring for themselves as well.


Paprika cultivation requires much attention; it needs to be protected from fungi and bacteria. For best results, the paprika needs a dry, warm summer, then a well-timed rain, and it’s ready to be harvested at the end of August, in September, or latest in October. Each plant yields approximately 15-20 pods, depending on the weather conditions. These can be pendulous or erect, by fruit position, and they can be harvested when they are evenly red. Paprika picking is done in several steps, as the ripening occurs, and it’s rather trying on the back, since it is done by hand, and bushes are only 40-70 cm high.


Traditional after-ripening of paprika pods
Traditional after-ripening of paprika pods
Image source: biokultura.org


After harvesting, in the 18th century, they threaded the pods on a long string, and dried them in the Beehive oven, until they "rattled". Then they removed the stems and the sepals, and crumbled the dried pepper pods, using a wooden mortar and pestle. The result was called "crumbled" paprika ("tört" paprika). The demand for sweeter paprika grew at the beginning of the 19th century, and this is when they started to pick the dried paprika off the stalks and seeds. Then they crushed these separated dry pods underfoot, on a canvas spread on the floor, and then sifted the crumbles to remove all remaining seeds. The end result of this process was the "picked" sweet paprika ("csipedett" édes paprika).


Toward the end of the 18th century, they started to use a so-called "kulu" (külü), a huge mortar with a large pestle driven by human power. The kulu was actually a hemp-processing tool carved into a hardwood log and put into motion by foot. With the use of the kulu, they crushed the dried paprika three-four times over, then they sifted it through several times, allowing for the seeds and veins to be removed, and thus reducing its hotness.


In the 1860s, the Pálffy brothers from Szeged introduced a so-called "splitting process" (hasításos eljárás) that helped to obtain mild paprika. During the splitting process the stems and the veins have been removed from the pods, then they were dried and crushed. Part of the seeds was washed to decrease the pungency, and then these were added back to the crushed pods and were ground together. Mixing some of the seeds back into the crushed paprika is important, because the essential oils in the seeds preserve the paprika powder’s fiery red color, and they contribute to determining the specific paprika aroma sought. The splitting process was such a labor-intensive method that it divided the paprika industry into two separate fields: paprika cultivation and paprika processing.


A less labor-intensive method for the reduction of the paprika’s pungency was to just simply wash through the crushed paprika. To do this, net-covered boxes of paprika were lowered into the Danube or some other watercourse. However, the great break-through in the paprika industry occurred at the beginning of the 1930s, when researchers of the Paprika Research and Chemical Plant Kalocsa (Kalocsai Paprikakísérleti és Vegyvizsgáló Állomás) introduced the Not Hot (mild) variety.


By the second part of the 19th century, paprika commerce was on the rise, and this resulted in the start of the industrial processing of paprika. They have already used water mills on the Danube to grind paprika before, and in some places they used mills run on horsepower as well as windmills. However, starting from the middle of the 19th century, large-scale grinding begun in steam-, gasoline-, and electricity powered mills, between stones and steel cylinders. Still, local farmers kept using the Danube’s water mills up until the 1950s.


The first legislative order regarding the classification of paprika dates from 1907, and it lists 4 categories of paprika: I (1st), II (2nd), III (3rd), and mercantile (merkantil) quality. Then, in 1917 the Paprika Research and Chemical Plant Kalocsa was established, to control the paprika production, to develop new varieties of paprika, to provide paprika producers with seeds in sealed packaging, and to develop new technologies for production and processing. Their scientific work resulted in the quality and competitiveness of the paprika from Kalocsa. Some of the professionals who contributed to this success include dr. Ernő Obermayer, Ferenc Vitéz Horváth, and Dr. Gábor Bujk. In order to avoid counterfeiting, and to prevent abuse, they ordered the compulsory qualification of the ground paprika before it could be sold, and in 1922, they regulated the qualification process by listing the exact criteria of quality.


From the 18th century to the middle of the 19th century, paprika was sold by apothecaries and market vendor women. They would travel to fairs throughout the country, and sell ground paprika by its volume first, and later measuring it by its weight. Commercial sale of paprika started only in the 1870s.


Centralized, large-scale production of paprika started in the middle of the 1950s
, with the foundation of the Kalocsa Region Paprika Company (Kalocsavidéki Fűszerpaprika Vállalat), in 1954, which developed into the Paprika- and Canning Company Kalocsa (Kalocsai Fűszerpaprika- és Konzervipari Vállalat) by 1973. Large-scale production is characterized by plowing replacing manual hoeing, the mechanization of the harvesting process, post-harvest ripening in nets or loose-weaved sacs, and introduction of heavy-duty driers. By the turn of the century, however, the land for production as well as demand for paprika decreased, leading to the decline of mechanical harvesting and a return to manual picking.


Information courtesy of the Archiepiscopal Treasury, Kalocsa