FISHY COUNTRY – ON THE MEDIEVAL TRADITIONS OF HUNGARIAN CUISINE

Fishy Country

Szakácsi, Hungary, 16 September 1414. On the shield below, flames lick the tail of a pike with sprigs of a bay bush poking out of its gills. The helmet crest is adorned with a cooked pike head, gaze lifted with a beatific smile, a bay tree on each side of it growing to the sky. This is the brand new noble crest of Ferenc Eresztvényi, the royal cook of King Sigismund. He achieved the highest status of anyone in the Hungarian chef dynasties.

Sigismund of Luxembourg was a busy man. King of the Hungarians, Germans, Czechs and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, he was one of the greatest rulers of the Late Middle Ages. So Ferenc Eresztvényi was not simply a royal chef, but a special retainer travelling abroad with the royal entourage. As coats of arms were rare for the Hungarian nobility, these trips to meet foreign nobles, rich in heraldry, required commensurate regalia.

Eresztvényi himself asked for the fish device, the most important of his master proficiencies, as well as the most loved food of King Sigismund. He decorated the cook who made his favourite dish with this coat of arms.

In certain provinces of Hungary, there was a time when even a poor man might just slacken his jaw and find a fried fish had swum into his open mouth. It wasn’t rare for a prepared fish (salted, dried, broiled, grilled or smoked) did service as daily bread in the haversack of a farmer. Along the great rivers, into the 20th century, the elders would rhapsodise about the good ol’ times: “They had their baked fish with cooked fish”.

From the beginning of the 14th century, travel stories of Hungary all speak of the fabled plenty of the nation’s fish stock. “The strict fasting should in no way be thought of as a terrible trial here, as Hungary has the most excellent fish in abundance”, wrote Galeotto Marzio, Italian chronicler of King Matthias in the 1480s. “All the lands resort to dried fish, only Hungary does not, where fish is plentiful, and the Hungarians consider the dried variety ‘smelly beasts’”, writes Marx Rumpolt, the world-travelled head chef to the prince-elector of Mainz in 1581.

Edward Brown, an English traveller suggests that in the 17th-century Carpathian Basin, the fences weren’t made of sausages but the rivers were made of fish soup. “The Tibiscus or Teisse (Tisza) is esteemed the most fishy river in Europe, if not the world; insomuch, that they have a common saying, that it consisteth of two parts of water and one part of fish. And the river Bodragh… is so replenished with fish, that in the summer when the river is low the People say the water smells of fish.” (1670)

“While for foreigners, fishing waters often require great sums and endeavours, Nature has provided them to the Hungarians”, says Mátyás Bél of the 17th century, quoted more than two hundred years later by Bertalan Andrásfalvy in his study of floodplain culture considered by historians – appropriately enough – a “watershed” work in the field.

Life on the floodplains of the Tisza, the Danube and many other rivers was a legendary feature of Hungary for a long time. In the great lowlands, beginning from the time of Árpád, a stream management culture appeared. The floodwaters of overflowing rivers were channelled through cut-off gullies to an area in order to create ponds, bights, flats, fishponds and dead riverbeds.

When the flood receded, these waters were released back through the gullies, but a part of them was retained to create fish and irrigation ponds, with rich sediments fertilising the fields, on the other hand.

In these idyllic spawning grounds and habitats, fishermen often only sorted out the big fish out and released the young ones back into the river. The cleaning and stewardship of the system, of course, required care and traditional knowledge, a willingness to cooperate with nature, the way North American Indians were known for.

Many Hungarian words refer to prominent land features (heights, terraces, banks, belts). Churches and buildings were constructed on the backs of these, while the lower lands produced other things for other purposes. Alongside fishing, fruit production and forestry flourished. The soils of these lowlands pleased the mulberry trees, the Hajdúság cabbages, Beszterce and Penyige plums, the simultaneously sweet and sour Szabolcs apples – once serious names of produce in Hungary.

From the 18th to the 19th centuries, a significant part of the lowlands of the Great Hungarian Plain and the Little Plain were part of the floodplain (a quarter of Hungary’s current area!), but the golden age had already begun to lose its shine during the Ottoman occupation. By the time of Maria Theresa, homesteaders didn’t really understand what to do with the prospects they found there. However, there are people living there even today who remember this kind of natural land husbandry well.

With the coming of the regulation of the rivers in the 19th century, the old world changed forever. The natural 1:3 ratio of surface water to basin catchment was upset. At that time, the development of river navigation and the extension of dry farmland were the main goals. As the land was drained, ”swamp fever” (malaria) also disappeared, epidemics of which had occasionally decimated the population like a plague.

However, for all the unnatural streambeds, berms, diversions, the river got its vengeance. Today, we spend staggering sums for the maintenance of artificial systems and flood-control, the protection of shipping routes as well as for the rehabilitation of breeding grounds, habitats and protected areas.

The land once teeming with fish is parched. Next to the deepened riverbeds, the sloughs (area between the river and the berms) fill up with sediment and dry out, thus reducing the area of breeding grounds and natural or near-natural habitats. The diversity of fish dwindles, as do the people living from fishing.

As a memorable example, fishermen recall that due to the Slovakian diversion of the Danube, the sterlet (a small sturgeon) catch decreased in a single year from 2,000 kilogrammes a year to hardly a couple dozen kilogrammes in 1992. Lake Balaton is another “shining” example with its destruction of sand beaches, removal of the bullrushes, introduction of such fish as bighead carp, eels and dwarf catfish which deplete the food sources of the native fish populations. Meanwhile, natural fishing methods are practically consigned to museums and skanzen villages.

1 January 2016. On this day, the ban on fishing will take effect. Officially it goes: “Commercial purpose fishing licenses for the calendar year of 2016, as well as the calendar year following cannot be issued.” The new regulation provides called-for protection of the natural water fisheries stock against overfishing.

Here it must be mentioned that those who have overfished the stock till now, have done so because the state allowed this to happen when it did not observe its own fishing standards. This measure will still not treat the root of the problem, but with a cheap solution they have turned the whole of commercial fishing on natural waters into a felony offense. The rub lies in the fact that for a few years now, traditional fishing on the Danube in the southern parts of Hungary has UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status.

“Since the regime change in 1989 there is no money for continuous monitoring, and nobody is clear about the consequences of past measures. We have no credible data on the current fisheries resources, as we have none about how realistic the danger of fish depletion caused by protected cormorants is. Thus there will be no credible data about the consequences of the recent decision either”, say Győző Buzetzky, who was long-time director of the Danube–Dráva National Park Gemenc region, and Gábor Guti, who works for the Danube Research Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Scienees. They believe greedy mismanagement does considerable damage to fishing societies, but the basic problem, the most damaging party, is the nature-transforming human.

Both believe that on certain areas of the river the old hydromorphic processes could be implemented, “allowing the natural system to do as it pleases” – without endangering shipping lanes or affecting the redirection of flood waters. The Hungarian and Austrian nature conservationists have begun such initiatives. Unfortunately, however, in this case too, continuous observation and monitoring of the effects will not happen in Hungary.

Some eleven years ago, VÁTI [a land management and development institution] released a study about the possibilities of complementing the dyke system of the Tisza river with reservoirs. A small part of the plan was realised, but the augmentation of the flood reservoirs remains. This is more than unfortunate. With ecological land stewardship, the potential of the floodplain could very well be exploited again, and because of its effects on nature protection/flood defences, EU funds could be used.

At this point, however, it is not clear how we can stand before the Good Lord on our own two feet, when the nature committee of the Last Judgement of Nations asks how we could let all this happen. How could we have squandered away all the exceptional endowments we were given? And why weren’t we at least able to correct some of what we did wrong?

Furthermore, the local fish-fryer will be quoted as a witness in the records as saying: “I wonder who thought it a good idea that I should have to sell frozen fish imported from Kazakhstan on the shores of Lake Balaton. These are not normal times.”

2 May 2015. “The Hungarian Fish Conservancy Operational Programme will be completed shortly”, the competent secretary from the Prime Minister’s Office reported. He added: “The most important task is to double the annual fish consumption which is now just 4.5 kilogrammes per capita. In addition, in accord with EU directives, to develop large-scale aquaculture, increase the ratio of processed, off-the-shelf fish products (demand for fish patties, fish sausage, easily-cooked fish products would be high!), and the proliferation of large-scale cage farming proven successful in other countries”. For all of these, significant EU funding awaits.

This brings up a heraldic question. In a country which a few hundred years ago was a paradise of fishponds, what motif could appear today on the coat of arms of a fish specialist chef? A credible one might feature a fry basket-cage on the bottom, with an African catfish in it, dripping used oil, and with two sprays of fish sausage stuffed in his gills. On the helm, a banner would hang from the mouth of the bighead carp and flapping in an arc to the sky would read: “Premium Hungarian Off-The-Shelf Fish Patties – produced with EU support”.

It should be noted that there’s always a cheater present in lake farming (aquaculture).This type of farmer keeps fish too densely, in a stressful environment, fattens them too fast and doesn’t clean the ponds properly. There has been a lot of talk in professional circles about what they feed these unhappy fish (some grain was found which should have been destroyed as dangerous material). The cheat technology can be easily tracked to the flavour of some lake-farmed fish.

Yet there is always something good in the bad. In the present case, unlimited perspectives open up for development. As fish from natural waters disappear from the restaurants, the king of fresh water fish, the Balaton Zander (walleye) will disappear and so, considering home-grown stock, the already poorly provided restaurant gastronomy of Hungary will get another shot to the kneecap. Still, for now, it isn’t against the law to produce nearly wild water quality fish with lake farming. In at least a few of the suitable alkaline lakes, and with those fish types which thrive in a lake environment.

The Hungarian Gastronomy Association (MGE) created the certificate of excellent quality, Gold Ribbon certificate – on the world-renowned French model created 60 years ago, the Label Rouge. It is a system of strict criteria, the fulfilment of which is voluntarily undertaken by all participating producers. And they do volunteer, so they can differentiate themselves from the mass-producers. The certificate both supports the quality producer and informs the consumer looking for quality. If this happens, then the segment of quality products will grow.

One of the MGE members, Péter Palotás, a distinguished food engineer (owner of the Budaörs Fish Market), together with his professors from Corvinus University has begun developing the Gold Ribbon (Arany Szalag) requirements for the carp.

It is the conviction of the association that this method, the striving for quality products can ensure more followers of fish consumption, improve Hungarian gastronomy and the national image. A cook working with this kind of fish would have a golden ribbon on his coat of arms. This is a possibility to improve something, and spend less time in the Purgatory of Nations.

Alain Chapel was the most charismatic figure of the nouvelle cuisine: his guiding hand produced more disciples with three Michelin stars than any other. In his memory, we pass on the following recipe.

Milt (recipe)

Dip milt for four persons in flour, shaking off the extra. Turn it in 40g of foaming butter in a small frying pan until it just gets some colour. Flavour it with a little lemon juice.

Remove the milt and put a whole finely chopped shallot in the pan with four thinly sliced champignons and four lettuce hearts sliced into thin strips. Allow that to wilt under a cover for a short time, then pour two tablespoons of white wine and the same amount of cream on it. Place the milt back into the pan and let it simmer for a few minutes, finally adding three or four tablespoons of light, airy hollandaise sauce, and be careful not to break the fish milk apart.

For the hollandaise sauce, in a small pot with a handle, whip 2 tablespoons of egg yolk with 2 tablespoons of water until it begins to foam (beginners would do best working over a water bath). When the sauce begins to stick to the whip, then gradually add 100g of melted clarified butter, while continuously stirring the sauce. Serve immediately.

Translation by Mark Richards

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