Capsicum was introduced to Europe at the beginning of the sixteenth century and became an important crop in several countries, Hungary included. Like other Capsicum producing countries, there are two main types grown in Hungary: one for fresh consumption, the sweet Capsicum, and the paprika for use as a condiment. The paprika characteristics differ in several ways from the sweet Capsicum. Sweet Capsicum is mainly grown under controlled environmental conditions and is also field-grown. The paprika is only field-grown. Spice is produced from paprika after drying and milling. The production area of sweet Capsicum was about 8,000—10,000 ha during the last three to four decades. This area has decreased dramatically in the last two years; currently, it is about 4,000—4,500 ha. The production area of paprika has remained steady at around 3,000—7,000 ha for a long time. Since sweet Capsicum is grown all over the country — except in the cold, rainy areas near the western border — paprika is only grown in the two traditional regions (Szeged and Kalocsa) of the southern counties. Hungary used to be one of the most outstanding exporters of the condiment paprika. Hungary’s activity in the world market has been reduced by the emergence of the Southern Hemisphere countries as paprika producers and by the change of consumers’ habits (using paprika-based sauces, paprika oleoresins). The Hungarian growers and processors must go through significant changes to meet the requirements of the world market.
The Hungarian sweet Capsicum was unique until the last decade. It differed both in color and shape from the sweet Capsicum types grown worldwide. Due to a widened research cooperation and exchanges of genetic material, the typical color and shape formation produced in the Charpathian Basin is now available from the world’s breeding and seed companies. Because of the nature of sweet Capsicum, although grown in a large scale (5—6% of the total of the vegetable growing area in Hungary), export possibilities are limited. The only sizeable amount of export is shipped to Germany. Some small quantities are exported to neighbouring countries, and the rest is sold nationally.
The first written records of the appearance of paprika in Hungary are from the middle of the sixteenth century. Paprika was grown as a rarity in the garden of Margit Szechy, the step-mother of a most distinguished General. It can be assumed from the information of the next two or three centuries that Capsicum was cultivated only for use as a condiment. The cultivation of the sweet Capsicum known today began at the end of the nineteenth century. Bulgarians were the first growers who cultivated Capsicum in the southern part of the country (Szentes and surroundings). At the beginning of the twentieth century production of sweet Capsicum spread to other parts of Hungary. It is interesting to note that the sweet Capsicum growing regions are not the same as the traditional paprika producing areas. Important sweet Capsicum areas were in the middle of the country (Boidog, Nagyko’ros, Cegled) and in the south—southeastern part (Gyula, Baja, Bogyiszlo). But today this typical vegetable crop is cultivated ail over the country.
Sweet Capsicum growing greatly depends on consumption and market demand. The whole vegetable cropping land of Hungary was 45,000—60,000 ha, and out of this 2—3% was for sweet Capsicum. Production significantly increased after the Second World War. It occurred when the processing industry developed and began exporting to the East (mainly to the former USSR). The biggest area sown was towards the end of the seventies when Capsicum was grown on 14—15% of the total vegetable cropping land. Due to the changes in technology and improved growing methodology the area sown by Capsicum decreased (4,000-5,000 ha) significantly. Nevertheless, the average yield increased and therefore the production increased more than before as a consequence of the improved facilities. Under the improved growing facilities (glass houses, heated and unheated plastic houses), the average yield increased to 80-150 tons/ha. Sweet Capsicum grown in the field, yields 25—60 tons/ha, depending on the cultivar and the season.
The production of condiment paprika in Hungary is highly labor intensive. It became a significant crop at the end of the nineteenth century, although reports of its cultivation exist from the sixteenth century in Szeged, where the crop was mentioned as one of the crops grown. It was introduced from Turkey by monks who excelled in healing, and was used as an effective medicine against malaria.
Looking at the history of Hungarian paprika production we can distinguish several classical periods:
- Until the middle of the nineteenth century feudalistic family self-sufficiency and the beginning of the production for the market;
- Until the start of the First World War paprika production is market oriented based on free-competition;
- From the end of the First World War until the end of the Second World War a state regulated production order was characteristic;
- Paprika milling was under state monopoly for the period of 1940—90;
- In the last decade of the twentieth century again free market, production and processing are based on competition.
Spice made of paprika is known as “Hungaricum” worldwide, and is an essential element of the Hungarian cuisine. Until the turn of the nineteenth century it was known mainly in public life as medicine. Shepherds of the Great Plain used it only as a spice. From that point, it has become more popular because of its spicy properties, and it became an important export commodity. As a spice, the Hungarian paprika has a purposeful role in the central European “heavy cuisine”. First of all because it helps in the digestion and preservation of food (). However, during the last 100 years it has become popular in numerous countries of the world, because of its excellent coloring properties and for its flavor ().
Paprika is classified according to its pigment contents, fineness of milling and pungency. This classification was used in the past and continues to be used today. When the milled product appeared on the market during the 1850s there was no official regulation regarding the quality. There were only two to three known categories. With the introduction of the steam-mills from the mid-to-late 1800s, four more new quality categories were accepted. For the sake of uniformity it became imminent that quality classification must be regulated by law.
The first act to regulate the grading system of quality was the 1895 XLVI Act forbidding the adulteration of agricultural crops, products and commodities. The Act of 1907, 26.859/VI.3, further refined it. This classified the milled product into four categories: I, II, III and mercantile. It was only allowed to deviate from that during the First World War, because of the economic situation (). According to the present Hungarian standard the applied quality rating system is: special, delicate, sweet-noble, goulash and rose.
During recent years, paprika was produced on 3,000 ha in both the ecological regions of Szeged and Kalocsa. Depending on the season and production technologies the average yield is highly variable. The annual average of 50,000-60,000 tons of raw condiment paprika produces 6,000-10,000 tons of milled product.
Paprika (Capsicum annuum L.) originated from South America and came to Europe — probably first to Spain – in 1493 after the discovery of the American continent (). From there it came to Hungary across the Balkan through Turkish growers. The first paprika plants were planted at the end of the 1500s. At first it was considered as an ornamental plant and was grown for culinary usage at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The plant later enjoyed tremendous popularity around the time of Napoleon (). The book containing the first detailed description was written by Csapo (1775). According to this book paprika is grown in vegetable gardens and the long red fruit is dried and crushed to a powder. Veszelszki (1798) said around that time the farmers of Fot, Palota and Dunakeszi grew paprika. The first cultivation trials were conducted at the botanical garden of the University of Pest in 1788. Since that time different Capsicum varieties were found in the “Index seminum” of the botanical garden (Augustin, 1907). In letters that Count Hoffmansegg sent to his wife about his journey in Hungary, he mentioned: “here I really liked a Hungarian dish, meat with paprika. It must be very healthy …” (Balint, 1962). August Elrich, a German traveller did not talk so nicely about the Hungarian paprika in his book of “Die Ungarn wie sie sind” (1831). He called paprika “Diablische Paprika Briihe”. He wrote that for people who are not used to it, the effect on the palate is like embers or even worse (Augustin, 1907).
National trade of the milled production of paprika started in the second part of the nineteenth century and the export trade began at the end of the century. Two main growing regions of paprika were established, namely Szeged and Kalocsa. The official quality testing of milled paprika for the protection of commercialised milled products was introduced at the end of the nineteenth century in Szeged, while the breeding work commenced in Kalocsa in 1917 and in Szeged in the 1920s (). Only Hungarian bred paprika cultivars are grown in Hungary. In contrast, the Hungarian bred sweet paprika occupies only 80-85% of the production, because during the last 15 years foreign breeding and seed companies have gradually produced more cultivars.
Selections from the book: “Capsicum. The genus Capsicum”. Edited by Amit Krishna De. Series: “Medicinal and Aromatic Plants — Industrial Profiles”. 2003.