Hungary’s Red Gold: Red Fangs Paprika, Kékfrankos and Kadarka

paprika hanging

“I must tell you: Hungarian paprika is the best. This is not arrogant nationalism. This is a fact.”—Flora Gaspar

My paprika education and enjoyment started and continues with Flora Gaspar at Da Flora restaurant in North Beach. Flora is someone I like to reserve at least two hours for even when I only have a few wines to share. Her encyclopedic knowledge of Hungarian history, language, food, and culture are based on decades of personal experience and heritage. That’s the first hour. The second hour is dedicated to her opinions about the first. She tackles all of the things that make wine and food so endlessly engaging. I’ve shamelessly plagiarized her insight and stories to further your Hungarian indoctrination. And although her restaurant (everyone should go) just turned 20 years old, importing Paprika under her Red Fangs label is just getting off the ground. To tie everything together, Flora has shared some of her favorite Paprika laden recipes, paired them with two Hungarian wines I will be bombarding you with in the coming months, and of course the opportunity to purchase some Red Fangs yourself.

Paprika hanging

Before we get to the wines, recipes and the stories behind them told by Flora below, there are few things worth pointing about consuming Paprika.
• Paprika is the single largest natural source of Vitamin C – at least 5-6 times more than citrus.
• Vitamin C was discovered by Hungarian Professor Albert Szent-Györgyi earning him the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1937.
• You will never get scurvy.
• Don’t burn it. Turns bitter.
• The brighter more fiery the red color, the more mild it is and vice versa.
• It’s a uniquely Hungarian cultural product that cries out for two other Hungarian cultural products, Kadarka and Kékfrankos.

Katrin and Birgit Pfneisl
Katrin and Birgit Pfneisl
 

Speaking of, the 2012 Pfneiszl Kékfrankos Újra Együtt, 2013 Eszterbauer Kadarka Nagyapám, and 2013 Eszterbauer Kadarka Sógor are arriving in a few short weeks. Much like a great Cru Beaujolais and a piquant Merguez pair well together, these two light reds have the spice, fruit and structure that make the paprika pop and get you ready for the next bite. I often think of both grapes as the love children of Cabernet Franc and Gamay, but there is plenty of “I’ve never had something like this before” going on with each as well. In terms of style, there is nothing carbonic going on, fermentations are native, and both are elegant and bright without being overly polished. Great wines to pair with food in general, and something truly special and homegrown when paired with some red gold.

Janos, Miklos and Ildiko Eszterbauer
Janos, Miklós and Ildikó Eszterbauer
 

Please enjoy the following stories and recipes, try them at home, open up some bottles, and do a little armchair traveling to Hungary.

CHICKEN PAPRIKAS

This dish was her favorite. Sissi, Empress of Austria-Hungary was the most romantic woman of the 19th century. Preferring to ride a horse rather than sit on a throne, she galloped through her adopted Hungarian country-side, secretly and un-escorted, visiting the local estates for a sip of champagne. Wild by nature, she despised the controlled atmosphere of the court at Vienna and helped the Hungarians to negotiate their equality with Austria. She loved the people and she loved their food. After her declaration, chicken paprikas became popular at the most elegant tables of Europe.

Auguste Escoffier, the pivotal chef who established how we eat, course by course, liked chicken paprika so much that he display-cooked it at his pavilion in the Paris World Fair at the turn of the century. Later on it became a classic on the menu at his restaurant, the Ritz.

• 8 small bone-less, skinless chicken thighs [ free-range is best ]
• ½ white onion, diced
• ½ cup good quality chicken stock [ naturally home-made would be better ]
• 1½ cups crushed tomatoes, fresh when in season, or drained san marziano
• 1 red or yellow bell pepper, sliced in lengths (be sure to remove seeds and veins – they are bitter)
• another red or yellow bell pepper, diced fine
• some spoonfuls of fat- preferably duck or goose, but olive oil will do
• dollops according to taste, of sour cream and a little heavy cream
• salt
• 2 tbs sweet paprika, you may add 1-2 tsp hot if you like

Brown thighs in fat, remove. Sautee onions in same pan, add salt, diced bell pepper, stir and scrape till wilted. Add paprika and tomatoes, stir nicely for a minute. Add chicken and stock, let bubble; reduce heat and let simmer 40 minutes. Meanwhile sautee pepper lengths till al dente. Add them 10 minutes or so before meat is tender, then remove some of the sauce into a pan where cream, sour and heavy have been warmed together. Oops! I forgot! Add a good pinch of paprika to brighten and heighten! But do not go overboard – chalkiness can occur… And never, never let the paprika burn, let it see short heat so it can release its flavor oils, but then turn the fire down, or add liquid, or both. Now pour the cream with sauce into the paprikas pan and stir gently.

Traditionally galuska, Hungarian egg noodles are the side. Or use gnocchi or fingerling potatoes to sop up the sauce. A small cucumber salad, sprinkled with paprika is also most appropriate. A delicate red from western Hungary, like a Kékfrankos would be elevating!

PAPRIKAS POTATOES

This is the Hungarian equivalent to spaghetti with garlic, pepperoncino, and olive oil: a dish created by poverty or what is always in the pantry. During the last and terrible days of World War II people pooled their lard, paprika, onion and potatoes into the communal cauldron, finding a rare pleasure in this simple, nourishing dish, coziness steaming from the starch, stamina from the alearian, excitement from the Magyar chile.

During the war my aunt Eva lived through constant hunger and weeks in dungeon-like cellars. Years later, safe in her family home in Pest she rejected my offer to cook her roast duck leg with croquettes, requesting instead paprikas krumpli. These are her strict instructions:

• 3-4 medium yellow potatoes
• 1 finely diced white onion
• Stock or simply water
• 1-2 TBS sweet paprika ½ tsp hot [optional ]

Mince onion very fine and add to pot with fat or olive oil, sautee till golden. Peel and quarter potatoes, throw into pot with salt and paprika. Swirl around for a minute or so , then add stock or water to cover. Lower heat to simmer cover, with lid, and cook about 20 minutes, or till tender. Keep your eye on the liquid, you want it to be nearly absorbed, but too dry, and then again not too saucy – the potatoes should soak up and have just a little left over. With the introduction of a sausage or hunk of ham it becomes a Brueghlesque feast, alone it is sheer comfort. These paprika-infused taters are a nice side dish as well. Have a glass of dark beer, or some earthy red wine, perhaps a Kadarka.