Robin Ashenden

Hungary, the autumnal civilisation

It is a culture in perpetual, beautiful decay

  • From Spectator Life

A couple of weeks ago, I made the dish I always make at this time of year. It’s a Hungarian gulyás – or more correctly, a pörkölt – a mixture of beef, onions, peppers, tomatoes and paprika, stewed very slowly and served with plenty of sour cream.

It’s appropriate this dish should be from Hungary, as no season suits the country better. Come to that, no country suits the season better either. It isn’t just that the Buda Hills look ravishing once the trees start to turn rust and golden or that the city’s bridges look more graceful and melancholic than ever. It isn’t even the mist – not to say fog – that comes off the Danube, suspending buildings like their majestic parliament house or Citadella fortress in ghostly silhouette. No, there is something else, something a little mysterious and even spooky going on. Hungary and autumn seem to work in tandem, to be conspiring with each other.

As the evening approaches, Hungarian cemeteries are festooned, carpeted with lit candles

Some of it’s easy to explain. The highlights of Hungarian cooking are hardly foods for hot weather. Spicy gulyás soup, Jókai Bableves (a smoky bean stew served with crusty bread) and more sumptuous things like Gundel pancakes – crepes filled with a mixture of walnuts, raisins, rum and cream, flambéed in hot chocolate sauce – are all best sampled once the cold sets in. The same goes for their red wines, like Kékfrankos and Egri Bikavér, known as ‘bull’s blood’. Their most famous export, paprika, is also linked inseparably to this time of year. As the green peppers turn first brown, then black, then a pillar-box red, they’re hung profusely on strings from the eaves of houses to dry. Only when they clack together in the early autumn breeze are they deemed ready for harvesting and milling, to the eight or so varieties sold in the shops, from édesnemes (noble sweet) via rózsa (rose) and through to erős (strong and fiery) – the different colour-shades faintly autumnal too.

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Written by
Robin Ashenden
Robin Ashenden is founder and ex-editor of the Central and Eastern European London Review. He is currently writing a novel about Solzhenitsyn, Khrushchev’s Thaw and the Hungarian Uprising.

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