Hungary - Introduction
When Nobel Prize winner Enrico Fermi [the author of the "Fermi Paradox" that asks "where are they?"] was asked if he believed in extraterrestrials, he replied: "They are among us, but they call themselves Hungarians". The Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard and fellow Hungarian émigré Eugene Wigner persuaded Albert Einstein to write President Franklin D. Roosevelt and request that atomic research receive a high priority. Other leading figures in the early days of the atomic bomb program, to include Princeton mathematician John von Neumann and Edward Teller, were also Hungarian refugees.
This small country is one of the oldest European countries, situated in the middle of the continent in Central Europe. Hungarians speak a language and form a culture unlike any other in the region: this distinctiveness has been both a source of pride and an obstacle for more than 1100 years.
The vast Hungarian Puszta has become a byword since it has remained largely unchanged by the passing centuries, successfully protected from the dangers of encroaching civilization. The Hortobágy is an 82,000-hectare plain, the largest continuous natural grassland in Europe. For countless millennia the Hortobágy was the Tisza floodplain, regularly washed by successive floods which built up a vast, even layer of alluvial clay deposits across the surface.
A large proportion of the plain then dried leaving alkaline grasslands dotted with lakes, bogs and shallow marshland offering the ideal environment for a rich plant life to break the – to the outsider’s eye – apparent monotony of the area. The Hortobágy is nesting ground to several rare species, and many migratory birds break their long flights in autumn and spring to rest and feed here. During summer the highest temperatures in Hungary are recorded on the plain, and yet the diurnal temperature variation is great. Winters are cold, with bone-chilling winds sweeping unchecked across the Puszta.
Thanks to the Carpathian Basin’s extremely favorable natural endowments, cultivation and animal husbandry have been practiced in the area of Hungary since the earliest times. Numerous plant and domestic animal species indigenous to this area alone have been employed by Hungarians over the centuries, and indeed are still used to this day. For instance, Grey cattle, immediately recognizable because of their huge, curving horns, represented the single most important agricultural export of Hungary during the Middle Ages.
As an indication of their hardiness, it is sufficient to mention that they were driven from the Puszta to markets in West Europe on journeys lasting days or perhaps weeks, and even after this gruelling trip they still arrived in prime condition having grazed along the way. Grey cattle are a robust breed, living outside summer and winter and withstanding all forms of harsh weather. They are immune to many diseases, and have proven resistance to “mad cow disease” (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy – BSE) so dreaded in many parts of West Europe. This fact has played its role in the constantly increasing demand for Grey cattle meat products. They are fed natural fodder only thus the meat products can, in effect, be classified as organic.
The Mangalica pig is, like Grey cattle, also enjoying something of a renaissance. In fact, this curly-haired, lopeared breed of swine, for many years primarily favoured for its fat, was first bred around 200 years ago. It doesn’t require much tending, and indeed in earlier days it used to be left to forage for itself, being particularly fond of acorns. Many farmers still rear them outside, although naturally they fatten faster when supplied with good quality fodder. The fat and meat of the Mangalica is extremely low in cholesterol, and is particularly delicious when processed to make the famed Hungarian paprika sausage.
Mangalica pork is proving to be a much sought-after delicacy abroad, too. Traditional Hungarian cuisine has long relied on the fat and bacon of the Mangalica in preparing meat dishes, and today this ancient Hungarian breed is back in fashion: increasingly, restaurant owners find they are being asked if they have Mangalica on the menu.
The Hungarian Racka is an unmistakeable breed of sheep characteristic for its long, curly locks of black or white wool, V-form twisted horns and erect stance. This too is a hardy breed, able to survive in the toughest conditions while supplying man with milk, meat and wool. Grazing Hungarian Racka sheep are as much a part of the Hungarian Puszta scene as Grey cattle or thundering herds of horses.
By themselves, however, shepherds simply could not handle the vast flocks they tend on the Puszta. Since time immemorial their work has been assisted by “man’s best friend”, intelligent, faithful and biddable sheepdogs who also have a part to play in relieving the solitude of the Puszta grasslands. Thus speaking of typical Hungarian breeds of dog it is necessary to mention first and foremost three types of sheepdog: the vigilant Puli, ideal for driving flocks, and the watchdog Kuvasz and Komondor breeds.
The Puli is a master sheepdog. There is a saying that they understand everything but they just can’t speak. When properly trained, the Puli is able to sense exactly what the shepherd requires from just the slightest movements, and will carry out the instructions immediately. Today, this small- to medium-size, highy energetic dog with its tangle of curly black, grey or white hair and sparkling, intelligent eyes makes a very effective watchdog around the house. The Komondor and Kuvasz are also ancient Hungarian breeds much valued by shepherds. Both are used to watch over herds of cattle, sheep and horses, keeping them safe from wild animals and rustlers.
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