Flavours of Hungary in Rijeka
Rijeka was once the main port of the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. It was a link with the whole world, the headquarters of a powerful merchant navy, a city that, in many things, took the lead in front of the numerous ports of Europe. Deputy director of the Hungarian Museum of Technology and Transport Gábor Zsigmond and economist and museologist Márton Pelles spoke about this at the presentation of the book "History of the Rijeka Merchant Navy 1868-1921". An interesting presentation was followed by a dinner at Rijeka's iconic Continental Hotel, which will be discussed in this article.
The whole idea was initiated by the lecturer of Hungarian language at the Faculty of Philosophy in Rijeka, Eszter Baričević-Tamaskó. Her enviable dedication to Hungarian culture and heritage has translated into one of the best expressions of a nation's legacy, which is culinary. Therefore, we were honored to participate in a beautiful dinner that revealed to us the charms of "hungaricum", as particular material, spiritual and intellectual values of Hungary are called. Somehow, everything in Rijeka keeps returning to the revived Rijeka-Hungarian rigojanči cake, so the whole evening was called "It's not just rigojanči... Tastes of Hungary" for a reason.
Despite the heatstrokes that plague the people of Rijeka at the end of June, we enjoyed Törley sparkling wine, which shook us from the heat on the terrace of the Continental Hotel. This sparkling wine has been produced for more than 130 years in Budafok and is indeed the pride of Hungary. They are toasted far outside the country, not only in European countries but also in exotic destinations such as Nigeria, Vietnam, and China.
A little more daring, we also tried Unicum, which is well known to Croats. More than 40 medicinal herbs are included in the recipe of the Hungarian court physician Dr. Zwack from 1892, who helped the Emperor and King Josip II. with stomach problems. Unicum is similar to Croatian pelinkovac, which is also consumed reluctantly for "better digestion," although it is clear to everyone that it is an excellent aperitif. The emperor and king was delighted with the recipe, saying, "Das ist ein Unicum!", and the rest is history.
We would also drink brandy or pálinka, but in that case, we would really be in a difficult situation. However, Hungarians are similar to Croatians in that brandy is shaken in the morning, hence the greeting "pálinkás jó reggelt!" that is, good morning with brandy. And this is obviously for health, especially if it is ágyas pálinka (brandy on a bed) that ages for at least three months and ripens with fruit. Hungarian brandies are made from apricot, cherry, sour cherry, apple, pear, melon, but also chestnut and paprika and usually have 45-50% alcohol. The best is the one that heats in winter and cools in summer!
The cold appetizer consisted of granulated fresh cheese with cream and paprika, scones with cheese, Pick spicy salami, and beef tartar in celery. The guiding thought is a certain spiciness that is benevolent in summer. After all, Hungarian cuisine is spicy anyway, right? Anyone who has spent time in Hungary knows this is a myth. Ground paprika is really the main spice, especially those from the area of Szeged and Kalocsa. By itself, it is not hot, but it can be enriched with drops of hot pepper. It is so valued that it is called "piros arany," i.e., red gold. Erős Pista (angry Štef/Stipe) is a spicy variant, and "haragos Pista" (furious Štef/Stipe) is even hotter, while for those who like milder tastes, there is "édes Anna" - sweet Anna. When you're angry, then Hungarians use the term for hot pepper: "paprikás mómokban van" (in a peppery mood).
With drops of phenomenal pinot gris, we went for the goulash soup, which has a slightly spicy background, with soft pieces of meat, carrots, potatoes, and cumin. No, it's not the goulash you're used to. What we call goulash, Hungarians call perkelt, and goulash is a soup enriched with vegetables and sometimes meat. Since the name has penetrated worldwide, many people are surprised when they get "ordinary" soup in Hungarian restaurants. As far back as the 9th century, shepherds stockpiled meat before leaving home to travel across Europe. This was cooked and seasoned, along with onions, in an iron cauldron over an open fire until all the liquid evaporated. After it dried, this mixture was stored in bags. When it was time for a hearty meal, it was only necessary to boil some water and add it to the meat to get a quick, warm and simple stew. What originally started as a meal out of necessity has today become a national specialty with numerous alternative variations. The most common is the inclusion of Hungarian paprika, which was added during the 18th century and is seen by many as an essential feature of today's dish. Remember this the next time you say: "egy gulyást kérek" - one goulash, please!
The waiters pour us excellent white wine all the time. In Hungary, pinot gris is called szürkebarát, but no one will expect you to remember that. You'll want to remember that Hungarian Pinot Grigio is a fantastic alternative to the Alsatian style of Pinot Grigio, with a similar buttery texture and rich, aromatic bouquet. The Hungarian wine scene is widely known, especially the legendary Tokaj dessert wine made from dried raisins or the iconic Bull's blood (egri bikavér) from the Eger region. Perhaps, for most connoisseurs, Hungary is synonymous with fascinating gem sites or spritzers. Depending on the ratio of water and wine, there are more than 50 types! However, it is not done with ordinary mineral water but soda water, which the Hungarian Benedictine Ányos Jedlik invented.
For a warm appetizer, our hosts served us a baked pancake filled with chicken in red sauce ala Hortobágy. The Hortobágy-style pancake was created for the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels (like the Rákóczi cottage cheese cake earlier) by a Hungarian chef who thought the name Hortobágyi would be a great marketing ploy. He filled the pancakes with veal stew. Thanks to its unique taste, it quickly spread among visitors. As for the recipe, it is difficult to choose the "right" one because several variants have been created. It is most often made with chicken drumstick meat due to its juiciness. The key to the recipe probably lies in the quality of paprika and cream that characterize many Hungarian dishes.
Then we were served chicken perkelt with dumplings and a cucumber salad with cream. This was somewhat of a surprise considering that perkelt is made of red meat in a thick sauce without vegetables and seasoned with ground red pepper and served with boiled potatoes, pasta, or cloves. The skillful chef obviously checked the outside temperature and realized that the heavy red meat could result in undesirable consequences and served us a milder version that was simply great.
Some members of our gastronomic team have an incredible ability to consume many dishes but still find room for dessert. However, in the case of rigojanči and žarbo cubes, it would be a cultural crime not to taste these legends. Rigojanči is a cake that got its unusual name from the famous Roma violinist who was a big star at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries – Jancsi Rigó. The cake arrived in Rijeka from Hungary when Rijeka was under Hungarian rule. At that time, Clara Ward – a wealthy American heiress, was an icon of the social elite of the world at that time. However, losing her father at an early age and her miserable life in Belgium led her to go to Paris, where she wanted to escape scandals and court intrigues. Then she met Jancsi and ran away with him, and their secret wedding and life together was a first-class scandal.
The cake was once an indispensable part of Rijeka's culinary scene. Until the late eighties, it could be tasted regularly and in large quantities in Rijeka's pastry shops and cafes, permanent reminders of the former times when Rijeka was an important city in one of the wealthiest monarchies in the world. With the decline of the importance of Rijeka, many culinary links with the glorious past were forgotten, and only a few enthusiasts saved this cake. In a city where the citizens look at their history very passively, it is good to have people who passionately remind us of Rigojanči. This is what Mrs. Eszter does, to whom we thank her from the bottom of our hearts for finding this link between Hungary and Rijeka!
It will be possible to see and taste all of this at the exhibition held in the Museum of the City of Rijeka, as a contribution to an essential history of Croatia, the former Austro-Hungarian countries, and as the entire world.