The light snow that was falling in Budapest’s Szabadsag square on Feb. 9 didn’t stop Dora Gyulai and her friends from wedging themselves into a crowded picnic table and digging their icy fingers into a plate piled high with cured bacon and sausage. Along with thousands of others, the three university students had gone to the park for the city’s annual Mangalica festival, a celebration of an indigenous pig only recently rescued from near extinction. “Mostly we came for something good to eat,” Gyulai said about the animals, a few examples of which were napping nearby. “But I also like the fact that they’re Hungarian.”
There’s no doubt that Mangalica tastes good. Thickly marbled with fat, the pigs’ rich, dense meat heightens the flavor of the sausages and stews that are an integral part of Hungarian cuisine. (The Hungarians do not cure the Mangalica so there is no ham to compare with the prized products of Spain and Italy; but in general, while the meat lacks the nutty flavor of Spain’s Iberico — because the Mangalica are not fed on acorns — the Hungarian pork is smokier.)
The breed’s revival, like that of heirloom tomatoes and Berkshire pigs in the U.S., is part of a larger food revolution that emphasizes the local over the global, and the artisanal over the industrial. But in a country still grappling with the transition from communism, the pigs have taken on a symbolic importance that exceeds their gustatory pleasures. In Hungary, Mangalica makes an interesting case with which to inquire: When does locavorism become political?
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Short-legged and stout, with thick curly hair that makes them look like pig-shaped teddy bears, Mangalica (they are called Mangalitsa in the U.S., where they have been imported) were once the dominant breed in Hungary and surrounding areas, where they were especially popular for the copious, clean-tasting lard they produced. But the pigs are slow-growing and require ample land on which to roam — factors that made them ill suited to the efficiency-obsessed collective farms of the latter half of the 20th century. “Because they can’t be produced industrially,” says Budapest-based Slow Food organizer Adrienn Toth, “they almost completely disappeared under communism.” In 1988, the last year of the communist regime, there were only 329 Mangalica sows in Hungary.
Today there are roughly 7,000, producing about 60,000 piglets a year on 159 breeding farms. That remarkable recovery is due, initially at least, to the efforts of a Spanish ham producer. In 1991, Juan Vicente Olmos went looking for a source for fatty pigs whose legs could be cured to produce the Serrano ham that Spaniards adore. Hungarian agricultural scientist Peter Toth (no relation to Adrienn) put him on to the Mangalica, and together they persuaded local farmers to begin breeding the nearly extinct pig.
It took some time, but eventually Hungarians began to appreciate the Mangalica as much as the Spanish did. Today the pigs, whose meat is much more expensive than ordinary breeds’, can be found on the menu of most of Budapest’s ambitious restaurants. “The meat is really pure and clean,” says Kata Talas, chef of Mak. “But the fat is what’s really special. It’s so creamy!” Because, she says, high-quality ingredients can still be difficult to come by in Hungary, she also appreciates being able to feature an outstanding local product.
The embrace of the local is a phenomenon familiar to foodies from San Francisco to Copenhagen. Yet in Hungary, where nationalism is on the rise, the trend has a particular resonance. Re-elected in 2010 after eight years in the opposition, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has promoted a protectionist economic agenda that has included imposing extra taxes on foreign corporations and banks. His government has also designed legislation that will prevent arable land in Hungary from being sold to foreigners. Inaugurating a dairy farm in October, he said that the love of the soil “is in Hungarians’ genes” and that the new legislation will make Hungarians “landowners rather than tourists in our own country.” That kind of rhetoric has led many critics inside and outside Hungary to label him a populist and a nationalist.
Certainly Mangalica farmers have benefited from the government’s promotion of native agriculture. In Kiskunsag, in the southern part of the country, pig breeder Olga Rendek, whose Mangalica sausage is certified by Slow Food, says her family and two others received a grant under the government’s farm program that enabled them to buy 10 sows apiece. “We got the grant in 2012, and our sows will give birth to piglets in the spring,” she says. And the country’s producers, like those farmers who raise gray cattle, another indigenous breed, have profited from a resurgent interest in Hungarian identity. “When the regime ended, the world opened up, and we all wanted to eat what we couldn’t get before: French, Italian, Asian,” says food journalist Viktoria Kumin. “But now things have turned, so that there’s an appreciation for Hungarian ingredients.”
Is that appreciation locavorism or nationalism? At the Mangalica festival, Daniel Mager was busy serving the lines of customers eager to try the prize-winning sausage made by his employer, Kaptalantoti Mangalica Farm. But he found time, between the occasional swig of chill-warding palinka (a potent fruit liqueur), to reflect on Hungarians’ renewed romance with the native pig. “I think most people like it now because it’s trendy,” he said. “I wish it were because of national pride.”