The annual Bekescsaba Festival is the place to taste and find out secrets of Hungary’s spicy kolbasz sausages, but strict vegetarians and a few others might want to steer clear. From butchering a pig, complete with blowtorch for searing the bristles, to grinding the meat, mixing it with spices and squeezing it into long, filmy sausage casings that fit just so over the nozzle of a purpose-built stuffing machine, pig to plate is on display with little left to the imagination.
The 15th four-day festival in a rural area of southeastern Hungary, near the Romanian border, drew an estimated 100,000 visitors over the October-end holiday weekend this year. While others celebrated Halloween and All Saints Day, many Hungarians and Romanians spent this time, well-fed, at what organisers say is the biggest eating and drinking event in eastern and central Europe — a food-focused flipside to Germany’s beery Oktoberfest.
People come for the weather, for music, for dancing, crafts, amusement-park rides, beer, wine and the ever-present, potent and often homemade "palinka" fruit brandy. But most of all, they come for the kolbasz (sausage, in Hungarian), made according to a century-old recipe with pork, paprika, garlic, caraway seeds, and available in sizes and shapes from finger-sized to monsters more than a metre long, ranging in texture from dry to moist and in spiciness from mild to mouth-destroying.
Visitors also get to watch and cheer on about 500 ten-member teams making the kolbasz from scratch, competing in a good-natured, carnival-like atmosphere. "There are other festivals but this atmosphere, this crazy, good spirit, the teams are unrivalled anywhere else," says Jozsef Nemeth, deputy president of the sausage-judging jury. The sausage-making contest provides a focus for the festival, and a chance for one-upmanship among sausage makers.
Ferenc Bordacs, dressed in the long, skirt-like garment of the Hungarian "puszta" plains, with hat to match, has come with a team from Debrecen, in eastern Hungary to make sausage in Bekescsaba’s socialist-era Sports Hall.
Bence Szabo, 23, is the team leader for a group of university friends, many of them now software programmers in Budapest. About eight hands — covered in clear plastic gloves — knead the contents of a big bin full of 10 kg of freshly ground pork meat, plus salt, paprika. When the meat and seasonings are thoroughly mixed, it is squeezed through a sausage maker, into clear casings and proudly displayed on each team’s table, for the judges to come by and decide who made the day’s best kolbasz.
It all happens in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, with one tablesharing ingredients and palinka, and anything else anyone needs, until the entire festival feels like one huge, and at times, tipsy, family.
Outside the Sports Hall, in a roped-off area, a team of six butchers from the Serb meat company, Agropupak, in Kukujevci, Serbia, shows a crowd of several hundred people, including youngsters who possibly never had been on a farm, where the raw ingredients of sausage come from by butchering a pig.
The presence of the Serbs, plus sausage-making teams from Romania, Slovakia, Germany, Austria and elsewhere in central and eastern Europe, gives the festival an international flavour, and makes it an occasion for good-natured national rivalries.
"I’m an ethnic Hungarian but Hungarian sausage is too spicy for my taste," said Laszlo Gyorfi from Sepsiszentgyorgy in Romania, offering a sample of the milder Romanian-style version. All manner of food and drink is available in the Sports Hall and several mammoth marquis, but it is possible — and cheaper — to graze, walking past sausage-making tables, where team members offer samples of their wares, bread, cheese, bite-sized "pogacs" pastries and the ever-present palinka.
It is, in fact, hard to be in the Sports Hall for more than five minutes and not be offered a shot of palinka, or three. Sandor Hegely, who has taken over the running of the festival from its founder, local librarian Zoltan Ambrus, says it had grown in 15 years from an event with about 50 sausage-making teams to 10 times that, with attendance to match.
The festival is the biggest of its kind in the region, and brings in hundreds of thousands of euros for hotels, restaurants and other local businesses. This is due to the fact is that people the world over love sausage, plus the sausage competition.
And what is the secret of the best Hungarian kolbasz? Hegely said the local kolbasz, while made with plenty of paprika, uses no pepper. But sausage makers such as 62-year-old former prizewinner Mihaly Kovacs immediately begs to differ. "We do use pepper, a little white pepper, a little black, not much, so it’s not overwhelming," Kovacs said. "With that we increase the harmony of taste." — Reuters