Small-scale Hungarian growers look to spice up paprika market

Thu Sep 26, 2013 7:50pm EDT
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By Marton Dunai

BATYA, Hungary (Reuters) - Not long ago, Peter Szabo left a lucrative telecommunications job in Britain, sold his property and returned to Batya, a riverside village in the Hungarian flatlands south of Budapest, to grow red peppers.

Like a handful of others in the area, the 41-year-old is hoping to put Hungary's once booming paprika business back on the map after decades of neglect and despite fierce competition from countries including Brazil, Serbia and China.

Szabo is following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather - they also made the powdered paprika spice that has long been a staple in Hungarian cooking.

"I want to make sure people still eat Hungarian paprika," he told Reuters, as he poured a batch of gutted, dried and carefully selected peppers into a shiny steel electric grinder. "I stake my life on this: clean organic food, no preservatives."

Although still on a small scale, Szabo has had some success. He sells his paprika to some of the best restaurants in Hungary and has begun to find clients abroad.

But it is a far cry from Communist times, when every family in Batya had a paprika patch and some fields were as large as 50 hectares, compared with Szabo's two-hectare paprika plot.

At this time of year, drying wreaths of red peppers would hang from every roofline, but as competition undercut prices and growers quit for better-paid work elsewhere, the flood of red is all but gone.

Szabo has invested everything he owns into custom-made machines and uses methodical marketing, going after gourmets who value organic food and are willing to pay extra for it. Quality is the only way to survive, he says.   Continued...

Local policeman and paprika maker Zsolt Matos is seen from between hanging bags of drying peppers, near Batya, 140km south of Budapest September 21, 2013. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh