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BEKESCSABA, Hungary (Reuters) - The annual Bekescsaba Sausage Festival is the place to taste and find out secrets of Hungary's spicy kolbasz sausages, but strict vegetarians and anyone who sticks to the rule that it's best not to ask how a sausage was made 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.
"Any foreigner who ever once tasted the Hungarian sausage will always ask me: 'That sausage, can you please bring me that sausage again?'," said Gyula Bodrogi, a Hungarian actor and member of the jury that judges the best of the day's kolbasz.
And people do love it. The 15th year of the four-day festival in a rural area of southeastern Hungary, near the Romanian border, drew an estimated 100,000 visitors over the end-October holiday weekend, winding up Monday.
While others celebrated Hallowe'en and All Saints Day, many Hungarians and Romanians spent time well-fed at what organizers 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, which this year was sunny and mild, for music from local and regional rock and folk bands, 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, but also various tricks of the trade, and available in sizes and shapes from finger-sized to monsters more than a meter 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 roughly 10-person teams making the kolbasz from scratch, competing in a good-natured, carnival-like, palinka-fueled atmosphere.
"There are other festivals but this atmosphere, this crazy good spirit, the teams are unrivalled anywhere else," said Jozsef Nemeth, deputy president of the sausage-judging jury.
The sausage-making contest provides a focus for the festival, and a chance for oneupmanship among sausage makers.
"The spirit of a beautiful woman is in our sausage," said Ferenc Bordacs, dressed in the long, skirt-like garment of the Hungarian "puszta" plains, with hat to match. He came with a team from Debrecen, in eastern Hungary to make sausage in Bekescsaba's socialist-era Sports Hall, where bright smiles made up for the somewhat dingy lighting and period decor.
Other contestants, more modestly, said their sausages contained special blends of paprika, garlic, or top quality pork, or maintained their team was best at mixing it all up.
"Let's do it, guys," Bence Szabo, 23, team leader for a group of university friends, many of them now software programmers in Budapest, said as about eight hands -- covered in clear plastic gloves -- kneaded the contents of a big plastic bin full of about 10 kg (22 lb) of freshly ground pork meat, plus salt, paprika and whatever they thought was good.
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 table helping out another, sharing ingredients and palinka, and anything else anyone needs, until the entire festival feels like one huge, if somewhat 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, showed 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 pig was dead on arrival, but the Serbs did everything else, from shaving the bristles to cutting up the carcass.
"The only difference is in the way we cut it up, but a pig is a pig, from here or across the border," Bogatic said.
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 flavor, 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 was available in the Sports Hall and several mammoth marquis, but it was possible -- and cheaper -- to graze, walking past sausage-making tables, where team members offered 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, said it had grown in 15 years from an event with about 50 sausage-making teams to 10 times that, with attendance to match.
"It's more people than ever," he told Reuters in an interview, adding that part of the attraction of the festival, which he said is the biggest of its kind in the region, and brings in hundreds of thousands of euros for hotels, restaurants and other local businesses, 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 begged 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."
Additional reporting by Krisztina Fenyo; Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Paul Casciato