During the fall of 2011 a whole team within the Ministry of Agriculture was busy preparing a bill that was supposed to protect Hungary’s national treasures. Half a billion forints was set aside for this purpose. The members of the thirteen-member committee went from county to county to gather items deemed worthy of inclusion on this list. These national treasures are varied, from the Holy Crown to the Rubik cube and the puli. According to Zoltán Balog, even József Nyirő is a “national treasure.” Mind you, that was uttered in the middle of May. Perhaps since then he has decided that it might be wise to drop Nyirő from the list.
The law, normally referred to as the Hungaricum law, also aimed at putting certain food items on the list. The Hungaricum designation, the reasoning went, might have the added benefit of raising the market value of the product. Since Fidesz-KDNP politicians like to talk about the superior Hungarian products as opposed to “foreign junk,” if a product is labelled Hungaricum and packaged in red-white-green, the market value of the product might go up because, after all, we all would like to eat wholesome food as opposed to junk. (I’m surprised that I’m still alive after eating foreign junk for decades.)
The guide to the law prepared by the ministry is appropriately grandiose. For example, it has a preamble, just like the new Hungarian constitution, which announces that this law is being enacted because parliament recognized the need for the collection and care of the nation’s treasure “in the interest of national belonging (összetartozás) and strengthening unitary national consciousness.” Therefore “it is necessary to collect the noblest assets of Hungarian history.”
In January, the government put its stamp of approval on the proposed bill and on April 3, 2012 parliament voted it into law. A Collection of Hungaricum will be prepared by the Hungaricum Committee. Items in the collection will be registered from here on as “Hungaricum.” Here is the pyramid outlining the setup.
On top there are the real Hungaricums, underneath Hungarian national assets, and at the bottom sectoral national assets, regional national assets, and national assets beyond the borders.
The bill wasn’t carefully prepared. Even in the preamble there are several “mistakes.” Hungary (Magyarország) is referred to as the Republic of Hungary (Magyar Köztársaság), which according to the new constitution no longer exists. The authors of the document also forgot that anything that is Hungarian but beyond the borders is no longer “határon túli” but “külhoni.” I’m also not sure whether the Fidesz government would approve of the use of a foreign word, “preambulum” (preamble), since that was found inappropriate in the constitution.
But these small mistakes are nothing in comparison to the really serious problems with the bill. A food item is a Hungaricum only if it is created from genuinely Hungarian ingredients. But the “team,” after spending half a billion forints, didn’t pay much attention to whether the components of a Hungarian product can actually be obtained in Hungary. Take, for instance, the famous Pick salami, a Hungaricum, that is supposed to be made out of genuine Hungarian pork. Or, more precisely, bona fide Hungarian-born pigs raised in the country. And not just any Hungarian-born pig, but only pigs born in five counties near Szeged where the salami is made.
It seems that the officials of the Ministry of Agriculture neglected to talk to the managers of the Pick plant because, if they had, it would have been obvious that there are simply not enough pigs in Hungary to satisfy the demand of the meat packing industry that is supposed to produce Hungaricum products. Because not only Pick but also the sausages of Gyula and Csaba would need home-grown pigs.
There are 3 million pigs in Hungary. Just to satisfy domestic consumption the country would need at least 4.5 million. That is, if Hungarians didn’t export any of their livestock. But they do. Thus, there are all these Hungarian specialties with trade names no one else can use because allegedly they are made entirely out of Hungarian products, which in fact they are not. Even the Pick meat packing plant is satisfying about 50% of its needs from imported meat, mostly from Germany. Some of the meat is actually frozen. Pork also comes from Poland and Spain.
Another firm packages its products in tricolor wrapping paper when 100% of the meat used comes from abroad. Yet another uses poults (young turkeys) born abroad because not enough are available at home. The manager of the plant, I think rightly, pointed out that after all the feed is grown nearby, Hungarians work in the plant, and the recipe is Hungarian.
I really wonder whether in a global economy it is even worth talking about products that are exclusively made or grown within the borders of any one country. Most likely not. I don’t think that Pick salami is famous because it was made exclusively from Hungarian born and raised pigs. After all Márk Pick in 1869, when he began his small sausage factory, wasn’t that much of a purist. In fact, he visited Italy, a country famous for its salamis and sausages, to learn the trade. Once he began to expand his business he invited Italian workers to perfect his own concoction that eventually became the famous Pick winter salami. It was a combination of Italian know-how and Hungarian ingenuity and entrepreneurship that produced a new product. And this is how it should be. Meanwhile the basic ingredients of Pick salami are still the same as they were at the time of Márk Pick in spite of Jewish laws, nationalization, hard times in the 1950s until the company again became privatized, and a somewhat unlikely current owner–Sándor Csányi, CEO of Hungary’s largest bank, OTP.