Food, Food Artisans

Somodi Kalács: Hungarian Celebration Bread from Transylvania

Somodi-kalács-copyThis fall, several of us travelled to Transylvania in search of artisanal Hungarian foods. Why visit part of Romania to learn about Hungarian traditions? Well Transylvania, was a very important part of Hungary until the Treaty of Trianon after World War I, when it was given to Romania. Transylvania played a large role in the Hungarian national psyche as the keeper of the true and pure Hungarian identity and customs. It was known for being a particularly beautiful and idyllic part of the country. It was a cherished area, and losing it was extremely painful for the country.

After the treaty some Hungarians left, but many stayed and to this day there are villages, which remain Hungarian. Everyone in the village considers themselves Hungarian. Hungarian is spoken in private and in public. School is taught in Hungarian and Hungarian flags are prominent. As is often the case, isolated pockets of ethnic groups or nationalities tend to preserve an older version of the culture. It is in these villages that authentic Hungarian folk dance and music is taught and enjoyed, as well as Hungarian handcraft making. It was for this reason that we hoped we would find even more traditional Hungarian foods than are available in Hungary itself.

Foods and traditional old ways we found! We stayed in a family home in the village of Sic for two days and three nights, and participated in a pig slaughter, and then in the preparation of every bit of the pig in a wide variety of dishes. It was also here that we saw bread baking by our 80-year-old hosting sisters in their wood-fired oven, were introduced to the custom of Transylvania wedding cakes, ate plum dumplings, and learned raggedy retes, a quick version of strudel. We visited neighbors to collect milk from the cows living in their courtyard and to see their pigpens and chicken coops. It was quite an experience, which we will share more of as we make what we learned.

After Sic, we travelled to Torockó
which is the home of the Somodi Kalács
 (sho-mo-dee-ko-loch) a
 sweet yeasted bread laced with
 cinnamon sugar. This village
 was originally very prosperous. 
About 400 years ago, it had been
 a mining town known for it’s iron
 mines and wrought iron pieces which were exported to Italy. Some village families also owned gold mines. The lucrative trade allowed many of the villagers the means to afford sugar and cinnamon, which they used to make this “cake”. It was served for Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost (still is) and until the 20th century it was the customary wedding cake. Originally it was baked in a clay pot, greased with lard, in a wood fired oven. Nowadays, it is more frequently made in a loaf pan, still greased with lard in a gas oven. It resembles cinnamon raisin bread, and I think it’s interesting to reflect on how rich our world has become that Somodi Kalács is like something we’d eat daily.

To learn to make it we visited the B&B of Melinda Kiraly. It was a hands on, physical process. Most interesting to us was the special folding technique Melinda used to give the unique distribution of the cinnamon sugar inside the bread. We are replicating that with our own version. Although not all traditions are kept in their pure form, Melinda still greases her pans with lard. The result is a sticky, sweet, cinnamony and porky exterior. Quite delicious!!

We enjoyed it so much that we’ve decided to make it for Easter here in Ann Arbor. It will be available Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays in March so if you want to enjoy it every week go ahead, but if you want to keep it for a special occasion, order one for Easter Sunday and dream of Transylvania.