After many years of travelling – Germany, Kenya, Suffolk, New Zealand, Kent – we finally settled in Buckinghamshire in 1968 when my parents bought an old ramshackle farmhouse, the first ever house they had ever owned.
Looking back, I realise we only just scraped by on my father’s teaching salary whilst my mother juggled raising the three of us, working part-time as a school secretary, growing most of our vegetables and fruit, and making all our clothes. But I never had the impression that we lacked for anything.
And when it came to food, certainly not. Coming home from school, we were usually greeted with the smell of freshly-baked scones or the sight of her chocolate cake (a recipe from New Zealand that was always known as ‘New Zealand Chocolate Cake).
My mother was brilliant at making a few ingredients stretch very far. Using cheap cuts of meat, she cooked the most wonderful stews and casseroles in the ancient Aga cooker. Fuelled by anthracite, it had to be topped up several times a day. With two ovens, it only had two temperatures – ‘hot’ and ‘slow’! Roasting or baking involved moving dishes from one oven to the other to get the right combination, and woe betide the person who had a bath when my mum was cooking. Because the Aga also heated the hot water, the ovens would lose temperature, and my mother would quickly lose her temper!
One of the dishes she cooked regularly for weekday suppers was her version of Hungarian Goulash. Using cheap cuts of pork, red peppers, and a lot of paprika, she cooked a rich, velvety stew, which benefitted from several hours in the ‘slow’ Aga oven. When she encouraged me to learn to cook, it was one of the first recipes she taught me.
I have since discovered that there are many variations of goulash or goulasc or gulyas, and there is an excellent article by the food historian, Rachel Laudan, which gives a detailed history of this dish.
It apparently originated in Hungary amongst cow herders who would spend the summers on the grass plains following their grazing cattle. Because the herders were nomadic during the summer, they camped and their meals were cooked in large cauldrons over an open fire using ingredients such as millet, lard, bacon, and onions, but occasionally, the casserole would be supplemented with meat from one of their cattle.
At some point, they began using dried chilli powder to supplement or replace the black pepper. Chilli peppers had been introduced to Europe from the Americas in the 16th century and became very popular in Hungary – ‘paprika’ being the Hungarian word for the spicy red peppers. By the end of the 18th century, the dish began to gain a reputation far beyond its humble origins, but its name still links it directly back to the original cow herders. The original meaning of ‘gulyas’ was ‘cow herder’, but it’s now synonymous with the dish.
My mother’s version is a later version. She used sweet paprika for her goulash, and the sweet version only became available in the early 20th century when two Hungarians invented a machine to separate the seeds and white ribs of the chilli pepper from its flesh. Being careful with the pennies, her version used cheap pork cuts – neck, ribs, or chump – rather than the more expensive beef.
Here in France, I use the cut called échine which comes from the rib area of the shoulder. Marbled with fat, I much prefer it to the more expensive loin chops and it works beautifully in a slow-cooked casserole recipe like my mother’s.
“In the UK I would be tempted to try this recipe with pork cheeks, which are generally cheaper than chump chops, sweeter being darker meat, and will benefit from slow cooking” – Judi
Mother’s Hungarian Goulash, serves 4-6, preparation time, 30 minutes, cooking time 2 hours.
700 – 800 gm of pork (I used 4 thick-cut échine chops, or chump chops in English)
2 large onions, halved and sliced
1 red and 1 green pepper, halved, de-seeded, and sliced
6 mushrooms, thickly sliced (these are optional)
800 gm tin of peeled tomatoes*
25 gm lard
5 tsp. sweet paprika
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
Red wine ( whatever’s left in the bottle)
25 cl stock (I used a powdered meat stock)
Fine sea salt
Ground black pepper
3 tbsp. plain flour
*I prefer to buy whole tinned tomatoes, they’re a better quality than the ready-chopped tomatoes, and it takes only a minute to chop them in the tin using a sharp pair of kitchens scissors.
You will need a large casserole – Le Creuset is ideal because it can be heated up on the hob. Mine is in a cardboard box somewhere so I made do with a large stainless steel casserole/pan.
Preheat the oven to 170C.
Remove the bones and any excess fat from the chops before slicing into large-ish chunks. Mix the flour on a large flat plate with 4 teaspoons of the paprika and add fine sea salt and fine ground pepper to taste. Handful by handful, roll the chunks of meat in the spiced flour until well coated and put on a clean plate.
Now heat the lard in a large heavy-bottomed frying pan and add the sliced onions. Because it heats to a higher temperature, the lard gets the onions slightly caramelised far quicker. When the onions are just beginning to turn golden, reduce the heat slightly and add the crushed garlic. When the onions and garlic are golden, remove from the heat and put into the casserole.
Add the meat to the pan and allow each cube to begin crisping and turn colour (this takes about 5 minutes), then remove and add to the casserole.
Finally add the sliced peppers to the pan. You might need to add some olive oil at this point. Cover the pan with a lid and let the peppers sauté for about 10 minutes, turning from to time to time.
Add the cooked peppers to the casserole and stir all the ingredients round before placing the casserole on a medium heat burner. Add a slosh of red wine and the prepared stock. Then add the chopped tomatoes, stir again and bring to a shimmering simmer i.e. no bubbles!
Place in the lower half of the oven and cook at 170C for 1 hour. At this point, remove from the oven and add in the sliced mushrooms. Check the seasoning – I needed to add additional salt and pepper, along with an extra teaspoon of paprika.
Reduce the temperature to 150C and cook for a further hour.
When the goulash is ready, the meat should simply fall apart. I served it on a bed of brown basmati rice, with a dollop of crème fraiche, and a sprinkling of flat parsley. It’s a dish that needs a good red wine and I chose one of my favourite local reds, le vin d’Antan from the Carcenac Domaine.