The names of our holidays have a built-in memory all their own. In English, the word Easter preserves the name of a pagan goddess, hinting at the pre-Christian roots of all the eggy fertility symbolism. In Hungarian, the word for Easter—Húsvét (pronounced ‘HOOSH-veight’)—encapsulates the centrality of food to this religious holiday, serving as further proof for Hungarians being a foodie nation. Literally, it translates as ‘the taking of meat’. Following the vegetarian diet of the forty-day period of Lent, Easter has traditionally been the time to celebrate the resurrection of Christ by carving up the most precious product from the mid-winter pig slaughtering a few months before: the cured and smoked ham (also called ‘Easter ham’), which reaches its fullest flavour and maturity around this holiday.
To emphasise the specialness of the occasion, the mundane bread normally accompanying meat is swapped for a braided, doughy and milky Easter loaf or kalács (‘KOH-lartch’), often shaped into a circle, with painted eggs placed in the middle. The slight sweetness and soft, brioche-like texture of this loaf nicely complements the saltiness and smokiness of the ham. Add some freshly grated horseradish as condiment, hard-boiled eggs, spring onions, and radishes, and there you have it: the typical Easter meal in Hungary.
And the decorated eggs? Cooked in the all-natural red dye released by onion skins—and either wax-masked or carved with ornamental patterns—they used to serve as ‘payment’ given by the girls in exchange for being ‘watered’ by the guys (chocolate eggs or, sadly, money are now more common ‘currency’). The living tradition is for males of all ages to visit all their female relatives, colleagues, current or prospective dates on Easter Monday morning (basically turn up uninvited), recite a little rhyme comparing them to a beautiful spring flower, then sprinkle the top of their head with droplets of cheap cologne. The womenfolk love this… yeah, right. But this is the tame, urban version. The original, rather wilder rural custom used to involve young bachelors dousing girls of a marriageable age with a bucketful of chilly water fresh from the well. Lest they shall wilt, you see…
Besides being a staple of the Easter meal, slices of this loaf are excellent spread with butter and sweet or savoury toppings such as jam or pâté, or even on their own with a big cup of hot chocolate. The loaf doesn’t have to be circle-shaped either. Once braided, you can leave it straight and simply place it on a greased cookie sheet or bake it in a rectangular loaf tin.
Enjoy and have a happy Easter,