The tarhonya is a typical lowland pasta dish, more precisely from the Southern Great Plain, which has spread and become popular throughout the Hungarian food culture. Its origins in the diet of the Hungarian people date back to the Middle Ages, but it is only mentioned under this name in the second half of the 18th century.
In Hódmezővásárhely, one of the most popular dishes in the past centuries was made from dried tarragon. Because it is filling, easy to transport and store, it was particularly popular with men working away from their families: shepherds, fishermen, kubikos. In most families, some form was served at least once a week, but for ‘thrifty’ farmers it was served daily, and they were nicknamed ‘forage farmers’.
The time to make tarte tatin was late summer, but in the past it was also made in the spring when the autumn crops were gone. They were made using first whey, nowadays half-meal flour. 3-6 eggs were counted for a kilo of flour, and 4-6 kg of flour were used at a time. The flour was poured into wooden tubs, now the smaller quantities are made in vats. The eggs are beaten into a pot or silk, water is added – about 2 decilitres for 1 kg of flour for 1 kg of eggs – and beaten well. Salt is not usually added, as it makes the eggs more mouldy if they are not kept in a dry place. The beaten eggs are added to the flour a little at a time, every 2-3 spoonfuls. In the old days, for tarragon in a wooden bowl, the egg was poured into the flour in a single strip and worked in batches to avoid large lumps. Meanwhile, it is rubbed together with two palms and this is done until a crumbly dough is obtained and begins to glisten. It is then sieved on a table covered with a piece of stiff breadcloth. When there are few of the larger grains left on the sieve, they are set aside. After a short drying period, the chaff is poured back into the tub and the baking process begins. Only a small amount is poured back at a time, so that it can be tanned more beautifully. A few eggs are beaten off, but only the yolks are used. (Eggs may have been beaten off at the beginning of the tartar preparation, in which case the whites are worked into the flour with the whole eggs, and some of the yolks are set aside for blanching.) A few spoonfuls of yolk are drizzled over the tartar, then rubbed with two palms against the sides and bottom of the pan in a circular motion. This gives the grains a rounded shape and the yolk, added little by little, gives them a nice yellow colour. When the yolks are well absorbed but not yet sticking together, they are sieved again, straight onto the drier, which is covered with white rags. This used to be a large, round, flat wicker box, but can also be a table or stretching board. It is dried in a shady but warm, airy place to prevent its beautiful yellow colour from fading. In between, it is sometimes stirred by hand. In good weather, it dries and becomes rattly in 3-4 days.
After drying, it is sometimes sifted again, and the smallest part that passes through the wheat straw becomes a milk beetroot. The part that passes through the rind, the medium size, is the part that produces the largest quantity. This is stored and used throughout the year. The remainder, the large part, is mostly cooked fresh in soup with vegetables and stir-fry.
Hard potatoes are best cooked in a saucepan until thick. It had to be cooked so hard that ‘the cat could get through the tops’, they used to say jokingly. András Szenti, a peasant from Hódmezővásárhely, wrote this about making hard potatoes. „By frying the tarragon in a little paprika fat, with a little chopped smoked ham or sausage mixed in beforehand, it can be made to have a delicious aroma, which, when foreigners smelled it at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, they asked for the seed of the tarragon.” It was less often cooked with meat, but on farms where there were many pigeons, pigeon with tarragon was popular and more often prepared.
In every house, the preparation of the tarhonya was the woman’s job, with the servants of larger farmers, and later a more skilful woman would do it for a quarter or a third. By the turn of the century, the ‘women who made the potatoes’ were working for a day’s wages.
Today, tarhonya is still used in public catering, mainly as a garnish, although it is much less common than it used to be. Few people nowadays make it at home, preferring to buy the small quantities needed in a household from the shops.
In Hódmezővásárhely, the inclusion of the tarragon in the value register is justified not only by the fact that Sámuel Szeremlei, the town’s historian, said at the turn of the century that here, the tarragon was „particularly widespread”, and was often found in houses and fields, but also by a number of other facts. It was enjoyed by all sections of the population, without distinction. In 1901, Dr. Sándor Kenéz, a lawyer, founded a tarhonya factory, working for British orders. The flour, which had been experimented with for this purpose by a local mill, was used by 300 women to make tarragon. After the lawyer was denounced for engaging in commercial activities that were contrary to his profession, he sold the factory. The new buyer moved the business to Kiskunfélegyháza, but the flour produced there did not achieve the same quality and results as in Hódmezővásárhely.
It is also an indication of the excellent quality of the Hódmezővásárhely forage that forage from the town was sent to the World Exhibition in Paris in 1877, along with other agricultural products.
Many of the older women in the town can still prepare tarhonya in the traditional way, although it has taken a back seat in today’s diet.