Bred by an emperor and nearly killed off by communists, the Hungarian mangalica pig has been through a lot during its nearly two centuries of existence. A lumbering, chunky beast clad in a sheep-like coat of hair, it is the hairiest and fattiest of pigs. According to its many fans, it’s also one of the tastiest.
On the verge of extinction three decades ago, the mangalica has made a remarkable comeback to the farms, tables and hearts of Hungarians over the past decade, and has recently been taking the global fine dining scene by storm, from the US to Japan, where its fatty, marbled texture has led it to be nicknamed “Kobe pork”. In Hungary, the breed has been officially registered as one of the country’s national treasures.
Now, however, the pride of Hungarian agriculture is facing another threat: the epidemic of African swine fever sweeping through eastern Europe, which has led to a number of large culls.
The growing popularity of mangalica is also causing disputes with the neighbours. There was a furious reaction earlier this month when a popular US gastro-blogger introduced mangalica as a “medieval Romanian food” in a video that garnered nearly a million views on YouTube.
Simmering tension remains over Hungary’s historic role as ruler of part of the country’s territory, and the Hungarian press was outraged. “It was not enough that they took away Transylvania, trying to expropriate our culture and our historical memories … now they also want to steal mangalica from us,” wrote the rightwing news portal 888.hu.
“It can become like hummus is for Lebanon and Israel,” said Péter Tóth, the president of Hungary’s Mangalica Breeders Association, in an interview at an upmarket Budapest restaurant over a plate of fatty mangalica ham cuts.
While noting that all mangalica currently in Romania are recent imports from Hungary, the pig’s history is actually international, Tóth said. The breed was created in the 1830s after the Habsburg emperor in Vienna was gifted 11 fatty, long-haired pigs by the prince of Serbia and had them cross-bred with some old Hungarian breeds near Arad, now in Romania.
At one point, 90% of all pigs in Hungary were mangalica, with the high fat content prized because the copious lard could be stored for much longer than meat. With the onset of electricity and refrigeration, production declined and it became more of a luxury product. After the second world war, the communist system almost destroyed the mangalica; only about 300 sows were maintained in reservations for scientific purposes. The meat was nowhere to be found.
As a young veterinary student in Spain in the early 90s, Tóth told a Spanish friend about the fatty Hungarian pigs and the pair launched a project to save the mangalica. “I put adverts in local newspapers: ‘If you’ve seen a mangalica, please let me know,’” he recalled. He bought up the whole population and for several years bred them with Spanish investment, until they were ready to send fatty pork for curing in Spain by the late 90s.
By now, there are more than 200 mangalica farmers in the country and the meat is on sale in almost every marketplace, at prices about four times higher than normal pork.
“It’s different from any other meat. The texture is marbled, especially in the neck. It’s a completely unique taste,” said Zsóka Fekete, 34, who runs a mangalica farm in eastern Hungary. She worked in a multinational company in Budapest before deciding in 2012 to return to her family farm and buy 20 mangalica sows, which she has since grown to 300. She has a loyal client base including Michelin-starred restaurants and Budapest mangalica lovers, who form queues to buy her produce when she makes the trip to the capital once a fortnight with a trailer full of pork products.
Indeed, the only blip on the horizon for the mangalica is the African swine fever epidemic currently sweeping eastern Europe. The first cases were detected in Hungary’s wild boar population last April, and while no domesticated pigs have caught the virus yet, due to its extreme contagiousness any time a diseased boar carcass is found, all pigs within a three-kilometre radius must be culled.
It is particularly dangerous for mangalica, which live in semi-open conditions, and new security measures have been put in place, including double fencing and a ban on visitors to farms. So far, about 1,200 mangalica have been slaughtered across Hungary, more than a tenth of the population.
Tóth said the government had recently approved a special strategy to save the mangalica should the situation become critical: an emergency gene-banking system will be set up, and the most valuable mangalica specimens will be moved to safe spaces such as zoos or universities.
As for climate concerns around meat consumption, it is a while before that is likely to affect sales in Hungary, where pork is ubiquitous and vegetarianism still seen as quirky eccentricity. But Tóth, surprisingly, advocates for his compatriots to eat less meat.
“I am against the low quality and the animal suffering involved in industrially farmed meat,” he said, skewering a fatty slice of mangalica jamon with a fork. “Humans should eat less meat, for sure. But when they do, it should be high quality. For example, one piece of mangalica per week.”