The other herders undoubtedly feel just as proud of their own calling. They might even have argued – especially the swine herds – that their stock is more useful than the horses. Craft-grazed through the summer months on the Hortobágy National Park’s preserved grasslands, puszta-produced meat can be labelled as fully organic and sold for a premium price – whether it’s from the fierce grey cattle with massive lyre-shaped horns, from the Racka sheep with their rasta-dreadlock fleeces or from the curly-haired mangalica pigs.
Curls seemed to be a bit of a Magyar farming obsession. Locally there were frizzle-feathered geese and curly-plumed pigeons, while puli and komondor dogs were both so draped in ringlets and fringes that it was hard to tell one end from another.
Sheep, cattle and pigs over-winter in barns, many still the traditional reed-thatched low structures I’d seen hulking on the horizon as I’d pedalled my hire-bike around the plains. In a land without stone, and where bricks and wood were
expensive, some buildings did away with walls altogether, roofs resting on the ground in an architectural style called `sitting on their arse’ sheds.
The Hortobágy Csarda, a landmark for centuries, was a more elegant building. This hostelry, strategically built beside a bridge over the Hortobágy River, on the road between Debrecen and Budapest, was first Centuries later, Chef Istvan Katona was preparing slambuc – traditional herdsman’s stew made from mangalica pig lard, paprika, onion, potatoes and pasta – over an open fire. “You need to stir it as many times as you have teeth – so an old man making slambuc means burnt bits,” Istvan told me, adding, “though some think that’s the best taste.”
Always renowned for its food and hospitality, the Csarda was popular in the first half of the 20th century among poets and writers looking for inspiration in the wild east. It was also an unlikely stop on Edward Viii and Wallis Simpson’s 1937 honeymoon itinerary. Earlier times and even wilder guests – hajduk, hussars, betyars and Gypsy horse dealers – were illustrated in the inn’s small museum where a wooden cage, like a prison in a Hollywood sheriff’s office, had been recreated; formerly the inn’s women and breakables would be locked into this when the carousing and drinking became too frenzied.