When I first met the man who saved Hungary’s national pig, it was in a Thai restaurant and neither of us had any pork. Nevertheless, throughout the hour that we spent there, the ever-smiling Peter Toth bombarded me with such a flood of facts and anecdotes about the famed mangalica pig that it was clear I was talking to a pig fanatic.
I learned about the existence of this special pig when I spotted it on restaurant menus during my stay in Budapest. Hungary is a ‘porkophilia’ nation where meat means pig, but the name mangalica only comes up on select menus. Cousin to the black-footed Iberian, the mangalica pig was once nearly extinct until Hungarian animal geneticist Peter Toth came to the rescue. Since then, mangalica is enjoying a renaissance. World famous chefs such as Thomas Keller of the French Laundry praise its flesh as the “kobe beef among pigs.” Mangalica farms have sprung up from Europe to the U.S., a kilo of pigmeat goes for 45 euros, and its main market is Japan.
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” as the pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm proclaim. Marked by wooly coat, the mangalica pig is special thanks to its vast amounts of marbled fat, which melt in the mouth and are full of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. This is what classifies the mangalica among the so-called “fatty pigs” and gives it its extraordinary taste.
First bred by the agriculture-loving Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph when he crossed Hungarian and Serbian pigs in 1833, mangalica’s plentiful lard sustained people during the Industrial Revolution. The breed even received an honorary mention in Johan Strauss’ 1885 operetta “The Gypsy Baron,” when the pig breeder Zsupan declares that he lives for the pig and speck. Tastes, however, changed after the 1950s and 60s, when demand for more meat and less fat increased. During communism, Peter told me, “eating mangalica was seen as a bad habit.” Today, the pig has made a comeback.
After the fall of communism and the rise of an open market economy in 1991, Peter bought all of Hungary’s remaining mangalica pigs and began a last-minute breeding operation to save the animal’s gene pool.
For Peter, his quest to save the Hungarian pig started in the homeland of the famed Iberico, Spain. “I got the idea talking to my Spanish friend about the need for more fatty ham like Serrano,” Peter told me. “After going back to Hungary, and seeing there were less than 200 mangalicas left, I realized that this was the last moment, that people will eat and kill the last remaining animals.”
Peter’s vision is that of a European consumer that treats meat as the luxury it is, chooses wisely when to serve it, and is willing to pay a fair price for quality. If his dream comes true, he and his fellow mangalica farmers will be at the forefront of the movement.
With people like Peter Toth as one of its preachers, the gospel of slow food and organic farming is bound to breed more fanatics. And fatty pig lovers.