Steppe and steppe all around: how freely the Hungarian goulash shepherds live

They use a cart for transportation, a well for communication, and reeds for building material. Goulash people believe: this is their freedom


Steppe (empty) in eastern Hungary, west of Debrecen. It is part of the Great Plain, Alföld. Since the Middle Ages, Hortobágy has been associated among Hungarians with goulash shepherds who led a peasant economy in the desert and grazed the cows of the Debrecen landowners. Since 1973, Hortobágy has been a national park in Hungary. This is the largest pasture in Europe.

In 1999, Hortobágy entered the UNESCO World Heritage List as a cultural landscape with 4,000 years of history, precious wildlife and unique folk traditions. About 3,000 state-owned gray Hungarian cows live and graze here permanently. The livestock is looked after by approximately 50 steppe goulash officially hired by the park administration.

Steppe and steppe around: how freely the Hungarian shepherds live -goulash

Chobo Matei

Born in 1981. Hereditary steppe shepherd. Elder goulash in Hortobagy National Park. Follows the order and observance of traditions. Lives in a village in the park. Married, raising a daughter.

—Look at the well! —Chobo Matei shouts.

I lean out of a cart drawn by a couple of bays. A hastily put together shabby wagon, resembling a trough for humus, is shaking all over, like the tail of a steppe bird-heathen. Chobo and I travel through the empty…

The well and the pot

On a dull plain among hummocks, stones and grass scorched by the sun, a well crane sticks out on one leg – a gray withered pillar. His skinny neck-pole plunged into the log house. The feeling that the crane is drying up from thirst and can not get drunk in any way.

– Well, a well. And what?

– This is our steppe telegraph! Or messenger. Oh, what a word I know!” Chobo laughs. And 80% of goulash have no idea about any messengers. We do not need all these social networks. Cause addiction. Restrict freedom. Here are the wells – this is natural. Our grandfathers just talked like that. They transmitted messages through the wells.

— How?

– Whoever wants to tell the rest of the goulash news, he changes the position of the pole and bucket. Each position has its own meaning. Here, a pole with a bucket is lowered deep into the well frame. This means that the test is in progress. The owner decided to find out if we were doing well. About a hundred years ago, a landowner could have swooped in with a check. And now director Hortobadi or some minister. If suddenly there is trouble, a fire, for example, the pole stands vertically, flush with the post, and the bucket dangles at the top. A buyer of cows has arrived – the pole is high, the bucket is hanging in the air and barely touches the log house. A woman visiting goulash – the pole is lowered, the bucket is in the well, but not deep, and the end of the rope on the pole is tattered. Well, when the pole is slightly raised, the bucket is on the ground near the well, it means that one of the shepherds has cooked goulash soup and invites you to dinner! – proudly says my companion.

1/6Since the Middle Ages, Hortobágy has been associated among Hungarians with goulash shepherds who ran a peasant economy in the desert and grazed the cows of Debrecen landowners

– So that's why they called you goulash?

– On the contrary. This soup in honor of us became goulash. Gulya is Hungarian for herd. Who grazes, that goulash. (Hungarian pronounces “guya” and “guyash”, respectively, but “goulash” has taken root in Russian. — Note “Around the world”). In the Middle Ages, our ancestors went across the steppe to sell cattle to markets in Moravia, Vienna, Nuremberg and Venice. Thousands of kilometers. The landowner allowed a couple of cows to be slaughtered along the way: you won’t stock up on food in advance – it will go rotten, especially in hot summer. The shepherds took a pot and paprika with them, cooked soup from cow meat, and fed on it. The people called our dish “goulash khush” (gulyáshús) – “the meat that goulash eats.”

Chobo smacks appetizingly. At this moment, he himself looks like a bull who has come across a satisfying pasture.

Steppe and steppe around: how freely the Hungarian goulash shepherds live

— How did cows overcome thousands of kilometers of distance?

Yes, they are Hungarians! Well, that is, gray Hungarian cows. The breed is like that. We call them Magyarsürkemarha. They say that even our distant ancestors, the nomads of the Magyars, domesticated them, wild steppes, more than a thousand years ago. Cows have always grown in the desert, are accustomed to heat and frost, so they are genetically hardy. There is no such breed anywhere else in the world. They can walk a hundred kilometers and not lose weight. And what meat they have! Veined, elastic, fragrant! — the shepherd smiles.

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A load of goulash

Our wagon slows down, sneaks, and then finally freezes in the swamp, like a heron guarding prey. We get out of the chaise. It shakes me a little. And my companion is unshakable, like a steppe oak.

Steppe and steppe around: how freely the Hungarian goulash shepherds live

A stone nine-arch bridge of the Roman viaduct type is thrown across the swamp. Dirty white, like a rain cloud over the steppe, the bridge is buried in thick reeds, from which shepherds build huts. On land, it flows into a low white-stone charda (inn), also with nine arches – windows. Goulash sit at long oak tables: they laugh, tell stories, eat meat.

— This charda is 300 years old. It used to be different, and when the bridge appeared, it was rebuilt, the arches were cut down. The goulash here always celebrated the successful sale of livestock,” Chobo explains. At the fair.

Steppe and steppe around: how freely the Hungarian goulash shepherds live

The fair spreads along the chard like a steppe dereznyak bush. The only “secular” place in the whole empty. Wandering violinists play chardash. Merchants laid out and hung cow horns, copper cauldrons, ceramic pots, hats near wooden stalls.

A visiting tourist looks at chiko whips. He takes one, clumsily tries to wave, but only confuses him and lowers his hands in embarrassment. Chobo Matei rubs his bull's neck, sighs, takes the whip from the tourist and with a perfect movement whistles through the air —like a hawk rushing after game.

Steppe and steppe all around: how freely the Hungarian goulash shepherds live

— Chobo, can a non-steppe person become goulash?

– Well, actually, this profession passes from father to son. I'm a goulash in the fifth generation. We don't mind outsiders, but they can't stand it. Somehow, guys from Budapest came to us, life seemed insipid to them, you see, they wanted to learn shepherd business. I took them as my assistants. For two years, they somehow bled and left back.

Freedom  is not a burden for everyone. Citizens are accustomed to stuffy, crowded apartments, all sorts of conventions, office schedules. And we have absolute will. Huts with reed roofs. No heating or electricity. Some, however, have installed solar panels. We cook food on an open fire or in an oven. We calmly endure the heat and cold. And we don’t get drunk from the degree. Non-locals don't even know how to drink.

Chobo grunts, pulls a flask from his pocket, takes a savory sip and hands it to me.

— Cheers! We always have this item with us. Whoever does not drink palinka is not goulash.

Palinka is sour-sweet in taste and burning. It was as if a ray of the steppe sun hit the throat.

– Have you ever dreamed of another life yourself? – I ask, feeling how the palinka burns the insides.

– When I turn 100 years old and out of my mind, I will go to the city and look for work there. Maybe I’ll get a job at a gas station,” the goulash laughs. My great-grandfather fought for freedom not for me to look for another life.

Hortobagy and Debrecen, Hungary

Steppe and steppe all around: how freely the Hungarian goulash shepherds live

Area of ​​Hortobágy National Park 800 km²
Area of ​​Debrecen 461.67 km² (2nd in Hungary)
Population202,400 (2nd place)
Population density 442 people/km²

Area of ​​Hungary 93,030 km² (108th in the world)< br>Population 9,690,000 people (91st place)
Population density 105 people/km²

ATTRACTIONSReformed Cathedral of the 19th century, Kossuth Square and Nagyerdei Park with a thermal complex in Debrecen; Nine-arched bridge in Khortobadi.
TRADITIONAL DISHES schlambutz—potato baked in dough with paprika; pörkölt – beef or pork stewed in tomato sauce.
TRADITIONAL DRINKS frech – wine with soda, palinka.
SOUVENIRS ceramic dishes, smoked sausages with paprika.

DISTANCE from Moscow to Debrecen ~ 1430 km (from 2.5 hours in flight)
TIME behind Moscow by an hour in summer , for two hours in winter
VISA Schengen


Material published in Vokrug Sveta magazine No. 6, June 2019, partially updated in January 2023

Katerina Mironova


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