The Finno-Ugric-speaking Hungarian people, who migrated to Europe from the east and were genetically partially Finno-Ugric and mostly Turkic, settled in the territory of present-day Hungary in the 9th–10th centuries. In the 11th–13th centuries, several waves of Cumans (Kuns) and Jász people (nomadic Alanic people from the Pontic steppe) arrived from the east, who settled in larger blocks, mainly in the eastern half of the Hungarian kingdom, in the area of today’s Kiskunság, Nagykunság, and Jászság. Here, especially among the shepherds, some pagan nomadic customs and lifestyle elements survived until the beginning of the 20th century, including, for example, the ancient, eastern methods of milk processing.
Cow’s and sheep’s milk are of the greatest importance in the diet of the Hungarian peasantry. A few sources also mention drinking horse milk, but in the historical period under discussion we know of only rare occurrences of this earlier practice. At the end of the 19th century, in the households of the peasants of the Great Plain and Transdanubia, cow’s milk prevailed, sheep’s milk in the mountainous regions, mainly in the Carpathians, and buffalo’s milk in the Transylvanian Mezőség.
Types of milk processing
Three basic types of milk processing methods were known in Hungary according to the way milk is treated and the milk products that can be produced (Balassa, Ortutay 1980). Multiple or different versions of the same system could be practiced simultaneously even in the same place. The three systems involved were one without rennet, one with rennet of animal/plant origin, and the yogurt maker.
1. Milk processing without rennet: in peasant households, milk is usually drunk fresh. If they pour it into milk pots (köcsög) it sets and becomes sour, and this is much liked, especially in summer. This was the (most common) system without rennet, in which they waited for the natural curdling of the milk.
2. For Hungarians, the milk processing system using rennet is typically associated with sheep’s milk regions. In this system, rennet is added to fresh, udder-warm, non-skimmed whole milk. The curd-like cheese that precipitates from this can be eaten fresh or preserved using various methods. By boiling the remaining fatty whey, a leaner curd precipitates out, which is a tasty dish (zsendice) when spooned with its juice. Separated from the juice, it can also be used as curd (orda). Rennet is mostly made from the stomach of a suckling animal (calf, lamb, pig, kid goat), rarely, if necessary, plants can also be used (e.g. milkweed, jelly ear fungus).
3. The yogurt-making system common among the peoples of Central and Asia Minor was only known in the regions inhabited by the Kun and Jász people of the Great Plain, and its folk practice is of ancient Turkish origin. The rest of the previous batch was used as a rennet. The resulting clot (yogurt) is called tarhó. In Hungary, by the end of the 19th century, the daily continuous production of tarho was typical only in Nagykunság, among the cattleherds, who only made it from the milk of the cows kept for their own needs, or occasionally strained tarhótúró (curd/cottage cheese).
In the Hungarian Landscape Dictionary published in 1838 by the Magyar Tudós Társaság, Dániel Csapó notes that tarhó is “the ice cream of the Great Plains cattleherds,” even treated as a dessert. Herman Ottó noted about Kecskemét’s largest pasture (puszta), Bugac, that tarhó is the “herdsmen’s main food”.
Fig. 1. Cattleherds having lunch in the puszta. Drawing by Valerio 1855.
A major shortcoming of the historical data is that we hardly find any directions for making the herdsmen’s tarhó. Therefore, in 1932, László Madarassy approached one of the authorities of the old-fashioned herdsmen, the 67-year-old Bense Imre, the head cattleherd (számadó gulyás) at Kiskunfélegyháza. Based on what he said, he wrote down the following description ( Madarassy 1932; Kisbán 1967).
The számadó always kept one or two dairy cows with the herd of cows (gulya), because milk played a very important role in feeding all cattleherds (bojtár) who worked under him. When there was 20-25 litres of freshly milked milk, he took out the “milk tree” (tejszolgafa), knocked it into the ground, hung a huge milk jug corresponding to the amount of milk on it, poured the milk from the milking vessel (zsétár) into it and set it on fire. The milk had to be boiled until its foam boiled off. While boiling, you had to stir it with a wooden spoon so it wouldn’t burn. He then poured the boiled milk into the vat of tarhó (tarhósdézsa). (This was a 20-25 litre wooden vessel that only lasted one summer; a new one was bought at the spring fair the following year.) The milk in the tarhósdézsa was not allowed to be stirred.
The cattleherd tested the warmth of the milk with his finger, and when the milk was “neither cold nor warm” in the pot, he added half a spoonful of rennet (the crust of brown sourdough bread soaked in milky water). After that, he covered the vat with a clean white tablecloth, but first he put a wooden cross over it, which kept the tablecloth away from the milk. Then, tied a “nest” around the wooden vat covered with this tablecloth, i.e. he covered it with a sheepskin and put it in a hole dug in the shelter of the shepherd’s quarters. The tarhó remained in the nest for three hours, during which time it coagulated, then it had to be taken out, because otherwise the curd would have precipitated out of the whey.
Fig. 2. Tools for milk processing (c= milk jug, d= “milk tree” tejszolgafa ). Drawing by László K. Kovács, 1947.
If the tarhó was eaten during the day, it was first cooled in water freshly scooped from the well. It didn’t need to be cooled in the morning, because it cooled down by itself in the coolness before dawn. The tarhó was usually eaten in the morning and in the evening, but before it was consumed, one or two spoonfuls were set aside for “seeds” in a small mug, because the next vat (or vats) was not renneted with the bread crust, but with the tarhó “seed” (tarhómag). To enjoy the cowherds’ famous tarhómag, the inhabitants of the surrounding towns willingly went out into the puszta, where they gave wine and tobacco to the cowherd in exchange.
The density of tarhó is jelly-like, with a sweet taste is sweet, is a healthy light food and good for the stomach. As the head cattleherd Bense Imre said in his testimony, even if one had enough of it in the morning, in the afternoon, one could barely see the herd of cattle’s watering hole due to hunger. The superfluous tarhó never went to waste either, it was processed into cottage cheese and this tarhó curd (tarhótúró) was better than any other one. Any accidentally soured tarhó was not poured out either: the soured tarhó was crushed with a wooden spoon and put into tarhonyasoup. (NB Tarhonya is an egg-based noodle. It probably originates from the influence of the Ottoman empire and Turkish cuisine and the term likely comes from tarhana or may be of Persian origin, similar to the Persian tarkhane.)
Fig. 3. Cattleherds having a lunch in the pasture (puszta). 1942, by Viktor Szabó. (Fortepan 135626).
Author: Katalin Juhász, PhD, senior research fellow, Institute of Ethnology, Research Centre for Humanities (Research Centre of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences).
Balassa, Iván and Ortutay, Gyula: Magyar néprajz. Budapest: Corvina, 1980. 282–285.
Madarassy, László: Gulyások tarhója. Ethnographia XLIII. (1932): 79–80. See also: Kisbán, Eszter: A joghurt helye és szerepe a délkelet-európai tejfeldolgozási rendszerekben. Ethnographia LXXVIII. (1967) 81–94.
Editor’s Note: This contribution by Katalin Juhász is part of an on-going series that began in collaboration with The Ritual Year Working Group of the S.I.E.F. (International Society for Ethnology and Folklore). We especially thank Tatiana Minniyakhmetova, author of the article on Udmurt yoghurt, for encouraging Katalin to join us with her contribution.