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How to be a hungaricum

There is a long selection process to get recognized as a hungaricum, the evolutionary peak of being a uniquely Hungarian product, but the list is expanding by the year and ever more government efforts are aimed at turning that precious value into hard cash on global markets.

Kürtőskalács, or the chimney cake, is a registered hungaricum. 

Go anywhere in the world and you reveal your Hungarian origins, and it is more than likely that most foreigners would associate the country with legendary football player Ferenc Puskás. In Germany, Pick salami is another safe bet when it comes to discussing original Hungarian stuff, and at places with an elevated wine culture Tokaj would surely ring a  bell too. 

There are, however, a lot more legacies, products, innovations and even services that are deemed worthy of being remembered and presented on the world stage on every possible occasion. That was the argument followed by the lawmakers in 2012 when the concept of “hungaricums” was enacted. According to the legal definition, a hungaricum is something that has earned the right to be recognized as a top performance of the Hungarian nation thanks to its special, uniquely Hungarian features.

Thus far 60 items have made it to the elite club, with five new entries this year. These latter also perfectly demonstrate the diversity of things that can qualify for such high-level state recognition. Törley champagne, Erős Pista ground paprika, the legacy of János Kabay, the Hungarian pharmacist who pioneered the extraction of morphine from poppy straw and founded global pharma company Alkaloida, the one-of-a-kind rocks in the mountains of Bükk and the cimbalom, a piano-like percussive musical instrument fall into four different categories of hungaricums. And there are four more categories beyond those to ensure the widest possible spectrum of values to be embraced.

“Ultimately the Hungaricum Committee shall decide what will be recognized as hungaricum. The bottom line is the whole Hungarian culture needs to be reflected in it,” Imre Pesti, chairman of the Hungarian National Hungaricum Association (MNHSZ) tells the Budapest Business Journal. MNHSZ was established by 20 companies with the purpose of helping identify values and getting them registered so that the best in the end can be declared hungaricums. Its website (mnhsz.com) is also in English and Chinese.

The selection process is multi-stage and christened “the national value pyramid”. “It all starts at the local level, in villages, small towns or cities where civilians are entitled to submit proposals about adding something to an institutionalized value registry. Annually, several hundred proposals are filed, of which the worthy ones are entered into the municipality or regional value registry, whether inside or outside of Hungary’s borders,” Pesti explained. If something is regarded as having special significance at the county level, in a given sector or among a particular group of Hungarians living abroad, it is recognized as a national value.

Honored

“Even the smallest places have key values that serve to keep together the local community, but their significance is simply not big enough to give it higher credit. Still, they need to be honored, and that is what the multi-stage system is for,” Pesti added.

From the county, sectoral and national diaspora value registries it takes two more steps upwards to make it hungaricum. At first, the level of national value registry must be reached for which several dozen proposals are submitted per year. And, as has been said, only then comes the Hungaricum Committee itself to decide about the final eligibility. The committee has 21 members who are delegated by different bodies from Parliament, to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA), the various ministries and the chairman of the National Authority of Intellectual Property (SzTNH). The committee is chaired by the minister for agriculture, probably because more than one-third of current hungaricums are agro-food products, including pálinka, Unicum and fröccs − names that will sound familiar not only to ruin-bar patrons.

On the other hand, the most crowded category at the moment, holding 34 items, falls within the broad definition of cultural heritage. This can mean anything from Lake Fertő to the intellectual heritage of István Szécheny, the creator of the Chain Bridge, to the operetta music genre. The 12 sites that have been declared part of the UNESCO world heritage became hungaricums automatically, so they didn’t need to go through the pyramid stages described above.

Certain hungaricum categories are particularly under-represented, though. Sport features only the Puskás legacy, the built environment box remains empty, the natural environment has only two items, while industrial and technical solutions as well as tourism and gastronomy both have three items each. But those latter two may be looking forward to newcomers soon.

Innovative values

“MNHSZ is eager to promote innovative values and in its effort it is deeply committed to help such solutions enter global markets,” Pesti said. MNHSZ therefore frequents international fairs, food and cultural events in Italy, England, China and Scandinavia. “Of course, becoming a hungaricum by itself has a market value already, which should be capitalized on. And international legal protection can be gained more easily too,” the chairman continued.

Another potential culinary-bound source of hungaricums may emerge from umbrella brand Áldomás, which was established by the Hungarian National Trading House (MNKH), a government agency charged with promoting Hungarian exports. Áldomás now includes 30 premium-category foods and was scheduled to start its global tour in the second half of 2016. Should sales go as planned, an international breakthrough may catapult many products to a hungaricum nomination.

Hungaricum promotion is shifting into higher gear

Registering and cherishing values is one thing, getting the most out them, namely money, is a whole different story. That is why the government’s efforts to promote hungaricums inside and beyond the borders are of utmost importance. The Hungaricum Committee does its share. Hungaricums are collected electronically or in form of books, and whenever there is a new item that is awarded the title, a signature event is held in order to draw the lime light to it. In September, public television gave hungaricums a day-long series of programs and lately there have been state-sponsored tours in the United States, Germany and even Mongolia to spread the word about the greatness of these national treasures. For that matter, in America, hungaricums were presented at the 10th Hungarian Festival in Sarasota as part of an interactive exhibition featuring high-tech graphics. These international events were connected with commemorative occasions on the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Uprising, which provided extra opportunity to create a buzz around whatever Hungary can proud of.