The ancient writer Pliny (Gaius Plinius Secundus) with these words praised the special geographical features of the Carpathian Basin in his work Natural History (Historia Naturalis), published in 77. In some ways, his work also describes the environmental, soil and climatic conditions available to us, which determining the right environment for each fruit. Examining our location, we can say that the topography, climate and natural waterways form a favorable ensemble. Due to the nature of the basin, alluvial plains covered with sand and loess, mountains formed by karstic, granite-core, volcanic rocks, and hills formed of clayey sand layers alternate. We cannot complain about the temperature, light conditions, rainfall or wind either, as the number of hours of sunshine is high, the average annual temperature exceeds the values characteristic of this latitude and a sufficient amount of rain falls. Taking a closer look at the conditions considered optimal, we can of course find greater differences in territorial distribution. The favorable conditions were also recognized by the farmers, so the production of fruit in today’s sense started very early in Hungary. Written proofs can also be found from the reign of Charles Robert (Caroberto), Louis the Great and King Matthias. No wonder, that in a unique way in Europe, the first literature with scientific professionalism was written in Hungary in 1667 in Hungarian, by János Lippai. The title of the work Posoni Garden, in his volume “Orchard Garden“, presented the collection of species and varieties created by Lippai in the garden of the Archbishop’s Palace in Bratislava. The climate and soil of Hungary are suitable for most of the temperate fruits, so in addition to the native fruit species and varieties of Hungarian landscapes, new species and varieties as well as cultivation methods were imported from Asia, Southern Europe and then North America. Thanks to several significant plant breeding over the centuries, the palette of cultivated fruits has become very diverse by the 21st century, it is also linked to the production of pálinka, since in those geographical areas which are outstandingly suitable for the cultivation of certain types of fruit, high-quality pálinka has also been produced for centuries.
Challenges in pomiculture, its connection with pálinka production
The situation of domestic fruit cultivations is of high importance considering pálinka, since Pálinka (and Grape marc pálinka) is protected under the geographical indication in the European Union, and according to the product description regulating its production, it can only be made from fruit grown in Hungary (Grape marc from grapes and from aszú).It is no wonder, that every year those working in the production of pálinka monitor the development of fruit production with a keen eye. Although the size of the fruit-growing area has been around 80,000 hectares in recent decades, the yield is characterized by hecticity. Plant diseases, climate change, the extreme weather from year to year, outdated plantation structures, low mechanised operation, lack of sufficient professional manpower, low storage capacity, insufficient sales have a serious impact on the yield and quality of certain domestic fruit varieties – not to mention – lack of frost and ice protection. These have significantly transformed the volume of production and the composition of the varieties produced over the past decade and a half. Statistics show that the production of species less tolerant of changing climatic conditions in Hungary, such as raspberries, blackberries, blackcurrants and gooseberries, but species that are among the most important fruit crops in the EU, such as apples and peaches, is declining sharply. Unfortunately, we can also see a decrease as examining the more significant fruits. Despite the sour cherries have the second largest area of fruit in Hungary – we have been the largest exporter of fresh sour cherries on the EU internal market for years, but also the world’s largest exporter of fresh cherries, according to experts – due to the weather conditions, in the last 2 years crop of sour cherries declined by 20 percent compared to past years’, and even by 35 percent compared to the harvest of the best year. The situation is no better in the case of plums, as 27,000 tons of plums were harvested in 2020, which was the lowest yield in the last twenty years. Due to the damage caused by spring frosts in apricot plantations, 2020 was a low point with the yield of 10.6 tons, which was only 41 percent of the previous year’s and not even half of the average yield of previous years. The seriousness of the situation regarding to apricots is well illustrated by the fact that at the international level, the results of 2020 and 2021 were by 40 percent lower than the average of 2015–2019, being the worst yields in the last 30 years. Only fruits such as strawberries and cherries have a positive result due to their good market position and profitability. As fresh consumption and industrial processing are the primary goal of utilization of total fruit produced, therefore only the 2.5-3 percent of fruit use to make spirits and/or Pálinka. Examining the individual fruit varieties separately, we can see that while 1-2 percent of sour cherries and only 1-1.5 percent of apples will usually have pálinka, 15-17 percent of plums and 14-23 percent of apricots. Looking at the effect of the weather on processing, the fact that in 2020 only 4 percent of the apricot crop became a distillate is particularly meaningful, so the effect of a bad harvest can also be measured in the case of the spirits market. However, it is not only possible to look at fruit production on a market basis, because it is also a respect for nature, fruit, people and work, that’s why there has been a lot of cooperation between experts to get the best quality fruit. For many years, the most important domestic fruits are presented at a variety demonstrations combined with professional consultations regularly organized by the Ministry of Agriculture (AM), the National Food Chain Safety Office (NÉBIH) and the National Chamber of Agriculture (NAK). One of these venues for variety demonstrations is at the NÉBIH Tordas Plant Variety Experimental Station. Here, there is a collection of varieties covering an area of 11 hectares, which, among other fruits and crops, means the continuous examination of more than 300 varieties of apricots and peaches alone. The main focus of the professional programs in 2021, which did not include the presentation of the variety and the trends in the use of the variety, was the issue of frost damage during the spring blossoming in recent years. They tried to work out solutions together.
Pálinka as the soul of the fruit – change in the supply of fruit and fruit varieties
Although some older beliefs suggest that pálinka is just a substance has undergone through a fermentation in which the alcohol is the essential element, however experts say the little other part is the decisive because it shows the soul of the fruit in the form of pálinka. Each of the Hungarian commercial distilleries tries to keep a wide range of raw materials, i.e. to produce pálinka made from as many fruits as possible. Their production is influenced by several factors, but the most important of these are what raw material is available for – what kind of fruit is available in what volume – and what they can sell – what the consumer is looking for – and what the reseller partners are demanding. Despite the fact that many have their own plantations with a limited variety, the raw material is obtained from the market by distilleries, mainly from fruit growers. Thus, it is clear that they are strongly dependent on fruit growers. Another difficult scope, is serving consumer demand because traditionally made and consumed pálinkas are regional pálinkas under protection, among them the most well-known and popular classic stone-fruits such as apricots and plums, and pome fruits as pears and apples. However, consumers’ knowledge of varieties is very limited, precisely because of the traditions, so what they are looking for in a pálinka only assumes a very limited variety of fruit types. Concerning apricot pálinka for example lot of people still expect that to resemble the apricot jam made by their grandmothers in both smell and taste. These aromas are obtained from the classically known so-called Hungarian varieties, e.g. Gönci apricot, Hungarian apricot, Cegléd giant, Rózsa apricot and Pannónia apricot are known. The situation is similar in the case of plums, as many people expect plum jam from pálinka there, which is given by the long-cultivated classics type name Penyige (in common name: “I don’t know”), Beszterce, Debrecen muscat or Red plums. If the consumer does not get the experience expected from a pálinka, the drink may also disappoint them, which is difficult to be defended by the producer. Apart from the different aroma worlds of the varieties, only a few people know that sharka (plum pox) virus can cause severe destruction among stone fruits – apricots and plums -, and that to increase resistance also affects the aroma properties of the varieties. In addition, it is precisely these who are particularly affected by the significant frost damage that has occurred in recent years, so that varieties other than the pálinka raw material come to the fore. In Hungary, there is a very nice variety of apricots, and varieties such as Bergerouge, Kyoto, Harcot, Magiccot, Pinkcot, Goldrich, Orangered, and Spring Blush are excellent for pálinka, with a special – but unusual – taste world. Another important factor is that most of them are less exposed to frost damage and have better crop safety. Pálinka distilleries also use many varieties of plums, so delicious pálinka is made from Elena, Blufre, Cacanska Lepotica, Cacanska Radna (rodna), Ageni, Stanley, Presenta, or the German Top (topend, topten, tophit, topteast, topfirst) varieties. The latter, for example, have a completely different set of flavors, but due to their size and sugar content, they are also much more suitable for processing, ie pálinka. These varieties are currently less known to consumers. As far as pears are concerned, Vilmoskörte (yellow and red) are the most popular, and the varieties that have been growing in the gardens for a long time are the favorite of Klapp kedveltje, Ilonka, Kálmán (barley-ripe), Tüskés and Lujza pears. They also offer excellent pálinka at Packham’s Triumph, Bosc Kobak, Conference, Kiffer and Alexander pear. The variety of apples is also very varied, with the well-known Summer Apples, Starking, Gala, Jonathan, Idared or Golden Delicius, as well as Mutsu, Granny Smith, Braeburn, Florina, Topaz, Pink Lady, Pinova, Red Chief, Elstar, Jonagored varieties are also often found as pálinka, but consumers are also little known about them. We could continue the line by analysing the sour cherries, cherries and quinces, although we can see this, there are some fruits considered classic and others are little familiar to general public. The grapes are in an interesting situation in the recent period. It is produced primarily in very large volumes for wine purposes, but its popularity as a raw material for pálinka has increased in recent years. There are several reasons for this. On the one hand, a new trend has started with the first pálinka made from Irsai Olivér grapes, and consumers and pálinka producers are also open to grapes, as a very pleasant pálinka can be made from it. Another reason for the popularity of grapes and grape marc is that wine technologies have changed, and cooperation with wineries may have expanded, so that pálinka distilleries can obtain better quality grape marc. In addition to consumer needs and technology, the issue of weather also appears here, as in recent year’s grapes and its pomace have been a kind of alternative for distilleries in the absence of the usual fruits due to frost damage. It is no coincidence that the grapes could be obtained at a better price compared to their value. Although consumer demand is not yet fully in line with producer supply, there are already small signs of a commitment of quality beverages to move towards grape and grape marc pálinkas. It is also clear that, in addition to the fact that the pálinka sector depends on fruit production in terms of raw materials, its success may also have an impact on its development and recognition.
The challenges facing fruit production and related industry players, pálinka makers, are now a sign of the need for change. It will be essential for many old and / or outdated plantations to be out of the market in the next 5 years in order to be competitive and profitable. These changes will clearly affect the variety selection as well. New plantings need to be carried out, new plant protection technologies and pruning methods previously not used need to be introduced. It must also be taken into account that the composition and effectiveness of plant protection products are changing, as both the EU and Hungary are committed to reducing them. When looking for solutions to improve fruit production, it will be worthwhile to think about the processing of spirits, because the distilleries have sufficient capacity – often underutilized – and can take part in the reduction of consumers when introducing new varieties. It is comforting fact that our staff and our training in cultivation are of a European standard, and in some areas, such as improving issues, we can set an example for other nations. We also have an appropriate development strategy, with much more financial resources than before provided by the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) Strategic Plan for the period 2023-2027. Despite the joint efforts of the experts, the question may arise in the future whether the classic – usual – beloved aroma world should be completely let go and whether there should be room for novelty. The answer is presumably yes, but this change will be slow and consumer’s even wonderful pálinkas should be given enough time to accustomize and make friends with new fruits and favorite aromas.
Written by: György Csizmadia, Udó Dúl, Csaba Pavlicsek, Edit Szöllősi
 Caius Plinius Secundus Maior, Historia Naturalis, 77.- in: Balázs Géza: A nagy párlat és pálinkakönyv 2012.
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