Hungarian Longhorns Ride High on Range


On the Great Hungarian Plains, the only mad cows are testy longhorns protecting gangly calves from curious tourists.

Mean and rangy, the ancient breed produces less meat and milk than its beefy, pampered cousins elsewhere in Europe--a failing that led to near extinction in the 1960s when communist authorities ordered a switch to a more productive Soviet cattle variety.

A few Hungarian breeders defied the orders. Now the Hungarian longhorn's turn has come.

Sales of other cattle breeds are down because of the consumer scare over bovine spongiform encephalopathy, known as mad cow disease. But sales are rising for the free-range longhorns, which have eaten only the grasses of their ancient home for more than a millennium instead of the bone and meat meal that has been blamed for spreading mad cow disease to cattle in a half-dozen European countries.

"As far as we know, no other breeders in Europe can make that kind of claim," says Mihaly Boda, assistant director of the Hortobagy Environmental and Gene Conservation Co.

Hipp, the German baby food giant, uses longhorn meat to produce strained beef that it sells as BSE-free. Pick, Hungary's famed sausage maker, puts longhorn meat in one of its salami varieties.

Mad cow disease has been linked to the brain-wasting variant Creutzfeld Jakob disease, which is responsible for the deaths of nearly 100 people in Britain since 1995 and a few more in continental Europe.

The European Union has extended a temporary ban on bone and meat meal as it deliberates ways to combat the crisis. But even if that ban is made permanent, some experts say the ultimate death toll of people who ate BSE-tainted beef could rise to tens of thousands.

About 2,200 longhorns--known as Hungarian Grays--now roam the Puszta, the plains of eastern Hungary. All trace their lineage to about AD 895, when the first wild Magyar tribes rode in from Asia to settle.

Over a meal of longhorn beef paprikash washed down by a local white wine, Boda and other breeders speak proudly of huge, months-long cattle drives in the Middle Ages to cities across Europe. The longhorns were Hungary's primary export for centuries--a statue of a Hungarian Gray bull stands in the German city of Nuremberg to this day.

Imre Bodo was among the few who defied the communist decree to stop breeding the Grays. "We had to love Soviet cattle back then; those were the orders."

He chuckles in recounting how beefy Soviet bulls sought out shade from the blazing Puszta sun instead of mating. "We knew the Hungarian breed was better, but we weren't allowed to say it," he says.

The breeders say the longhorns are an exceptionally hardy breed after more than a millennium of living year-round on the range.

"The Puszta is essentially a hostile environment--bitterly cold winters, followed by scorching summers," says Zoltan Gencsi, managing director of Hortobagy. "Other cattle wouldn't survive out here, but ours thrive."

Hungary was spared the foot-and-mouth epidemic that led to tens of thousands of cattle being slaughtered in Western Europe earlier this year. But Gencsi says the longhorns probably wouldn't have suffered because they proved resistant to a foot-and-mouth outbreak in Hungary in the 1960s that sickened other breeds.

Foot-and-mouth disease rarely infects humans, but the outbreak, along with last year's mad cow disease scare, led to a huge plunge in beef sales because of consumer worry about the safety of beef. Germany, for instance, reported a 40% drop in beef sales in April from a year earlier.

Demand is up for longhorn products, however.

"The Hortobagy people could sell their complete stock several times over," says Csaba Body, head of Hipp's Hungarian operation. "The BSE crisis has generated a lot of interest from home as well as abroad."

European Union rules keep out longhorn steaks and other products because Hungary is not yet a member, but Hipp isn't complaining.

Laszlo Jozsa, Hipp Hungary's marketing manager, says it is selling strained longhorn beef baby food in much of the former Soviet Union, the southern Balkans and Eastern Europe and expects sales to exceed 55 tons this year. That's five times more than in 1996, the first year.

Pick, synonymous with salami in much of Europe, also has cashed in on the mad cow and foot-and-mouth disasters. Its "bio-salami" combines ground longhorn beef with the meat of another ancient Hungarian breed, the shaggy Mangalica swine. The dreadlock-sprouting pigs also range freely on the Puszta, eating only what they manage to forage.

Bio-salami sales this year are projected at 15 to 20 tons, compared with five tons in 2000, the first year, the company says.

Where Pick and Hipp sense profit, Imre Molnar sees beauty.

The 52-year-old herdsman has shared the Puszta's hardships with his longhorns for nearly 40 years, defying blizzards, droughts and the loneliness of wide spaces for weeks on end.

Molnar gropes for words to do justice to the breed's proud bearing, its spirited temperament, then settles for a declaration of love:

"Nobody has eyes as beautiful as my creatures."

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