Gastronomy is able to bring Hungary and the Netherlands closer to each other, according to Tom de Smet, Dutch chef and journalist.
In the last few years, Dutch chef and journalist Tom de Smet has been acting as a mediator for the gastronomy industry between the Netherlands and Hungary. “There is the real Dutch Ambassador and I am like a smaller one”, he tells Diplomacy and Trade. According to de Smet, born in Amsterdam but spending a lot of time in Hungary, he is constantly looking for links between Dutch and Hungarian gastronomy. He believes culinary tourism can also serve as an important bridge between the two nations. He regularly organizes tasters with Hungarian wine and Dutch cheese in “both of his mother countries.” In order to make things even smoother, he launched the website www.table-tom.com to build and establish a system of relations. He is also contributing to the website www.hongarijevandaag.nl which provides Hungarian news in Dutch.
De Smet, a true devotee to Hungarian dishes and drinks, first visited Budapest in 1986 with a tourist group, and he utterly fell in love with the city. He finally moved here because of a prosaic reason. Due to an accident, his right leg was badly injured but he was told the Budapest thermal water can be the best way to get it cured. He traveled the whole country, where he inquired, tasted, healed and in the meantime he thoroughly mapped the Hungarian culinary habits and gastronomy. “While I was traveling I noticed Hungarians are not willing to cooperate or think collectively, for example, in politics; however they can when it is about cooking, especially when they cook outdoors. The process is relaxed, but at the same time very hard-working, and when a problem occurs they solve it easily. In my opinion, this gift should be applied in other fields, as well. This is the best way of team building.” He believes communism had its advantage, namely, the western borders of the country more or less shut down, people were forced to produce and make things at home, in their own house. “Just think of pig butchering or the procedure of making cheese. In the Netherlands, the situation was and still is just the opposite. Dutch people have virtually forgotten how to make and produce things in their own homes. Here in Hungary this tradition must be preserved.”
“It's an interesting issue how these two countries could collaborate in establishing a peculiar Hungarian cheese-culture, which would consider the interests of both environment protection and village tourism”, remarks de Smet. “The Dutch and Hungarian people's taste in cheese has so much in common. However, in Hungary, before the change of the political regime, ‘mackosajt’ (a kind of cream cheese) and ‘trappista’ cheese were really popular; now the gustatory receptors, socialized on such products, are to be shifted”, he goes on. He believes nothing prevents us from establishing a developed cheese-culture in Hungary; the minor cheese producers should unite at least within regions, along with minor foreign cheese-makers.
“It is also crucial to train and strengthen the SMEs”, he adds. De Smet's initiation has made a way for the promising Hungarian cheese-makers to learn in the Netherlands from real Dutch masters. “A lot depends on providing proper knowledge and know-how for the minor producers' level, so that we would be able to discuss Hungarian traditions in the up-coming decades”, explains de Smet. Selling healthy, hand-made food is now routine in the Netherlands, so we still have much to learn in that field, as well. The threat of globalization is also a general problem. Minor producers can only be competitive against the multi-national dumping of goods if they come out with unique products of high quality. “I have talked to several cheese-makers who often complained that real good cheese cannot be produced here, in Hungary since Trianon, as high-quality soil as well as most of the markets are gone. I said to them if one would like to make prime cheese, then it's all about expertise and a good cow.” According to de Smet, cheese and wine culture are equally rich. “The world of cheese is developing day by day; new trends appear while others fade away. In the 1980s, making spiced cheese was really fashionable. I think it was carried a bit too far as the robust use of different spices tumbled the harmony of cheese. Nowadays, cheese-masters use these natural additives more carefully.”
Hungarian wines excellently fit in the ‘Table Tom’ project, beside cheese. De Smet is certain about wine-making being the most important agricultural sector in Hungary; this could support the image of the country the best.
Hungarian wines excellently fit in the ‘Table Tom’ project, beside cheese. De Smet is certain about wine-making being the most important agricultural sector in Hungary; this could support the image of the country the best. In the Netherlands, more than 150 Hungarian top-wines are available and due to his connections, Tom draws in further vintners into export opportunities. “Unfortunately, there are some stereotypes and prejudices among Dutch people to be abolished”, he remarks. The Egri Bikavér they had back in the 1970s and 1980s was extremely terrible, but due to the hard work of culinary journalists, chefs and top restaurants, now more and more look specifically for Hungarian wines.”
According to de Smet, Netherlands is more into floral, light, more mineral white wines; people especially enjoy Somló and Badacsony wines of modern style, as well as the Tokaj Furmint. This latter one is especially preferred, if nothing but for its sounding name. “We are trying to introduce regions too and by doing so it's often useful to include and present other products from the region, like cheese or sausage.” De Smet also believes that the scale of Hungarian export wines is a bit too wide. “The third of those 150 different types would be more than enough and they should have individual adverts. A division should be set up between less expensive but good-quality wines, expensive but special ones and real top products, to serve all demands.”