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Hungary Haunted By Szaloncukor, The Ghost Of Christmas Past

fundy%20sweets.jpgThe mystery of szaloncukor (or “parlor candy”), the Christmas tree decorations that you can eat, but that nobody does, has been bugging us for some time now. Why the tradition of buying kilos of unmistakably bland jello-filled, chocolate-coated candy wrapped in unappetizing colored foil before Christmas and then trying to palm it off to children who deserve better until March – long, long after their new toys have been broken or forgotten? An article ominously entitled “the floundering cult of szaloncukor in news portal Fn.hu throws some light on the origins of this Christmas custom so exclusive to Hungary, and why things just ain’t what they used to be.

hungo%20chrimbo%20tree.jpgThe origins of “parlor candy” are shrouded in uncertainty. According the Fn piece, but certainly not all sources, the tradition actually originates in Austria and Germany, where wealthy families would erect a Christmas tree in the Salon (usually the entrance hall) and decorate it with sweets wrapped in shiny paper. The original aristocratic Salonzucker of the Habsburg monarchy (although the sweets/decorations have been long forgotten in Austria) were soft, hand-made fondant sweets made simply from flavored, boiled and candied sugar. In other words, nothing like the gelatinous imitations found in Hungary today – the familiar chocolate coating was only added in the 1960s.

Every year, some 6,500 tons of szaloncukor are sold in Hungary, which amounts to almost a kilo and a half per household. The problem is that the szaloncukor seems to now be primarily thought of as a traditional Christmas tree decoration, rather than a treat for the sweet of tooth. This makes consumers highly price insensitive and likely to substitute quantity for quality. In addition, a study by researchers GfK has shown a fall in sales over the last three years as the market share of cheap variants has grown.

But it’s not all bad news. If you want the real thing this Christmas, you can always make your own szaloncukor – by following this recipe (in English, for the list of ingredients scroll down past the mézeskalács):

Combine the sugar, milk and water in a ceramic pot over the stove burner. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, stirring slowly. When it begins to boil, reduce the heat to low and let it simmer without stirring for 3 minutes. Pour into a heat-proof glass dish. (Don’t scrape the pot – it will cause the sugar to crystallize!) Add 2 & 1 TBSP of unsalted butter, and the desired flavoring(s). Stir with a wooden spoon until it turns white and stiff. Then pour the mass onto a damp napkin (cotton or kitchen towel), form into a rectangle about 3 inches thick. Let it stiffen a bit more, but before it becomes completely hard, cut into shapes with a wet knife (squares or rectangles, the rectangles are easier to eventually wrap).
Flavorings: In place of the water, I use coffee or orange juice. For the chocolate version, along with the butter I add a level TBSP of cocoa powder and a half teaspoon of vanilla.
In the past, this was the only way szaloncukor was made. Dipping and covering the candy with chocolate has become popular only in the last 20-30 years. The plain or chocolate covered squares (or sometimes brick shapes) are wrapped first in rectangular pieces of white tissue paper – with frilled ends – and then the center portions in colored foils. Yield: approximately 30-35 pieces.

  1. Anita says:

    Nobody eats it? who told you that???
    Of course everybody eats it, while it is there on the tree, you it the candy out of the packet, and leave the packet on the tree, looking as if it were still in there:)
    And anyway, you never ever could buy it all year round, it has always been just for Christmas. And the export is strictly limited, which means you cannot get them here in the UK, so I will have to ask my mum to send me some…

  2. Agi says:

    Exactly, I agree with Anita.
    My sister and I used to eat it while decorating the tree. Most of it would not even make it onto the tree: )

  3. suz says:

    Some of my fondest memories are of eating these sweets… I have left Hungary over 20 years ago and I still miss them a lot lol

  4. klara says:

    personally i do prefer the plain candy version that existed a LONG, LONG time ago when the only outer wrappings existed were silver on white or silver on red tissue paper. us kids would eat the candy out of the wrappers on the tree and leave the papers. this was during a time when treats were not as freely available and few varieties existed. it was special and seasonally so. our mom purchased some caramels in the usa and cut the tissue squares fringing the edges and made these for the tree so it would be as it were at home. memories! as sweet as candy.

  5. Judit says:

    Christmas without “szaloncukor” on the tree would feel like Easter without the Bunny.
    As a child I could hardly wait to get them home, and start to wrap the metal hooks around them, so they could be hang on the tree.
    Szaloncukor completed the decoration of the Christmastree!
    I live in the USA for almost 20 years now, but I always manage to get some on the tree.
    My children love them too; we seem to run out of this candy much too soon.

  6. Stan says:

    For the past decade or so I’ve been buying my Christmas candies from Budapest Deli. They have a store in California and a new one in Vegas. If you’re in the USA, you can order the stuff from them here: http://quickshipeurope.com

  7. Nora says:

    I agree with the other commentators, a Christmas tree just isn’t the same without szaloncukor! Hanging it on the tree is part of the fun, and then eating it off the tree unnoticed is the other part! Its sad about the drop in quality though, I admit. And I also miss the old wrappings, the ones you could roll into a large shiny ball after eating the candy!

  8. Robi says:

    Everybody eats it unless you buy that cheap junk on the photo from Fundy…. yukkkie

  9. Angeluna says:

    I am thrilled to find a recipe fot the Szaloncukor I remember. The jellyish modern stuff is awful. We could buy real Szaloncukor back in the day from Paprikas Weiss in NY. Next year we will make our own.

  10. gaby nagy says:

    have triedpurchase in the uk, no luck. Why!?
    I Remember dads family bringing boxes over from hungary on visits to uk. How exited we were to put on the tree. Yes, sometimes only the silver paper made its way on to the branches. How sad that I still have the wrappers from some sweets and they still have that smell!. Parents no longer with me so even stronger memories.

  11. Stella says:

    I agree with the other posters, I adored the stuff as a child, and even though we left Hungary when I was 10 years old, I still always remember szaloncukor on the Christmas tree. I wish I could find the ones I loved as a child, but they don’t seem to make them anymore. I remember the pink ones that were strawberry (I think), the chololate ones, and the ones with the really hard while centers. They were all yummy!

  12. anna urban says:

    you are sadly mistaken or have no clue what you’re talking about if you think no one eats szaloncukor. We eat it. we bring it to this country, and goto crazy expenses to get it, put it on our treas, and eat it as the holiday progrtesses. The thing that may confuse you is that it’s a tradition to wrap the szaloncukor-foil back without removing it from the trea as if there is still a candy inside the wrapper. By the end of the holiday it’s a candy hunt to find the wrapper that still has a candy inside. Even my non-hungarian family adopted this tradition and are awaiting our szaloncukor packets each year. My family gets 5-6 packs each year and it’s all gone within a month. Get your facts straight. We, Hungarians, eat szaloncukor.

  13. Monika says:

    My Guatamalian hubby loves this candy. It just simply “hits the spot”. We live in NY and even though I could probably buy it here, I don’t because my Mom asks me every year what kind would I like and she mails some. I do like fine chocolate and don’t eat sugary crap, but this just has the right combination when you find a brand that’s good. I was alianeted from the jello kind for a while because they changed something in the recipe, but this year it’s good. (I’m probably eating a different brand)

  14. kozjegyzo says:

    Szamosi konzum szaloncukor tastes exactly like when
    we where kids. I got a pack this year at Tesco, it was
    gone in a day or two. I wanted to buy some more because I love the stuff, but when I went back after
    Xmas they where all gone…

  15. Farkas László says:

    I see enormous marketing potential to the idea of candy hung on a Christmas tree! I can’t imagine an idea more inherently appealing to children, other than finding presents under the tree! This is an idea that can be “sold” worldwide; an “exportable” Christmas tradition as well as product. Billions of units of this candy can be made and exported globally.

    So why isn’t this happening? Our curse is that Hungarians have never been much of a business minded people; we can’t think and act like business people. As a result, we squander one opportunity after another to improve the nation’s economy.

    I am pessimistic that this can change simply by voting for this or that party/politican. Something is lacking in the people themselves, a great many who either distrust the whole idea of commerce, or have no idea of how to go about it. I have often said on politics.hu that this, at the least, is going to require decades to change, as it is due to cultural backwardness. The job of getting the nation on track economically is going to rest with a future generation, as I don’t see the current genration of Hungarians doing it.

  16. wolfi says:

    Here around Heviz and Keszthely last week you could still buy enormous amount of szaloncukor at half price at Tesco, Aldi, Interspar, you name it …

    Regarding the custom of putting sweets up the christmas tree, Germans use chocolate.

    I remember the year 2006 in Germany when on the 24th of december I bought a lot of chocolate at half price …

    Since then we’ve spent every Christmas in Hungary, but I can’t stand this szaloncukor thing, it’s much too sugary for me, we prefer the dark chocolate (min 50 % cocoa), yummie …

  17. Farkas László says:

    Hi Wolfi,

    I think the overall concept is good. Different flavors and modifications can be tried for various national markets.

    Demand has to be created through creative marketing worldwide. It involves adverising, promotion and public relations, areas where I think Hungarian companies are particularly weak. An old attitude left over from communism was that a factory and it’s managers should just focus purely on production, and forget about creating demand and selling. It is assumed that the buyers wil just turn up somehow by serendipity.

    As Anglo Saxon nations like the UK and US take Christmas and combine acute sentimentality with mass commercialism, I see them as particularly ripe “suckers” for the marketing of a new, low cost holiday “tradition”, imported from another land. Set up some trees in a mall or on a busy street, decorate them with this candy and have pretty girls hand out free samples! If the people like it, sell it to them right there and get them hooked. The rest is all just running ads at Christmastime and getting the product into stores.

    The economic potential of a new “old Christmas custom” that catches on can run into the billions.

  18. wolfi says:

    @FL:

    I’m sorry, but I think the sugar-sweet taste is just typical Hungarian, like I wrote before Germans (and maybe others) prefer chocolate …

    Another example are the Negros that my wife likes so much – I prefer different sweets, although she always feeds me with them, only the peppermint/”erös” ones I like.

    Many of these are “acquired tastes” – like marshmallows in the US which I find horrible …

    I read somewhere that the further south in Europe you go, the sweeter the sweets get – Greece and Turkey are famous for their extremely sugary sweets, cakes etc. Maybe the Hungarian tastes here come from the long Turkish occupation ?

    Anyway: th each his own …

  19. Farkas László says:

    Hi again Wolfi,

    Honestly, I never liked the stuff myself. I do like the idea of hanging edibles, especially chocolate and candy on a Christmas tree. I think there is a vast market for such an idea in some countries, but modern marketing would dictate that you test the target market for what flavors and texture would sell. There is a whole industry of such consulting out there, available to a manufacturer of such sweets. I don’t feel the original Hungarian candy formula for “Szaloncukor” would be a hit in many markets. Some substitute would have to be found.

    What bothers me is that I don’t think the current Hungarian manufacturers of such candy are thinking along such ambitious lines. Think small, be small.

  20. wolfi says:

    @FL:

    This type of marketing can only be done on a very wide scale, Europe at least or even worldwide.

    I did some teaching/consulting once on the design of databases for several of the really big companies like Unilever, Henkel(Persil) and P&G (I’m not bragging, I was only a computer expert there, didn’t learn any trade secrets).

    Of course they talked a bit about their problems.

    This business is devilishly complicated, every country has its own tzraditions, rules, housewifes/consumers expect different things, some names which are great in one country would look really bad in another.

    I like to look at the results, comparing products/strategies between say German supermarkets, Hungarian, english or US -it’s fantastic, you have similar or identical products, but completely different sales strategies.

    That takes a lot of expertise – which a small Hungarian company does not have – and can not pay for …

  21. Farkas László says:

    Hi wolfi,

    It all depends you know, some small producers have gone global before. I’m a big fan of hot pepper sauces for example, and most of them start out as small producers, and some do go global and have distributors in a number of national markets.

    I think the tie in with Christmas gives it a unique twist, along with the tradition of hanging the stuff on a tree. Many retailers carry seasonal specialty items at Christmas and are always looking for new interesting items.

    Whatever the size company, you always need hard working agressive salesmen who call, knock on doors and get the product out to various retail outlets. There’s not enough of that mentality in Hungarian business.

 
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