Csabagyöngye (“the Pearl of Csaba”) traditions
Along with the Csaba sausage, Slovak food and fine pálinka, the Csabagyöngye grape, a variety that is regarded as a Hungarian speciality, is also part of Békéscsaba’s rich gastronomy. One of Central Europe’s favourites and the earliest maturing table grape popular in the Northern Hemisphere, it is grown in nearly all grape-growing countries.
It owes its popularity to viticulturist Adolf Stark (1834–1910), who set it on course to global fame in the early 20th century. A migrant merchant born in Bártfa (today in Slovakia), Stark opened a hardware shop and a grocery in Békéscsaba in 1859. Four years later he married the daughter of a local landowner and settled down in the city for good. His house used to stand at 4 Széchenyi Street, where the Csabagyöngye Cultural Centre is now. He learned gardening from the farming community of Csaba, discovered the untapped potential of the industry and found both viticulture and viniculture a good investment. He planted his first vineyard in 1869 and soon established a rich collection of species. On an increasingly large piece of land of around 16 cadastral holds he grew an annual 20,000 kilos of table grapes for sale. He spared no expense or effort to collect approximately 300 species of vine from farms in Hungary and abroad. There were a few that he bred himself.
During his experiments from the late 1880s he selected the strongest and earliest harvesting seedlings, which he planted on large pieces of land with great care. It was grape breeding that made him famous. His grapes, fruits and other products won prizes at various market fairs.
He bred two new varieties, which he grew for sale. One was Csabagyöngye and the other the Kossuth grape. Although the latter also achieved fame in Hungary and abroad, only Csabagyöngye, this earliest–harvesting table grape grown in Hungary and abroad for nearly a century, enjoyed global popularity. His first advertisement appeared in the “Borászati Lapok” (Winemakers’ Magazine) in 1900. It promoted the seedlings of the earliest harvesting muscatel variety available from the autumn of 1901 for 2 koronas per seedling…
After Stark’s death his plantation was no longer cultivated. Today Csabagyöngye is only grown in small vineyards and private gardens. A street was named after Stark and a plaque was dedicated to his memory in Békéscsaba. Hobby gardeners cherish his legacy and his portrait can be seen on one of the frescoes depicting the history of the city in the state room of the Town Hall.
Experts agree that Csabagyöngye and the world famous Csaba sausage are of equal importance. As a tribute to Stark’s work, and in order to preserve Csabagyöngye as a grape variety and present it in a way befitting it, the city established a Csabagyöngye plantation on a 2-hectare piece of land between the Kenderföldek (hemp fields) and Csaba Lake in 2011. Trees of indigenous Hungarian fruits were planted on another 6,000 m² piece of land. Those interested can walk along designated trails in this model garden familiarising themselves with these unique varieties.
Events, festivities and other programmes are organised at the visitor’s centre, where visitors can have a glimpse into wine-making. The Stark legacy is on display in the memorial house named after him.
As a result of the city’s continuing the Csabagyöngye tradition, the first batch of grape pálinka was distilled in the autumn of 2012. Distillers hope that, like Csabagyöngye, the pálinka made from the grapes harvested on the plantation will also conquer the world.
Békéscsaba managed to revive a nearly-forgotten tradition and thus create another product unique to Csaba. So Csabagyöngye finally returned home after its victorious journey lasting a century and already at summer harvest time we can toast each other with Europe’s earliest new wine.