Most Hungarians have an uncritical faith in the fact that pálinka is a general remedy for all pain and sorrow. The habit of starting the day with a shot of pálinka, which startles most foreigners, is expressed in the language by the humorous wish of ’PÁLINKÁS JÓ REGGELT!’. The tradition goes back to the times when peasants doing hard work in the field had a shot as an appetizer. The reflection of this is the word ARATÓ PÁLINKA, the ‘pálinka for harvest’, in its ideal strength a brandy of 53% alcohol content.

If you visit a home (especially in the country) be prepared to be greeted by a shot, very often the host’s own distillate. The way drink it can be quite ceremonial, first smelling it, then a sip and then knocking back the whole shot. Never miss to praise it by saying FINOM, REMEK or ten more synonyms of delicious. Foreigners often complain about Hungarians being pushy about offering more but it’s just a cultural trap – the host is expected to offer more if he/she sees you like it. If you don’t want more, say simply phrases of excuse like, Köszönöm, nem (mind the word order!), talán később (perhaps later), et cetera.

Pálinka has a special status since it’s the #1 Hungarikum (a unique Hungarian product or cultural artefact) and protected by law. Only fruit spirits (the most common ones are plums, apricots, pears, apples and sour-cherries) distilled and bottled in Hungary can be called pálinka. Back in the 1990s there was even a legal dispute between Romania and Hungary about the use of name since the drink is also considered a Romanian product under the name pălincă. According to legend the winning argument in favour of Hungary was the Romanian etymological dictionary which defined pălincă as ’fruit distillate of Hungarian origin’. Actually, the Hungarian version is a loan word from the Slovak ’palenka’ which is derived from the verb palit’ meaning ’to burn’.

Since the probe of the pudding is tasting, don’t miss this year’s Pálinka and Sausage Festival in Budapest between 2 and 4 October, judge for yourself.