“It was worse at Mohács.”

So how then did the strudel and/or filo dough handoff happen between southern and northern Europe? As I mentioned below, the southern (Balkan) portion was under the control of Empire A, the Ottomans, while the northern portion was under the control of Empire B, the Austro-Hungarians. To say the two didn’t care much for each other is putting it mildly. They were bitter enemies. A not implausible explanation is that the transfer took place via the region now known as Hungary.

To explain why we need to flash back a little further in history to a time when Hungary itself was a mighty empire, way back in the Middle Ages when a federation of Magyar tribes controlled pretty much everything from what is now the Czech Republic and southern Poland all the way down through the Balkans to the borders of Greece and Turkey. Those were the glory days of Hungary, and they lasted from about 900 A.D to about 1500 A.D..

It was in the early 1500’s that the Ottoman Empire, which had been growing in size and confidence since about 1300, started making incursions into Hungary from the South. The Hungarian Empire had gotten rather, how to put this…fat and lazy after hundreds of years of dominance. Its kings were weak, its peasants were revolting (in all senses of the word), and its nobles corrupt and decadent.

In 1521 the Turks sacked the southern city that’s now known as Belgrade but was once called Nándorfehérvár. Don’t worry, I have no idea how to pronounce it either. The defeat left virtually the entire southern border of the Empire unprotected. The result was that in lightning speed — or at least in what passed for lightning speed in those days — the Turks invaded. That was in 1526.

In fairness, it wasn’t as if the Hungarians didn’t make any attempt to respond to the initial incursion. The year after Nándorfehérvár fell, 1522, a force of some 60,000 troops was assembled under King Louis II. The troops set off with great ceremony to meet the Turks in battle, however after a few days it occurred to them that no one had remembered to bring any food along, so everybody went home.

By August of 1526 the Turks had pressed deep into the Empire, all the way to a town called Mohács, which is actually still in Hungary, in the extreme south of the country. There the forces of King Louis and those of Suleiman the Magnificent squared of in a marshy plain. As history tells it, the battle was something of a comedy of errors for the Hungarians. They squandered an early opportunity to slaughter the Ottomans when they were bogged down in the swamps, used up their best troops in the first few minutes of the battle, and left themselves wide open to a hammering by the Turks’ 160 artillery pieces. The whole thing was over in a little more than two hours, a major embarrassment at a time when epic battles could last for days, weeks…sometimes months. King Louis fled the scene in humiliation shortly after, but his horse threw him during a crossing of a nearby stream. He drowned in his heavy armor in a few inches of water. It was that sort of day.

The result of the disaster was that the Hungarian Empire was shortly divided up by the Ottomans and the Habsburgs, and the region which is now modern day Hungary became one big battlefield for about the next two hundred years. The bright spot in that dismal story was that, what with all the advancing and retreating that went on in the ensuing centuries, Hungary became the site of a grand cultural exchange between East and West. Thin doughs it seems were part of that exchange, and eventually came to be adopted by the wider Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Still that’s cold comfort to modern Hungarians, for whom Mohács is seen, not without reason, as the event that undid of a great and mighty empire. To this day, when a bit of misfortune happens to them — say a little fender-bender or a dressing down by the boss — the more stoic Hungarians still like to say “well, it was worse at Mohács.”

4 thoughts on ““It was worse at Mohács.””

  1. Excellent briefing of Hungarian history, Joe! ( I am one of your Hungarian readers, baker, tour guide) Basically Mohács was the crucial moment in our history that left traces in our culture, language, “blood”, architecture and definitely in our cuisine. (not to mention that we “hosted” the Turks for 150years, they must have enjoyed many things here for sure)
    As you stated we used to be a site of a grand cultural exchange between East and West so no question for us that strudel has Hungarian origin, same with “gulyás” (soup), stuffed cabbage, croissant, chimney cake and so on 😉
    And all the countries around us think the same way. As you cross the border all these meals become original Austrian, Slovakian, Serbian, Romanian. And this is the way it should be. This Central-Eastern Eurpean region (as we call ourselves) is a very vibrant, exciting area. Like a huge sliece of strudel with many different fillings.
    Thanks again for the writing!

    (by the way: we have strudel with 3different filling in the same time: poppy seed-curd-sour cherry; we have strudel stands in each market so it is still a national dessert here although we do not bother preparing our own dough (to tricky and long process) at home nowadays, unfortunately, but i still remember how my granny used to stretch it out to cover the whole table with no rips. unbelievable! yum!)

    1. That’s a great relief, Bea! Thank you.

      I love Hungary. I visited there in the late 80’s and didn’t want to leave! Buda, Pest, Lake Balaton…I had a wonderful time, and I loved the strudel. When I was a boy my two best friends were Hungarian, the sons of immigrants from Szeged. Was their mother ever a wonderful cook!

      Thank you once again for your very kind comment. Write to me any time!

      – Jor

  2. Wow, great story!

    I really love cooking and history as well (I’m graduating in Sociology/History), and I’d love to visit Central/Eastern Europe!

    That’s why your website is so good, Joe!

    1. Thank you, Patrick. The blog is a weird mix of stuff…but I like it. I’m glad you do too!


      – Joe

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *