Kürtőskalács: The Hungarian Chimney Cake Has Protected GI Status

Kürtőskalács is a cylindrical Hungarian pastry popularly known as chimney cake. The first known recipe for it dates back to mediaeval times and was found in a cookbook written by Mária Mikes de Zabola, who was a Transylvanian countess, in 1784. It is a sweet, fire-cooked cake that street vendors in touristy areas prepare enthusiastically. 

Different European regions call the cake by different names. It’s known as trdelník in the Czech Republic, and skalický trdelník in Slovakia, where the cake is a Protected Geographical Indication baked good under EU law. The Protected Geographical Indication tag is used for goods that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities, reputation or characteristics that can be attributed to its place of origin. The regulation says that food products can only be labelled by their designated names if they come from the designated region. PGI is used to promote and protect foodstuffs from being bastardised and works to protect rare recipes.

The actual origin of the cake is disputed. Romanians have argued that it belongs to them. The Romanian Ministry of Agriculture intends to patent it as a traditional Romanian product.

There are multiple stories about how this confection reached the Czech Republic from Hungary. One story says that it was brought to Moravia, via Slovakia, in the 18th century by a Hungarian army general. It is believed that trdelník and its variants were found in the Transylvania district of Romania and spread across the rest of Europe from there.

The history of the Czech variation is ambiguous, but it is believed to be a relatively recent addition to the Czech food scene. What remains a point of conjecture is whether this means trdelník wasn’t the stuff of childhood for people now in their 30s, or an old recipe that was recently revived. 

Its cooking method is similar to how food was made in the stone age. Making bread can be traced back to the Neolithic period. Baking ovens and sugar didn’t exist in those times and people had to refine grain into a flour-like consistency, make dough and wind the mix around a stick and cook it over an open fire. Chimney cakes are made similarly, from sweet yeast dough, which is cut into strips, wrapped around a cone-shaped baking roll, and spit-roasted above charcoal. Freshly baked kürtőskalács can be rolled in ground nuts or powdered cinnamon. The Czech variation is very similar, made by rolling the dough into thin strips, winding it around a spindle called a ‘trdlo’, glazing it with sugar and then cooking it over open coals until the cake is brown and the sugar is caramelised. After the baking is complete, the cake is rolled in trays containing a mix of powdered sugar and cinnamon. 

To settle the debate about where kürtőskalács originated, it can be concluded that linguistically, kürtőskalács is definitely Hungarian. The Hungarian word kürtőskalács was mentioned in written documents centuries ago. The first written record of the recipe was also in Hungarian. Whichever country decides to claim it as its own, the fact remains that the pastry has gone on to become an integral part of Hungarian and Czech street food culture.