FAIRFIELD — At one point in time, the area around 849 Kings Highway East was bustling with Hungarian-owned business and culture, according to Lazlo Gubicza.
In addition to the Hungarian butcher shop at that address, which Gubicza currently owns with his brother, Ferenc (pronounced Frank), and had belonged to three Hungarian families before him, at least four car dealerships in the area were Hungarian owned. Across from the small storefront, is St. Emery Church, dedicated to St. Emeric of Hungary. Adjacent to the church is Biro Street, whose name comes from the Hungarian surname meaning judge.
The street sign remains, as does the church. But many Hungarian-owned businesses have come and gone, or otherwise changed hands, and much of the population has left. But the European Meat Market & Delicatessen remains, a last vestige of a bygone Fairfield.
“We used to have a lot of Hungarians. But some of them moved, some of them divorced, some of them died, some of them lost a job and had to leave,” explained Lazlo, who took ownership of the shop in 2005.
Still, on a quiet Wednesday morning, the customers who trickled in largely spoke to Lazlo in his native tongue.
Those in-the-know dealt directly with Lazlo, asking in Hungarian for the items on their shopping list. Others less familiar with the uniquely European selection took a lap around the perimeter of the small store, eying curiously the pre-made goulash and chicken paprikash in the refrigerator. On racks below sat containers of pork and duck lard, Polish butter, sour cream and horseradish, all made in-house.
Along a shelf lining one wall, shoppers passed by jams, compotes, cabbage and lots of paprika, the red-colored spice pervasive in the cuisine Lazlo and his brother grew up with in Central Hungary.
“We are using a lot of paprika, you can see for almost anything. When we’re cooking stuffed cabbage, beef stew, veal stew, pork stew — everywhere we can use it, we’re using paprika,” Laszlo said.
The paprika used and sold in the store is imported from Hungary and comes either in paste or powder form. According to Laszlo, paprika adds taste, color and thickness to a variety of dishes -- from goulash to paprikash.
“It turns a soup more into a sauce,” Laszlo explained.
The many types of meat cased, cooked and cured on site, for which the shop is best known, also benefit from the pepper-based seasoning.
Some of those meats, including liverwursts, bratwursts, salamis, and French and Hungarian sausages are displayed in a refrigerator to the right of the entryway. Those meats that are kept cold, Lazlo explained, were hot smoked, meaning they were simultaneously cooked and flavored in the deli’s onsite smoker at a temperature of around 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
But more attention-grabbing are the deep red sausages and blackened hunks of dried beef that hang behind the counter from rags. These meats are smoked at a lower temperature, around 70 or 75 degrees Fahrenheit, coated with salt, which draws out moisture that would otherwise cause the growth of microorganisms, and hung for up to 18 days at a time, weather depending.
“If it is light and crisp outside, the meats may cure in 14 or 15 days,” said Lazlo, pointing out that this time of year is especially good for curing. “When there is more moisture in the air, it can take up to 18 days to cure.”
Lazlo and Ferenc are assisted in the preparation of the market’s meats and assorted other goods by their friend, Ferenc Pal, all of whom commute several hours daily from their homes in New Jersey to maintain the market.
In the back of the shop that same day both Ferencs were busy with prep.
In the cooler, Pal, was moving through a meaty gauntlet comprised of racks of beef salami, pork butt and jowls, back bacon and Canadian bacon, as he hung recently cased chicken sausage to be smoked and cooked for three hours.
Nearby, pork fat was being reduced down to lard on a large stovetop and kidney-shaped head cheese — a meat jelly made with various parts of a pig’s, and sometimes cow’s, head — was hung after it had been smoked for six hours.
Gubicza was at work making Hungarian stuffed cabbage — sprinkling paprika over layers of cabbage leaves stuffed with rice and pork meat in a large metal pot.
“That’s special Hungarian food,” Pal said proudly, through his thick accent.