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On the Slovaks and Their Soups: A Tastebud-Tingling Intro

You do not have to linger long in Slovakia before the importance – and indeed, the bubbling aroma – of soup hits you. Hailed as a starter and gracing menus the country over in a dazzling array of flavours and forms, soup is up there as a key fixture of Slovak cuisine. Naomi Hužovičová, a Canadian cook and author living in Slovakia, has just brought out a book dedicated to the wonders of the country’s soups and stews… 

THE HIRED BAND had already packed up after playing at fašiangy, the celebration before the beginning of Lent. Young musicians had taken over for the after party; the number of songs they knew was impressive. Everyone over the age of 30 was starting to look rather lethargic, but the young people played on. Even my own love of music wasn’t holding up to the late hour.

The accordion player, who looked to be in his mid-twenties, pulled out his phone to check the time. 3:30 am. “Ej,” he said, “who’s going to wake up to make soup tomorrow?”

Sunday soup is a weekly tradition so ingrained in Slovak culture that a young man thinks of it while merry making in the wee hours of the morning. Sunday lunch starts with this soup, as well as any celebration involving a sit-down meal – weddings, birthdays, Christmas, Easter.

Festival time - everyone hungry for soup! ©Naomi Hužovičová

Festival time – everyone hungry for soup! ©Naomi Hužovičová

Bones of any kind (but often chicken) are slowly simmered with vegetables for at least three hours (hence needing to wake up early) to produce a sweetish clear broth, served with thin egg noodles and soft carrots. A smattering of Vegeta, dried vegetable seasoning, and parsley adds to the characteristic taste.

Sunday soup is just one example of the Slovak obsession with flavour-rich hot broths. In fact, every lunch meal begins with soup, whether in school cafeterias, restaurants, or at home. The type of soup varies – creamy soups, ‘clear’ vegetable soups, or legume soups to list a few – but the majority precede the main meal.

I have a number of theories of why soup is such an important part of Slovak food culture.

Soup made with stock from bones gets the gastric juices going and actually helps digestion of the lunch that follows. In fact, bone broth has been in the limelight recently for its healing properties, from helping fix leaky gut to healthy smooth skin. And, to boot, it makes any soup taste amazing.

When most of your food comes from your backyard, as was true in Slovakia until recently, you use every single part, including the bones and organs, to get the most nourishment out of the animal you worked hard to raise.

Soup is also a cheap way to fill up. Between two world wars and communism during the last century in Slovakia, food was often scarce. When I asked my mother in law what a classic Slovak soup was, she immediately thought of egg drop and caraway soup, and I got the impression that this was a good soup to fill up on when there wasn’t much else.

Slovak soups are vibrant in their colours and flavours ©Naomi Hužovičová

Slovak soups are vibrant in their colours and flavours ©Naomi Hužovičová

Then there are the meal soups and stews. These hearty dishes are perfect for feeding a large group of people, much like one might cook chili or beef stew to feed a crowd. Goulash, while originally Hungarian, is a staple in Slovakia and can be seen around the country simmering in large cauldrons outside. There are even goulash cooking competitions.

Another favourite is kapustinca, sauerkraut soup with different kinds of meat, or segedínsky guláš, a creamy paprika stew made with sauerkraut. Sauerkraut, fermented with salt, was a way to eat vegetables through the winter; it’s an amazing source of probiotics and contains even more vitamin C than fresh cabbage!

Curious about the Slovak soup culture, I set out to gather soup and stew recipes, which resulted in the ebook A Bowl of Comfort: Slovak Soups & Stews.

Part of it is a cookbook, with a total of 26 recipes for both starter soups and meal soups. Part of it is a travelogue, with pictures and explanations behind some of the food culture, like salaš, sheep farms, and the resulting product bryndza for bryndza soup. It addresses how the ultimate in batch cooking, i.e. preserving food in traditional ways, influenced the resulting cuisine (sauerkraut and klobasa are good examples). It looks at how the time-honoured rituals of cooking certain foods, like Sunday soup on Sundays or vegetable soup with dumplings on Fridays, cuts out the last minute panic of “what are we going to eat?”

Included are “normal” recipes, like cream of garlic soup and barley and ham soup, and more adventurous ones, like beef tripe soup and whey soup. There is also a whole chapter devoted to the amazing properties of bone broth! Recipes for some basics, like homemade Vegeta and a couple kinds of soup dumplings. And, on top of that, all the recipes are gluten-free or have gluten-free alternatives.

In the book, you can get a peak into everyday Slovak life through soups, something most Slovaks take for granted but miss when it’s gone. But there’s something else too. The book whets your appetite not just for tasting proper, tradition-steeped Slovak food, but for getting away from the big cities out into the countryside: where Slovakia’s heart surely lies.

Naomi Hužovičová writes about life in Slovakia as a Canadian on her blog, Almost Bananas, especially the food, culture, and places.

Slovak Craft Beer: Grabbing International Attention

Getting thirsty as the hotter weather comes? We don’t blame you.

Traditionally, Slovakia has been better known for its wine. But Slovakia’s craft beer is pretty amazing these days: not only in Bratislava, where there are four or five microbreweries that really stand out, but also in towns across the country from Banská Štiavnica to Poprad to Košice.

A brand new book by the leading travel publisher, Lonely Planet, Global Beer Tour, has now given Slovakia’s brewpubs the recognition they deserve. It has selected the country’s beer scene as one of the 30 around the world most worth talking about. To find out which of Slovakia’s microbreweries made the cut, you’ll have to go to the relevant chapter in the book, written by none other than Englishman in Slovakia’s Luke Waterson! The book is a bible for those of you that love beer and like travelling (most of us, surely?)

A hearty cheers, anyway. It’s always so nice to see Slovakia making a name for itself overseas. And for once, those Czechs have not stolen all of the hop headlines…

A Taste of Slovakia is one of the first books on Slovak cuisine available in English. Image by Jarmila Hlavková

Spotlight On: Jarmila Hlavková, Author of the First Slovak Recipe Book to be Published in the English Language

Slovakia is a land-locked country surrounded by five other bigger and historically more influential nations – the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Ukraine and Poland – and as in other respects, this has moulded the country’s culinary development. But whilst Slovak food may feature the pickled Czech cheese, Austrian schnitzel and Hungarian goulash, circumstances have conspired to foster a very distinctive array of food enjoyed within its borders… the problem being Slovakian cuisine never really had a mouthpiece – before now. Jarmila Hlavková has recently written one of the first cookbooks ever to focus solely on Slovakian cuisine available in English: A Taste of Slovakia. The importance of this should not be under-estimated: a nation is after all defined by its food, and the international perception of it, more than anything else. Now, an international audience can get to grips with dumplings, sheep’s cheese and a huge variety of Slovak cuisine’s lesser-known treats. Englishman in Slovakia recently caught up with Jarmila to talk about Slovak gastronomy…

1) First-off, can you give us an introduction to Slovak cuisine: what is special about it and what your favourite traditional dish is (and where you would eat it in Slovakia)?

The best introduction to Slovak cuisine is through our national dish, and that’s Halušky s bryndzou or Halušky with Bryndza Cheese. Bryndza cheese is a truly Slovak invention whose origins and name are protected by the EU. As for the Halušky – it’s a special type of pasta (similar but by no means exactly the same as a dumpling) that can be easily made at home if you have the right equipment. Halušky have several variations and they feature in a number of other Slovak dishes.

The best place to eat Halušky s bryndzou is at what we call in Slovak a Salaš. Salaš is a Slovak name for a shepherds’ house – a wooden cottage usually located close to the pastures. Quite a few also have an adjacent restaurant, where you can savour traditional Slovak food and enjoy the beauty of the Slovak countryside at the same time.

My favourite salaš is one in Zázrivá, about 10km east of Terchová in the Malá Fatra region (www.salaszazriva.sk), where they prepare a wonderful selection of Slovak dishes from fresh, locally made ingredients. What’s special about the place is that you can see traditional Slovak cheeses being made on the premises, as well as watch sheep, goats, horses and other farm animals grazing the lush pastures around.

For those with a sweet tooth like me, I would definitely recommend to try our strudels. The Detvian strudel I wrote about in my blog is something to die for. The family business based in a small village near Detva, in Central Slovakia near Banská Bystrica, is barely managing to keep up with the high demand. They deliver their delicious strudels to local deli shops, cafes and hotels around the Podpoľanie region.

Bryndzové Halušky - image by Jarmila Hlavková

Bryndzové Halušky – image by Jarmila Hlavková

2) What inspired you to write a book on Slovak cooking?

My love of cooking and writing in English. When I got a huge Culinaria of Europe for Christmas more than ten years ago, I saw that Slovakia was given only a marginal mention – a couple of paragraphs about sheep’s milk cheese and Halušky. There were a few factual errors in the text, so I took it as a challenge and decided to write a book devoted entirely to Slovak cuisine.

3) People think of Slovak food as quite heavy. What are some ‘surprising’ dishes which do not fit into this category?

Slovak food is only as heavy as you want to make or have it – it’s about the choice of ingredients, the amount of fat or sugar in the dish, the portion size, and perhaps the extras. That said, you can find quite a few nutritious and healthy Slovak dishes on some restaurant menus, but you can definitely control things when you make the meal yourself. I’m not a health freak but I do like simple, nourishing food and that affected the choice of recipes for ‘A Taste of Slovakia’. There’s a good balance of soups, mains, desserts, snacks and a whole chapter on preserving garden produce, which is what the Slovaks love to do in the summer, and are very good at. So contrary to popular belief, you’ll find dishes like Baked Buckwheat Kasha, Bryndza Cheese Sticks, Scrambled Eggs with Forest Mushrooms, or Hot Plums with Ice-cream and Mead in the book.

4) What is your advice for people who wish to travel to Slovakia to experience genuine, really good traditional Slovak food but don’t know how or where?

Contact websites like yours or mine, get in touch with local people, be nice and respectful, and you’re very likely to make friends and be invited to their homes. We love having guests, sharing food and drink with our visitors, and make them feel at home.

5) What is it about your book that makes it interesting to readers in your opinion?

‘A Taste of Slovakia’ is much more than a collection of traditional Slovak recipes. It’s a journey into this small country’s culture (folk stories), the customs that evolve around cooking and eating (Celebrating summer harvest), the lifestyle (Goulash parties), as well as history of some typical ingredients (bryndza cheese, forest mushrooms, mead etc.). And for those who delve deeper into the text, there is an added bonus… but I’m not going to disclose more here – you need to buy the book for that!

A refreshing cup of countryside drink žinčica, a tart and tasty by-product of sheep's cheese - image by Jarmila Hlavková

A refreshing cup of countryside drink žinčica, a tart and tasty by-product of sheep’s cheese – image by Jarmila Hlavková

6) Did you have to travel around Slovakia sourcing the best recipes for this book? Did you have any interesting experiences on the research?

Before I even started writing, I’d read through that tome of European Culinaria to understand what makes our cuisine different from others, and what we could contribute to the European or world’s table. Then I got myself lots of Slovak books, ancient and more contemporary, and did a thorough research. But the most enjoyable part of the project was definitely travelling around Slovakia, meeting people, listening to their stories, collecting ideas, taking pictures and discovering hidden gems of our countryside. Originally, the plan was to write a single book that would map our eating habits throughout the four seasons of the Slovak year, but I soon realized there would be plenty of material to fill four books. And that’s how I took it on. The first book is about summer in a Slovak kitchen.

Interesting experiences? There were quite a few, especially when I was taken for a reporter or a professional photographer on a number of occasions, which sometimes won me a prominent place in the queue or opened the doors that were normally shut for the public. Nobody found out I was a self-taught photographer learning on the way and experimenting, often in one-time situations. Fortunately, most of the photos came out well, though I have to say I have raised my standards and become much more finicky on the way.

7) Where can people buy your book?

Through my website www.cookslovak.com, my e-mail address cookslovak@gmail.com, or in one of the bookshops in Slovakia. At the moment, A Taste of Slovakia is selling at Artforum Bookshop in Zilina and Bratislava, Oxford Bookshop at Laurinska 9, Bratislava and some other venues like Bratislava Flagship Restaurant, Vcelco Smolenice s.r.o., and Podpolianske muzeum Detva. I’m about to strike a selling contract with Halusky shop in London.

I’m also actively looking for reliable partners to help me sell the book in the USA, Canada and Australia where there is quite a large Slovak diaspora, though I believe A Taste of Slovakia could make a good read for anyone interested in food.

Bryndza natierka - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

An Easy Bryndza Recipe

Bryndza, the tart, tangy sheep’s cheese that forms one of the backbones of Slovak cuisine, can be used in a variety of dishes – most famously, of course, in the national dish Bryndzové Halušky (potato dumplings with sheep’s cheese, to be featured in another post, because actually getting those dumplings right is an art many non-Slovaks can’t grasp). But just about the easiest thing to do with bryndza other than eat it straight is to make it into a tasty spread (natierka) which could also be used as a dip – perfect for a dinner party extra whether you’re in Slovakia or out of it.

Bryndza Natierka Ingeredients

– Bryndza – one good-sized piece (it’s sold now at a lot of Polish delicatessans, as well as Czech and Slovak delicatessans across Europe but THE place to get this cheese is in the Slovak mountains and the area around Liptovský Miklauš is famous for producing the very best. Stalls sell it at the roadside in that area.)

– Butter

– Half a red onion

– Cumin

– Powdered sweet red pepper (this is used more for colour than for taste. You could also use paprika for this, which will be the nearest widely-available thing in the UK – but then it would be more feisty).

NB: No specific quantities are given because there is no correct measure of ingredients for this recipe. Ignore, to a large extent, any bryndza natierka recipe which gives you specific measures for the ingredients. It’s all about what feels and tastes right for you. Be more organic about it. As a yardstick, I used, with a ball of about 200g of bryndza, maybe just under a quarter of a normal block of butter. That gives the spread a pretty creamy taste. Oh, and SOFTEN THE BUTTER for an hour or so outside the fridge before you use it. Otherwise it’s Hell to work with🙂

Bryndza Natierka Method:

OK: here’s the method:

1: Mash the ball of bryndza down on a plate, like so:

IMG_2522

2: Cream in the pre-softened butter, having cut the butter into small knobs. Cream until the mixture has a smooth consistency.

3: Thoroughly mix in the sweet red pepper powder or paprika, as in the pic below. Note how the colour slowly changes to a vibrant salmon pink.

IMG_2526

4: Again, being quite liberal, mix in the cumin (try a teaspoon full for starters):

5: Mix in about half a finely chopped red onion. Chop it really fine: it improves the taste.

6: Eat! I personally like bryndza natierka a little soft and spreadable – in which case leave it out a half hour or so before serving. It’s good with crackers or bread – or you can have it as a dip if you’re making a buffet. Celery dipped in bryndza? Mmmm

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Top Ten Quintessential Slovak Foods and Drinks

It’s been a long time in coming but here, after much consideration, is my top ten of quintessential Slovak foods/drinks. I use the word quintessential to convey unique or semi-unique to Slovakia culinary delights, so these are ranked with uniqueness as well as tastiness in mind.

I am quite sure those familiar with Poland and the Czech Republic will pipe up, incensed, at a few of these being labelled Slovak foods but with this part of Europe, which has changed borders with quite a high frequency over the last few centuries, of course culinary traditions mix and merge. So the most justifiable claimant to a lot of these Eastern European specialities is the region, not any one country.

You’re not on a diet, right?🙂

10: Slivovica

Of course there has to be a top ten entry for perhaps Slovakia’s most famous food/drink export, slivovica. This plum brandy is so Slovak – you imagine the old man picking the plums and doing the home distillation as you drink a glass of this fiery brew (perfect at 52%). Whilst it’s a thing other countries including Serbia and Czech Republic can rightly claim to do as well, this is still an ultra-traditional Slovak drink. Get the home-brewed stuff: it’s almost always better than the shop brands – but also significantly stronger.

9: Makovnik

Basically: a poppy seed-filled strudel, only with a thicker pastry. Absolutely delicious. Slovaks use poppy seeds in a lot of sweet things. It’s right up there with apple as a flavour for dessert. Some of the best makovnik I had in Slovakia was actually at the spa in Piešťany.

8: Horalky

Going strong since the 1950s, the classic horalky is – well – a wafer bar. A sandwich of wafer with layers of either chocolate, hazelnuts or peanuts that for some reason Slovaks and Czechs kept to themselves for a very long time. If you’re going on a picnic, take one.

7: Kofola

This is the soft drink generations of Slovaks grew up on. Czechs have it too, but it’s Slovakia which seems to cling to kofola with the warmest nostalgia. Remember, everyone, that once Coca Cola wasn’t available here:if you wanted your carbonated drink fix kofola was it: it comes in various flavours, like cherry and looks and tastes quite similar to Coca Cola, i.e. dark, sweet and fizzy (Slovaks would say superior and they may be right – it’s got much less sugar and quite a bit more caffeine and the breadth of flavours makes the kofola world a bit more varied than the Coca Cola world). Licorice is also added to help give it that unique kofola taste.  In any case, it’s one of those soft drinks, like Inka Kola in Peru, that manages to rival Coca Cola (in terms of Czech and Slovak sales).

6: Lokše

You’ll see this as 1-Euro-a-pop snack food at almost any Slovak festival: a bargain! Lokše are basically potato pancakes stuffed with (to have it in its optimum form) goose or duck fat (goose and duck fat, by the way, would be on this list if we were doing a top fifteen or top twenty – Slovaks will often eat the fat by the spoonful with nothing else!). It can be very easy to go wrong with lokše purchasing – so look for the stall with the moistest, greasiest looking ones! (it’s something of an acquired talent – I know Slovaks who will dismiss stall after stall of lokše that all look perfectly OK to me, and then, without any warning, go “ah!” and alight upon a fix of potato and fat goodness. Well, I never claimed that typical Slovak food was healthy. A claim that’s added to by the fact that typical lokše also seem to be brushed with melted butter once they’re stuffed and rolled.

5: Demänovka

This is a complex herbal liqueur cobbled together with 14 different herbs, honey and alcohol – weighing in at 33-38% proof which is admittedly less than slivovica but actually, for me, a much richer drink, with a slightly bitter, aromatic taste. The Czechs do becherovka which is similar and equally tasty but demänovka is Slovak through and through – made near the Low Tatras town of Liptovský Mikulaš.

4: Halušky

Tragically only one type of dumpling can go on this top ten list although – in terms of the food in the average Slovak stomach – the ratio should probably be a bit higher. The obvious candidate amongst Slovakia’s many different types of dumplings are the halušky – small dumplings made out of a grated potato batter. It’s not just the bryndza (scroll further down this top ten for more on bryndza) which combines with these little gluten-rich balls of delight – oh no – that other usual suspect of Slovak cuisine, cabbage, also gets added on top to make strapačky. You can also add a meat like liver to the dough for something a little different.

Bryndza being made into the delicious spread, bryndza natierka - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bryndza being made into the delicious spread, bryndza natierka – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

3: Bryndza

For outsiders, this is the must-try: a tangy sheep’s cheese that gets used in a huge variety of traditional Slovak meals. For starters, there’s the national dish, brynzové halušky: small potato dumplings in a sauce made with bryndza and topped (as with quite a few Slovak dishes) by bacon. Another classic is the brynzové pirohy – Slovakia’s classic take on the stuffed dumpling also common in Poland. The best place to buy bryndza is NOT in a supermarket but on a salaš – a rural farm, the signs for which are found on country roads all over Western, Central and Eastern Slovakia. Our special guide to the salaš will be available soon – until then you have been warned. Here’s Englishmaninslovakia’s easy bryndza recipe.

2: Tokaj

Austro-Hungarian rulers use to bathe in tokaj (so say some legends) or drink it as medicine (so say others). If you happen to have enough of this delicious amber-coloured wine to bathe in, lucky you. This wine region is in Slovakia’s far south-east next to the border with the Hungarian wine region, Tokaji (see the difference?). There is far, far too much to say about Tokai to fit in this post, so please check out our article on the Slovak Tokaj cellars of Eastern Slovakia, but basically Tokaj has a unique sweet  taste because of a controlled rot that is allowed to part-infect the grapes. It’s one of the most singular wines you will ever try – and it’s delicious (I say, sipping a glass as I write this).

1: Kapustnica

This delicious soup shoots in at the number one spot for me. It’s got a sauerkraut base, with the taste bolstered by tomatoes, mushrooms, pork sausage (some use a spicy chorizo) and, for Slovak cooking, an incredible amount of seasonings ranging from garlic through to nutmeg and even apple sometimes. Slovaks eat this on New Year’s eve, and sometimes over the entire festive season. There is simply no other typically Slovak dish that can touch it for complexity: kapustnica is to Slovakia what mole is to Mexico! I’ve tried a similar cabbage soup in Poland and it was not anywhere nearly as tasty as those I’ve had in Slovakia (but hey – I don’t want to start a war!). Here’s a link to a good recipe.

Slovak Vodka Corners the UK Market!

Stará Ľubovňa has a fair amount to answer for when it comes to Slovakia spirits. Just beyond town, the highly successful Nestville Park distillery in Hniezdne produces Slovakia’s only whiskey. But in Stará Ľubovňa itself, the Gas Familia distillery produces a number of alcoholic drinks and one of these, the singular Goral Vodka, has recently become Slovakia’s first vodka to break into the UK market. In fact, it’s one of Slovakia’s very first alcoholic drinks to really make it in Britain – other distinctive Slovak drinks such as Eastern Slovakia’s Tokaj wine or the famous Tatranský čaj from the High Tatras have never yet secured their position on UK supermarket shelves.

The “Goral” in the vodka’s title comes from the Goral people who inhabited the Slovak High Tatras around the community of Ždiar, and whose culture remains prevalent there today. Folks from this neck of the woods are said to be have physical strength and a purity of spirit and this is what Goral vodka strives for as it makes inroads on your palate. An initial creaminess as well as lighter notes of spice and citrus are the other hits your taste buds can expect.

The vodka is produced using durum wheat which then undergoes seven-column distillation through natural materials like charcoal before the cool, clean water flowing off the High Tatras peaks gets added.

Goral vodka has been available since 2010 in Slovakia but in the UK it’s now available at a growing number of outlets, including the boutique hotel Hampton Manor and online at www.masterofmalt.com or www.lokiwine.co.uk

A selection of different bottles of Slivovica/Slivovitz from the Slovak and Czech Republics

How to Make Slivovica (Plum Brandy) in Seven Steps

Insights from a Producer in Myjava region, Western Slovakia.

Myjava region, located in Western Slovakia on the edge of the Biele Karpaty (White Carpathians) and somewhere between Záhorie region (generally west), Považie region (generally east) and southern Morava in the Czech Republic (mostly north), is the capital of slivovica production in Slovakia. This is saying a lot because no one else makes Slivovica like the Slovaks: not even the Czechs! Myjava‘s dispersed rural settlements, delightful old orchards and picturesque rolling landscapes that receive large amounts of summer sun have the perfect terroir for plum-growing and have been home to the authentic tradition of making slivovica for centuries. In Myjava itself and in the villages around, the plums are so abundant on the trees that much of the fruit falls unused on the pavements and roads each autumn, creating a sweet-smelling mush everywhere. But how do you make slivovica?

  1. Take care of the plum trees. Prune them with care and bring them light with love. Plums are ready for picking from late August until October. It is recommended to pick them little by little, every one or two weeks. Plums know when to fall down: when they are ready. Help them to fall from the trees only very gently – if you have to yank them you should be leaving them to further ripen!
  2. Put the ripened (and sweetest) plums into the barrel/barrels. Do not use the moldy or unready fruit. A wooden barrel is recommended to achieve a smoother taste. Choose a barrel that your quantity of picked plums will almost fill and cover with water so that the top-most plums are just immersed. The precise ratio of plums to water does not matter that much. Use a special sharp tool to cut the plums thoroughly. Level (in Slovak we say zarovnať) the surface of this plum-and-water mixture, which we call „kvas“. Do not add any sugar or anything else. Put the barrels of „kvas“ in a place that is neither too hot nor too cold (5-15°C) and has no weird smells that could permeate the mixture.
  3. Wait a month or three. Check the condition by a shake of that „kvas“. If you can hear bubbling, the „kvas“ is still not ready for the next step. The usual time by which you can reckon on the „kvas“ becoming ready (based on a September barrelling) is December or January.
  4. When the „kvas“ is ready, you’ll normally need to call the distillery (and across Slovakia there are many willing distilleries) and agree the fee that you will pay the distillery worker, or „páleník“, for the handling of your batch of Slivovica-to-be. Arrange the time, allow 4-5 hours for the whole process (if you have up to 400 litres) or 6-7 hours (if 400-800 litres of kvas). Put the „kvas“ into smaller barrels and transfer into the distillery.
  5. At the distillery, and perhaps or perhaps not with the assistance of the „páleník“ depending on what you are paying him(!), transfer the „kvas“ into the big tank and lift your „kvas“ up to a height of 2.5-3 metres. From this tank, a peculiar-looking pipe will pour the „kvas“ into the first boiler. The boiler is heated by the wood from local forests. What’s happening now is that the „kvas“ is being mixed around with a funky automatic handle and becoming distinctly more alcoholic! The first stage of the alcohol (a sort of „vodka“) is made here – and then automatically transferred into the second boiler. Do not forget to keep an eye on the fire heating this whole operation and be prepared with plenty of logs to keep it alight.
  6. Once in the second boiler, the „Vodka“ is being further processed. During this time (about two hours, although depending on your attitude to the production it can be less) you will need to keep sporadically putting logs onto the fire to keep it stoked. And then, voila, your lovely home-grown final drops are becoming a reality! Depending on character and quality of plums, you can expect about 8-15% of the original mixture becoming finished, ready-to-drink slivovica.
  7. To truly be called Slivovica, your alcoholic plum mixture does have to be a particular percentage of alcohol (at least within 2%). And you need not worry: our man, the „Páleník“ has a special tool to measure the strength, and is ready to prepare your desired strength thanks to pristine water from a local spring. In Slovakia, 52% is considered the ideal and what we recommend. Na zdravie!

In Myjava region, as long as you are not straying onto private, enclosed land to do so, no one usually minds if you pick the plums from the trees overhanging public roads or footpaths! And there are some great footpaths hereabouts: not least the wonderful Štefánikova Magistrála which leads across the entirety of Western Slovakia from Bratislava to Trenčín!

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Coffee and Tea Culture in Slovakia: the Kaviaren versus the Čajovna

Before 1989, partaking of a good beverage was significantly more limited than it is today in Slovakia.

But particularly where coffee was concerned. Almost everyone drank the same brand, heralding from Poprad – an underwhelming and grainy affair by most accounts (and that is only to mention the best of them). No one thought to question its origin beyond that. It was there, and that was what counted. Better beans were available on a prestigious foreign market that you could buy with bonds – if you happened to have foreign currency to pay for them, which you could only really obtain if you had relatives living “in the west”.

A quality array of teas was more widespread. After all, tea could be made with the herbs and fruits that grew in the woods and hills looming large across Czechoslovakia (foraging is still a popular alternative to relying on what is offered in the supermarkets today). This is much more likely to explain why discerning tea culture continued to develop whilst coffee culture took a tumble (ironic, with Vienna so near and yet so far) than, for example, the age-old influence of the Turkish on the region.

Come the 1990s and tea in Slovakia was often a fine-tuned and sophisticated thing, enjoyed in a range of čajovny (teahouses) which were as often as not the hangouts of the Bohemian sect. Coffee – at least the half-decent varieties of coffee enjoyed in kaviarne, or cafes, continued to be at best what Slovaks know as presso, low-grade espresso made in a simple presso machine.

But Slovaks, since then, and in spite of the fact they are ultimately a home-loving people, began spending time away in other parts of Europe, North America and Australia. When they did, they often ended up working in catering. They got exotic ideas and brought them back to Slovakia.

Slovaks jump to adopt and embrace foreign trends if those trends seem like winners. Pizza and pasta caught on quickly. Craft beer is the latest craze. Good coffee came somewhere between the pasta and the craft beer. It seems to have been a learning curve, slow, but steadier and steadier and only really developing into a “scene” worth talking about in the last five or six years. And a scene it is. The likes of Bratislava’s Štúr (2010) and Bistro St Germain, plus perhaps Košice’s Caffe Trieste spearheaded it: good coffee in atmospheric surroundings, in these cases with cheap, healthy lunches on offer too.

A ton more places have followed suit. This new brand of cafes have several traits. They seem, like the čajovny have been for a while now, to be real “worlds” – autonomous provinces free from the regulations, realities and disappointments of external goings-on, or at least refuges from them. They are also uncrowded worlds, which renders them all the more inviting. They are generally owned/operated by young people who have a passion for stamping their own unique take on how things should be. In Bratislava and Košice, many inhabit Old Town buildings looking out on streets where aimless wandering is often a visitor’s main concern – and at a slow pace, because of the cobbles:) – it would not take too beguiling a pavement cafe table to waylay anyone here. And there is not just one or two – there are many. They veritably assail you from within 18th-century buildings (buildings which, it must be admitted, suit standing in as cafes very well). They invariably capitalise on one major Achilles heel of the average Slovak – an inability to think about going through the day without a hearty lunch – and do well from it. All told, it is no surprise why Slovakia, in 2013, were the world’s sixth-biggest per capita coffee drinkers.

If anything, in Slovakia it’s the quality čajovna that now seems underground (underground meaning the scene generally but sometimes, yes, literally underground) compared to the kaviareň / cafe. That said, more places serve up top-notch tea than they do top-notch espresso, so it seems to me. With the coffee, it’s a work in progress. But already a very good work.

How to Butcher a Pig Like a Slovak!

You can’t get much more Slovak than butchering a pig, as food blogger and photographer Naomi Hužovičová reveals… 

Getting the Zabijacka started ©Naomi Huzovicova

In the dark of an early winter’s morning, Deduško (Grandpa) shuffles out into the cold. While the rest of the household is still sleeping, he lights a fire at the bottom of each of the barrels, heating water for the day ahead.

Today is zabíjačka, a backyard pig slaughtering. Since spring the family has been raising a pig in a stall in their yard and now it’s time to prepare for the Christmas festivities ahead, full of family needing to be fed.

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Something’s cooking… ©Naomi Hužovičová

The evening before we prepared for the big day: washing large pots, peeling mounds of garlic and onion, setting up tables and the barrel stoves.  These barrel stoves seem like a symbol of a bygone era to me, even though still in use. A door cut into a metal barrel reveals a grate on which a fire can be built, to heat the 50 litre cauldron of water sitting inside. The set-up can be used for cooking large amounts of goulash or, as in this case, for butchering a pig.

Butchering an animal (and its description) is not for the squeamish. Having grown up on a farm myself, I enjoy the camaraderie of cooperation, of the family coming together to provide food from their own backyard. I’m grateful for the life of the pig and life it contributes to in providing tasty sustenance.

The butcher comes and the boys troop out to the pig sty. An electric shock and cut to the jugular: the pig never knows what hits it. They then collect the blood in a bucket, stirring with an arm as it cools so that it doesn’t coagulate.

Jaternicky! ©Naomi Huzovicova

Klobasy ©Naomi Hužovičová

The water that has been heating up in the cauldrons is steaming and is used to wash the carcass. Wash, scrub, wash, torch, wash, scrub, wash. The butcher likes to talk, entertaining with earthy humour as the men work up a sweat. The pig is hung and the butcher starts to clean it out. Random bits of meat, bones, and organs go into the cauldrons.

Meanwhile, Babička (Grandma) is busy over the wood stove in the basement. The first thing is to caramelize a whole lot of onions. I tag behind her with a notebook and a camera, trying to capture, record, and learn the process. “How many onions do you cook?” I ask. She shrugs. “The right amount.”

In a Slovak butchering, almost every part of the pig is used – nothing is wasted. My husband says that everything but the toenails and gallbladder get used. Technically this is true, although now the casing for the sausages is from another pig, bought as cleaning out fresh intestines is extremely labour intensive.

The dish Babička cooks, then, is Mozgy (brains) –  a dish of ground meat, brain, and spinal cord mixed with egg. Mozgy is lunch, every time, paired with bread and homemade pickles. If you can get past the idea of brains in your food, it’s actually quite delicious.

©Naomi Huzovikova

©Naomi Hužovičová

The butcher cuts up the meat, his knife deftly finding just the right spot to break apart a joint or the separation between muscles. His muscular forearms defy his late 70 years, and he keeps up the conversation with a surety of opinion and a glint of humour in his eye.

I can’t remember the order these are made in, but here are some of the products made during zabíjačka:

Jaterničky, a rice and offal sausage that is so delicious you would never guess it contains organs

Tlačenka, a non-greasy headcheese. Pieces of meat, offal, and herbs are suspended in gelatin hard enough not to jiggle. Sometimes tlačenka is put in the stomach of the pig before the animal is sent off to the smoke-house for smoking.

Zabijačkova Kaša (A kind of black pudding), a barley porridge cooked smooth with the blood in the bucket.

Podbradnik, literally under the chin, is a hunk of fat that has boiled in the cauldrons and then smeared with garlic paste and paprika. Slovaks slice it and eat it on bread, a pure slice of fat (I admit, this is probably my least favourite product of the day).

Bacon, lard, baked meat, and liver pate are also made. Sometimes they make canned meat or klobasa (a kind of sausage).

Then there’s a stock made from the organs and a few bones – it’s used to cook rice and barley, and as a base for the tlačenka. When one cauldron has been emptied and washed, it is used to make lard while the other cauldron is used to make the Zabijačkova Kaša/black pudding.

It’s starting to get dark – it’s been a long day. Babička has washed more dishes than humanly possible. Outside, it’s still going on: brothers take turns stirring the cauldrons of lard and Zabijačkova Kaša – the latter taking about three hours worth of constant stirring. We stand around the fires, keeping warm and keeping conversation in the failing light. I’m starting to get tired and wonder how my elders keep on for so long.

The Zabijačkova Kaša doesn’t keep long or freeze well, so it’s ladled into large bowls and small pots and taken around to neighbours, who are glad for a nostalgic taste as fewer people are keeping pigs.

©Naomi Huzovikova

©Naomi Hužovičová

When the last dishes and cauldrons are washed, the day is finally done. Meat rests in the cool basement, to be packaged and frozen tomorrow.

I’m stuffed to the gills, and while there is baked meat slathered with paprika and onions for supper, I’m ready for a salad.

About the Author…

A Canadian transplanted in Slovakia, Naomi writes about and photographs life in Slovakia at Almost Bananas while cooking strange food and wrangling her children…

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Stará Ľubovňa: A Journey to the Roots of Slovak Whiskey at Nestville Park Distillery

A few months back I was doing my usual, intermittent mooch around my favourite Bratislava whisky shop, the White Mouse, when I noticed something tucked away in the corner of the window display gathering dust that I hadn’t glimpsed on previous visits, or indeed anywhere else: a bottle of Nestville Park, and the caveat, in small print: ‘Distilled and Bottled in Slovakia’.

It was their No1 offering – a blend and, as it turned out, the standard bottling for the distillery – and being a purist when in comes to whisky (yes, or whiskey) I would not have normally given it any more attention. Except for that small print. I had not until that moment, having lived in Slovakia over three years, been aware that the country produced whiskey whatsoever.

“What’s it like?” I asked the owner, who is a tad taken aback, as we normally chat about the Islay’s or the Speyside’s.

He considers a moment.

“It’s not bad” he says.

Crucial, that. Slovaks are some of the planet’s most self-deprecating people, particularly where anything intrinsically ‘Slovak’ is concerned, and here was one of its more worldly wise citizens, on record saying Slovakia’s foray into whisky-making was alright.

From that moment, the idea of a trip out to see where Nestville Park was made slowly cemented in my mind.

Part of the reason I love trekking out to whisky distilleries is the sheer randomness of the experience. There is no Earthly reason to trek out to a Campbelltown in Scotland or the outskirts of a Fort Worth in Texas unless you love whisky (Springbank and Firestone & Robinson, respectably). It provides a motivation to get out to those way-off-the-beaten-track places that would otherwise remain in obscurity.

And perhaps Stará Ľubovňa, the town to which you need to head to visit the home of Nestville Park, would have otherwise floundered in obscurity, too, were it not for its whiskey production. It is prettier, in fact, than either a Campbelltown or a Fort Worth: with a castle, a folk museum and a history dating back to the 13th century (although many more easily accessible Slovak towns can claim this). And more than either a Campbelltown or a Fort Worth, it is on a road to nowhere, in a rarely-visited part of a country that already receives comparatively few international visitors. They say that once you reach Stará Ľubovňa, you have truly arrived in Eastern Slovakia, which claims cultural distinctiveness from the west in everything from its people (the Roma and the Rusyn as well as the Polish and Ukrainians have a significant influence here) to its religion (it lies on the crossroads of the Catholic and Orthodox branches of Christianity). But the most obvious reason why the town would be the gateway to Eastern Slovakia is that, as you travel east from the High Tatras hubs of Poprad and Kežmarok, you pass nothing for the preceding 30 minutes but rolling emerald hills bursting with fertile farmland, swooping up from the banks of the nascent Poprad River.

The bus from Kežmarok (full of elderly couples that hunch deep into their coats and sigh as the light drizzle becomes a steadily harder rain as we wind up the valley road) stops a few kilometres short of  Stará Ľubovňa, in Hniezdne, the smallest city in the erstwhile Kingdom of Hungary. The name is appropriate: not only does ‘hniez’ in Slovak mean ‘nest’ (from whence the distillery derives its name) but the small, sleepy town is at the very cradle of national history, being founded as one of the earliest Slovak settlements after Nitra – in the 12th century. Certainly, by  this time, Slavic people would have been working the land hereabouts and the Northern Spiš region soon became well known for its agriculture. Cream of the crops? Wheat, barley and rye – just the grain needed for the production of the water of life – and Slovakia’s first recorded distillery duly got established here by at least the 18th century.

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It’s a stark contrast between the ornate, peeling facades of the central townhouses and the spick, span entranceway to the distillery on the outskirts. I passed under the imposing wooden gateway proclaiming Nestville Park as Slovakia’s first (indeed, only) whiskey. Rain danced on an almost deserted car park: I was the sole visitor, another big difference compared to the Scottish distilleries with which I was familiar.

It’s hard to understand why is Nestville Park is an exceptionally well-laid-out tourist attraction. It is not only a whiskey distillery, it is also an exhibition on the history of whiskey making in this neck of the woods.

The two girls in the reception area glanced at me a tad incredulously when I walked in; the more so when I spoke to them in Slovak. Foreign tourists, it appeared, were none too common here. I was given the ‘English’ tour which consists of a guide (one of the afore-mentioned young ladies) who couldn’t speak a word of English pressing stop/start on an obtrusively loud American-accented recording, quite unnecessarily as it turned out because the displays in the ‘historical section’ of the distillery were in English. Nevertheless, thus we proceeded, me reading the in-English noticeboards, then having the same words replayed to me with a mechanical Deep-South twang.

The tour, though, was an enlightening romp through recreations of an 18th century cooperage and smithy, plus insights into how agriculture was practiced here in the 12th to 17th centuries. You get to have a ring of a huge bell in the belfry, too – once used to summon the workers!

Then the visit to the modern distillery commences.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Sniffing that grain! ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Single malt aficionados should known straight off that Nestville Park is more akin to American bourbon – the maturation process ranging from three to seven years on average.

The malting process is done by hand. After 2-3 days soaked in water and malt is laid out in the malthouse for around a week to germinate. Then it gets switched to a kiln for further drying (2-3 days). The malt then has the water added to it – in Nestville Park’s case, water from a spring that has been flowing underground from the Bela Tatras part of the High Tatras mountains, and with a high iron, calcium and magnesium content, filtering through Paleogen-era bedrock en route. The fermentation room, considering Nestville Park’s products are mostly sold to a Slovak-only demographic, is huge: some 20 tanks each able to have 75,000 litres of alcohol bubbling away inside them.

The distillery overall has a modern feel – despite the historic record of a distillery around this site dating back to at least the 19th century – and the buildings are mostly very 21st century. Its pièce de résistance however, the tasting room, veritably oozes with history. Here, in an ornate hall hung on one side by what is Europe’s largest wood-carved picture, you get to partake of that well-earned sample dram – or, should I say, sizeable glass of the good stuff. The ambience is much more traditional rustic Slovak – albeit realised in an attractive way. And whilst slurping their complementary ‘green’ whisky – a grassy, earthy three year-old, you can also drink in how the whiskey production kicked off hereabouts historically: a reinterpretation of the medieval peasants that laboured to produce whiskey in Spiš region for centuries – and their life and culture.

A Nestville Park Whiskey Tasting

My favourite Nestville Park product was undoubtedly the single-barrel seven year-old. Think butterscotch and rum and raisin ice cream with a powerful shortbready afterkick. Just try it. At least the equal of most American bourbons – and coming with a good century more of history, too.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

MAP LINK:

MORE INFO: Nestville Park website

ADMISSION: 5 Euros (standard tour with one tasting), 7 Euros (tour and three tastings)

OPENING: Daily 9am to 5pm (between May and September), Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 4pm (from October to April)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Nestville Park in Hniezdne it’s only 58km east to Bardejov, one of the top ten most beautiful medieval towns in Slovakia and start point for visiting some of Eastern Slovakia’s famous wooden churches.

A cellar of Small Carpathians wine... image by Smuconlaw

Limbach: the Stop on the Wine Route No One Knows About

An autumnal article here and a heads-up, if you’re thinking of visiting Western Slovakia, that autumn might indeed be THE time to do it! Without more ado, here is an introduction to the very first place you’ll come to of interest as you drive northeast from Bratislava…

A misty October weekend afternoon; the itch to get out into the hills and away from Bratislava overwhelms. The woods are on the turn. It’s been over a month since I’ve been hiking in them. Part yellow, part orange, part cloud-cloaked green, the tree-backed vineyards of the Small Carpathians await – seeming as mysterious as ever they did.

We don’t fancy going far. The shorter days mean there’s only four hours of daylight left. But we want a walk and we want a change of scene and we don’t want to solely be walking in thick woodland because the sun looks as though it could break through.

We get out the map and decide on Limbach. It’s a village between Svätý Jur and Pezinok, poised between the vineyards and the woods and bang in the middle of the Malé Karpaty/Small Carpathians Wine Route (perhaps Slovakia’s prime wine route, which runs from the northeastern edge of Bratislava at Stara Rača through Svätý Jur and Pezinok and on to Modra) – but one that gets precious little publicity in that regard or, indeed, any regard whatsoever. Quite evidently, this is a key reason why Englishman in Slovakia was intrigued to stop by.

Setting

The road to Limbach cuts up from the main Rte 502 just after the turn-off to Slovenský Grob (a village famous for its fine roasted duck dishes in various pop-up style restaurants but that is another story and another post). Perhaps the reason for its inconspicuousity is right here. Unlike Svätý Jur, Pezinok and Modra, which are all on the main road, Limbach is set much further back in the vineyards. It is, in fact, properly surrounded by vineyards – whereas the other locales on the wine route are only backed by them. This lends Limbach a special feel, as of course does the addition of the woods which are much closer here than they are in the other wine route stop-offs: veritably brushing the church, in fact.

History

The upper part of town beyond the roundabout is the prettiest part. Here, the first of the town’s two churches, which originally dates back to 1530, presents itself. It’s a beguiling white tower inscribed with what translates as “in castles, the strength of our Lord” above a motif of a palm leaf, a bible and a glass of wine. The reference is a telling insight into Limbach’s history. After Mongols ransacked the region in the 13th century, the Hungarians (who were in charge at the time) invited German settlers in to compensate for the previous inhabitants that had been killed. It was Germans, therefore, that built this village up, along with its churches, its charming houses with facades screened by vines and – certainly most critically for the economy – its wine industry.

More recently wealthy Bratislava residents have built lavish second homes deeper up into the woods and their presence probably gives the village a fair bit of an economic boost too.

Hotel/Restaurant

Up above the ruddy-coloured, immaculate tiers of houses, interspersed with the odd vinoteka (wine shop, invariably with degustation) wine cellar, or vinaren (wine bar) in the main part of Limbach, is one of the village’s main draws: the delightful Hotel Limbach. (and actually, Bratislava explorers, at only 15 minutes from the edge of the city, a great alternative Bratislava accommodation option – especially if you have your own car).

This mottled century-old yellow hotel, draped in curtains of ivy and flanked by pretty gardens, cements the idea already forming in your mind that Limbach is about as close as you get to a quaint old English village in this part of Slovakia. It’s something of a focal point for village life, with a restaurant that once again, resembles one of those rural British hotels where quirky bygone signs and curios line the walls along with a lot of hunting memorabilia. Fortunately the stag’s heads are confined to one grand dining area at the end. But the food – particularly the game – is good and reasonably priced  (about 9-12 Euros for mains) and there is the added advantage that a huge selection of local wines are showcased in the hotel: available to drink there, or buy and take home.

Wine

Of these, the best is probably the Rulandské modré (red – and one of Slovakia’s best reds) or the Irsai Olivér (white) – the latter one of the southeast-facing Small Carpathians’ few fruity whites (climatic conditions mean most wines here are dry). It’s good wine, and for only 5 or so Euros.

It can be great fun to tour Limbach’s tucked-away little wineries first to get your palate acquainted with a few of the wines so you know which bottles you’re likely to want. Or, if you want a more sedate wine-tasting experience, you can also relax in Villa Vinica – a wine bar just across from the hotel (they have rooms too for those who have over-imbibed).

But Limbach is enjoyable too just to wander. Paths lead off the quiet lanes of the centre both into the vineyards and – via a well-marked blue trail – up onto the higher hills to Tri Kamené Kopce (almost 600m up, and on the Štefánikova magistrála long-distance hike between Bratislava and Brezová pod Bradlom).

And wherever you are, the senses are always refreshed at this time of year by the smell of wine being pressed, fermented, bottled… almost to the intensity with which malt wafts around Scotland’s main whisky towns.

So there is no better time than Autumn to pay a visit.

MAP LINK:

Hotel Limbach is open 10am-10pm for food, drink and general merriment…

GETTING THERE: Through the day, direct buses run about hourly to Limbach from Mlynské Nivy bus station in Bratislava. In the evenings, you’ll first have to change in Pezinok (at the Tesco’s stop). Ticket prices? Around 2.20 Euros one-way.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From central Limbach, it’s a 7km drive (or a hike through the Malé Karpaty) southwest to Svätý Júr or 11km northeast to Modra, the hub of an interesting ceramics industry and the birthplace of national hero L’udovit Štúr.

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The Tokaj Wine Cellars of the Far East: Drinking Like a King

Mmm. Culinary adventures. What better way to explore than one which has as its motive the discovery of a food or drink? I don’t just say this for my own palate’s sake. In a country I care about, it is also a beautiful thing to see a product flourishing which is a distillation of the land – of its peculiar soil, of its history. Scotland has whisky. France has cognac. Portugal has porto. Slovakia has its Tokaj wine.

Before we get started, it’s Tokaj. Not Tokaji like the Hungarians spell the region. Not Tokay, as the word usually gets Anglicised. No: Tokaj is the Slovak wine region. And I’m going to be honest: I’m writing this not purely because I heartily recommend a trip to this little-known viticultural region of Slovakia, but also to redress the unfair balance of online content that praises Hungarian Tokaji and dismisses or ignores Slovak Tokaj.

Slovak Tokaj vs Hungarian Tokaj

Cluster of Fermint grapes ready for making Tokaj ©andrs.kovacs

Cluster of Fermint grapes ready for making Tokaj ©andrs.kovacs

Just because this rather unique wine first shot to prominence whilst Slovakia was part of the Hungarian Kingdom, don’t be fooled into thinking Hungary’s Tokaji wine is the superior product and Slovak Tokaj just a humble cousin.  Far from it. The historic Tokaji-Tokaj wine region here encompasses territory in Hungary AND Slovakia. True, the Hungarians are better at promoting the wine on their side of the border to an international market (and at promoting Hungarian Tokaj as superior on online articles), but that’s also because the Slovaks are quite happy keeping their Tokaj to themselves – much like the Cubans don’t export much of their very best tobacco.

As for the taste, I’ve tried Tokaj in Hungary and in Slovakia. I’ve visited Tokaj wineries in both countries. And what becomes clear is that saying one country’s Tokaj is better and one is worse evidently boils down to territorial rivalry. Hungarians are angry Slovakia “took” part of “their” Tokaj region following the Treaty of Trianon after WW1 (their anger is intensified because Malá Trňa and Vel’ka Trňa, the villages on the Slovak side, are often able to produce better cibéba, the botrytised grapes that as you will see below are crucial to the Tokaj process). Slovaks are angry with the Hungarians for having subjugated them for the best part of 1000 years, and for having set foot on what was Slavic soil in the first place. When it comes to Tokaj – in fact when it comes down to it full stop – the arguments can run both ways with equal validity and are to an extent pointless. The fact is that Hungary and Slovakia now share the historic Tokaj wine region, and Tokaj wines in both countries have geographically protected designation of origin status.

It’s also true that certain Slovak Tokaj’s can out-trump the more numerous Hungarian Tokaji wines. In Hungary, the Tokaji wine region is much bigger. The wineries themselves are usually larger, and more commercially-focussed or business-minded, and also concentrate on producing more dry white wines (it is the amber-coloured Tokaj which, as you will see in the next section, is such a distinguished product in world terms, but this is also sells less than white wines). In Slovakia, Tokaj is still a niche product. It’s produced in far smaller quantities: sometimes just for family, friends and the odd passer by. Most of the little cellars therefore can concentrate on producing Tokaj Vyber (the afore-mentioned amber nectar-wine) because they’re not so concerned with getting their wines on restaurant tables.

There are two more major differences between Slovak Vyber Tokaj and Hungarian Tokaj Aszu (its cross-border equivalent):

1: Foreign investment: Hungarian Tokaj has seen a lot of French firms taking control of wineries. This has had positive consequences (more money to spend on latest technology methods, for example, and making the wineries more tourist-friendly) but it’s also meant a modernising of the brand. Slovak Tokaj (much less foreign investment) has remained more concerned with traditional methods of production that date back centuries (although Hungarians will claim this is Slovak Tokaj not adhering to certain standards).

2: Cibeby: It’s a little-known fact but cibeby (those sweet rotted grapes) just often seem to flourish more on the Slovak side. This (along with the older cellars that have acquired far more of the black mould on their walls that is essential for a rounded Tokaj taste) means Slovak Tokaj has a nuanced pungent aroma.

At the end of the day, of course it would be best to visit wineries on both the Slovak and Hungarian sides and make up your own mind! Just don’t listen to one side telling you the other side isn’t worth bothering with!

What’s So Special About Tokaj?

Before you make the somewhat epic (at least by Slovak standards) trek out here you should know how special – indeed elusive – is the object of your quest.

In truth, whether it hails from Hungary or Slovakia, Tokaj is a pretty singular drink – already distinguished from most other wines by its distinct amber colour. It’s a desert wine – and quite sweet, but also with a richness desert wines often lack. But it’s how it acquires that taste which sets it out from the overwhelming majority of other wines.

Tokaj grapes get picked only when the vines have been attacked by mould (which the famously moist climate and volcanic soil hereabouts encourages) and have begun to rot.  It’s a bacteria which visits the Tokaj vineyards only sporadically. And when it does, the viticulturists are on hand to convert it into one of Slovakia’s most specialty products – with Protected Designation of Origin status. The mould-attacked grapes called cibéba are fashioned into varying concentrations of sugarry paste (distinguished on a scale of “putňa” between 1 and 6, with 6 being sweetest and strongest) and determine the  sweet, pungent taste of Tokaj.

To reiterate, bigger vineyards – such as the Tokaji wineries in Hungary possess – can navigate the problem of sporadic production periods by the extent of the vines they’re harvesting. Most of Slovakia’s Tokaj wineries are small-scale: which means no fixed quantities can be produced and therefore international buyers are rarely interested: this all serves to underscore the eclectic nature of their product.

Tokaj...

Tokaj…  ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

A Sweet History Lesson

Tokaj wine production goes back several centuries, and involves famous names a-plenty. Charles III of Hungary safeguarded the area as a protected wine-growing region in the 18th century – although wine had been produced here long before that. King Louis XV of France served them to his mistress. Beethoven and Goethe refer to Tokaj in their works.  Perhaps the uniquest thing about the wine, in fact, is that the cellars where it matures were originally 16th- and 17th-century (some still earlier) defences against invading Turks: underground labyrinths these days thick with the aroma of fermenting grapes.

Visiting Slovakia’s Tokaj Cellars

This post was in fact prompted by the fact that there was almost no practical information on how to visit the Tokaj wine cellars of far-eastern Slovakia. Slovaks, despite being incredibly self-depracating at times, have a more or less universal quiet pride for their Tokaj, but there’s very much an “it’s there, and we’re happy if only we know about it” attitude that prevails when it comes to visiting the places where their product is made.

Even in the tourist information in Košice, from where a trip to Tokaj terrain commences, they’re hardly forthcoming with details. They’d sooner divert you to one of  the city’s wine bars – and whilst Košice does have several of these, this is not the matter in hand.

Essentially, whilst there is in fact a little-touted Tokaj wine route which takes in several of the villages with cellars (namely Slovenské Nové Mesto, Malá Tŕňa, Veľká Tŕňa, Viničky, Čerhov, Černochov and Bara) this is even more challenging to find good information on than the Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians) wine route. Wine routes are also impractical, remember, if the distances between the stop-offs require a drive. The best idea with the Tokaj wine cellars is to go and stay overnight in the most atmospheric of the wine-producing villages, Malá Tŕňa (or failing that nearby Veľká Tŕňa). These last two are both part of the historic Tokaj region (Slovakia has extended its Tokaj region, and the wines there are still often very good, but Malá Tŕňa and Veľká Tŕňa have that little bit more historic soul.

MAP LINK: (for Malá Tŕňa).

GETTING THERE: An unusually long Getting There section, thanks to the below:

Malá Tŕňa is pretty much 100% devoted to winemaking – and has been for centuries. If you are not travelling around Slovakia with your own car then there is a nice way to get here by public transport.

Hop on one of the ponderous, battered old trains that shunt about every two hours from Košice down to the town of Slovenské Nové Mesto (also a winemaking town but less attractive) on the border with Hungary. Walk back up the long straight road running out of town to the first bend. A little-used lane forks right. Take it, and follow this route cross-country through rolling farmland with vineyard-carpeted slopes sliding into view as you pass the hamlet of Karolov Dvor and wind up on the shady main road (appropriately named Tokajská) of Malá Tŕňa. I personally enjoyed this way of arriving as you get to see more of the “winescape” and work up a thirst in the process. It was a scalding summer day on my last visit here, and I was craving the cellar cool by the time I arrived…

As you enter the village, the proper “wine” street (Medzipivničká) is on the left. You’ll see the Greek-style mural in celebration of viticulture and then the Tolkien-esque pitched, grass-roofed stone huts built into the earth which mark the entrance to the cellars themselves…

WHICH WINERY?:  Within Malá Tŕňa, there are several wineries to choose from. All offer similar degustation experiences for $10-15 Euros. You descend 10 metres underground (it’s cold down here – a more or less constant temperature year-round – you’ll need a jacket) into a network of underground passages and antechambers that would be incredible to explore even if there wasn’t a drop of alcohol stashed within.

As it is, these endearing labyrinthine buildings are packed to the gills with wine. You’ll see the cosily-lit cellars stacked with wine, with the characteristic bubble-like black mould encasing the walls and many of the bottles. You’ll sit down and be taken through the history of Tokaj (far more in depth and fascinating than any blog post could hope to be) and then you’ll get a long and drawn-out tasting session, generally beginning with the weakest and ending in the nectar-like grade 6 vintage.

The only difference between these tours is that some of the more popular ones can have bigger groups, making the experience less personal.

That said, on the day we made enquiries about visits, none of the wineries – even the biggest – had any visitors at all. This worked to our disadvantage, because to a group of just two, most wineries thought it wasn’t worth opening up (they wanted a 4-person minimum to bother). In the end it was the smallest winery of the lot (a family who had just one cellar and who had been winemakers for generations – the details on these guys will follow in the next day or so) who we found most accommodating – and delivered a beautifully personal experience whereby the owner was happy to chat for a good couple of hours about the complexities of the winemaking process.

WHICHEVER winery you opt to visit (and of course you can visit multiple cellars, but remember that at a minimum of six sizeable glasses of Tokaj per degustation, you might not wish to navigate too many sets of steep, slippery steps) you do need to BOOK IN ADVANCE. Ideally a minimum of 24 hours before, and to be safe two or three days before. It also helps if you go in a group – many small wineries may not offer tours just to one person on their own, and require four-person minimum groups.

WINE CELLAR TOURS/TASTINGS:

– Tokaj Macik Winery – they offer 6-, 10- or 15-glass tastings (the latter the supposedly “complete” degustation) – prices range from 10 to 30 Euros per person.

– Ostrozovic Winery – this is based in Vel’ka Tŕňa (the next village)  – 6-, 10- or 15-glass tastings with a “bonus” tasting on each cost 12.30, 19.90 or 32.90 Euros. They also have accommodation. 16 glasses in, you may need it.

So there you go. Enjoy.

STAY OVER: Tokaj Macik winery in the village of Malá Tŕňa came up with the bright idea of letting its wine-sozzled visitors crash at their place. There’s eight good, spacious modern rooms here, plus a bar serving more of that Tokaj and wifi. Prices for a single/double are 48/58 Euros.

GALLERY: (courtesy of Around Guides)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 58km northwest of Malá Tŕňa is the fabulous city of Košice centred by Košice Cathedral

WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT SLOVAK WINE? SO WHAT NEXT?

–  Our post on Open Cellar Days when you can go round sampling the wines of the Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians) Wine Route willy-nilly,

– Our posts on Slovakia’s other big wine region, Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians) around Bratislava: on visiting Limbach, the prettiest of these wine-producing villages and on the tasting events put on by various Malé Karpaty wineries

– Our post on the fine wines produced around Chateau Topoľčianky

– Our post on Slovakia’s ten most quintessential food and drinks

– A little bit more info on different types of Tokaj… and a little bit more about general Slovak winemaking

A link to Lonely Planet’s Wine Trails where you can read my chapter on the Slovak/Hungarian wine region of Tokaj.

NB: this is one of our pages which is constantly in a state of flux – check back for updates on Tokaj wine cellar tours and particularly good bottlings :)

Delicious duck fat ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

How I Fell in Love With Duck Fat

My ex-girlfriend always was a big fan of duck fat. She repeatedly told me lyrical, nostalgia-filled stories about what a great and delicious thing it was. My initial reaction was horror, followed by putting it down to a Slovak quirk.

Let me contextualise: in Slovakia, loving duck fat is a pretty common thing. In the UK, duck fat prompts – well – largely disgust, right? After all, it’s the fat that’s left over from cooking duck. WHY ON EARTH WOULD YOU EAT IT when you could, er, throw it away?

Well, for starters: just possibly we throw too much away in the UK. That’s despite the trend of all these restaurants that have as their speciality using the whole of the animal and not wasting any – yep, the nose to tail eating thing. Indigenous tribes across the globe thought of that idea long before anyway. And Slovaks are actually not too far behind. This, don’t forget, is one of the EU’s poorest countries and Communism bred a “waste not want not” approach out of pure necessity. So in Slovakia it has always made sense to keep your residue fat from when you are cooking meat: particularly duck and goose.

But being British I have always had a bit of an obsession with marmite. If you want something savoury on your toast, this is the obvious choice, right? But not if you go gluten free in your diet, which I have recently done. Now, whilst having my gluten-free bread toasted in the morning, when I’ve already had a slice with jam, I’m looking for something savoury to round it off: so I reach for the jar of duck fat. I have been urged by Slovaks, many times, to try a bit – a tiny bit – on some warm toast, and I have to say I’ve finally acquired a taste for it. The taste. Yes. Basically, like a cross between a paté and marmite. Like a slightly meaty, slightly salty spread, a little crisp on the outside and buttery soft inside. My first reaction was that this was alright. My second was to have another lathering of it on another slice. And I’ve not looked back.

Duck fat can be used for a number of things: including as a basis for cooking chips and the like. But in Slovakia perhaps the most common use is just as an alternative to butter. You have to have it melted on warm toast. If it’s not melted, it’s just not the same (although my ex is known to eat it by the spoonful from the jar). It’s also healthier for you than butter. And it tastes nicer. And it makes giving up marmite easier!

For those of you looking for marmite when you come to Slovakia, it’s sometimes available in the big Tesco’s just down from Námestie SNP on Špitálska in Bratislava. Otherwise: get accustomed to the duck fat.

RELATED POST: Get to the crux of Slovakia’s ‘waste not, want not, eat the whole animal and nothing but the whole animal approach: with an insight into the Zabijačka (pig butchering and roasting)

*NB. 2016, autumn: Back on the marmite.Border line if it’s gluten-free or not anyway. But still loving the duck fat.

Western Slovakia: the Wine Tastings (in Trnava)

NONE  of the events taking place on what is known as the Small Carpathians Wine Route (Malokarpatská vínna cesta) exactly advertise themselves. Yet for the traveler with the canny eye for doing something a bit different there is usually something going on most months that’s wine-related in the hills just north of Bratislava. In fact, spending the evening wine tasting is very much part of tradition in Slovakia (albeit not quite up there with the tradition of downing copious amounts of fruit brandy).

The other week we went to the Trnava wine tasting, in the culture house there. If you ever see the streets of Trnava relatively deserted, maybe that’s because the entire population is out sampling local wines. At least, thus it seemed like on this particular night!

What I liked about the event was that it was a great advert for Slovak culture. In Slovakia, when it comes to drinking, the stereotypical image is of old men in sterile krčmy (pubs) without windows so their wives can’t see them. Yet here were a sophisticated group of people, young and old alike, nosing and sipping wine and giving their opinion on it.

When wine tasting gets serious...

When wine tasting gets serious…

Within the Small Carpathians wine region, there are many such events, with a different wine producer taking it in turn to play hosts. On this night it was the Daniel Sekera wine producer and the wines were mostly from close to Trnava, although there were other vintages to sample too (including a really good white port). At the beginning of the night, a long table (stretching the entire length of one side of the town hall in this case) is set up and a stunning variety of wines (in excess of one hundred) is set up. Visitors first come in to buy a block of tickets which then entitles them to anything between one and five tastings, depending on the quality of the wine they want a glass of. There is then a menu given to them from which they choose their desired wine, nibbles provided as an accompaniment and then… you’re off.

Sure, people do get quietly drunk at these events (they are Slovaks after all). But it’s also about appreciation, and done in very sophisticated fashion, at least until after the first four or five glasses. No one outside Slovakia really goes to these events because you have to be in with the in crowd to know about them. Slovak wine makers have only ever really cared about a domestic market. During Communism a collective farm known as a družtvo would concentrate on the production of low-quality wine that served the former Soviet Union and after 1989 Slovak winemakers found it very hard to start competing with already-established good-quality European wines. That’s all a big shame.

During September and October, Trnava Tourist Office run tours to nearby wineries (which of course include a taste or three!) – see here for more.

Whilst Tokaj wine itself, Slovakia’s most-famed wine, will be the subject of another post on this blog, it needs to be said that the wines from the Orešany region I tried here were delicious. The whites, I would say, are generally superior to the reds. (There’s actually a reason why – Slovakia’s climate is less well suited to the ripening of red grapes where as white varieties grow perfectly)

Anyway, there are some great wine events in Slovakia. Just below, we’ve compiled a neat little list of where you can go for more information on this tasty topic!

IMG_2397

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: You’ve come to Trnava to wine, now we’re sending you 28km west into the Small Carpathian hills proper for great goulash, at Furmanska Krčma

MORE ON SLOVAK WINE?

Open Cellar Days: A Little More Info

Top Ten Quintessential Slovak Foods & Drinks

Svätý Jur, just outside Bratislava, and its Interesting Food and Wine

The delicious wine (and wine country!) around Limbach in the Small Carpathians

A Bit More on Modra in the Small Carpathians and its Wine Heritage

A voyage to discover more about the Tokaj wine cellars of Eastern Slovakia

Bratislava Christmas Market by Miroslav Petrasko

The Old Town: Bratislava’s Christmas Market

I remember laughing the first time I heard that Bratislava’s Christmas Market, that started on 23rd November and runs until 23rd December, was one of Central Europe’s best winter festivals. With Vienna’s famous Christmas markets less than an hour’s drive away, could Bratislava’s really be considered in the same league?

Well, maybe not. But when we joined the hoards to experience it for my very first time (since then, there have been many more) I could see why people would rave about Bratislava’s festive food and handicrafts extravaganzas.

It really seems that Bratislava comes alive at Christmas. It isn’t a big city, after all, and quite often you’ll be walking through central Old Town streets like Kostolná Ulica behind the Old Town Hall, and not see another soul around as early as 9pm. But at Christmas, the people, wherever they have been hiding, emerge. Possibly they are also coming from other parts of Slovakia and even other countries, because I have rarely seen Hlavné Námestie so packed, or so animated, despite the sub-zero temperatures.

Christmas Market Food

And all because of the Christmas market: which, although you would not think to look at it, was never a traditional event in the Bratislava of olden times. Within an endearing, typically Central European encampment of red-, green- and blue-painted wooden hut-stalls you have the perimeter of handicrafts offerings, and then in the central section the smouldering aromas issuing from the food stalls: it really was like a showcase of classic Slovakia laid out for the taking, with the illuminated Baroque buildings of Hlavné Námestie framing the scene.

You could tell very soon what the most popular section was. The craft stalls, which I actually preferred, were relatively easy to browse unobstructed. But the food stalls were jostling with so many potential customers it was hard to even get close to place your order to the vendor. But it was worth the fight through the throngs: stalls were selling the likes of delectable medovina (mead), piping hot spiced but not overly sweetened wine, lokše (delicious Slovak potato pancakes, which come with fillings such as the famed Slovakian sheep’s cheese, bryndza, or sauerkraut, or perhaps duck fat paste), various assorted sausages like the traditional Czechoslovakian blood sausage called jaternice, and the pork liver burgers called cigánska pečienka.

A tip when you’re scouting for the best lokše: almost every food stall sells it, so choose carefully, because some stalls sell them when they are nigh-on bone dry. Go for a moist-looking one, and have it with the duck fat for the ultimate Slovak experience.

Slovak Handicrafts!

Somehow despite the cold a musician was churning out some typical Slovak ballads on an accordion and a stage was set for some classical music performances over the weekend (although even the most appreciative audience would surely freeze if standing there without moving for any length of time). Amongst the crafts, my favourite by far were the wonderful šúpolienky (expressive figures made from corn husks with innocent, simple features, fashioned into animals, nativity scenes or men and women doing traditional work such as collecting wood or baking vánočka (vánočka, incidentally, is another Christmas treat – heralding from the Slovak word for Christmas, vianoce – a sweet, wonderfully light bread-cake with dried fruit like currents and spices within). I also loved the room scenters – dried clove-scented fruits like pumpkins cut into small pieces and arranged artistically like hanging mobiles.

And the fun was also spreading down to my favourite Bratislava square (námestie), Hviezdoslavovo (although it’s far from my favourite to pronounce). Here a huge Christmas tree illuminated some more food and craft stalls, complementing the bright lights already twinkling from one of the city’s most beautiful buildings, the Slovak National Theatre. Men in merely shirt-sleeves (it was below freezing, remember) were carving up roasted pork, old women pottered around selling products they had knitted, that piping hot spiced wine flowed and I felt well and truly christmassy.

And it’s the same, pretty much, every year – one of several iconic, vividly-brought-to-life times in the Slovak calendar year)

Opening Hours

Bratislava’s Christmas market is on every day from 10am to 10pm, until 23rd December. 24th December, of course, is when Christmas Day is celebrated in Slovakia, so that’s why 23rd December is the last day.

WORTH CHECKING OUT IF YOU LIKE THIS:

Top Ten Slovak Foods and Drinks

Another Really Cool Market in Bratislava (that runs year-round!)

Šulance: A Recipe

OK, so this may not look like the Šulance hardcore Slovak-ophiles are accustomed to…

But that’s because it’s made not with homemade plum jam like they use in a typical Slovak household, but sweetened stewed plums which, being chunky, rather dominate what’s underneath. However this traditional dumpling recipe is made with my ex-girlfriend’s mothers recipe which is far simpler than any of the other recipes out there on the web (at least those written in English).

Dumpling Crash Course

Rule number one. Dumplings in the English language is a term generally used to describe lumps of dough (potato or bread based usually) cooked invariably via boiling. Slovaks have a lot more terminology for dumplings, made with potatoes or even veal, and depending on size and shape as well as ingredients.

But Šulance, the subject of this post, are small potato dumplings served sweet with butter, sugar and poppy seeds and for some reason (rather than waiting for my ex-girlfriend’s mum to make them) I decided to cook them for my parents this weekend back in England.

Šulance Recipe

I’m fully expecting this post to be challenged, but I’m sharing this information for the wannabe dumpling makers out there. However:

Dumplings

500 g potatoes and 180 g heavy (wholemeal is good) flour.

Topping

Ample amounts of butter, icing sugar, poppy seeds/walnuts and plum jam/apricot jam.

Method 

Boil the potatoes whole and with skins still on. Leave them to cool. They need to be cold when you start making the dough. Put the potatoes through a masher or roughly grate them and mix in the flour. For the dough, that’s it. Don’t add egg like all the recipes say. There’s no need. Season to taste with salt. You’ll want it more salty if you’re using this for savoury dumplings (yes this dough can magically be used for savoury or sweet) and less for sweet (šulance etc). However you WILL STILL WANT SOME SALT FOR ŠULANCE TOO!

When a dough is formed, roll into several sausages and cut off portions (a few cm long and a couple of cm wide).

In a big pan of slightly salted boiling water (yep more salt) and add the mini-dumplings one by one. When they start to rise (like with gnocchi) leave them stewing for about five minutes.

Melt loads of butter in a pan and let the dumplings cool in the buttery mixture so they don’t stick. Cover with sugar. NOW. Apparently the proper serving method is with plum jam and poppy seeds OR apricot jam and walnuts. Being a man of excess, I used all four in liberal quantities – and it also tasted delicious. I would say make sure there are PLENTY of poppy seeds. This recipe turned out pretty much as good (taste wise) as you’ll get in a Slovak restaurant. I’m not boasting – it’s just quite easy to make, but fairly time consuming, what with the dough rolling etc.

As for presentation… well, I never claimed to be a Slovak chef…