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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.

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.

The Jeopardy of Reunification: James Silvester on his Czecho-Slovak Thriller Escape to Perdition

25 years on from the Velvet Revolution and a plan is afoot to reunify the Czech and Slovak Republics. Some – citing a shared heritage – are for, others – with darker motivations – are against. And thus the stage is set for Escape to Perdition, one of contemporary fiction’s bravest Czecho-Slovak-set novels.

Its beauty is that it masterminds an utter rewriting of 20th century European history… author James Silvester talks here about how this book and his next draw on Slovakia for their inspirations…

Channeling Slovakia: Thrilling Escapades in Central Europe

Do any film buffs out there remember the start of The Living Daylights? Not the exploding jeeps, daring parachute jumps and conveniently located, Bollinger laden yachts of the opening sequence, but the bit straight after the eighties infused tones of A-Ha settled us into the film. British Agent, 007, strides through the pitch night, from the colourful delights of a classical concert to the crumbling disarray of a Communist bookshop, from whose upper window he sits patiently, rifle in hand, waiting for his target to show herself.

It is pure Cold War stuff and exquisitely done. From the moment Timothy Dalton’s debutant Bond sits grimly loading his weapon, to the terse exchange with the defector he was sent to protect as they speed away from the scene, 007 is every inch the reluctant assassin, resentful of his job but compelled by his own professionalism to do it well. For me, the cinematic Bond has never so fully exuded the vision of his literary creator, Ian Fleming, than then. Even as a child, back in 1987, the image and the atmosphere struck a chord with me, as did this beautiful, foreboding city from which the pair were escaping: Bratislava.

Actually, quite a chunk of that movie is based in Slovakia’s Capital, including a similarly atmospheric sequence where the sublime Dalton silently stalks his quarry on a packed tram, not to mention one of the series’ best car chases across a frozen Czechoslovakian lake. At the time, I had no idea how much this image and this country would influence me years later as I set to work writing Escape to Perdition, the first in my (intended) trilogy of Thrillers, set in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but the seeds were definitely sown back then.

My book’s protagonist, Peter Lowe, shares with Dalton’s Bond a resentment of his murderous vocation, only more so, and has few reserves of suave sophistication to fall back on, instead relying on the hard Blues and hard Drink of his adopted Prague for solace in between his loathed assignments. The book has been described as very much ‘of Prague’, and while it’s true that my love of that city is, I hope, evidenced between the pages, of equal importance is the unique voice of Slovakia.

I’ve been blessed to spend a considerable amount of time in Slovakia over the last decade or so, having met and married a spectacular Slovak lady and gotten to know many wonderful family and friends in that period and, I am forced to admit, I’ve used that time to the full. I’ve always been a keen student of history and Czechoslovak history is particularly intriguing. World renowned events like the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution, previously just exciting stories in the classroom, became real to me as I spoke with and learned from people who had lived through those times, felt those emotions and dreamed those dreams. I learned of the suspicion around the death of National hero Alexander Dubček, the deep mistrust of a political class so openly and brazenly corrupt and the resentment of a Slovakia so often considered the ‘poor relation’ of a more glamorous Czech Republic.

Those frustrations, and those strengths, combined as the basis for the character of Miroslava Svobodova, the Slovak Prime Minister vying to become Leader of a reunified Czechoslovakia. Svobodova’s inner strength, her passions and convictions (not to mention her love of Slivovice) were the embodiment of the proud Slovak women I met, and while the story is predominantly Prague based, the spirit of Slovakia, I hope, shines through.

My follow up novel is due out next year through the wonderful Urbane Publications. Set in the run up to The Prague Spring’s 50th anniversary, the newly reunified Czechoslovakia faces up to the threats of international terrorism and a vengeful Institute for European Harmony, with an expansionist and aggressive Russia poised at the border. In the face of such odds, characters old and new must draw once more on that famous Slovak spirit if they are to survive the events of The Prague Ultimatum.

 The Prague Ultimatum, James Silvester’s follow up to his 2015 debut, Escape to Perdition, will be released in 2017 through Urbane Publications. Readers in the Czech Republic can buy his book from The Globe Bookstore, while it can also be ordered from Slovak website Martinus. James is an HR professional and former DJ for Modradiouk.net, married to a lovely lady from Slovakia. He lives in Manchester and enjoys spending time in his adopted second home, Bojnice.

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Embers

Somewhere, in an unspecified location in the wild Carpathians, an ageing General and his long-estranged friend Konrad are preparing for one final dinner together. It’s been 41 years since they last met up like this, and – one feels – the remoteness of the venue is far from the whole reason why such a large amount of time has elapsed without them communicating with one another…

This is the premise for Sándor Márai’s Embers (Hungarian title translating as The Candle Burns to the Stump), his last and perhaps his best-known book,  and it’s one that hooks you. Sándor Márai, after all, is perhaps, on an international scale, Slovakia’s most famous writer, and certainly would have known a thing or two about the Carpathians. Such celebrated native sons talking about these mountains in fiction are few and far between.

He is little appreciated as a writer outside of the Hungarian literary world, not even in Slovakia. Whilst Márai’s home city Košice, as part of their 2013 preparations for European City of Culture, established a fascinating “Sándor Márai trail” around the key sights in the city associated with the writer, there can be little denying that the writer preferred Budapest as a place to hang out (those infamous coffeehouses particularly) and wrote exclusively in Hungarian. As Márai’s works were not available to read in English until the 1990’s though, his talents remained unknown for a long time, and all this served to add to the allure of the book when I picked it up in a Budapest bookstore recently. An intriguing mystery wrapped within the greater mystery of the writer’s life.

He was, back in the day when Budapest was a centre of European intellectualism, one of the prominent pre-WW2 voices of realism and it’s clear from the off this book is very much in that style. With Márai, and particularly with Embers, it’s the intricate, methodical mini-sketches of detail (devoting two pages to preparing a dinner set, for example) that conjure, out of the remoteness of the Europe’s far east, a world that seems very tangible. You taste the food the two main protagonists are eating, you live each carefully-assembled detail of their two lives that have led, through the strict course that high society in the Austro-Hungarian Empire set, to this moment.

What permeates through the pages of this novel, though, is the sense of yearning for what once was. Márai was writing this book in the 1940s, when Budapest had already lost the glamourous place at the pinnacle of European sophistication it had until recently held. The main character, the General, has relived the fateful events that forced him and his old friend apart, for 41 years. He has devoted the majority of his adult life to little else and, tellingly, beyond that to dwelling on the glory of those bygone days: how good it all was, how it no longer is. Yet he does so in a house where each of those fond memories have a cruel backlash. For each party he recreates in his head from 41 years ago, he hears the far greater silence of his now-empty abode echoing back at him. For each moment of laughter or love he recalls, he is surrounded by loneliness and coldness.

And like the house, the book is cold: frostily so. As Embers progresses, the idea of the General’s isolated house, little more than a magnificent but soulless museum of memories from the glam times, becomes so unbearable that you end up virtually begging the narrator to dwell once again on the past as an escape.

And the course of events that sour a once-inseparable friendship are compelling, retold through the General’s pedantic yet slightly superior way of expressing himself. There are more twists, too, than a path through the woods of the two main characters’ hunting trips. These trips, like so many aspects of the much revisited old friendship between the General and Konrad, highlights the key difference between them. The General is of moneyed, top military stock; Konrad is poor and rarely has a couple of krona to rub together. The latter is as critical of and embittered towards the status quo as the former is a contented part of it. Perhaps things were always, therefore, destined to go pear-shaped. And when that finally happens, it is little surprise that a woman is at the root of the problem…

But the problem for the reader, in a book like Embers, is a little different. In a tale set up to focus around two old men taking a trip down memory lane to a youth where their own intense friendship dominates over almost everything else, it’s essential to care for one of the characters. The General seems a righteous individual who has dwelt far too long on the past and who never makes a real effort to understand anyone without the ability to enjoy unlimited wealth. At the same time, his generosity towards his friend goes almost entirely unappreciated; Konrad spends the majority of the book sulking or – in the later stages – sullenly silent and unapologetic as the General continues a rant that has presumably been pent up for four decades. This is a beautifully constructed book but it chills you – and its main characters move you to pity or repulsion. Which means you cannot really feel sorry for either of them.

And perhaps an insight into Márai’s own opinion about Slovakia resonates throughout the book too. Whilst Vienna and Paris are described in lively detail, Slovakia is conspicuously absent. You can infer that it is the location of the house in the Carpathians, the melancholy and remote tomb of memories where the present part of the book takes place, but you never once have it made clear to you.

But as a piece of literature, it stands out as a testament of the heyday of Austro-Hungary: Slovakia, other incorporated territories and all. That’s why you should read it.