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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.

ArtForum’s Slovak Movies (Film)

Just a shout-out, really, this post: Bratislava is full of these labyrinthine old streets that, in and around the Old Town and Castle area, secrete serendipitous bars, cafes, galleries and shops.

On a cool, crisp night last night we were wandering in the streets just below the castle and chanced upon a place we’d seen before but not ever entered: the ArtForum, a bookshop-cum-cafe which is actually represented in a few of the larger towns across Slovakia.

The main point of the ArtForum is in its great collection of proudly avant-garde Czech and Slovak writing, Slovak music and Slovak film.

Here you’ll find editions of Samo Chalupka poetry or Milan Kundera novels that you just won’t find elsewhere. It also has, of course, a great selection of international authors represented. It’s also one of the few places in Bratislava that sells records (the city is just waking up to the fact that they’re popular again). Plus there’s a little cafe at one end selling good jams and wine as well as coffee and cake.

But it’s the film selection that was actually most interesting for me. Here is perhaps the best array of Slovak and old Czechoslovak movies anywhere in the city centre, for actually purchasing at least. There are all the classics by Slovakia’s most renowned director, Jakubisko, like The Millennium Bee, Báthory and Perinbaba (which although well known in Slovakia are, for most outsiders, an eyeopening introductions to the wonders of Slovak cinema). Then there was one of my personal favourite Slovak movies, Ruzove Sný (Pink Dreams) which is a groundbreaking portrayal of how the Roma are viewed in Slovakia. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. My girlfriend got very excited about Panna Zázračica (which we bought; it’s an adaptation of a book by Dominic Tatarka who is one of Slovakia’s most important 20th century writers). Oh, and they have copies of The Wolf Mountains, the Slovak wildlife documentary I’ve been raving about recently, as well.

But for anyone trying to understand a little bit more about Slovak cinema, this is the place to begin trying.

MAP

Plus check out ArtForum’s other locations in Žilina and Košice

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ArtForum’s Slovak Movie Selection

Bratislava street by night

Bratislava street by night

Just a shout-out, really, this post: Bratislava is full of these labyrinthine old streets that, in and around the Old Town and Castle area, secrete serendipitous bars, cafes, galleries and shops.

On a cool, crisp night last night we were wandering in the streets just below the castle and chanced upon a place we’d seen before but not ever entered: the ArtForum, a bookshop-cum-cafe which is actually represented in a few of the larger towns across Slovakia.

The main point of the ArtForum is in its great collection of proudly avant-garde literature, music and film. Here you’ll find editions of Samo Chalupka poetry or Milan Kundera novels that you just won’t find elsewhere. It also has, of course, a great selection of international authors represented. It’s also one of the few places in Bratislava that sells records (the city is just waking up to the fact that they’re popular again). Plus there’s a little cafe at one end selling good jams and wine as well as coffee and cake.

But it’s the film selection that was actually most interesting for me. Here is perhaps the best array of Slovak and old Czechoslovak movies anywhere in the city centre, for actually purchasing at least. There are all the classics by Slovakia’s most renowned director, Jakubisko, like The Millennium Bee, Báthory and Perinbaba (which although well known in Slovakia are, for most outsiders, an eyeopening introductions to the wonders of Slovak cinema). Then there was one of my personal favourite Slovak movies, Ruzove Sný (Pink Dreams) which is a groundbreaking portrayal of how the Roma are viewed in Slovakia. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. My girlfriend got very excited about Panna Zázračica (which we bought; it’s an adaptation of a book by Dominic Tatarka who is one of Slovakia’s most important 20th century writers). Oh, and they have copies of The Wolf Mountains, the Slovak wildlife documentary I’ve been raving about recently, as well.

But for anyone trying to understand a little bit more about Slovak cinema, this is the place to begin trying.

Panta Rhei And Café Dias (Central Bratislava Branch): Good Coffee, Great Books

Café Dias, next to Panta Rhei Bookstore

Café Dias, next to Panta Rhei Bookstore – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

Wifi: Alright.

I’m always a bit dubious of cafes in, or affiliated with, bookstores. So it was with some trepidation that I snuffed out Café Dias the other night after a spot of Christmas shopping. Would it be another dreary collaboration of the Borders-Starbucks or Paperchase-Caffé Nero ilk, full of depressed, angry people so utterly out of keeping with what a bookish cafe should be like?

Not a bit of it. Café Dias might rather grandly advertise itself as a place where “Great Adventures Live Forever” but in the waste ground of good, welcoming places to eat/drink at this end of town between Obchodná and Hodžovo Námestie, it’s a nice find.

Not that locals think of it as a “find” – Panta Rhei, the bookstore adjoining the cafe, is hardly a secret. It’s a massive bookstore. It is a way above-average bookstore, actually, with a really great selection, American Christmas classics on repeat right now and my favourite bit: a wonderful craft and design section of the DIY variety. They also have a decent selection of cards (in a country where card-giving is not the standard practice it is in the UK) and gorgeous notebooks (I love browsing various shops’ notebook selections).

But back to the cafe. No one would ever think Dias would be so good, being surrounded by that fierce, vigorous brand of commerce which can all too often turn outlets into piles of direness. Yet there it is: cosy, tribal-themed décor, big wide windows from which to spectate on the scurrying passers-by heading to the Billa supermarket in the snow (currently a sweet old 15cm deep), and, of course the most important, innovative food and drink.

Café Dias Food and Drink

After a careful scrutiny of the cake section (there was fruity cheesecakes and a zesty apple tart which I also ended up trying), I opted for the chocolatiest option – chocolate sponge topped by a couple of layers of lighter, creamier chocolate mouse and a fruity dark chic topping (I like chocolate) and a mulled wine. The only problem with this was that I didn’t sample the coffee, which a friend had recommended me as excellent – the same one as introduced me to the now lamentably-closed Prešporák actually but I can’t reveal my sources :) – but I did smell it, and it smelt good. What Dias has is a selection of plantation brews from the likes of Guatemala, Indonesia, Peru and the rest of the world’s coffee kingdoms-on-high – and each one comes with a tempting description and general tips on appreciating coffee: for a reasonable 2 to 5.35 euros.

The service was, well, courteous but on the slow side. I had to beg to be allowed to pay the bill. As I was waiting, I found out that the cafe takes its name from Portuguese explorer Bartholemeu Dias, the first-known man to sail round the coast of Africa. Café Dias might not quite take you to a place as strange and new as that. But in an absence of other enticing eateries in this neck of the woods, its well worth the voyage here (and the wait for the table).

It should be noted that the Café Dias-Panta Rhei double act is not unique to this part of the city centre. Elsewhere in Bratislava, in the big shopping centres of Aurpark and Avion,  as well as in other city shopping centres in the likes of Piešťany, Nitra, Žilina and Košice, a Panta Rhei along with a Café Dias sitting plumb in the corner of it, will be found. But these are shopping centres. And whilst they seem pretty popular places to eat in Slovakia, they are vacuums as far as atmosphere goes. This store – call it the flagship Café Dias-Panta Rhei combo – is a bit different. It has personality. A more-or-less guaranteed delightful book- or stationery purchase. And great people-watching ops whilst you peruse afore-mentioned purchase over that coffee and cake…

An adventure that lasts forever? A pleasant diversion from the daily grind that seems set to stay a fixture in Bratislava’s Old Town, for sure…

MAP LINK

LOCATION: – Vysoká 2, by (indeed, on the ground floor of) the Austria Trend Hotel (seen on the map), and attached to Panta Rhei. It’s right outside the other side of the underpass when you’re coming from Hodžovo Nam.

OPENING: – 8am-10pm

BEST TIME TO VISIT: – Late morning or early lunch, for a good coffee and cake after a book purchase.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: On the next street, Drevená, 100 metres southwest, is Bratislava’s best brewpub, Bratislavský Mestiansky Pivovar

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

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Prešporák

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Wifi: Good

Just sometimes, there’s a cafe which makes you glad you moved to a city. Actually, in my case, Prešporák could have been a deciding factor. One October afternoon I was wandering Bratislava’s Old Town streets with my girlfriend and we almost bumped into two guys carrying this big replica of a 16th century Dutch sailing ship. It was easily the most interesting thing going on at that time. So we followed. They left it outside this cosy-looking place on Baštova. We stood, admired it until it probably seemed like we were trying to steal some of the rigging or something, then passed on. I remember looking through the window and seeing all kinds of delightful old furniture and books, but at that dreary hour on a Sunday it didn’t even definitely look like a cafe. Just, well, a cosy place that was going to get a really beautiful old ship.

Fast-forward a week or so and a friend is taking us on a tour of Bratislava cafes. It’s probably worth you knowing at this stage that I’m a coffee addict. I’ll drinks cups of it. Gallons of it, if you let me. So when I hear someone who knows a LOT about good coffee (and my guide certainly does) say: “apparently they do some of the city’s best coffee” I pay attention. Imagine my surprise and delight when my “some of the city’s best coffee” image was reconciled with my “16th century ship” image. It was the same place!

Prešporák is, in fact, mainly about really good, strong coffee. Sure it does tea, and some cakes (it doesn’t have a kitchen so nothing more substantial food wise except for the dependable encian (a creamy cheese served with a delicious oily onion salad). But the crema on that expresso, wow. Delicious. Fruity. I actually preferred it to Caffe Trieste, another pit stop on the same coffee tour. Caffe Trieste, whose merchandise (cups, sugar packets) Prešporák is using and doing itself no service by so doing. These guys should get their own brand out there, asap.

With cafes, I always have a soft spot for the ones that look like places where they wouldn’t really care if you lingered all day. Where there are comfy battered chairs, and shelf upon shelf of browsable books, and random paraphernalia to occasionally distract my gaze (old sewing machines for example). Prešporák has all that. And now, of course, that fantastic ship. A perfect writerly hangout this. I fully intend to hang out there. And probably write another blog on Prešporák when I do… Pictures to follow.

LOCATION: Baštova  9 (Baštova is best described as the little street to the right after you’ve strolled under the town gate).

OPENING: 11am-10pm Monday to Saturday

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Early afternoon, after the main lunchtime coffee rush, when it will be just you and a few students skiving lectures, and the odd caffeine-craving tourist.

RELATED POST: See Top Ten Best Cafes in Bratislava

Update Dec 2014: With regret I have to state that Prešporák is permanently closed (their Facebook page states it too now) so I’m removing it from our Bratislava Cafes section. I’ll keep it as a post on this blog, just in case it by some chance reopens or if you want a bit of a trip down memory lane. But I am gutted. This place was a real gem… :(