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.

Around Modra: Goulash Karma at Furmanská Krčma

There are fancy Italian restaurants. There are up-and-coming microbreweries. But when all is said and done, there is one Slovak eating experience that stands out from all the rest, and that’s a trip to one of the rustic krčmy – pubs, basically.

What are they exactly and why do they stand out? Well, pub should be translated in the loosest possible sense (there are precious few specialty beers here). A krčma in its urban form is a traditional drinking den, pure and simple. But out in the sticks, the krčma is invariably transformed – at least in destinations popular with outdoors-lovers – into a cosy wooden wilderness retreat with roaring fires and just the kind of food you want to wolf down at the end of an arduous hike (the beer is still overly frothy and more often than not Zlaty Bažant but no one seems to mind).  It metamorphoses, in short, into what should be the pin-up for Slovak cuisine: a quality stodge stop with a fire, a sweet aroma of woodsmoke and a damned fine view.

There are a few of these celebrated krčma stodge stops across Slovakia – with a charming rustic wood exterior, smouldering log fires inside and an out-of-the-way, often forested location as common features. The out-of-the-way-ness usually prevents foreign tourists from ever finding out about them, which – due to their afore-mentioned place at the summit of the hierarchy of Slovak eating experiences – is a shame. Depending on where you find yourself, there are a ton of such places I could recommend. But for now I want to focus on one of the very best, and that is Furmanská Krčma above the small town of Modra (famous for its connection with the number one national hero Ľudovít Štúr, but that’s another story and another post).

Serendipity…

The best thing about Furmanská Krčma is that you never expect it to be there in the first place. After all, it’s on a something-to-nothing road over the middle of the Malé Karpaty, or the Small Carpathians hills – it’s not in a national park where you would expect such friendly wayside hostelries.

Forge up into the woods about 5km above Modra on what is now quite a good and busy road until you reach the summit of this particular Malé Karpaty ridge and, just where the trees seem thickest, Furmanská Krčma appears, in a cleared area of forest that actually contains a beguiling complex of buildings – all of the steeply-pitched roof log cabin variety.

A Historical Footnote…

This is the small community of Piesok. It has an intriguing history. It was one of those parts of Western Slovakia which, back in the age of the Hungarian empire, was blessed with an inundation of German settlers who came at the request of the Hungarian ruling elite to ignite the farming industry, much like Limbach outside of Bratislava, although it appears this particular community of Germans came much later (19th century). Under Communism Piesok also had an important role. It was one of the youth learning/holiday camps of which there are several across Slovakia and one can’t help but feel a tug of sadness as one strolls through the pine trees to the idyllic Handsel-and-Gretel-esque chaty (cottages) that once thrived with life (kids learned about nature here and there used to be several penzións) and are now often neglected.

On the Bright Side…

This is not to imply, of course, that Piesok is a lifeless place. People come here now with different motivations. The visitors are almost all Slovaks – so “outsiders” that make it here will feel a certain sense of having discovered the undiscovered. As well as Furmanská Krčma, there’s the top-end hotel of Zochava chata on the other side of the road that in fact are owners of the krčma (Zochava – named after Samuel Zoch, first commissioner of Bratislava after the establishment of Czechoslovakia). It’s a very nice hotel – tucked away from the road somewhat and recently refurbished, and I’d love to write more about it. I keep meaning to stay there, so I will then – as for now I have neither the time nor the money. Not having the money is why most folks seem to favour Furmanská Krčma over the hotel as a place to eat, but there’s also something very genuine and down-to-earth about partaking of a beer and hot traditional grub in the atmospheric rusticity of this krčma. Ultimately, if I am going to be eating typical Slovak food, I don’t want to be doing it in a modern hotel. I want to be doing it in place with a toasty old ceramic oven, a smouldering fire, oak beams and old farming implements on the walls. Why? Because it complements the cuisine.

It’s true that there’s been a bit of a refurbishment at old Furmanská Krčma which – depending on your viewpoint – either improved or slightly marred the ambience.  If you check the website (in Slovak only) you’ll see the camera panning around a distinctly more rustic space – with just rough wooden tables. It’s been refurbished (and differently) for a few years now, and makes no secret of catering to an “upmarket” crowd. If it was left to me I’d have taken Furmanská Krčma, as was: but the advantage is that the menu is now a lot more versatile: Slovak food with panache, if you will.

Inside Furmanska Krcma ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The Food

One of the most critical elements of typical Slovak food, of course, is the soup. Take away the soup from most lunch time meal deals and there would probably be a national revolt. Furmanská Krčma obligingly rustles up a couple of classic soups, any of which will set you back 3-4 Euros. Our first recommendation? Their delicious kapustnica (that is the best I’ve tasted in Slovakia apart from that rustled up in the kitchen of my friends’ mother). Secondly? Their feisty herb-infused local game gulaš (goulash) served with nigh-on a loaf of bread (if you thought goulash was solely Hungarian think again – this country made up a significant part of the Hungarian empire and Slovaks know how to make a classic goulash – their ancestors were probably the ones serving it to Hungarian nobility half the time).

The main courses are themed around furmanský platters, or coachmen’s platters. I think this has about the same significance as a ploughman’s salad in the UK. Original coachmen’s platters, back in the day when Piesok would have been an important staging post and horse-changing point on the route through the mountains, would have been far different. The significance now is more”large-sized and with meat” than anything else. Thus furmanský halušky are dumplings that come with a hearty klobasa (sausage) and the proper coachmen’s plate consists of numerous grilled meats and potatoes (16 Euros). The šulance here is also divine. This is hunger-busting food but it is also cooked with aplomb – it’s one of the top five in Slovakia for traditional tasty Slovak food that’s served in the rustic environs it should be served in.

The food is getting to that point where you think “that had better be good if I’m paying this price” because the menu bracket (14-20 Euros) is expensive for rural Slovakia (the deer with cranberries is certainly overpriced, for example). But I’m going to stick my neck out there and say it’s worth forking out for. Because you’re getting a microcosm of Slovak weekend life here. Inside it’s the traditional restaurant. But outside are the hiking/cycling trails to work up your appetite on and everyone, from meandering families to hardcore mountain bikers, is out there doing it, relishing what Slovakia excels in providing above all: a hefty portion of the Great Outdoors.

Because you are bang in the middle of the best of the Malé Karpaty here. Heading west, you can be within the vicinity of Bratislava in just over a half day’s walk (via Stage Three of the Štefanikova Magistrala, which also leads invitingly north-east from here to Bradlo en route (thereafter under the guise of the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, to Trenčin): the access point for the trail in either direction is a short walk up from Piesok at Čermák. You can also hike down to Modra from here, via the intriguing L’udovit Štúr trail, in about 2.5 hours.  Heading east? Aha, that’s going to be the subject of a post very soon: a walk involving old castles and one of the very best views in this whole hill range, by climbing what you see below…

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Modra:

Places to Go: L’udovit Štúr’s Modra

Places to Go/Shops: Modra’s fascinating ceramics

Places to Go: Hiking up in the hills above Modra all the way to Bratislava (the Štefánikova magistrála, stage three)

Places to Stay: Modra’s ceramic-themed hotel

© englishmaninslovakia.com

© englishmaninslovakia.com

 

MAP LINK: (notice the bottom of the map has the edge of Modra on; it has to be zoomed to this level to show the details of the buildings; Furmanská Krčma is directly opposite Zochava Chata hotel at the bottom end of the large parking area).

OPENING: Thursday-Sunday, late morning-10pm

BEST TIME TO VISIT: A winter’s mid- to late-afternoon, after the first fall of snow, when the small ski slope is working and you’ve finished your walk through the woods and are in need of sustenance.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Tired after a hike and not refreshed by a hearty Slovak bite? Descend out of the hills and head 63km northeast to sample Piešťany’s best patisserie then sooth yourself in the spas there…

Ždiar: All Hail the Ginger Monkey

View from the dorm at the Ginger Monkey Hostel, Ždiar

View from the dorm at the Ginger Monkey Hostel, Ždiar – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

With the advent of December comes peak skiing season in the High Tatras, and no more appropriate time to mention for the first time my favourite place in these mountains, Ždiar, and the best accommodation option within, the Ginger Monkey.

On this eastern edge of the High Tatras, Ždiar (officially in the distinctive Goral-speaking region of Belianske Tatry or the Bela Tatras), with its traditional log chalets, rustic eateries (kolibe) and sharp-ridged mountains straight out of a picture book, at their most beautiful bathed in sharp late spring or autumn light, is unlikely to remain a traveller secret much longer. Some might say the secret is out.  Ždiar, Ginger Monkey et al have got a glowing write-up in the last couple of editions of the Slovakia chapter of Lonely Planet’s Eastern Europe (and having written the last edition I’m something of a guilty party). But Ždiar still feels secret, and so does the Ginger Monkey hostel within its sleepy confines.

The building, a traditionally-painted log cabin (a sight to behold in itself), slides into view on the right immediately after you pass the church in Ždiar village centre, set back on and up a grassy incline. My last visit was in the legendary tenure of Australian Dan but now Dan number two has come and gone and his successor is at the helm and, by all accounts, managing proceedings in an equally cool and offbeat way. First impressions? Well, you do have to pinch yourself. In a country that’s only slowly waking up to how to do really good hostels (well, Bratislava excepted) this is, in many ways, the ideal traveller hostel experience- I mean the one you would imagine if you plucked your twenty favourite images of what a welcoming, laid-back middle-of-nowhere bohemian crash pad should be out of your head and combined them in some best-of montage mega-image.

Chickens cluck outside and Wally the amicable hostel hound gives you an enthusiastic (and occasionally slobbering) welcome once you’re through the door. Immediately on the left is the common room/video room where obscure travel-friendly movies with an unexplained bias towards horror are watched of an evening, while across the way is the kitchen, where free tea and coffee and the complementary breakfast are partaken of, and where most of the serious traveller bonding/ drinking goes on. Beers are merely a euro each (cheap even by Slovakia’s standards of low-cost drinking) and, with the strange yet amenable assortment of travellers congregating come seven or so (sometimes they haven’t left from last night’s escapades), you’ll probably find yourself, even if you have a natural reserve, opening up and exchanging travel stories until the wee hours in a manner reminiscent of the good old days when hostels were there to do just this.

Make your way through a reception adorned in maps and tips on hikes and places to eat (Livia’s, aka the goulash hut is surely the best bet – they do beer, goulash and precisely nothing else) along a creaking corridor to the Internet terminal and then climb the stairs to the dorms. If you can, get the one at the front for sublime views (see picture above).

There are a couple of dorms, one single room and one twin room available, plus abundant information on local hikes which you can undertake with Wally. A good one wends down across the river (head left out of the hostel on the main road back towards Kežmarok to find the fording point) then curves back to come out by the ski centre on the other side of the village. Wally knows the way on this one, having been there many times before, but it’s also possible to hike up into the High Tatras from here via Kopské Saddle (which is by the beginning of the Tatranska Magistrala trail, Slovakia’s most famous hike, which crosses the Slovakian Tatras from east to west, and which Englishmaninslovakia walked all of in 2014 and 2015.

In essence, expect oodles of atmosphere and a fair level of cosy comfort (wandering around aimlessly in pyjamas and slippers is OK here).

And did I mention skiing? Ah yes, you can ski. Here’s the link to Ždiar’s Bachledova ski area. Or if you want to continue your Tatras adventure, click here for more.

And finally: check out the Ginger Monkey’s website for info on the continuation of your journey over the border with Poland to Zakopane. It’s a much-done and delightfully scenic trip. You can also read our more extensive blog post about it here.

MAP LINK: Due to Ždiar’s straggly nature it’s hard to capture the salient mapping info on just one screen but – as an explanation – the right of the map is the village entrance, and the left (where those red lines are?) the start of the Bachledova ski area. For the Ginger Monkey, take the second right-hand turn once in Ždiar village and then make for the church, basically (then you won’t miss it)

PRICES: Dorms are 14 Euros per bed, and twin rooms are 34 Euros (2017 prices). There is also now a cottage available for hire. Contact Ginger Monkey for further details.

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

BOOK THE GINGER MONKEY