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.

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!)