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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.

Hiking up to Kremenec ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Poloniny National Park: Kremenec and the Ukraine Border Hike – A Journey Along the Edge of the European Union

6am. We set off as the sun begins to break through the mist cloaking the steep slopes of the beech tree-clad hills and climb up into the Poloniny National Park, a wild 300 sq km tangle of upland forest in the far east of Slovakia abutting the frontier with Ukraine. The valley slowly narrows. Once or twice we pass a lone border control guard, leaned against his vehicle and starting with surprise as our engine breaks the early morning silence. A fat-bellied white stork almost hits us, too, as does a horse and cart carrying a family of Roma, but for the most part, the road is quiet.

After the border village of Ulič, fields flanked by sheep (a rarity to spot in Slovakia, despite the nation’s shepherding traditions), and hay bails quaintly twisted around a stick by hand rather than by machine, as well as a fair few more horse-and-cart drivers are signs that this part of the country ticks to a slower and more traditional beat. Brutalist architecture made few inroads into the time-trapped villages hereabouts and the landscape feels softer, greener, more beguiling. Even the forests are far less managed. In fact, the beech forests of the Carpathians (of which Poloniny National Park comprises a significant part) are so renowned for their virgin nature (meaning no forestry is practiced and the ecosystems are among the world’s most intact) that Unesco has added them to their worldwide list of protected sites. In Nova Sedlica, the start point for our hike, the brightly-painted houses with their wooden outbuildings have smoke curling into the sky from back-garden bonfires, and a stream babbling through their midst. We stop off for a presso (strong, sludgy Communist-era coffee) alongside a party of gloomy Czech hikers, then head up the lane which ascends the valley to the final ridge of hills before the EU gives up the ghost for good. At a bus stop proudly proclaiming it is “the last” the lane kinks left, passes an occasionally-open ranger’s hut selling hiking maps and then that’s it: no more dwellings before Ukraine looms up. What follows is one of Europe’s most superb and fascinating forest hikes.

About a kilometer above Nova Sedlica, we branch off the metalled track on a red-arrowed sign pointing steeply up to the right: a gruelling initiation to this 22km circular hike. Red is top dog as far as categories of trail in Slovakia go and the route remains on red-marked and well-marked trails all the way up to Kremenec on the tri-border with Ukraine and Poland (at approximately the half-way point). The path rises up to a basic lumber yard at 525m of elevation (presumably just outside of the national park boundaries) then sheers up through forest that certainly feels just as primeval as the sporadic information boards claim it to be.

The main point of note is at the ridge of Temný Vršor at 838m where two further boards urge you to rediscover the balance with nature that humans often lose in everyday life: but in all honesty little urging is required. I am already lost, and already contemplating the fact that brown bear, wolf, lynx and bison regularly roam this area. In few other locations in Europe can quite so many of the continent’s “big” mammals be found in such close proximity or in such numbers. It’s a thought that gladdens, rather than frightens me. It’s not just the sea of forests swooping away in all directions underlining the extent of this wilderness: it’s the wildlife too. It’s also, unfortunately, a less savoury side of human life: people traffickers are also known to take advantage of this isolated region to smuggle clients into the perceived sanctuary of the European Union.

Virgin forest ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Virgin forest ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

It’s as the path shimmies down to a potok (mountain stream) that makes for a good picnicking point that we understand the consequences of Poloniny being Unesco-protected: when trees fall here, they are left fallen to rot, and whilst the trunks regularly obstruct the route, they are all contributing to the richness of the flora and fauna here (nigh-on 6,000 recorded species all told). We are heartened to find the route, as it zigzags through the trees on the final climb to Slovakia’s eastern border, marked by small posts depicting brown bears: had they not been there, a straying off the beaten track into zones where actual bears hung out would have been a distinct possibility!

“It’s hard to find trees this thick any more” my hiking companion, Freddie, who has called this part of the world home for the last twenty years, tells me. His trade is in oak flooring, and he travels far and wide to find trees of the girth that Poloniny has, because commercial forestry sees them felled decades before they have opportunity to grow up as splendidly as these forests.

A steep scramble, and we are there: the Štatna Hranica, or state border, with a small (old, Communist-era) sign warning that it could be dangerous. In common with Slovakia’s other borders that lie within the depths of its dense forests, there is a few metres of cleared trees, so that the view opens up invitingly to reveal the mist-swathed mountains of western Ukraine, and otherwise? Otherwise there is no change between Slovak forest and Ukraine forest. There is not even a fence, or the remains of one. Nothing to prevent people from walking out, or in (although I am assured that concealed in the nearby tree branches is plenty of the multi-million Euro sophisticated monitoring equipment we read that Slovakia’s eastern EU border has been fortified with, the only man-made thing I can see is a bunch of intertwined sticks presumably left by a creative hiker as a small tribute to the no-man’s land on which we now stand).

Our route turned sharply left at this point, and after a moment of contemplation upon what this land once signified or signifies, we embarked on the final thigh-busting climb along the Ukraine border up to the obelisk of Kremenec, at 1220m, and a tough three-hour tramp from Nova Sedlica. Three gaudily decorated posts in the colours of Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine rise out of the forest clearing and Polish and Slovak hikers sit around picnicking: a somewhat sedate period, one thinks, for a territory which has conventionally marked Europe’s outer edge, and endured traumatic times a-plenty as a result. We take a seat next to one of them, a long-haired man who attracted our attention as he overtook us on the climb up for doing this fairly demanding hike in bare feet, and with only an apple for sustenance. He’s just getting up as we collapse gasping next to him, but has these words for us before he leaves.

“Corporations are destroying the world” he laments. “And we can’t trust any of them.”

Profound words. And ones Freddie opens his mouth to debate. But before he can, the man, point made, has continued calmly on his way.

“Upstaged by a man in bare feet” Freddie sighs.

The obelisk of Kremenec - this is the Ukrainian side, as the language "Kremenec" is written in reveals ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The obelisk of Kremenec – this is the Ukrainian side, as the language “Kremenec” is written in reveals ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Our route heads west (left) from Kremenec, no longer following the Ukraine border, but the Polish one, and initially on the red trail still via some open ground replete with fabulous bunches of blueberries. From a tor here, a vista of the hills on the Polish side rears up before the path plunges to Čiertač and the relentlessly steep yellow connector trail to Nova Sedlica. As the forest plunged back into the meadows surrounding the village, we pass a party of locals, a little the worse for wear after an extremely boozy picnic.

One ox of a man, clad in a pair of rather soiled dungarees and very little else, appears particularly wasted.

“A few hours” he moans as he staggers along. “A few hours rest in my house and I’ll be good to go again.”

Often, there are dramatic contrasts evident at borders. But on the border between the EU and Ukraine, there is mainly just nature. Some slivovica-tanked villagers, some intrepid hikers, and one man who did not think much to Capitalism, sure. But primarily the beech trees, undulating off in hues of green and, further away, grey. Which makes you think in a slightly different way about this continent we have chiselled out for ourselves.

MAP LINK:

ADMISSION: There is no admission charge for entry to the Poloniny National Park

GETTING THERE: There are trains every two hours between 10.40am and 6.40pm from Humenné, on the direct line from Košice, and Stakčin. Taking the train usually gives you an hour and a half’s wait in Stakčin during which time you can grab a bite to eat at the very pleasant Hotel Armales (the hotel is a 7-minute walk northeast of the train station and the bus stop, confusingly called Železničná Stanica, actually a 4-minute walk south-west.) From Stakčin buses take one hour and 15 minutes to wind up the valley to Nova Sedlica.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Nova Sedlica, on the eastern edge of the EU, it’s either on in to Ukraine or back 65km west to one of Eastern Slovakia’s best craft brewpubs, Pivovar Medved in Humenné.