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Coffee and Tea Culture in Slovakia: the Kaviaren versus the Čajovna

Before 1989, partaking of a good beverage was significantly more limited than it is today in Slovakia.

But particularly where coffee was concerned. Almost everyone drank the same brand, heralding from Poprad – an underwhelming and grainy affair by most accounts (and that is only to mention the best of them). No one thought to question its origin beyond that. It was there, and that was what counted. Better beans were available on a prestigious foreign market that you could buy with bonds – if you happened to have foreign currency to pay for them, which you could only really obtain if you had relatives living “in the west”.

A quality array of teas was more widespread. After all, tea could be made with the herbs and fruits that grew in the woods and hills looming large across Czechoslovakia (foraging is still a popular alternative to relying on what is offered in the supermarkets today). This is much more likely to explain why discerning tea culture continued to develop whilst coffee culture took a tumble (ironic, with Vienna so near and yet so far) than, for example, the age-old influence of the Turkish on the region.

Come the 1990s and tea in Slovakia was often a fine-tuned and sophisticated thing, enjoyed in a range of čajovny (teahouses) which were as often as not the hangouts of the Bohemian sect. Coffee – at least the half-decent varieties of coffee enjoyed in kaviarne, or cafes, continued to be at best what Slovaks know as presso, low-grade espresso made in a simple presso machine.

But Slovaks, since then, and in spite of the fact they are ultimately a home-loving people, began spending time away in other parts of Europe, North America and Australia. When they did, they often ended up working in catering. They got exotic ideas and brought them back to Slovakia.

Slovaks jump to adopt and embrace foreign trends if those trends seem like winners. Pizza and pasta caught on quickly. Craft beer is the latest craze. Good coffee came somewhere between the pasta and the craft beer. It seems to have been a learning curve, slow, but steadier and steadier and only really developing into a “scene” worth talking about in the last five or six years. And a scene it is. The likes of Bratislava’s Štúr (2010) and Bistro St Germain, plus perhaps Košice’s Caffe Trieste spearheaded it: good coffee in atmospheric surroundings, in these cases with cheap, healthy lunches on offer too.

A ton more places have followed suit. This new brand of cafes have several traits. They seem, like the čajovny have been for a while now, to be real “worlds” – autonomous provinces free from the regulations, realities and disappointments of external goings-on, or at least refuges from them. They are also uncrowded worlds, which renders them all the more inviting. They are generally owned/operated by young people who have a passion for stamping their own unique take on how things should be. In Bratislava and Košice, many inhabit Old Town buildings looking out on streets where aimless wandering is often a visitor’s main concern – and at a slow pace, because of the cobbles:) – it would not take too beguiling a pavement cafe table to waylay anyone here. And there is not just one or two – there are many. They veritably assail you from within 18th-century buildings (buildings which, it must be admitted, suit standing in as cafes very well). They invariably capitalise on one major Achilles heel of the average Slovak – an inability to think about going through the day without a hearty lunch – and do well from it. All told, it is no surprise why Slovakia, in 2013, were the world’s sixth-biggest per capita coffee drinkers.

If anything, in Slovakia it’s the quality čajovna that now seems underground (underground meaning the scene generally but sometimes, yes, literally underground) compared to the kaviareň / cafe. That said, more places serve up top-notch tea than they do top-notch espresso, so it seems to me. With the coffee, it’s a work in progress. But already a very good work.

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Around Bratislava – Nové Mesto, Ružinov and the Southeast: On Cemeteries & Communist-esque Cafeterias

Martinský Cintorín in Ružinov

Martinský Cintorín in Ružinov – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

I was in Ružinov for a work meeting. I was quite excited. This was not because I was expecting anything particularly amazing from this large neighbourhood of Bratislava, the southeastern extension of Nové Mesto (New Town) just east of the city centre’s Staré Mesto (on this site we generally refer to it as the Old Town). It was because I am always excited by new things, and this was Englishmaninslovakia’s first chance to really scout out the area.

On first appearances, Ružinov appears largely industrial. Lots of Bratislava’s major businesses are based here, including the Slovak Tourist Board with whom I had the appointment – plus most of the large financial companies which make Bratislava’s economy tick. The neighbourhood’s streets are very wide, there’s a lot of traffic and a lot of rather big impassive multinational company facades (the flip side is quite a few green spaces, including a couple of cemeteries and lakes which are good enough for a jog or dog walk). The neighbourhood’s very name, actually, refers to the many rose gardens which were supposedly once hereabouts (where are you now, rose gardens?)

But I’m not going to wax lyrical about Ružinov because Englishmaninslovakia neither likes to deceive nor indeed tempt travellers away unnecessarily from a city centre which is far more charming. However it does contain two exceptional attributes, and one of them was right in the building I happened to be visiting, at Doktora Vladimira. Clementisa 10: namely the exceptional cafeteria of Apores.

What I whimsically call Communist-style cafeterias are still, 21 years on, an important part of Slovak eating culture. Picture a canteen, perhaps like one where you once had school dinners. Picture fixed formica tables, and cheap set-price lunches, and invariably surly old women ladling something unidentifiable and colourless out of a vat, and, perhaps most intense of all, water that comes with different colourings, including a garish pink. These canteens or cafeterias are perhaps not so prevalent as they once were, but they are still ubiquitous and still, I would argue – for better or for worse – an interesting cultural phenomenon for the outsider to behold. But what is almost always true about them is that the food is, well, school canteen style food. It’s not renowned for its presentation or succulent taste.

But this cafeteria was clearly cut from a different cloth. Perhaps you could even say it was a sign of how, slowly, Ružinov itself is changing. There were four gluten-free options, including delicious roasted veg, for which I opted. There were tasty soups. There was serendipitous, really decent espresso, which always cheers me up. There was a view onto the nearby park (so none of those starkly strip-lit canteen images that probably come to mind). Apores was a traditional Slovak cafeteria with a touch of city sophistication.

Because Ružinov, these days, does have a touch of city sophistication (alongside all that rawness!). The cool city hangouts are spreading out from the centre (it started with the revamped ice hockey stadium and the pretty chic eateries around Slovanet, just back across the other side of Bajkalská, which marks the conventional city centre-Ružinov divide). Watch this space. Ružinov is becoming an increasingly trendy place to go out, as evidenced by such chic hipster places as the Film Club Nostalgia, a cinema-cafe-bar

For now, however, rest easy: a good cafe serving strong espresso will hardly get tourists flocking. Nor, indeed, will one of the city’s main cemeteries, Ružinov’s Martinský Cintorín. I checked it out afterwards: a leafy spot where a few famous people in Slovakia are buried (Jozef Budský, for example, a Czech actor who helped to raise the standard of professional theatre in Slovakia no end). Nor, quite probably, will the nearby presence of Miletičova, the city’s largest fresh produce market (best day is Saturday; for an excellent post on the market visit this blog).

But should work take you out to the Ružinov area, it’s not quite the industrial wasteland it first seems.

Oh, and the colourful candle holders in the bottom right of the picture? They are part of Slovakia’s most touching traditions, and get lit up at night to remember the cemetery’s incumbents – particularly on November 1st when cemeteries country-wide are mysteriously-flickering seas of candlelight… the ceremony is known as Dušičky

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Tram 8 or 9 from Trnavské Mýto will take you there – see our list of key Bratislava transport routes for more.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Ružinov it’s only a couple of Km the other side of the admittedly ugly Slovnaft complex onto some of the Englishman in Slovakia’s favourite Forgotten banks of the Danube locations (there are a few around Bratislava, see the post for more)