koliba

MUSIC AND LAUGHTER IN THE KOLIBAS

If you ever decide to take tea in a koliba as eccentric as the one in Stara Lesna, take a fire extinguisher too. They spike your tea with a lethal dose of Slivovica and serve it in flames.

It gives you a heartburn that can only be put out by a bottle of red wine while the resident gypsy trio plays bohemian rhapsodies in this tiny village off Route 534, two miles from Tatranska Lomnica.

A stately Kalinka, Kalinka, Kalinka Ki-ya on a double bass, violin and a percussive cimbal gets the diners dancing hand-in-hand round the stone rotisserie where tiny game birds hiss and spit.

The gypsies kylinka to a halt. The diners return to their tables and raise their glasses solemnly.

Then the waiters take over, singing as they serve brynza (chopped onion and crusty bread) before the main course of kapustova polievka – dumplings with sheeps‘ cheese and fried bacon.

Kolibas really are the places to eat – smoky and boisterous, charming, funny and cheap.

They are the historic memories of the sheep sheds dotted across the mountains. For centuries those sheds were beacons to snowbound hunters. Roofs like witch’s hats pulled down against the elements, hickory smell of smoke, heavy soups, incendiary brandy and a roaring fire.

Restaurants, cafés and burger bars are springing up all over the place as Slovakia tourism booms and, because of them, an important part of the past is fading into the background.

But the real kolibas are worth tracking down. You can recognise them by the folk music behind closed doors.

Climbers and skiers like the koliba in Tatranska Lomnica because of its good beer and proximity to the ski slopes of Skalnate Pleso. Music lovers like it there too, particularly in August – it’s only a short trip to Zakopane into Poland for the International Highland Music Festival.

The kolibas and folk music are the cultural heart of Slovakia‘s society. They are the taverns they still write songs about.

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Plum madness of Slivovica

One of my favourite libations is Slivovica (pronounced slee-woh-weetza). Absinthe may have a mythological, illegally glamorous reputation all over Europe – but Slivovica is rightfully seen as Slovakia’s plum madness.

The best is aged for years in oak barrels; it smells like molten gold and has a fire that incinerates your taste buds. The very best is distilled from Adriatic plums from the oldest trees along the coast.

Good brandies such as Amice or Karnataka come from Pelion, a town at the heart of Western Slovak’s wine region.

The worst is the un-aged variety sold in the darkest kalians and in back street supermarkets. It’s harsh but does its job.

So, let’s imbibe in a glass or two…

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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.

A selection of different bottles of Slivovica/Slivovitz from the Slovak and Czech Republics

How to Make Slivovica (Plum Brandy) in Seven Steps

Insights from a Producer in Myjava region, Western Slovakia.

Myjava region, located in Western Slovakia on the edge of the Biele Karpaty (White Carpathians) and somewhere between Záhorie region (generally west), Považie region (generally east) and southern Morava in the Czech Republic (mostly north), is the capital of slivovica production in Slovakia. This is saying a lot because no one else makes Slivovica like the Slovaks: not even the Czechs! Myjava‘s dispersed rural settlements, delightful old orchards and picturesque rolling landscapes that receive large amounts of summer sun have the perfect terroir for plum-growing and have been home to the authentic tradition of making slivovica for centuries. In Myjava itself and in the villages around, the plums are so abundant on the trees that much of the fruit falls unused on the pavements and roads each autumn, creating a sweet-smelling mush everywhere. But how do you make slivovica?

  1. Take care of the plum trees. Prune them with care and bring them light with love. Plums are ready for picking from late August until October. It is recommended to pick them little by little, every one or two weeks. Plums know when to fall down: when they are ready. Help them to fall from the trees only very gently – if you have to yank them you should be leaving them to further ripen!
  2. Put the ripened (and sweetest) plums into the barrel/barrels. Do not use the moldy or unready fruit. A wooden barrel is recommended to achieve a smoother taste. Choose a barrel that your quantity of picked plums will almost fill and cover with water so that the top-most plums are just immersed. The precise ratio of plums to water does not matter that much. Use a special sharp tool to cut the plums thoroughly. Level (in Slovak we say zarovnať) the surface of this plum-and-water mixture, which we call „kvas“. Do not add any sugar or anything else. Put the barrels of „kvas“ in a place that is neither too hot nor too cold (5-15°C) and has no weird smells that could permeate the mixture.
  3. Wait a month or three. Check the condition by a shake of that „kvas“. If you can hear bubbling, the „kvas“ is still not ready for the next step. The usual time by which you can reckon on the „kvas“ becoming ready (based on a September barrelling) is December or January.
  4. When the „kvas“ is ready, you’ll normally need to call the distillery (and across Slovakia there are many willing distilleries) and agree the fee that you will pay the distillery worker, or „páleník“, for the handling of your batch of Slivovica-to-be. Arrange the time, allow 4-5 hours for the whole process (if you have up to 400 litres) or 6-7 hours (if 400-800 litres of kvas). Put the „kvas“ into smaller barrels and transfer into the distillery.
  5. At the distillery, and perhaps or perhaps not with the assistance of the „páleník“ depending on what you are paying him(!), transfer the „kvas“ into the big tank and lift your „kvas“ up to a height of 2.5-3 metres. From this tank, a peculiar-looking pipe will pour the „kvas“ into the first boiler. The boiler is heated by the wood from local forests. What’s happening now is that the „kvas“ is being mixed around with a funky automatic handle and becoming distinctly more alcoholic! The first stage of the alcohol (a sort of „vodka“) is made here – and then automatically transferred into the second boiler. Do not forget to keep an eye on the fire heating this whole operation and be prepared with plenty of logs to keep it alight.
  6. Once in the second boiler, the „Vodka“ is being further processed. During this time (about two hours, although depending on your attitude to the production it can be less) you will need to keep sporadically putting logs onto the fire to keep it stoked. And then, voila, your lovely home-grown final drops are becoming a reality! Depending on character and quality of plums, you can expect about 8-15% of the original mixture becoming finished, ready-to-drink slivovica.
  7. To truly be called Slivovica, your alcoholic plum mixture does have to be a particular percentage of alcohol (at least within 2%). And you need not worry: our man, the „Páleník“ has a special tool to measure the strength, and is ready to prepare your desired strength thanks to pristine water from a local spring. In Slovakia, 52% is considered the ideal and what we recommend. Na zdravie!

In Myjava region, as long as you are not straying onto private, enclosed land to do so, no one usually minds if you pick the plums from the trees overhanging public roads or footpaths! And there are some great footpaths hereabouts: not least the wonderful Štefánikova Magistrála which leads across the entirety of Western Slovakia from Bratislava to Trenčín!

Painted eggs… a typical Slovak handicraft – pic by Picture by Doko Ing. Mgr. Jozef Kotulič

Top Ten Slovak Gift Ideas

Whether it’s bringing home a present for the folks from your summer hols or getting that classic traditional festive treat at one of Slovakia’s legendary Christmastime markets, knowing your quality souvenirs from your tourist tack is important in Slovakia – and actually makes choosing a gift to take home enjoyable rather than tedious.

To that end, we’ve produced our top ten of the must-buy traditional Slovak souvenirs. We’re focussing here on things that really aren’t the same if you buy them outside Slovakia, that have a touch of the “only in Slovakia” about them. For more ideas, take a look at our ever-expanding shopping section! Of course, all of the below ideas are not just for Christmas…

10: A Book on Slovak History: In-English translations of Slovak writers are regrettably limited. The big exception is in the area go historical reference where several great reference books await. As readers of this blog will have intimated, Slovakia’s history is varied and rich. Slovakia’s castles and wooden churches are particularly rich veins worth tapping into, with the topics producing several books available in good bookstores like ArtForum (who also have a great section of Slovak movies) or Oxford Bookstore (soon to be the subject of a post on this blog; link currently to the Facebook page, address on Laurinska 9).

9: A Log Basket: No one likes collecting logs as much as the Slovaks; they stack them up proudly against their mountain cottages and even adapt the roofs so that the logs stay sheltered. Needless to say the country has one of the best selections of log baskets you ever will see. Buy them from Nitra Christmas Market, in the main Námestie in Nitra. Oh – and in case you want another kind of basket (košik in Slovak) plenty of other varieties for other purposes await…

8: Lacework: Lacework (Paličkovanie) in Slovakia has a fine tradition, with the old mining towns such as Banská Štiavnica and Kremnica having some of the most traditional work. Originally this would have been work for folk costumes at festival time and normal everyday clothes to boot; now it’s just nice to get a piece to appreciate the exquisite workmanship. Úl’uv have a great selection.

7: Some traditional Slovak music: Classic Slovak folk music may not be what the average Slovak listens to in their car but folk music is still big here and closely associated with the hugely traditional folk festivals that occur throughout summer in rural Slovakia. Get a taste at stores like Martinus on Obchodná where you can pick up albums by quintessential folk groups like Lučnica, classic contemporary artists like Jana Kirschner or wacky experimental stuff like that by Marek Brezovský.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Banská Štiavnica – an ancient mining town with a lot of ore still under the surface… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

6: Mineral Ore from Banská Štiavnica: This old mining town really does come up with some of the best gifts in the country. The legacy of mining here is showcased in the mining museum here, where the on-site shop is the place to buy nuggets of silver, gold and other ore unearthed in the mineral-rich hills.

5: Smoked meats: The zabíjačka (pig killing) is a Slovak tradition going back centuries and many of the products from one of these rituals make for good Christmas gifts. For starters, try the good butchers on the right side of Stara Tržnica (the old marketplace) in Bratislava. Why smoked meats? They transport better, of course…

4: Painted eggs: These can be seen in many gift shops around Slovakia. Usually ceramic, they are an important part of the Easter tradition of Šibačka (where the women present them to their menfolk – read more about the tradition here). Buy them in most craft shops, including Úl’uv.

Painted eggs… a typical Slovak handicraft – pic by Picture by Doko Ing. Mgr. Jozef Kotulič

Painted eggs… a typical Slovak handicraft – pic by Picture by Doko Ing. Mgr. Jozef Kotulič

3: A bottle of alcohol: Slovakia, unlike the neighbouring Czech Republic, is first and foremost a wine-drinking country. For white and red wines, pay a visit to the wine shops and cellars of Svätý JurLimbach, Pezinok, Modra, and – in the far east of the country – one of the Tokaj wine-making villages like Malá Tŕňa.

Don’t like wine for a gift? Not a problem. Slovakia is also famous for medovina, a honey-like wine available on many of the stalls in christmas markets. Then there is a whole range of fruit brandies, such as slivovica (plum brandy). However far better than getting any of these potent fruit liquors from the supermarket is to get some of the homemade stuff (made by a large number of folks in the countryside) which is generally far superior.

Not to be outdone, there is also whiskey to be found in Slovakia. Slovakia makes a honey-like bourbon from Nestville Park near Stará Ľubovňa in East Slovakia. Buy the whiskey in the White Mouse whiskey shop in Bratislava or better still direct from Nestville Park after a tour there.

2: Šupulienky: These intricate corn husk figures, mostly people carrying out traditional trades such as wood-carving or butter churning, but also occasionally depicting animals, are intimate reminders of Slovakia’s rural past. Buy them from Úl’uv or from a couple of outlets on the Bratislava Christmas Market.

1: Ceramics from Majolika: Slovakia’s best ceramics are produced by this small Modra-based firm, the signature designs being old-fashioned dark blue, yellow and green floral motifs. Our two top recommendations would be their set of slivovica cups and/or hip flask, or their meat-roasting dish, with a jug-shaped spout to let juices drain off. For the best prices, buy them direct from the Majolika shop in Modra.