bean soup (1 of 1)

On the Slovaks and Their Soups: A Tastebud-Tingling Intro

You do not have to linger long in Slovakia before the importance – and indeed, the bubbling aroma – of soup hits you. Hailed as a starter and gracing menus the country over in a dazzling array of flavours and forms, soup is up there as a key fixture of Slovak cuisine. Naomi Hužovičová, a Canadian cook and author living in Slovakia, has just brought out a book dedicated to the wonders of the country’s soups and stews… 

THE HIRED BAND had already packed up after playing at fašiangy, the celebration before the beginning of Lent. Young musicians had taken over for the after party; the number of songs they knew was impressive. Everyone over the age of 30 was starting to look rather lethargic, but the young people played on. Even my own love of music wasn’t holding up to the late hour.

The accordion player, who looked to be in his mid-twenties, pulled out his phone to check the time. 3:30 am. “Ej,” he said, “who’s going to wake up to make soup tomorrow?”

Sunday soup is a weekly tradition so ingrained in Slovak culture that a young man thinks of it while merry making in the wee hours of the morning. Sunday lunch starts with this soup, as well as any celebration involving a sit-down meal – weddings, birthdays, Christmas, Easter.

Festival time - everyone hungry for soup! ©Naomi Hužovičová

Festival time – everyone hungry for soup! ©Naomi Hužovičová

Bones of any kind (but often chicken) are slowly simmered with vegetables for at least three hours (hence needing to wake up early) to produce a sweetish clear broth, served with thin egg noodles and soft carrots. A smattering of Vegeta, dried vegetable seasoning, and parsley adds to the characteristic taste.

Sunday soup is just one example of the Slovak obsession with flavour-rich hot broths. In fact, every lunch meal begins with soup, whether in school cafeterias, restaurants, or at home. The type of soup varies – creamy soups, ‘clear’ vegetable soups, or legume soups to list a few – but the majority precede the main meal.

I have a number of theories of why soup is such an important part of Slovak food culture.

Soup made with stock from bones gets the gastric juices going and actually helps digestion of the lunch that follows. In fact, bone broth has been in the limelight recently for its healing properties, from helping fix leaky gut to healthy smooth skin. And, to boot, it makes any soup taste amazing.

When most of your food comes from your backyard, as was true in Slovakia until recently, you use every single part, including the bones and organs, to get the most nourishment out of the animal you worked hard to raise.

Soup is also a cheap way to fill up. Between two world wars and communism during the last century in Slovakia, food was often scarce. When I asked my mother in law what a classic Slovak soup was, she immediately thought of egg drop and caraway soup, and I got the impression that this was a good soup to fill up on when there wasn’t much else.

Slovak soups are vibrant in their colours and flavours ©Naomi Hužovičová

Slovak soups are vibrant in their colours and flavours ©Naomi Hužovičová

Then there are the meal soups and stews. These hearty dishes are perfect for feeding a large group of people, much like one might cook chili or beef stew to feed a crowd. Goulash, while originally Hungarian, is a staple in Slovakia and can be seen around the country simmering in large cauldrons outside. There are even goulash cooking competitions.

Another favourite is kapustinca, sauerkraut soup with different kinds of meat, or segedínsky guláš, a creamy paprika stew made with sauerkraut. Sauerkraut, fermented with salt, was a way to eat vegetables through the winter; it’s an amazing source of probiotics and contains even more vitamin C than fresh cabbage!

Curious about the Slovak soup culture, I set out to gather soup and stew recipes, which resulted in the ebook A Bowl of Comfort: Slovak Soups & Stews.

Part of it is a cookbook, with a total of 26 recipes for both starter soups and meal soups. Part of it is a travelogue, with pictures and explanations behind some of the food culture, like salaš, sheep farms, and the resulting product bryndza for bryndza soup. It addresses how the ultimate in batch cooking, i.e. preserving food in traditional ways, influenced the resulting cuisine (sauerkraut and klobasa are good examples). It looks at how the time-honoured rituals of cooking certain foods, like Sunday soup on Sundays or vegetable soup with dumplings on Fridays, cuts out the last minute panic of “what are we going to eat?”

Included are “normal” recipes, like cream of garlic soup and barley and ham soup, and more adventurous ones, like beef tripe soup and whey soup. There is also a whole chapter devoted to the amazing properties of bone broth! Recipes for some basics, like homemade Vegeta and a couple kinds of soup dumplings. And, on top of that, all the recipes are gluten-free or have gluten-free alternatives.

In the book, you can get a peak into everyday Slovak life through soups, something most Slovaks take for granted but miss when it’s gone. But there’s something else too. The book whets your appetite not just for tasting proper, tradition-steeped Slovak food, but for getting away from the big cities out into the countryside: where Slovakia’s heart surely lies.

Naomi Hužovičová writes about life in Slovakia as a Canadian on her blog, Almost Bananas, especially the food, culture, and places.

Vel'ky Rozsutec seen from the top of Chleb - image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Capturing Malá Fatra: How A Photographer Transformed the Perception of a Slovak National Park

Sometimes, on rare, rare occasions, you come across someone in the annals of history who utterly transformed the place in which they lived. In the Malá Fatra National Park in Northern Slovakia, that person was Milan Šaradin. The rediscovery of thousands of Šaradin’s photographs by his granddaughter Maria Clapham and her husband, Mike, prompted them to shine the spotlight on this influential individual once more. Over the last few years the couple have been creating a fabulous online resource on Šaradin and his images, which stunningly document life and traditions in rural Slovakia over a seminal period in the country’s development between the 1940s and 1980s. Here, Mike Clapham tells the fascinating story…

Two young children enjoying the Blueberry which grows in abundance in the mountains of Slovakia - image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Two young children enjoying the Blueberry which grows in abundance in the mountains of Slovakia – image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Words by Mike Clapham

It is best if I begin by telling you a bit about myself, and my wife, and how the discovery of thousands of the famous Slovak photographer Milan Šaradin’s long-lost images, many in reels of film stashed away in storage chests, took place…

Roots

I was born in Sussex in the UK, in a small village called Framfield and never left that area, apart from occasional trips for work. But I have always had a very keen interest in photography, with a particular leaning towards blank-and-white images, and spent much of my early life in a darkroom. This fascination has remained with me to this day, along with the transition into digital photography and all that it entails. My other great interest has been computing, and I have been building my own systems for the last two decades. Both passions would prove very useful when it came to what my wife and I would unearth years later in a small town in the heart of one of Slovakia’s most beautiful national parks.

My wife Maria is Slovak, born in the mountain-rimmed Vrátna valley in Malá Fatra national park. Her childhood, as one might expect in such a stunning part of the world, was, she assures me, idyllic. She lived in a chalet next to the Chleb chairlift, learning to ski from a very early age and passing a great deal of time in the surrounding mountains cultivating a knowledge of the area that would likewise prove to huge value to the discovery.

In 1998 she left Slovakia for England to work, and this was how we met. Whilst we remained living in the UK, we regularly returned to Slovakia to see her family and it was during one of these visits that I began to learn about her family and in particular her grandfather Milan Šaradin (See Milan Šaradin: Life at a Glance, below).

Everything about the man was interesting but the thing that caught my imagination most of all was that he had been a famous and prolific photographer in Slovakia, with an emphasis on this area from the mid 1930s till he died in 1984.

The discovery that I made was that literally hundreds of his photographs were still around with, most importantly of all, boxes of negatives which had never been seen by anyone – not even by Šaradin himself – because they were still in rolls in the cans, developed but not printed. For a lot of people, this would have been an astounding find, but for a photographer like myself, nothing short of amazing.

Now we fast-forward to 2007, when Maria and I began to build a chalet to live here in Terchová (see Modern-Day Malá Fatra Snaps, below) and a couple of years later we left England and moved here permanently to discover all about this incredible country and its people.

Tiesnavy Pass, the only route into Vratna - image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Tiesnavy Pass, the only route into Vratna – image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Taking on the Past

By 2012, we had our life over here sorted out. And then came a different sort of sort-out: we approached Maria’s grandmother to ask if we could take all the negatives and photos that belonged to her husband so that I could scan them in to my computer with a view to making a website, putting them there for everyone to see. This she was happy for us to do, so we gathered up all the boxes and took them to our chalet to begin the work…… oh, if only we had known what we were taking on!

Just imagine how it was for me to open the boxes and find inside hundreds of envelopes and reels of film. This amounted to thousand upon thousand of negatives, in singles and strips, with barely any explanatory information. You have to realise that these negatives had been sitting in a cellar since 1984: people had been allowed to come and look for the odd picture once in a while, so they had basically been disrupted from any order that might have existed. Because of their many years in the cellar many were damaged by damp, which rendered them unusable.

So I decided to just start salvaging what I could, first scanning them and opting to sort them out by adding information as to the locations and people in the pictures afterwards. It soon became apparent that there were many more than I first thought. We have never counted them but by a rough estimate we think there are approximately 8000.

For those who are interested in the technical side of the scanning I will list the equipment and software used at the end of the article. (see Tech Spec: How Šaradin’s Images Were Preserved, below).

End in Site: Towards Making the Preserved Images A Reality

So I embarked on what turned out to be a long, long job: nearly four years to be exact! Nevertheless it was a magical time. Every time I put new negatives in the scanner I would find something that was too good to keep to myself and would call Maria to have a look. I think when I reached 2000 images I decided to start sorting through them more intensely and publish them on a website – at first it was my own site, and then I purchased the existing site in Milans name. And this, at long last, is the result: www.milansaradin.com.

Anyone who has ever done anything like this will know how many tasks are involved. First we had to identify each image, who or what it was and when it was taken. Very few of the images came with any accompanying detail: no locations, no names and worst of all no dates of when they were taken.

I believe this part of the process took the longest to do. It was necessary to ask family, friends and indeed anyone who could give us any information. For me this was a great learning curve. I learnt the names of mountains, valleys, villages, towns, people and events that I would never have known had it not been for this discovery. Some people even hinted that I probably knew more about the area than those who lived here. I don’t know about that but I gained a lot of knowledge about this place I live in thanks to Milan.

Eventually, anyway, we gained a database of pictures. We put most of them online and continued to scan the rest. To date I have around 4500 black and white plus 500 colour images on my computer and I estimate this to be roughly 60% of the total number of negatives – the best quality ones to be precise. On the website at the moment I have nearly 3500 pictures but I am in the process of redesigning – with the end intention of having 5000 there for all to see.

Šaradin’s Significance Today

Our thinking has always been that these photographs are of such historical value to the area that they need to be seen by everyone from the people who lived during the period the images cover down to the younger generation who never saw what it was like then. But the body of work as a whole is of immense value to a wider demographic. It spans a huge chunk of Slovakia’s recent past from the 1940s through to the 1980s, and shows unusual glimpses into how people lived, worked and played: an important insight not only into the times but also, in a country as seldom documented or championed as Slovakia is, an insight into the foundations of Slovak culture during almost the entirety of its time under Communism. All this feels, in short, like a glimpse into something which would otherwise forever have remained hidden.

Construction of the Cable Car- image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

The end of the ski season at Chleb – image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Milan Šaradin (1910-1984): Life at a Glance

During his life Šaradin was a keen photographer, but also a campaigner for the conservation of the environment, civic developer, sports personality and publicist.

1930 – 1937 He worked as a Typographer in Zilina for a print company called Krano.

1939 – 1944 He was manager of a Malá Fatra mountain hotel in Štefanová, during which time the hotel was burned down, amongst many others in the area, by the Germans.

1944-1947 After the war he organised the rebuilding of Malá Fatra’s most popular mountain house, Chata pod Chlebom (Chalet under Chleb).

1947-1962 From 1947 he organised the building of the main chair lift in Vrátna and also played a role in the construction of other lifts in the Vrátna area. Then for a time he was the man in charge of the area’s chairlifts. He co-founded the Mountain Rescue Service in Vrátna, which became the Malá Fatra region’s key Mountain Rescue base. Mainly due to his dedication and love of the local area, he founded the first tourism centre for Terchová and its surroundings.

1962-1967 He was so successful in promoting the area that Vrátna was added, in 1962, to the international category for tourism and five years later (1967) he helped Vrátna to become an Area of Outstanding National Beauty and ultimately the National Park (národný park) of Malá Fatra that exists today.

Besides his many publications, in 1996 during Janošíkové dni (an annual festival in honour of the region’s fabled outlaw, Juraj Jánošík), Šaradin’s work was included as part of the Vrátna – Malá Fatra exhibition. A book was also produced, “Veď je tá Terchová” which contains many of Milan’s photographs. He was also an active member of a climbing club, IAMES, and he received many awards for his work with the mountain rescue service, tourism, skiing and climbing.

The majority of his work was dedicated to this beautiful area that he loved.
 “Janošik’s country fulfilled me and gave me the best days of my life” he is quoted as saying. “It gave me something to admire every day.”

Modern-Day Malá Fatra Snaps

If people are interested they can see photos of the construction of our chalet on my website. We also detail a lot of what we do over here in Malá Fatra on our blogs, Mikez Blog covering general information and Marias Blog on which she talks about beekeeping and crocheting in Slovakia.

The Tech Spec: How Šaradin’s Old Films Were Preserved

People always seem to ask how things are done so this is the techy side of the discovery.

I scanned the negatives using an Epson Perfection V700: this is a flatbed scanner with film holders and produces very good results. The scanning software is Lasersoft Silverfast Studio Ai Version 8.5.

The negatives get scanned into my Homebuilt PC. The software I use to process and archive the images was originally Adobe Lightroom but now I use Capture One Pro.

I have not retouched the images in any great amount, because they varied in condition and colour. One thing I did to them all was de-saturate the colour: thus leaving them in pure black and white and crop if needed. However I have kept the original scans before any adjustment was made (much like keeping the negatives or RAW images of today).

I am in the process of rebuilding the website with the intention of putting all or most of the images online using the Genesis framework which should allow faster access.

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.

The entrance to the Old Town of Hainburg - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Bratislava – the West: Going Over the Border to Get Good Stuff

As you drive across the border between Slovakia and Austria at Berg you get a poignant sense of how it must have seemed, pre-1989. There’s Austria’s flat, open farmland, broken by gentle wooded hills, suddenly erupting up on the other side of the dramatic Danube-Morava river confluence into the steep forested karst of Devínsky Kobyla with starkly Communist-era Bratislava suburbs like Devinska Nova Ves rising out of the trees.

Czechoslovakians and others from the once sectioned-off Iron Curtain countries often died trying to cross to the west from here. Now many Slovaks would die if they didn’t make the regular crossing into Austria (excuse the terrible pun but talking to a lot of Slovaks, it really does seem as if they depend whole-heartedly on proximity to Austria a lot of the time).

The queue to get across the border might not be quite what it was after November 1989 but coming into the first major town on the Austrian side, Hainburg an der Donau (or Hainburg on the Danube) still entails enduring some lengthy jams – and the traffic’s nearly all Slovak.

Indeed, this small Austrian settlement might justifiably be called Slovakia’s very own foreign territory. The town’s population is significantly Slovak, and you can’t walk two paces without hearing Slovak spoken on the main street. Menus are often translated into Slovak and quite frequently the hotel receptionist or cafe waitress is, indeed, a Slovak.

It’s a curious cultural phenomenon but Slovaks, much like the English, can be incredibly disparaging about their own country. The English, however, do not usually move out of their country because of any feelings of dissatisfaction while the Slovaks often go out of their way to do it (well, in fairness having several countries nearby makes this a whole lot easier). If Western Slovakians don’t live just across the border, send their kids to school just across the border or use the healthcare just across the border then you can bet your bottom dollar they will at least do their shopping just across the border. The mentality is akin to a “if they won’t make it better in our country then we’ll go to where it’s better” and, to the loss of Slovakian services, Hainburg is the town that benefits. Even the salt, I have heard it claimed quite seriously, tastes superior in Austria!

It’s a veritable  Slovak colony, this amiable castle town, but what’s strange is that Slovaks often don’t embrace Austria fully. They come across, make use of the good stuff (higher quality supermarket produce) and return. Even if they live here, the chances are that this will only be for registering with Austrian doctors/schools. They’ll still most likely work or hang out in Bratislava. It’s a curious “one foot in, one foot out” policy from Slovakians in this regard; a deep love, perhaps, of innate Slovakia-ness coupled with a reality check that Austria (i.e. Hainburg) has, well, good stuff.

Hainburg really does have good stuff. At least, the supermarkets have fresher produce, more lactose-free products and prices that are no higher than supermarket prices in Slovakia. But Hainburg, in contrast to most border-hugging towns, exudes far more goodness. It’s got great castles, spectacularly-preserved town walls and gates, and a wonderful national park right by the town, Nationalpark Donau-Auen, which pretty much stretches up to the Slovak border. It’s actually got so much good stuff, that Englishmaninslovakia may very well be writing more about what there is to do in Slovakia’s very own foreign territory. But it’s also worth coming here, to far-eastern Austria, to glean a little further insight into Slovakia and the way it works.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE:

To Hainburg from Bratislava…

Driving – Route 61, signposted off the D1 highway immediately west (right) after you cross Most SNP bridge from the Old Town towards Petržalka. This becomes Route 9 on the Austrian side.

Bus – Hourly bus 901 (1.50 Euros) from Most SNP

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Well, we only concern ourselves with journeys in Slovakia on this blog, so pursue your route west elsewhere! Rearing up on the other side of that confluence of the Morava and Danube rivers is the first sign you’re in Slovakia, the massif of Devinska Kobyla, accessed from Devínska Nová Ves 27km northeast of Hainburg.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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.

How to Butcher a Pig Like a Slovak!

You can’t get much more Slovak than butchering a pig, as food blogger and photographer Naomi Hužovičová reveals… 

Getting the Zabijacka started ©Naomi Huzovicova

In the dark of an early winter’s morning, Deduško (Grandpa) shuffles out into the cold. While the rest of the household is still sleeping, he lights a fire at the bottom of each of the barrels, heating water for the day ahead.

Today is zabíjačka, a backyard pig slaughtering. Since spring the family has been raising a pig in a stall in their yard and now it’s time to prepare for the Christmas festivities ahead, full of family needing to be fed.

Unknown

Something’s cooking… ©Naomi Hužovičová

The evening before we prepared for the big day: washing large pots, peeling mounds of garlic and onion, setting up tables and the barrel stoves.  These barrel stoves seem like a symbol of a bygone era to me, even though still in use. A door cut into a metal barrel reveals a grate on which a fire can be built, to heat the 50 litre cauldron of water sitting inside. The set-up can be used for cooking large amounts of goulash or, as in this case, for butchering a pig.

Butchering an animal (and its description) is not for the squeamish. Having grown up on a farm myself, I enjoy the camaraderie of cooperation, of the family coming together to provide food from their own backyard. I’m grateful for the life of the pig and life it contributes to in providing tasty sustenance.

The butcher comes and the boys troop out to the pig sty. An electric shock and cut to the jugular: the pig never knows what hits it. They then collect the blood in a bucket, stirring with an arm as it cools so that it doesn’t coagulate.

Jaternicky! ©Naomi Huzovicova

Klobasy ©Naomi Hužovičová

The water that has been heating up in the cauldrons is steaming and is used to wash the carcass. Wash, scrub, wash, torch, wash, scrub, wash. The butcher likes to talk, entertaining with earthy humour as the men work up a sweat. The pig is hung and the butcher starts to clean it out. Random bits of meat, bones, and organs go into the cauldrons.

Meanwhile, Babička (Grandma) is busy over the wood stove in the basement. The first thing is to caramelize a whole lot of onions. I tag behind her with a notebook and a camera, trying to capture, record, and learn the process. “How many onions do you cook?” I ask. She shrugs. “The right amount.”

In a Slovak butchering, almost every part of the pig is used – nothing is wasted. My husband says that everything but the toenails and gallbladder get used. Technically this is true, although now the casing for the sausages is from another pig, bought as cleaning out fresh intestines is extremely labour intensive.

The dish Babička cooks, then, is Mozgy (brains) –  a dish of ground meat, brain, and spinal cord mixed with egg. Mozgy is lunch, every time, paired with bread and homemade pickles. If you can get past the idea of brains in your food, it’s actually quite delicious.

©Naomi Huzovikova

©Naomi Hužovičová

The butcher cuts up the meat, his knife deftly finding just the right spot to break apart a joint or the separation between muscles. His muscular forearms defy his late 70 years, and he keeps up the conversation with a surety of opinion and a glint of humour in his eye.

I can’t remember the order these are made in, but here are some of the products made during zabíjačka:

Jaterničky, a rice and offal sausage that is so delicious you would never guess it contains organs

Tlačenka, a non-greasy headcheese. Pieces of meat, offal, and herbs are suspended in gelatin hard enough not to jiggle. Sometimes tlačenka is put in the stomach of the pig before the animal is sent off to the smoke-house for smoking.

Zabijačkova Kaša (A kind of black pudding), a barley porridge cooked smooth with the blood in the bucket.

Podbradnik, literally under the chin, is a hunk of fat that has boiled in the cauldrons and then smeared with garlic paste and paprika. Slovaks slice it and eat it on bread, a pure slice of fat (I admit, this is probably my least favourite product of the day).

Bacon, lard, baked meat, and liver pate are also made. Sometimes they make canned meat or klobasa (a kind of sausage).

Then there’s a stock made from the organs and a few bones – it’s used to cook rice and barley, and as a base for the tlačenka. When one cauldron has been emptied and washed, it is used to make lard while the other cauldron is used to make the Zabijačkova Kaša/black pudding.

It’s starting to get dark – it’s been a long day. Babička has washed more dishes than humanly possible. Outside, it’s still going on: brothers take turns stirring the cauldrons of lard and Zabijačkova Kaša – the latter taking about three hours worth of constant stirring. We stand around the fires, keeping warm and keeping conversation in the failing light. I’m starting to get tired and wonder how my elders keep on for so long.

The Zabijačkova Kaša doesn’t keep long or freeze well, so it’s ladled into large bowls and small pots and taken around to neighbours, who are glad for a nostalgic taste as fewer people are keeping pigs.

©Naomi Huzovikova

©Naomi Hužovičová

When the last dishes and cauldrons are washed, the day is finally done. Meat rests in the cool basement, to be packaged and frozen tomorrow.

I’m stuffed to the gills, and while there is baked meat slathered with paprika and onions for supper, I’m ready for a salad.

About the Author…

A Canadian transplanted in Slovakia, Naomi writes about and photographs life in Slovakia at Almost Bananas while cooking strange food and wrangling her children…

Ayako Rokkaku’s Bizarre Animations

IMG_0237A grey Sunday in Bratislava… quite possibly the greyest day of the winter yet, and what better time to inject some colour into your life? Having use of a car for the day (given that getting there by public transport there is a challenge to say the least) we took the trip out to Danubiana (Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum) to see Ayako Rokkaku’s exhibition “Where the Smell Comes From” which impressed me for totally different reasons to those I imagined.

Rokkaku paints not with brushes but directly, and without much preliminary planning, onto the canvas using nothing but her hands as the tools. Her works, clearly inspired by Japanese animation, are gaudy, ostensibly child-like depictions of young girls with baleful eyes and billowing skirts wandering, often lost, in fantasy-scapes full of the colour and disorder of a fairy tale.

In “Where the Smell Comes From”, we are experiencing the world through the eyes of a child. The paintings mostly have these girl protagonists, wearing expressions of sadness, or perhaps stroppiness or frustrated-ness, moving through worlds that shimmer with butterflies, childishly oversized flowers or toys. Rather (for example) than showing how a dragonfly looks to us, the observers looking in on the picture, we see the dragonfly through the eyes of the girl it flies around: larger-than-life, hanging in the brightly-coloured air seemingly forever, as children often see things: in an incredibly different (and invariably more interesting) way. In the downstairs video installation, another girl drifts through a vast, featureless world of sea and sky and, upon colliding with a huge structure, proceeds to aimlessly slide down it, climb it again and then, after dancing on the top with a similarly brightly-dressed character, launches a pencil into the sky. Once again the main subjects of the painting are reacting in a somewhat irrational (or unfathomably child-like) way to their environment, and this is typical of all the works of art here.

The alternative explanation, of course, is not these girl protagonists are reacting irrationally, but that their environment is a kind of disotopia – as childish as it may at first glance seem, the backgrounds of these pictures are complex, often frightening gardens of vibrant chaos, where rationality is totally removed. This last explanation is very plausible, given Rakkuku admits to taking inspiration, or rather motivation, from the 2011 Tsunami.

IMG_0242It’s these backgrounds of Rokkaku’s that I found myself captivated by far more than her technique. For in many of the pictures, the backgrounds take control and it is no longer the somewhat petulant girls dominating anymore. If they do appear, they are utterly lost into these chaotic scenes of giant mushrooms, monstrous ducks (and what are those things inside them?!), houses floating in the sky, trees made of fire and witches familiars – scenes in which Rokkaku enlisted the help of various groups of school children to create. On one occasion, in the Tsunami-hit Japanese city of Ofunato, she worked with 200 children on an 8-metre canvas. And these scenes are childishly innocent, on one level, but on another, far darker. Some pictures feature helicopters exploding in flame and planes dropping bombs (OK, admittedly heart-shaped ones) on lop-sided towns.

Of course, what with every painting being called “untitled” (a deliberate move away from trying to dictate what we are seeing) those helicopters could be birds and those ducks alien spacecraft. There is no right or wrong answer. But dark or comic, it is the children that painted these pictures that are the real stars of the show. Each picture seems themed around their initial drawings. And, quite clearly, what this exhibition is more than anything is an insight into the immense and at times prophetic talents young children possess: more so than any art I have previously seen. The major thing it lacks is giving any credit to the children that created these masterpieces: is there an age under which giving official credit for work ceases to apply? But “Where the Smell Comes From” will certainly do one thing. It will make you think, and have you hotly debating each vibrant, intriguing image you see. Perhaps it takes children to make you really think about art.

Where?

“Where the Smell Comes” from runs until December 9th at the Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum in Čunovo. If you lack your own vehicle, bus 91 runs from the bus station under Most SNP until Čunovo – then, you will have to walk the final 2.5km.

Thanks! in part to Prešporák for this post – the builders scuppered my Internet connection this morning so this post is written from there!