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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.

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Top Ten Best Things About Life in Slovakia

We turn away from travel, for a minute, on this site, to focus on LIFE. Life in Slovakia is a topic even less generally known about than tourism here – at least to the foreign/English-speaking world – so this is an insight into some of the best things about life here. Pretty girls and Europe’s cheapest beer are not listed… although we all know that they’re here too…

10: Sheer Potential…

Slovakia is a young country. It has a lot going for it, but also a long way still to go. Many construe this as a bad thing but I think of this as a big positive. In most countries, the order of things is well-established. In Slovakia, many aspects of life are still in the infancy of their development. There’s a sense that living in Slovakia, one is at the beginning of a journey, not the end of one. I like that (but I don’t expect Slovaks to agree with me on this necessarily!)

9: Proximity of some of Europe’s Coolest Cities

I’m not a big fan of selling a country based on the fact others are nearby, or based on assumed superior knowledge of other nearby countries. I’m a firm believer that Slovakia has its own merits, and a culture sufficient to justify being described on its own terms. But when you’re living in a country, it’s just generally quite cool to think that (from its capital) the celebrated spas of Budapest, the celebrated beer halls of Prague or the celebrated coffee houses of Vienna are all only a matter of hours away (two, four and one respectively).

8: Diversity of Drinks

Wine - and plenty of it ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Wine – and plenty of it ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

For a fair chunk of my life now, I’ve been a travel writer. And it’s the worst-concealed fact in the profession that travel writers like the odd tipple. Now I’m not talking a bottle of wine per night or anything but yeah, I am talking the odd glass of something… and the odd glass of something is something Slovakia is very adept at providing. If you want wine,  then there’s two main wine-producing regions with plenty of possibilities, the Small Carpathians wineries and the Tokaj wineries. Then of course there’s a myriad different fruit brandies, of which slivovica is only the tip of the iceberg: you name the fruit – or in some areas the herb – and there’s an alcoholic beverage to correspond (see a little more on this in our feature on Slovakia’s most quintessential foods and drinks). And the microbrewery industry has improved significantly in recent years: check our Bratislava Bars & Pubs section for proof! For the non-alcoholically inclined, Slovakia’s tea culture is also incredibly rich (English – rejoice!) and those interested in this should watch this space for more on the many fantastic teahouses – or the čajovne – of Slovakia. It’s not that you can’t get many of these drinks elsewhere, of course. But it’s not so common to find such a small country which can specialise in such an array of them.

7: Cheaper Costs of Living

We all know about Eastern Europe’s perennial popularity with those (quite often, the stag parties) who love how cheap it is for a weekend break. That’s true. Certain aspects of life are cheap here. The public transport and the cultural events, as detailed elsewhere on this article. And the beer (often cheaper than water for the same volume, and for the last couple of years Bratislava has come up as the number one of Europe’s cities for the cheapest beer). And the restaurant food (delicious meals at many of the better restaurants for 10 Euros or under).  And the average rent (even in Central Bratislava you could find apartments from as little as 300 Euros). Even taking into account that salaries are lower, a quick tally-round of the relative prices soon show life in Slovakia = more for less.

6: Music

Considering its size (not much bigger than Bristol and significantly smaller than Manchester) Bratislava gets literally all the big bands that stop round on their European tours – Košice and the smaller cities get a fair few too. It’s the same with music festivals – Bratislava’s programme of events is diverse, and covers everything from world music to classical and electric. Košice – European City of Culture 2013 don’t forget – now also has a wide programme of music events throughout the year. And as the two cities are only four hours apart, you’re never going to be more than two hours or so from cracking live music! Traditional Slovak music, it should be emphasised, is really worth checking out too: Slovakia has one of the most eclectic folk music legacies in Europe.

5: Meal tickets!

I guess it’s one of those things that dates back to Communism. For the vast majority of workers in Slovakia, the employer will cough up at least 50% of the money for meal tickets (generally in 4-Euro blocks) which can be redeemed not only at most restaurants but also supermarkets. If you bear in mind that a set-menu lunch even in Bratislava can cost 3 Euros, you’ve got your lunch taken care of and some money towards your supermarket shopping. Many readers from Europe and the US on here will laugh at the very idea of a company so generously contributing towards employee’s lunch and evening grocery shop: but in Slovakia, it’s a rather lovely reality!

4: Accessibility of Culture

Culture… accessible in Slovakia ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Culture… accessible in Slovakia ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Even considering the cheaper costs of living, the prices of tickets to the theatre or cinema are exceptionally reasonable. 25 Euros maximum can buy you premium seats at Bratislava’s Slovak Philharmony or Slovak National Theatre.

The accessibility isn’t just about price though – often, the very best events are organised by a young and bohemian crowd who go out of their way to make you feel welcome. There’s no pretension with most Slovak cultural events (not to deny that other aspects of life here have incredible pretentiousness) but this doesn’t mean that the standard is low. Slovakia actually has an incredibly important role within the development of Central European classical music and this role translates today into very highly-regarded performances that many people will come especially to see even from Vienna.

The events on offer are numerous, too. In Bratislava, there’s rarely a fortnight that passes without something of cultural significance (and clout) going on..

3: Public Transport

Going some place like Slovakia

Going some place like Slovakia – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slovaks will laugh loud when they read some of the things that I find particularly good about life here, and perhaps this point most of all. But whilst it’s generally a bit more battered than in some countries, it’s a brilliant system. For starters, a great website coordinating all bus and train transport helps you plan your journey across the country precisely (something sorely lacking in the UK).

Then there’s the trains themselves. Old, but very sophisticated, and with very affordable (15 Euros for a cross-country ride) travel in style (proper dining cars serving quite decent food) – see my enthusiastic post on this, Want Fried Cheese With That view, for more!

And within the cities, the tram and trolleybus system is just brilliant (especially Bratislava trams). The lines are almost never closed for repairs, and they always run on time, up to thirty minutes either side of the  centre, for a maximum of 90 Euro cents. They’re rarely crowded, either. Learn from this, public transport in nearly every other European city!

2: Lack of Crowds

Crowdlessness

Crowdlessness ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have walked into a cool place – invariably a cafe, bar or pub – in London, Paris or other big cities and soon formed the impression that it wasn’t so cool based solely on the crowdedness. For me, if I’m waiting to elbow through five rows of punters just to get to a bar to be served, or queue too long for a table in a cafe, then however good the joint it’s unlikely to form a positive impression on me. Such levels of crowds do not, contrary to popular opinion, signify the place is good. They just signify over-populatedness. Right now, even Bratislava never has that problem in Slovakia. You can sit down in your favourite place, or hike your favourite footpath – and breathe, and relax, because there’s never half a dozen people jostling behind you, spilling your drink or spoiling your moment of quiet contemplation.

 

1: Hiking

In reality, nature (which is Slovakia’s biggest draw to visit, or to live in) should probably fill several sections of this particular top ten. But this is nature made accessible by easily the best system of hiking trails I have ever encountered – anywhere. From right in Bratislava, these red-, blue-, yellow- or green-marked signs kick off, with detailed destinations on down the trail and how many minutes’ walk they are away. Sometimes the signs have timings down to the nearest minute! But they always prove to be uncannily accurate and – even if you are a fast walker – very hard to “beat”, although it’s fun trying! Some real TLC goes into making and maintaining these trails and the resulting signage.

This is coupled, even in remoter parts, by the endearing addition of rather elaborately-constructed barbecue spots.  The culture of the opekačka, or barbecue-bonfire in the wilds, is a very important part of Slovak life, especially at weekends. And to this end, it seems hiking trails go out of their way to wind up at great barbecue places. Mostly these are made from wood, and are found in small clearings within the woods, but sometimes they’re made from the old stones of ruined castles (my secret suspicion about why so many hiking trails here link up with ruined castles).

Slovaks also are pretty picky about where they hike: it has to be beautiful. So whilst hikes abound in the woods and mountains (i.e. the majority of the country), the very idea of them walking across farmland like us English is laughable. Then again, Slovak farmland does look rather ugly (the hedges have generally been gutted creating wide, intensively farmed, bleak-looking fields) so I do understand their preference!

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Tatras trail with Ždiar below ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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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.

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.

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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…

Bratislava Castle Restaurant

Slovak cuisine tastebud-tickling time. And this, primarily, for those who have been asking me about classic places to eat really good Slovak food in Bratislava Old Town.

On first examination, the question itself appears bizarre – what other kind of food would restaurants in the Slovak capital be serving up? Well, the current trend in the city centre seems to be leaning towards the international=cool approach. But traditional Slovak cuisine? More the domain of the old folks and the tourists (the old folks aren’t so bothered about gourmet, the attitude goes, and the tourists, ha, they can easily be conned into what constitutes good Slovak food), with the result that, outside of a few dingy krčmy (pubs) and a clutch of high-in-price, far-lower-in-quality joints around Hlavné námestie (the main square), really good typical Slovak restaurants are fairly elusive.

RELATED POST: Bratislava Christmas Market – A Great Op for Trying Traditional Slovak Food

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

So, dearth of top-end Slovak cuisine-oriented restaurants revealed, it was both shocking and heartening to discover that one of the very best in Bratislava is actually situated right next to Bratislava Castle. Shocking because who expects a really good showcase for national cuisine right by one of the most touristy spots in the whole country? Heartening because – well – we know that however much we celebrate off-the-beaten-track places on this site, it’s those big attractions where foreign visitors often gravitate and if they do, we would much rather they had the option of seeking refreshment in a decent restaurant (we know it’s easy to resort to the fast food stand or conveniently-close-to-where-hunger-strikes-but-bland eatery, but don’t). And one that can stand in, with some panache, as a showcase for Slovakia’s culinary offerings.

You will come across Hradná Hviezda in the stately cream-yellow courtyard buildings immediately on the west side of the castle (the side furthest away from the city centre, in other words). With a name translating as the Castle Star, it’s the sister restaurant of Modra Hviezda (Blue Star) a little further down in the Jewish Quarter near the Clock Museum – but it is the more dazzling of the two sisters. The setting exudes refinement, although inside, whilst the interior is pleasant enough with its walnut wood furniture and chandeliers, this is hardly what impresses. Nor is it the service (although, poised somewhere between the luke-warm and the congenial, the service is more than adequate). No, Hradná Hviezda will only have you planning your next visit back when you taste what it can do (cook well).

Deer and plums go so well together… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Deer and plums go so well together… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

There are seven or eight choices of typical Slovak main courses, and each whets the curiosity (and the palate). The meat, always soft, flavoursome and embellished by rosemary and thyme, is hardest to resist. There is the mangalica (the wild boar that roams in the forests above Bratislava) with a pumpkin sauce and chestnuts – chestnuts being a typical accompaniment to Slovakia’s game-centric meat dishes. There is a rabbit served with paprika sauce and dumplings – rabbit is a common meat for country folks who regularly go out bagging them but in Bratislava it is far rarer, and enhanced here by a combo of traditional Hungarian and Slovak sides, the paprika that sets Hungarian food a-blaze and the dumplings which prop up typical Slovak food. Jeleň (venison) is also offered – with the sauce concocted from Slovakia’s signature fruit, the plum, and a rich, creamy potato puree. But Hradná Hviezda also does a mean strapačky (dumplings with sauerkraut) and one that’s enticingly presented in contrast to the sometimes colourless versions of the dish served up elsewhere.

Presentation (generous portions, yet thoughtfully arranged on the plates) is key with Hradná Hviezda’s food. The chefs clearly know exactly what they are doing. A meal here, consequently, is not cheap (mains are between 13 and 22 Euros, which puts it in a similar price bracket to one of our other favourite city centre Slovak restaurants, Traja Muškietieri).

It would have been nice to wash down the delicious food with a choice of better Slovak beers (only offering Zlaty Bažant and Krušovice, two of the dullest beers in the country, is a definite shortcoming). It’s definitely recommended, therefore, to sample their wine list which in contrast goes overboard to offer a wide variety of Slovak wines. White wines in Slovakia, especially those from the Small Carpathians (Male Karpaty) Wine region, can rival the world’s best, and the dry white from Rulandske, in the Limbach/Pezinok region, is a true delight here.

Perhaps a glass of the latter would have been better paired with their trout… But we have only ever had eyes for Hradná Hviezda’s game. You’ll spend a lot longer than the walk up here takes if you were to keep to the lower reaches of the city centre scouting around to find game that compares to that available in the serendipitously twinkling Castle Star…

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Directions are the same as for the castle, and this is an easy stroll up from the very centre, but for those with walking difficulties there is trolleybus 203, catch-able from Hodžovo námestie (and get out at the stop conveniently called “Hrad”).

OPENING: 10am-10pm. Sometimes it can be a good idea to book –  as the restaurant caters to tour groups (locals too, but also tour groups).

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Oh, a dark wintry lunchtime when huddling by their cozy fireplace seems pretty much the best thing to do. Hradná Hviezda’s best dishes are the heavy, hearty, wintery kind. And a visit in out of the cold means the perfect excuse to sample one of their oh-so-typically Slovak fruit brandies… mahrulovica (with apricots), borovička (with pears). The list goes on.

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Hradná Hviezda it’s 2km north to another restaurant on a great viewpoint, Kamzík

Delicious duck fat ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

How I Fell in Love With Duck Fat

My ex-girlfriend always was a big fan of duck fat. She repeatedly told me lyrical, nostalgia-filled stories about what a great and delicious thing it was. My initial reaction was horror, followed by putting it down to a Slovak quirk.

Let me contextualise: in Slovakia, loving duck fat is a pretty common thing. In the UK, duck fat prompts – well – largely disgust, right? After all, it’s the fat that’s left over from cooking duck. WHY ON EARTH WOULD YOU EAT IT when you could, er, throw it away?

Well, for starters: just possibly we throw too much away in the UK. That’s despite the trend of all these restaurants that have as their speciality using the whole of the animal and not wasting any – yep, the nose to tail eating thing. Indigenous tribes across the globe thought of that idea long before anyway. And Slovaks are actually not too far behind. This, don’t forget, is one of the EU’s poorest countries and Communism bred a “waste not want not” approach out of pure necessity. So in Slovakia it has always made sense to keep your residue fat from when you are cooking meat: particularly duck and goose.

But being British I have always had a bit of an obsession with marmite. If you want something savoury on your toast, this is the obvious choice, right? But not if you go gluten free in your diet, which I have recently done. Now, whilst having my gluten-free bread toasted in the morning, when I’ve already had a slice with jam, I’m looking for something savoury to round it off: so I reach for the jar of duck fat. I have been urged by Slovaks, many times, to try a bit – a tiny bit – on some warm toast, and I have to say I’ve finally acquired a taste for it. The taste. Yes. Basically, like a cross between a paté and marmite. Like a slightly meaty, slightly salty spread, a little crisp on the outside and buttery soft inside. My first reaction was that this was alright. My second was to have another lathering of it on another slice. And I’ve not looked back.

Duck fat can be used for a number of things: including as a basis for cooking chips and the like. But in Slovakia perhaps the most common use is just as an alternative to butter. You have to have it melted on warm toast. If it’s not melted, it’s just not the same (although my ex is known to eat it by the spoonful from the jar). It’s also healthier for you than butter. And it tastes nicer. And it makes giving up marmite easier!

For those of you looking for marmite when you come to Slovakia, it’s sometimes available in the big Tesco’s just down from Námestie SNP on Špitálska in Bratislava. Otherwise: get accustomed to the duck fat.

RELATED POST: Get to the crux of Slovakia’s ‘waste not, want not, eat the whole animal and nothing but the whole animal approach: with an insight into the Zabijačka (pig butchering and roasting)

*NB. 2016, autumn: Back on the marmite.Border line if it’s gluten-free or not anyway. But still loving the duck fat.

Šulance: A Recipe

OK, so this may not look like the Šulance hardcore Slovak-ophiles are accustomed to…

But that’s because it’s made not with homemade plum jam like they use in a typical Slovak household, but sweetened stewed plums which, being chunky, rather dominate what’s underneath. However this traditional dumpling recipe is made with my ex-girlfriend’s mothers recipe which is far simpler than any of the other recipes out there on the web (at least those written in English).

Dumpling Crash Course

Rule number one. Dumplings in the English language is a term generally used to describe lumps of dough (potato or bread based usually) cooked invariably via boiling. Slovaks have a lot more terminology for dumplings, made with potatoes or even veal, and depending on size and shape as well as ingredients.

But Šulance, the subject of this post, are small potato dumplings served sweet with butter, sugar and poppy seeds and for some reason (rather than waiting for my ex-girlfriend’s mum to make them) I decided to cook them for my parents this weekend back in England.

Šulance Recipe

I’m fully expecting this post to be challenged, but I’m sharing this information for the wannabe dumpling makers out there. However:

Dumplings

500 g potatoes and 180 g heavy (wholemeal is good) flour.

Topping

Ample amounts of butter, icing sugar, poppy seeds/walnuts and plum jam/apricot jam.

Method 

Boil the potatoes whole and with skins still on. Leave them to cool. They need to be cold when you start making the dough. Put the potatoes through a masher or roughly grate them and mix in the flour. For the dough, that’s it. Don’t add egg like all the recipes say. There’s no need. Season to taste with salt. You’ll want it more salty if you’re using this for savoury dumplings (yes this dough can magically be used for savoury or sweet) and less for sweet (šulance etc). However you WILL STILL WANT SOME SALT FOR ŠULANCE TOO!

When a dough is formed, roll into several sausages and cut off portions (a few cm long and a couple of cm wide).

In a big pan of slightly salted boiling water (yep more salt) and add the mini-dumplings one by one. When they start to rise (like with gnocchi) leave them stewing for about five minutes.

Melt loads of butter in a pan and let the dumplings cool in the buttery mixture so they don’t stick. Cover with sugar. NOW. Apparently the proper serving method is with plum jam and poppy seeds OR apricot jam and walnuts. Being a man of excess, I used all four in liberal quantities – and it also tasted delicious. I would say make sure there are PLENTY of poppy seeds. This recipe turned out pretty much as good (taste wise) as you’ll get in a Slovak restaurant. I’m not boasting – it’s just quite easy to make, but fairly time consuming, what with the dough rolling etc.

As for presentation… well, I never claimed to be a Slovak chef…