A deer in a dish...

The Far East: Your Very Own Elegy in Oak

“The other day, I was about to toss a chunk of wood onto the stove. But the light caught on the grain, at a certain angle, and I knew this piece of wood could be something. I stopped concentrating on getting the stove going – even though it’s pretty freezing right now in Eastern Slovakia – went up to my workshop, and a few hours later I’d created my latest design. That’s how it works, in this business. Pieces of wood, even the ones you’ve intended for your fire, have the potential to become beautiful gifts.”

Slovakia is a country of trees. It is one of Europe’s most forested nations – much of it beech or conifer, but a fair amount in oak, too. In the east of Slovakia, they even make their churches out of wood (so beautifully that the 50 or so wooden religious buildings peppering the countryside hereabouts are Unesco-listed). And it is in this region that Freddie Venables, an Englishman that has been living here for the last twenty years, has decided to set up shop to showcase the beauty of Slovakian wood to the world: in oak, naturally, as it remains the bottom line in quality as far as carpentry is concerned.

Freddie has an illustrious connection with oak going back decades. He ran a successful oak flooring business out in the east for some time, and designed the oak-paneled cigar room of flashy High Tatras hotel Hotel Horizont. But these days, he’s retreated to the hills of the far northeast of the country to concentrate on what he loves best: whittling away in his workshop what can truly lay claim to being some of Slovakia’s most esoteric wood-made handicrafts.

A candle holder

A candle holder

The main thing with Freddie, besides the quality, is the versatility. Whatever it is that you are seeking to have immortalised in wood, he’ll work with you to have it produced. Smaller wooden gifts are his raison d’être – candle-holders, house plaques, chopping boards, plant boxes, commemorative ornaments (Our seasonal favourites are his wooden bowls embossed with deer motifs). But he’ll happily take on larger commissions such as furniture too. His experience, together with his passion for promoting Slovakian woodwork and handicrafts, combine to render his creations some of the most original take-home souvenirs from Slovakia you could ask for.

The inspiration for his craft is in the wild landscapes around the village of Vyšný Mirošov, where he lives and works, and there is a little bit of Slovakia’s most tradition-steeped region in each of his creations. His wood-made gifts can be purchased through his online shop.

Mini elegies in oak, indeed.

See our Top Ten Slovak Gift Ideas

The craftsman with one of his recent creations

The craftsman with one of his recent creations

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!