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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.

Slovak Vodka Corners the UK Market!

Stará Ľubovňa has a fair amount to answer for when it comes to Slovakia spirits. Just beyond town, the highly successful Nestville Park distillery in Hniezdne produces Slovakia’s only whiskey. But in Stará Ľubovňa itself, the Gas Familia distillery produces a number of alcoholic drinks and one of these, the singular Goral Vodka, has recently become Slovakia’s first vodka to break into the UK market. In fact, it’s one of Slovakia’s very first alcoholic drinks to really make it in Britain – other distinctive Slovak drinks such as Eastern Slovakia’s Tokaj wine or the famous Tatranský čaj from the High Tatras have never yet secured their position on UK supermarket shelves.

The “Goral” in the vodka’s title comes from the Goral people who inhabited the Slovak High Tatras around the community of Ždiar, and whose culture remains prevalent there today. Folks from this neck of the woods are said to be have physical strength and a purity of spirit and this is what Goral vodka strives for as it makes inroads on your palate. An initial creaminess as well as lighter notes of spice and citrus are the other hits your taste buds can expect.

The vodka is produced using durum wheat which then undergoes seven-column distillation through natural materials like charcoal before the cool, clean water flowing off the High Tatras peaks gets added.

Goral vodka has been available since 2010 in Slovakia but in the UK it’s now available at a growing number of outlets, including the boutique hotel Hampton Manor and online at www.masterofmalt.com or www.lokiwine.co.uk

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The Tokaj Wine Cellars of the Far East: Drinking Like a King

Mmm. Culinary adventures. What better way to explore than one which has as its motive the discovery of a food or drink? I don’t just say this for my own palate’s sake. In a country I care about, it is also a beautiful thing to see a product flourishing which is a distillation of the land – of its peculiar soil, of its history. Scotland has whisky. France has cognac. Portugal has porto. Slovakia has its Tokaj wine.

Before we get started, it’s Tokaj. Not Tokaji like the Hungarians spell the region. Not Tokay, as the word usually gets Anglicised. No: Tokaj is the Slovak wine region. And I’m going to be honest: I’m writing this not purely because I heartily recommend a trip to this little-known viticultural region of Slovakia, but also to redress the unfair balance of online content that praises Hungarian Tokaji and dismisses or ignores Slovak Tokaj.

Slovak Tokaj vs Hungarian Tokaj

Cluster of Fermint grapes ready for making Tokaj ©andrs.kovacs

Cluster of Fermint grapes ready for making Tokaj ©andrs.kovacs

Just because this rather unique wine first shot to prominence whilst Slovakia was part of the Hungarian Kingdom, don’t be fooled into thinking Hungary’s Tokaji wine is the superior product and Slovak Tokaj just a humble cousin.  Far from it. The historic Tokaji-Tokaj wine region here encompasses territory in Hungary AND Slovakia. True, the Hungarians are better at promoting the wine on their side of the border to an international market (and at promoting Hungarian Tokaj as superior on online articles), but that’s also because the Slovaks are quite happy keeping their Tokaj to themselves – much like the Cubans don’t export much of their very best tobacco.

As for the taste, I’ve tried Tokaj in Hungary and in Slovakia. I’ve visited Tokaj wineries in both countries. And what becomes clear is that saying one country’s Tokaj is better and one is worse evidently boils down to territorial rivalry. Hungarians are angry Slovakia “took” part of “their” Tokaj region following the Treaty of Trianon after WW1 (their anger is intensified because Malá Trňa and Vel’ka Trňa, the villages on the Slovak side, are often able to produce better cibéba, the botrytised grapes that as you will see below are crucial to the Tokaj process). Slovaks are angry with the Hungarians for having subjugated them for the best part of 1000 years, and for having set foot on what was Slavic soil in the first place. When it comes to Tokaj – in fact when it comes down to it full stop – the arguments can run both ways with equal validity and are to an extent pointless. The fact is that Hungary and Slovakia now share the historic Tokaj wine region, and Tokaj wines in both countries have geographically protected designation of origin status.

It’s also true that certain Slovak Tokaj’s can out-trump the more numerous Hungarian Tokaji wines. In Hungary, the Tokaji wine region is much bigger. The wineries themselves are usually larger, and more commercially-focussed or business-minded, and also concentrate on producing more dry white wines (it is the amber-coloured Tokaj which, as you will see in the next section, is such a distinguished product in world terms, but this is also sells less than white wines). In Slovakia, Tokaj is still a niche product. It’s produced in far smaller quantities: sometimes just for family, friends and the odd passer by. Most of the little cellars therefore can concentrate on producing Tokaj Vyber (the afore-mentioned amber nectar-wine) because they’re not so concerned with getting their wines on restaurant tables.

There are two more major differences between Slovak Vyber Tokaj and Hungarian Tokaj Aszu (its cross-border equivalent):

1: Foreign investment: Hungarian Tokaj has seen a lot of French firms taking control of wineries. This has had positive consequences (more money to spend on latest technology methods, for example, and making the wineries more tourist-friendly) but it’s also meant a modernising of the brand. Slovak Tokaj (much less foreign investment) has remained more concerned with traditional methods of production that date back centuries (although Hungarians will claim this is Slovak Tokaj not adhering to certain standards).

2: Cibeby: It’s a little-known fact but cibeby (those sweet rotted grapes) just often seem to flourish more on the Slovak side. This (along with the older cellars that have acquired far more of the black mould on their walls that is essential for a rounded Tokaj taste) means Slovak Tokaj has a nuanced pungent aroma.

At the end of the day, of course it would be best to visit wineries on both the Slovak and Hungarian sides and make up your own mind! Just don’t listen to one side telling you the other side isn’t worth bothering with!

What’s So Special About Tokaj?

Before you make the somewhat epic (at least by Slovak standards) trek out here you should know how special – indeed elusive – is the object of your quest.

In truth, whether it hails from Hungary or Slovakia, Tokaj is a pretty singular drink – already distinguished from most other wines by its distinct amber colour. It’s a desert wine – and quite sweet, but also with a richness desert wines often lack. But it’s how it acquires that taste which sets it out from the overwhelming majority of other wines.

Tokaj grapes get picked only when the vines have been attacked by mould (which the famously moist climate and volcanic soil hereabouts encourages) and have begun to rot.  It’s a bacteria which visits the Tokaj vineyards only sporadically. And when it does, the viticulturists are on hand to convert it into one of Slovakia’s most specialty products – with Protected Designation of Origin status. The mould-attacked grapes called cibéba are fashioned into varying concentrations of sugarry paste (distinguished on a scale of “putňa” between 1 and 6, with 6 being sweetest and strongest) and determine the  sweet, pungent taste of Tokaj.

To reiterate, bigger vineyards – such as the Tokaji wineries in Hungary possess – can navigate the problem of sporadic production periods by the extent of the vines they’re harvesting. Most of Slovakia’s Tokaj wineries are small-scale: which means no fixed quantities can be produced and therefore international buyers are rarely interested: this all serves to underscore the eclectic nature of their product.

Tokaj...

Tokaj…  ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

A Sweet History Lesson

Tokaj wine production goes back several centuries, and involves famous names a-plenty. Charles III of Hungary safeguarded the area as a protected wine-growing region in the 18th century – although wine had been produced here long before that. King Louis XV of France served them to his mistress. Beethoven and Goethe refer to Tokaj in their works.  Perhaps the uniquest thing about the wine, in fact, is that the cellars where it matures were originally 16th- and 17th-century (some still earlier) defences against invading Turks: underground labyrinths these days thick with the aroma of fermenting grapes.

Visiting Slovakia’s Tokaj Cellars

This post was in fact prompted by the fact that there was almost no practical information on how to visit the Tokaj wine cellars of far-eastern Slovakia. Slovaks, despite being incredibly self-depracating at times, have a more or less universal quiet pride for their Tokaj, but there’s very much an “it’s there, and we’re happy if only we know about it” attitude that prevails when it comes to visiting the places where their product is made.

Even in the tourist information in Košice, from where a trip to Tokaj terrain commences, they’re hardly forthcoming with details. They’d sooner divert you to one of  the city’s wine bars – and whilst Košice does have several of these, this is not the matter in hand.

Essentially, whilst there is in fact a little-touted Tokaj wine route which takes in several of the villages with cellars (namely Slovenské Nové Mesto, Malá Tŕňa, Veľká Tŕňa, Viničky, Čerhov, Černochov and Bara) this is even more challenging to find good information on than the Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians) wine route. Wine routes are also impractical, remember, if the distances between the stop-offs require a drive. The best idea with the Tokaj wine cellars is to go and stay overnight in the most atmospheric of the wine-producing villages, Malá Tŕňa (or failing that nearby Veľká Tŕňa). These last two are both part of the historic Tokaj region (Slovakia has extended its Tokaj region, and the wines there are still often very good, but Malá Tŕňa and Veľká Tŕňa have that little bit more historic soul.

MAP LINK: (for Malá Tŕňa).

GETTING THERE: An unusually long Getting There section, thanks to the below:

Malá Tŕňa is pretty much 100% devoted to winemaking – and has been for centuries. If you are not travelling around Slovakia with your own car then there is a nice way to get here by public transport.

Hop on one of the ponderous, battered old trains that shunt about every two hours from Košice down to the town of Slovenské Nové Mesto (also a winemaking town but less attractive) on the border with Hungary. Walk back up the long straight road running out of town to the first bend. A little-used lane forks right. Take it, and follow this route cross-country through rolling farmland with vineyard-carpeted slopes sliding into view as you pass the hamlet of Karolov Dvor and wind up on the shady main road (appropriately named Tokajská) of Malá Tŕňa. I personally enjoyed this way of arriving as you get to see more of the “winescape” and work up a thirst in the process. It was a scalding summer day on my last visit here, and I was craving the cellar cool by the time I arrived…

As you enter the village, the proper “wine” street (Medzipivničká) is on the left. You’ll see the Greek-style mural in celebration of viticulture and then the Tolkien-esque pitched, grass-roofed stone huts built into the earth which mark the entrance to the cellars themselves…

WHICH WINERY?:  Within Malá Tŕňa, there are several wineries to choose from. All offer similar degustation experiences for $10-15 Euros. You descend 10 metres underground (it’s cold down here – a more or less constant temperature year-round – you’ll need a jacket) into a network of underground passages and antechambers that would be incredible to explore even if there wasn’t a drop of alcohol stashed within.

As it is, these endearing labyrinthine buildings are packed to the gills with wine. You’ll see the cosily-lit cellars stacked with wine, with the characteristic bubble-like black mould encasing the walls and many of the bottles. You’ll sit down and be taken through the history of Tokaj (far more in depth and fascinating than any blog post could hope to be) and then you’ll get a long and drawn-out tasting session, generally beginning with the weakest and ending in the nectar-like grade 6 vintage.

The only difference between these tours is that some of the more popular ones can have bigger groups, making the experience less personal.

That said, on the day we made enquiries about visits, none of the wineries – even the biggest – had any visitors at all. This worked to our disadvantage, because to a group of just two, most wineries thought it wasn’t worth opening up (they wanted a 4-person minimum to bother). In the end it was the smallest winery of the lot (a family who had just one cellar and who had been winemakers for generations – the details on these guys will follow in the next day or so) who we found most accommodating – and delivered a beautifully personal experience whereby the owner was happy to chat for a good couple of hours about the complexities of the winemaking process.

WHICHEVER winery you opt to visit (and of course you can visit multiple cellars, but remember that at a minimum of six sizeable glasses of Tokaj per degustation, you might not wish to navigate too many sets of steep, slippery steps) you do need to BOOK IN ADVANCE. Ideally a minimum of 24 hours before, and to be safe two or three days before. It also helps if you go in a group – many small wineries may not offer tours just to one person on their own, and require four-person minimum groups.

WINE CELLAR TOURS/TASTINGS:

– Tokaj Macik Winery – they offer 6-, 10- or 15-glass tastings (the latter the supposedly “complete” degustation) – prices range from 10 to 30 Euros per person.

– Ostrozovic Winery – this is based in Vel’ka Tŕňa (the next village)  – 6-, 10- or 15-glass tastings with a “bonus” tasting on each cost 12.30, 19.90 or 32.90 Euros. They also have accommodation. 16 glasses in, you may need it.

So there you go. Enjoy.

STAY OVER: Tokaj Macik winery in the village of Malá Tŕňa came up with the bright idea of letting its wine-sozzled visitors crash at their place. There’s eight good, spacious modern rooms here, plus a bar serving more of that Tokaj and wifi. Prices for a single/double are 48/58 Euros.

GALLERY: (courtesy of Around Guides)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 58km northwest of Malá Tŕňa is the fabulous city of Košice centred by Košice Cathedral

WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT SLOVAK WINE? SO WHAT NEXT?

–  Our post on Open Cellar Days when you can go round sampling the wines of the Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians) Wine Route willy-nilly,

– Our posts on Slovakia’s other big wine region, Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians) around Bratislava: on visiting Limbach, the prettiest of these wine-producing villages and on the tasting events put on by various Malé Karpaty wineries

– Our post on the fine wines produced around Chateau Topoľčianky

– Our post on Slovakia’s ten most quintessential food and drinks

– A little bit more info on different types of Tokaj… and a little bit more about general Slovak winemaking

A link to Lonely Planet’s Wine Trails where you can read my chapter on the Slovak/Hungarian wine region of Tokaj.

NB: this is one of our pages which is constantly in a state of flux – check back for updates on Tokaj wine cellar tours and particularly good bottlings :)

Western Slovakia: the Wine Tastings (in Trnava)

NONE  of the events taking place on what is known as the Small Carpathians Wine Route (Malokarpatská vínna cesta) exactly advertise themselves. Yet for the traveler with the canny eye for doing something a bit different there is usually something going on most months that’s wine-related in the hills just north of Bratislava. In fact, spending the evening wine tasting is very much part of tradition in Slovakia (albeit not quite up there with the tradition of downing copious amounts of fruit brandy).

The other week we went to the Trnava wine tasting, in the culture house there. If you ever see the streets of Trnava relatively deserted, maybe that’s because the entire population is out sampling local wines. At least, thus it seemed like on this particular night!

What I liked about the event was that it was a great advert for Slovak culture. In Slovakia, when it comes to drinking, the stereotypical image is of old men in sterile krčmy (pubs) without windows so their wives can’t see them. Yet here were a sophisticated group of people, young and old alike, nosing and sipping wine and giving their opinion on it.

When wine tasting gets serious...

When wine tasting gets serious…

Within the Small Carpathians wine region, there are many such events, with a different wine producer taking it in turn to play hosts. On this night it was the Daniel Sekera wine producer and the wines were mostly from close to Trnava, although there were other vintages to sample too (including a really good white port). At the beginning of the night, a long table (stretching the entire length of one side of the town hall in this case) is set up and a stunning variety of wines (in excess of one hundred) is set up. Visitors first come in to buy a block of tickets which then entitles them to anything between one and five tastings, depending on the quality of the wine they want a glass of. There is then a menu given to them from which they choose their desired wine, nibbles provided as an accompaniment and then… you’re off.

Sure, people do get quietly drunk at these events (they are Slovaks after all). But it’s also about appreciation, and done in very sophisticated fashion, at least until after the first four or five glasses. No one outside Slovakia really goes to these events because you have to be in with the in crowd to know about them. Slovak wine makers have only ever really cared about a domestic market. During Communism a collective farm known as a družtvo would concentrate on the production of low-quality wine that served the former Soviet Union and after 1989 Slovak winemakers found it very hard to start competing with already-established good-quality European wines. That’s all a big shame.

During September and October, Trnava Tourist Office run tours to nearby wineries (which of course include a taste or three!) – see here for more.

Whilst Tokaj wine itself, Slovakia’s most-famed wine, will be the subject of another post on this blog, it needs to be said that the wines from the Orešany region I tried here were delicious. The whites, I would say, are generally superior to the reds. (There’s actually a reason why – Slovakia’s climate is less well suited to the ripening of red grapes where as white varieties grow perfectly)

Anyway, there are some great wine events in Slovakia. Just below, we’ve compiled a neat little list of where you can go for more information on this tasty topic!

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NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: You’ve come to Trnava to wine, now we’re sending you 28km west into the Small Carpathian hills proper for great goulash, at Furmanska Krčma

MORE ON SLOVAK WINE?

Open Cellar Days: A Little More Info

Top Ten Quintessential Slovak Foods & Drinks

Svätý Jur, just outside Bratislava, and its Interesting Food and Wine

The delicious wine (and wine country!) around Limbach in the Small Carpathians

A Bit More on Modra in the Small Carpathians and its Wine Heritage

A voyage to discover more about the Tokaj wine cellars of Eastern Slovakia