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.

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.

Bryndza natierka - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

An Easy Bryndza Recipe

Bryndza, the tart, tangy sheep’s cheese that forms one of the backbones of Slovak cuisine, can be used in a variety of dishes – most famously, of course, in the national dish Bryndzové Halušky (potato dumplings with sheep’s cheese, to be featured in another post, because actually getting those dumplings right is an art many non-Slovaks can’t grasp). But just about the easiest thing to do with bryndza other than eat it straight is to make it into a tasty spread (natierka) which could also be used as a dip – perfect for a dinner party extra whether you’re in Slovakia or out of it.

Bryndza Natierka Ingeredients

– Bryndza – one good-sized piece (it’s sold now at a lot of Polish delicatessans, as well as Czech and Slovak delicatessans across Europe but THE place to get this cheese is in the Slovak mountains and the area around Liptovský Miklauš is famous for producing the very best. Stalls sell it at the roadside in that area.)

– Butter

– Half a red onion

– Cumin

– Powdered sweet red pepper (this is used more for colour than for taste. You could also use paprika for this, which will be the nearest widely-available thing in the UK – but then it would be more feisty).

NB: No specific quantities are given because there is no correct measure of ingredients for this recipe. Ignore, to a large extent, any bryndza natierka recipe which gives you specific measures for the ingredients. It’s all about what feels and tastes right for you. Be more organic about it. As a yardstick, I used, with a ball of about 200g of bryndza, maybe just under a quarter of a normal block of butter. That gives the spread a pretty creamy taste. Oh, and SOFTEN THE BUTTER for an hour or so outside the fridge before you use it. Otherwise it’s Hell to work with🙂

Bryndza Natierka Method:

OK: here’s the method:

1: Mash the ball of bryndza down on a plate, like so:

IMG_2522

2: Cream in the pre-softened butter, having cut the butter into small knobs. Cream until the mixture has a smooth consistency.

3: Thoroughly mix in the sweet red pepper powder or paprika, as in the pic below. Note how the colour slowly changes to a vibrant salmon pink.

IMG_2526

4: Again, being quite liberal, mix in the cumin (try a teaspoon full for starters):

5: Mix in about half a finely chopped red onion. Chop it really fine: it improves the taste.

6: Eat! I personally like bryndza natierka a little soft and spreadable – in which case leave it out a half hour or so before serving. It’s good with crackers or bread – or you can have it as a dip if you’re making a buffet. Celery dipped in bryndza? Mmmm

Communism... Based on image by zscout370

On 25 Years Since the End of Communism

A quarter of a century since the fall of Communism was marked in Slovakia perhaps as it should be: in a quiet and analytical way, with a lot of discussions in the media on the progress the country had made during this time.

We have mentioned on Englishman in Slovakia some of the tributes paid to the tumbling of the regime which still, 25 years later, has such a profound effect on so much of this part of Europe (those with a Slovak theme anyway): that compilation of various docufilm directors’ impressions on the country two decades after gaining independence, Slovensko 2.0, is a good starting point.

But the main question on everyone’s lips: has Slovakia developed in a good way, in the way people imagined or hoped that it would? And of course a lot of voices answered: no, not nearly as “good” as expected.  To paraphrase from one of the discussion programmes I got a chance to listen to: Slovakia, whilst technically the easternmost reach of the “west” is more accurately in politics the westernmost outpost of the “east”.

It’s not our place on this site to dwell so much on thorny Slovak state issues. There are plenty of them, which are perhaps best summarised in the word “corruption”. Slovakia’s PM Fico can argue, citing such successes as the Kia and Peugeot automotive plants, that he’s helped the economy (well, at least in the west of SlovaKIA) but culturally? Democratically? In its legal system? Ahem. Polls by CVVM (Czech) and IVO (Slovak) showed only 51% of Slovaks viewed what took place in that autumn of 1989, up to and including November’s Velvet Revolution, with positivity, and that’s no doubt based on disillusionment with those facets of life where there’s a country mile of room for improvement today.

But on the subject of travel, I can say that I’m happy to be here right at the beginning. And I really do mean the absolute nascence – because for years the Slovak tourism industry was dormant and for years more it developed in the wrong way (ski package deals, stag weekends). The beginning of the opening of Slovakia to tourism is now. As new flight connections to Poprad and Košice illustrate, the “set piece” – the east of the country – is more accessible than ever. Enterprising Slovak adventure agencies are getting international recognition. Cool places to eat that aren’t afraid to champion the Slovak character of their menus are introducing foreigners to the nation’s traditional food. Slovakia is now catering to a more discerning type of traveler: the kind that really wants to discover. And the potential is as great as the mountains and forests are vast.

Raise a glass of your finest Demänovka (herbal liqueur) to the next 25 years. Actually, Slovaks are generally more partial to Becherovka, which is a Czech version of the same drink…

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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.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The High Tatras Mountain Resorts – Starý Smokovec: Koliba Kamzík

A Koliba, in Slovak, is a typical countryside dining spot serving traditional Slovak food. And Starý Smokovec, one of the ‘big three’ of the mountain resorts in the High Tatras, is just about the last place in the country you would expect to chance across a rustic restaurant like this. That’s because Starý Smokovec is pretty much the archetypal late-19th-century mountain holiday destination, replete with grand, elaborate Art Nouveau architecture and oozing the polished suavity of a destination which has been able to attract tourists like pins to a magnet since the very beginning of its existence. And lovely it does indeed look. But it’s far harder, in such tourist magnets, to find a restaurant which isn’t trying to charge you many times over the odds for meals, or one that takes advantage of one-off custom to compromise on quality. This is where Koliba Kamzík steps into the fray…

Inside... ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Inside… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

With a refreshing splash of classic mountain charm, this is a place that, quite literally, stands out above a lot of its other, far-more-hyped competition (it’s a block up the hill from the Grandhotel Starý Smokovec across a cleared area of grassland, but despite the prominence of its sign most tourists pass it by). It stands out too with incredible value for money, and with the delicious simplicity of its cuisine…

A block below this joint, it’s turn-of-the-century grandeur and tourist crowds often being served unexceptional food; here it’s the far-more Slovak pine and beech wood chalet-style with spotted and chequered tablecloths garnished by fresh flowers. A beaming Kamzík (mountain goat) welcomes you into an outside eating area and subsequently an interior that sparkle with chirpy decoration (the šupulienky cockerels steal the show). The service is speedy, if a tad abrupt (which is a lot better than lackadaisical and abrupt) and this means you’ll be sitting down with your choice from the classic but brilliantly executed Slovak menu in the pleasing and peaceful surrounds all the sooner.

Mushroom soup ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Mushroom soup ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

What to choose? (you’ll probably have to fend the waitress – she’ll be clad in traditional Slovak folkloric dress, by the way – off a couple of times). Soup, that quintessential way of embarking on a Slovak meal, is a worthy starter. I went for the hríbová polievka (mushroom soup) but the cesnaková polievka (garlic soup) looked like it tasted equally delicious. Soups with meals in Slovakia are generally thin, with the key ingredients not totally blended in but bobbing in tasty bite-sized morsels within, and rich in taste: mine was no exception. My choice of main was the “koliba plate” involving hearty amounts of dumplings (two kinds, the pirohy which are more like parcels containing meat, and halušky, solid dumplings cooked in bryndza sauce) and Slovak spicy sausage, klobasa. Venison, beef and an incredible grilled trout also flank the menu.

And perhaps here comes the deal maker. A proper Slovak eatery, rather than one of its pale imitations, is one thing. One that embraces Slovak food and does it with aplomb is another thing. The view (from the restaurant interior, if you grab a window seat, you’ve got the resort of Starý Smokovec ushering in a view down the hill slopes into the wide valley between the High and Low Tatras massifs) is a third thing. That all this comes together in such a touristy locale makes it four things. But the fifth thing trumps the others: the price. The mains start at a mere 5.50 Euros, and the grilled fish is only 8.50 Euros. You are saving money by coming here, and harbouring the feeling that, in the midst of all those tourists, you’ve somehow thwarted the tourist traps. So. Come!

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Starý Smokovec 8 (Starý Smokovec is the road which rises up behind Penzion Tatra (itself looming up above the Starý Smokovec mountain railway station) and you’ll see the big sign looking to the right as you head up this lane.) The website gives you a fuller idea of the menu (if you can read Slovak).

OPENING: 11am to 10pm daily.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Koliba Kamzik it’s 100m west along the road behind the Grand Hotel Starý Smokovec to the cableway up to Hrebienok on stage three of the Tatranská Magistrala

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Piešt’any: Reštaurácia Furman

Imagine it: the biting wind of a mid-winter afternoon, the dismalness of night-time already looming although there has barely been any daylight to speak of. Still, you’ve made the best of it and hiked into the hills, only to find the weather has got too much for you. It’s gnawed its way into the marrow of your bones. The only thought that keeps flashing around your brain is not how beautiful the landscape is (although, in its own bleak way, it does have a beauty) but how to get warm, and that quickly. As extensions of that thought are the dual fantasies of hot food and hot drink, ideally in somewhere atmospheric although you’d settle for less, you’d settle for anything with four walls and a roof – and at the same time you’re entertaining this fantasy you know that you’re in the countryside and any kind of shelter is a long shot. This was the context in which we rounded the brow of a bare hill and saw, in the dip below, Reštaurácia Furman for the first time.

Furman is part of that delightful breed of places to eat in Slovakia that rears the meat that winds up on the plate in a wood out back. For fresh jeleň (venison) or bažant (pheasant) there are few better places in the country to come than here, as we soon discovered.

Dog or Deer?

The welcome is an unusual one. Strangely, the first thing you see is an immense yellow dog galloping around in a paddock of its own, as if it were a dangerous creature, but that should not deter you: the dog is deceptively friendly, and not on the menu. The deer in the field behind, however, are. Whilst first-timers to this type of restaurant might find it cruel that these sweet- and sombre-seeming animals should act, on the one hand, as a diversion outside the restaurant (to pet them, to pose for pictures with them, etc) and yet should be served up as the speciality of the day inside, I personally find it refreshing: the animals have an entire wood of their own to roam in, and you can be sure the meat here is fresh, and the animals well-cared for during their lives. A beast-to-meat relationship, vividly there for all to see, is an honest one – one no meat-eater should shy away from.

Vitame Vas… Welcome! ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Vitame Vas… Welcome! ©wwwenglishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Menu

Once we’d peeled off our layers, got our blood circulating again and settled down at a table in an interior somehow combining traditional Slovak with just a touch of the Wild West, the obvious choice (from the dishes of the day, which I always go for) was either the deer goulash or the pheasant in red wine sauce and it was the latter that I went for. It came deliciously and richly seasoned with herbs, and accompanied with potato croquettes that rank up there with the very best I’ve had in Slovakia – again impeccably seasoned with rosemary and thyme and ladled with cranberries on top. Washing it down was the mulled wine my chilled body craved (served sour, in the typical Slovak way, with honey and sugar provided). My dining companion ordered grilled oštiepok, and they were very accommodating in making it gluten-free. Several other styles of venison (as ragout with dates, or a leg cut with a sauce concocted from forest mushrooms) were also available. Prices were invariably between 5 and 9 Euros for main courses.

Unabashed Tradition

What you are getting with Reštaurácia Furman is a gloriously typical Slovak eatery (the sheepskins are draped over the chunky wooden seats, the stag’s heads gaze haughtily down from their fixtures on the walls, the ceiling is studded with old cart wheels) proud of its tradition – but not once compromising on either quality of food or ambience. This is how a typical rural restaurant would have been (give or take) 60 or 70 years ago. Now their rustic wood hunter-friendly decor and self-reared meat reared is something that should be highly prized, because it is actually increasingly rare. Sorry, vegetarians, or members of anti-hunting sects: this is how a quintessential Slovak restaurant should be. If you don’t like it, there are plenty of other more modern joints in bigger towns and cities. But if you came to Slovakia expecting an eatery exuding raw, rural Slovak-ness (as you would be entitled to do) then voila: this is it.

The pheasant…. ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The pheasant…. ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

Room With A View

It is the sort of spot that, on any walking holiday, you would dream of chancing upon. After all, it has an enviable location – a few kilometres’ walk above Piešt’any and right on the cusp of the woodsy hills that form an arm of the Small Carpathians, Povazsky Inovec, through which you can stroll through stunning upland countryside to Tematín Castle. Part of the panorama from the restaurant and the bar next door is across the summer terrace down over rolling farmland to the rather dramatic grey-white spread of Nádrž Slňavaone of the country’s biggest reservoirs. And just down the track too are the ruins of Villa Bacchus, where Beethoven once stayed whilst composing his Moonlight Sonata. But from the look of the clientele, it’s also a place well-heeled Piešt’any folks and those from further a-field would willingly venture up into them hills to sample.

Little Bit of History Repeating

And a furman? It’ss an antiquated profession that would translate most closely in English to “Coachman”. But there is no real equivalent. A furman would have been a man who lived on a smallholding in the countryside, with a carriage that he would hire out for different purposes (taking goods to market, or ferrying paying passengers around from A to B.) In Slovakia it is the ultimate epitome of a return to rural roots. And therefore a return to traditional, fresh Slovak food.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on the Piešt’any Area:

Places to Go: Piešt’any’s Best Thermal Pools

Places to Go: A Great Castle near Piešt’any

Places to Go: in the Footsteps of Beethoven Above Piešt’any

Places to Eat & Drink: Piešt’any’s Best Cakes

RELATED POST: Furmanská Krčma, near Modra

One thing. Whilst I wasn’t really expecting (just hoping, somehow) for the Deliverance soundtrack that might have been most appropriate on the stereo, the tame R&B playing for most of our visit did slightly undermine the atmosphere. Music is important. If the guys in charge of Reštaurácia Furman realised that, this place would be truly exceptional.

MAP LINK: Top of the screen is Piešt’any, with spa island in the middle of the river there; mid-right to the right of the reservoir is the restaurant. Getting to the restaurant by road, it’s just a couple of km from the other side of the River Váh from the town centre.

OPENING: 10am-10pm daily

BEST TIME TO VISIT: A winter lunchtime after a walk.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 2km northwest you can relax with treatments in the best of Piešt’any’s spas whilst a 20km drive or walk (through the hills) north brings you to Tematín Castle.

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

Fujaro_ludado_tuta_bildo

The Fujara – and Where to Experience It!

Nothing represents traditional Slovak culture quite so poignantly as the fujara. This huge three-holed flute has its origins in the nation’s shepherding past, when shepherds would project resonant, melancholic tones out over the valleys in which they tended their flocks as part of a system of communication between isolated farmsteads. Later, the instrument became used more just for entertainment at special occasions, or a solemn tribute at sadder moments.

The fujara is traditionally made from elderberry wood – an easily malleable material with incredible acoustic properties – and intricately decorated in motifs gleaning their inspiration from the natural world in which countryside-dwelling Slovaks lived. It is extremely difficult to make, and not much less tough to play.

Whilst bryndza, the tart sheep cheese at the heart of so much traditional Slovak food, still props up many restaurant menus nationwide, the sheep in Slovakia today, and the practice of sheep farming, are both much less in evidence. The Communist-era društvo (large-scale farm) has been cited as one of the causes. But the fujara remains as a hallmark of times passed. Its strangely haunting melody ricochets around the mountains of Malá Fatra, Vel’ka Fatra and Central Slovakia – where the instrument was first developed – to this day. Now it’s mostly played at folk festivals – such as the national fujara players’ meeting every September in the beautiful Malá Fatra community of Čičmany, a village worth visiting in its own right for its prettily-painted log houses.

Its past – and its role in that past – is why Unesco added it onto their list of intangible cultural heritage in 2005.

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…

The verdant ridges around Chleb, by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Vrátna Valley – & Two Short Walks Around Chleb and Veľký Kriváň

If anyone were to ask me where they should go to grab the most accessible and authentic slice of mountain life in Slovakia, factoring in the obligatory stupendous viewpoint and a hike to a classic wilderness hut dishing out hearty Slovak meals, I would without hesitation say: “come here.”

Taking the cable car up from the head of the picture-postcard valley of Vrátna, to the saddle of Snilovske Sedlo just below the peak of Chleb, in the heart of Malá Fatra National Park, was in danger of being too common an activity for it to feature on this site. We debated for some time whether to include such information until we realised that actually, there was precious little good in-English info on it AND that whilst Slovaks and Czechs do indeed arrive in their droves, to other foreign tourists the delights of the Vrátna-Chleb area are still likely to be utterly unknown.

Embarking from Žilina at around 8am in time for when the cable car opens at 9am, you can do EVERYTHING mentioned here from “The Vrátna Cable Car Base & Up” paragraph down in an easy day trip – a half day if you’re quick about it – which makes what follows a superb introduction to Slovakia’s loveliest swathe of mountain scenery for those pressed for time. On the way up to the cable car base, you’ll pass through the main settlement in the area, Terchová, and up the ensuing (and gorgeous) valley – which we’ve included info on here too (and will doubtless feature more posts on at a later date, as there is enough to do in the valley alone for several days’ holiday).

Terchová – The Entrance to the Valley

The sheer shimmering verdant loveliness of the Vrátna valley begins at Terchová – the resort village that clusters at the valley’s entrance about 25km east of Žilina. Some call   Terchová overly touristy and a tad crass – I disagree. Compared to the rampant commercialism that has ruined countless other villages and towns in the world, Terchová’s development has been tasteful. It retains most of its attractive mountain-style houses with steep-pitched roofs, the accommodation and eating options are appealing, and whilst it makes a lot out of being the erstwhile holing-up spot of that prince of Slovak outlaws and folklore, Juraj Jánošík, the fanfare is mainly confined to the outlaw’s far-larger-than-life likeness on the hill outside town and a small, understated and very informative museum by the Terchova Tourist Information Centre. There is also an up-and-coming brewery in town, Vršky, which is part of the homonymous restaurant/penzion, giving you that added incentive to stop by for a beer: especially as it’s Slovakia’s first small-scale mountain brewery (as signs here proudly claim).

You can get off the bus here (and, obviously, then catch a later one), stock up on supplies here and even stay here (we recommend the afore-mentioned Vršky in town or, in a more idyllic spot right besides a great hiking back route up the valley to the Vrátna cable car base, Hotel Diery.)

Up Into The Valley: A Brief Guide

The 15-odd minute drive up the Vrátna valley from Terchová is sensational today – sheering pea-green slopes, overhanging crags and a road that somehow twists in-between them and ever upward – but it also makes the Jánošík tales assume an added dimension. This would have been perfect ambush terrain, you are soon thinking.

About half-way up, as this MAP shows, a separate road branches off left to Hotel Boboty (vast, vaguely monstrous, but quite decent rooms) and the idyllic hamlet of Štefanová, where you can also bed down at a couple of penzions therein.

A little further on is a ski area, known as the Vrátna Free Time Zone. You can see this section of the valley on this MAP. Another access road to the top of this ski resort winds up from Štefanová, via the highest mountain cottage hereabouts, remote Chata Na Gruni. At the bottom of the ski area on the Vrátna Valley road you’ll also find a very fetching rugged, traditional koliba, Koliba Stary Dvor – essentially a Slovak mountain-style restaurant. Enjoy – it’s the best place to eat in the lower reaches of the valley! Off to the right of the Koliba, a network of lanes ascends to another accommodation area – including the very good Hotel Rozsutec which has a wellness centre.

You’ll wend through all these valley attractions on the bus up to the Vrátna cable car base.

Terchová and this valley, followed by the cable car ride up to Snilovske sedlo as the final delight is all a very lovely and gentle initiation into the delights of the Malá Fatra National Park – sedate, let’s say, with easily accessible scenic spots – but up at the top of the cable car terminus the geography gets a lot more intense, wild and thrilling.

The Vrátna Cable Car Base & Up

The bus drops you at the cable car base, aka Vrátna Výťah. A couple of snack stands, souvenir stands and kiosks are scattered around, somewhat hopefully, but armed with the knowledge of what awaits up top, dearest blog follower, there is no need to linger.

Bearing in mind the opening hours and costs of the cable car as outlined at the bottom of this article, purchase your pass (and DO NOT LOSE your return one) and hop on the next of the passing cabins for the dramatic ascent to Snilovske sedlo, which at almost 1500m up will yield some absolutely superb vistas of the surrounding mountains. You’ll see some intrepid types making the steep ascent on the path up the cleared area of forest below, but if you’re going to pick a way to do this particular path, pick down:)

At the top cable car station there is a restaurant (cracking views, less impressive food, although you may decide risking the latter may be worth it to fully enjoy the former) that is a popular refuge when the bad weather cuts in and the cable car stops running. Actually, for many people, the restaurant represents the turning-back point of their foray into Vrátna – and this is a shame. Snilovske sedlo, a wide broccoli green saddle between two peaks, is a superb starting point for any number of first-class hikes – and particularly as the cable car has spared you the tough legwork by doing the majority of the climbing for you, the area fairly begs you to explore it a little. The two short hikes that follow give you a chance to investigate the very best of what the mountain tops near here offer.

Hike One: Veľký Kriváň

Behind the restaurant/viewpoint at Snilovske sedlo and with your back to the cable car, off up left is the nearest of the two peaks, Chleb (not to be confused with the Slovak word chlieb, which means bread), clocking in at a decent 1646m. Off right, increasingly visible as you climb the 50-odd metres up to the meeting point of trails hereabouts, is the summit you’re aiming for in this hike, Veľký Kriváň. At 1709m this mountain, approached by a fairly gentle path in a 45-minute hike from the junction of paths, is the highest in the Mala Fatra National Park but gives off a roof-of-the-world feeling with its moody panoramic views, down from the peaks into valleys often bathed a mysterious gold in the sun’s rays and containing two of this region’s most important towns, Žilina to the west and Martin to the south.

At the top of the cable car station ©englishmaninslovakia.com

At the top of the cable car station ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Hike Two: To Chata Pod Chlebom

45 minutes up, around half an hour drinking in the views at the summit, 45 minutes down. Just over two hours after setting off from the top cable car station and you’re probably feeling peckish. Back at that junction of paths, now follow the route to the right (if you’re descending from Veľký Kriváň) or straight on (coming from the cable car) down between the peaks with Veľký Kriváň away on your right. A straightforward path which leaves the exposed open ground (with stunning moorland views) to dip into woods emerges at the serendipitous chata (i.e. mountain hut doubling as a basic accommodation op and a hearty Slovak-style restaurant) of Chata Pod Chlebom (again about 45 minutes one-way from the path junction). Rustically charming as the hut is, the interior is nothing special so if the weather is half-decent, grab a pew outside in the lovely picnic area and then go to place your order of frothy beer, strudel or giant-sized sausages with bread to eat al-fresco. The food is good and the wild mountain locale is great – with this dark-wood, old-fashioned mountain cottage enhancing it further. Allow 45 minutes to order and eat without rushing, meaning around four to 4.5 hours overall to enjoy both of these out-and-back walks and get back to the topmost cable car station.  Still got some energy? Then try hiking back down to the Vrátna cable car base (around one hour more).

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Surprisingly regular (more or less hourly) buses run from the bus station in Žilina through Terchová to the Vrátna cable car base from 6:15am to 6:30pm. The journey takes 55 minutes and costs 2.15 Euros.

OPENING HOURS: The cable car (which you don’t need to access the above hikes but will sure as Hell come in useful to beat the murderously steep clamber up to the saddle (sedlo) below Chleb) runs more or less daily throughout the year from 9am until 4pm – staying open late until 5pm or even 6pm during June and July. The caveat here is that the opening hours are rather complicated (even if you do speak Slovak) so whilst we are providing this link to the official schedule we still advise you to check before setting out into the blue yonder when the final cable car back is. Don’t car about the cable car? Then come here whenever you wish…

PRICES: Vrátna-Chleb Cable Car one way/return 8.50/10 Euros

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Terchová, below Vrátna, it’s 95km south and then east to Podbanské, the end point/ start point of our Tatranská Magistrala trail guide for the most popular path across the High Tatras.

Around Modra: Goulash Karma at Furmanská Krčma

There are fancy Italian restaurants. There are up-and-coming microbreweries. But when all is said and done, there is one Slovak eating experience that stands out from all the rest, and that’s a trip to one of the rustic krčmy – pubs, basically.

What are they exactly and why do they stand out? Well, pub should be translated in the loosest possible sense (there are precious few specialty beers here). A krčma in its urban form is a traditional drinking den, pure and simple. But out in the sticks, the krčma is invariably transformed – at least in destinations popular with outdoors-lovers – into a cosy wooden wilderness retreat with roaring fires and just the kind of food you want to wolf down at the end of an arduous hike (the beer is still overly frothy and more often than not Zlaty Bažant but no one seems to mind).  It metamorphoses, in short, into what should be the pin-up for Slovak cuisine: a quality stodge stop with a fire, a sweet aroma of woodsmoke and a damned fine view.

There are a few of these celebrated krčma stodge stops across Slovakia – with a charming rustic wood exterior, smouldering log fires inside and an out-of-the-way, often forested location as common features. The out-of-the-way-ness usually prevents foreign tourists from ever finding out about them, which – due to their afore-mentioned place at the summit of the hierarchy of Slovak eating experiences – is a shame. Depending on where you find yourself, there are a ton of such places I could recommend. But for now I want to focus on one of the very best, and that is Furmanská Krčma above the small town of Modra (famous for its connection with the number one national hero Ľudovít Štúr, but that’s another story and another post).

Serendipity…

The best thing about Furmanská Krčma is that you never expect it to be there in the first place. After all, it’s on a something-to-nothing road over the middle of the Malé Karpaty, or the Small Carpathians hills – it’s not in a national park where you would expect such friendly wayside hostelries.

Forge up into the woods about 5km above Modra on what is now quite a good and busy road until you reach the summit of this particular Malé Karpaty ridge and, just where the trees seem thickest, Furmanská Krčma appears, in a cleared area of forest that actually contains a beguiling complex of buildings – all of the steeply-pitched roof log cabin variety.

A Historical Footnote…

This is the small community of Piesok. It has an intriguing history. It was one of those parts of Western Slovakia which, back in the age of the Hungarian empire, was blessed with an inundation of German settlers who came at the request of the Hungarian ruling elite to ignite the farming industry, much like Limbach outside of Bratislava, although it appears this particular community of Germans came much later (19th century). Under Communism Piesok also had an important role. It was one of the youth learning/holiday camps of which there are several across Slovakia and one can’t help but feel a tug of sadness as one strolls through the pine trees to the idyllic Handsel-and-Gretel-esque chaty (cottages) that once thrived with life (kids learned about nature here and there used to be several penzións) and are now often neglected.

On the Bright Side…

This is not to imply, of course, that Piesok is a lifeless place. People come here now with different motivations. The visitors are almost all Slovaks – so “outsiders” that make it here will feel a certain sense of having discovered the undiscovered. As well as Furmanská Krčma, there’s the top-end hotel of Zochava chata on the other side of the road that in fact are owners of the krčma (Zochava – named after Samuel Zoch, first commissioner of Bratislava after the establishment of Czechoslovakia). It’s a very nice hotel – tucked away from the road somewhat and recently refurbished, and I’d love to write more about it. I keep meaning to stay there, so I will then – as for now I have neither the time nor the money. Not having the money is why most folks seem to favour Furmanská Krčma over the hotel as a place to eat, but there’s also something very genuine and down-to-earth about partaking of a beer and hot traditional grub in the atmospheric rusticity of this krčma. Ultimately, if I am going to be eating typical Slovak food, I don’t want to be doing it in a modern hotel. I want to be doing it in place with a toasty old ceramic oven, a smouldering fire, oak beams and old farming implements on the walls. Why? Because it complements the cuisine.

It’s true that there’s been a bit of a refurbishment at old Furmanská Krčma which – depending on your viewpoint – either improved or slightly marred the ambience.  If you check the website (in Slovak only) you’ll see the camera panning around a distinctly more rustic space – with just rough wooden tables. It’s been refurbished (and differently) for a few years now, and makes no secret of catering to an “upmarket” crowd. If it was left to me I’d have taken Furmanská Krčma, as was: but the advantage is that the menu is now a lot more versatile: Slovak food with panache, if you will.

Inside Furmanska Krcma ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The Food

One of the most critical elements of typical Slovak food, of course, is the soup. Take away the soup from most lunch time meal deals and there would probably be a national revolt. Furmanská Krčma obligingly rustles up a couple of classic soups, any of which will set you back 3-4 Euros. Our first recommendation? Their delicious kapustnica (that is the best I’ve tasted in Slovakia apart from that rustled up in the kitchen of my friends’ mother). Secondly? Their feisty herb-infused local game gulaš (goulash) served with nigh-on a loaf of bread (if you thought goulash was solely Hungarian think again – this country made up a significant part of the Hungarian empire and Slovaks know how to make a classic goulash – their ancestors were probably the ones serving it to Hungarian nobility half the time).

The main courses are themed around furmanský platters, or coachmen’s platters. I think this has about the same significance as a ploughman’s salad in the UK. Original coachmen’s platters, back in the day when Piesok would have been an important staging post and horse-changing point on the route through the mountains, would have been far different. The significance now is more”large-sized and with meat” than anything else. Thus furmanský halušky are dumplings that come with a hearty klobasa (sausage) and the proper coachmen’s plate consists of numerous grilled meats and potatoes (16 Euros). The šulance here is also divine. This is hunger-busting food but it is also cooked with aplomb – it’s one of the top five in Slovakia for traditional tasty Slovak food that’s served in the rustic environs it should be served in.

The food is getting to that point where you think “that had better be good if I’m paying this price” because the menu bracket (14-20 Euros) is expensive for rural Slovakia (the deer with cranberries is certainly overpriced, for example). But I’m going to stick my neck out there and say it’s worth forking out for. Because you’re getting a microcosm of Slovak weekend life here. Inside it’s the traditional restaurant. But outside are the hiking/cycling trails to work up your appetite on and everyone, from meandering families to hardcore mountain bikers, is out there doing it, relishing what Slovakia excels in providing above all: a hefty portion of the Great Outdoors.

Because you are bang in the middle of the best of the Malé Karpaty here. Heading west, you can be within the vicinity of Bratislava in just over a half day’s walk (via Stage Three of the Štefanikova Magistrala, which also leads invitingly north-east from here to Bradlo en route (thereafter under the guise of the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, to Trenčin): the access point for the trail in either direction is a short walk up from Piesok at Čermák. You can also hike down to Modra from here, via the intriguing L’udovit Štúr trail, in about 2.5 hours.  Heading east? Aha, that’s going to be the subject of a post very soon: a walk involving old castles and one of the very best views in this whole hill range, by climbing what you see below…

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Modra:

Places to Go: L’udovit Štúr’s Modra

Places to Go/Shops: Modra’s fascinating ceramics

Places to Go: Hiking up in the hills above Modra all the way to Bratislava (the Štefánikova magistrála, stage three)

Places to Stay: Modra’s ceramic-themed hotel

© englishmaninslovakia.com

© englishmaninslovakia.com

 

MAP LINK: (notice the bottom of the map has the edge of Modra on; it has to be zoomed to this level to show the details of the buildings; Furmanská Krčma is directly opposite Zochava Chata hotel at the bottom end of the large parking area).

OPENING: Thursday-Sunday, late morning-10pm

BEST TIME TO VISIT: A winter’s mid- to late-afternoon, after the first fall of snow, when the small ski slope is working and you’ve finished your walk through the woods and are in need of sustenance.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Tired after a hike and not refreshed by a hearty Slovak bite? Descend out of the hills and head 63km northeast to sample Piešťany’s best patisserie then sooth yourself in the spas there…

Traja Mušketieri

It had been a long time in coming. Circumstances had thwarted us from visiting Traja Mušketieri, Bratislava’s medieval-themed Slovak restaurant, on many an occasion. Now we were to be thwarted no more… although its location, on one of the elegant old back streets behind the Presidential palace, can be hard to find.

As you descend into the vaulted interior to be greeted by courteous waitresses clad in medieval garb you might be forgiven for thinking of the anachronism: the traja mušketieri (aka three musketeers, of course) were 17th century, right, not medieval? OK – so let’s call the theme here “century-old” or “swashbuckling days of yore” perhaps.

As you pull up a pew at one of the heavy-set banquet tables inside, though, you’ll soon start to focus your attention on the food itself. Or let your eyes wander over the swords mounted on the walls, the old tapestries, the very fetching (but definitely medieval-looking) tankards… the cosy old-world charm, in short. And the service – which is anything but medieval. It’s actually one of the things that make the place. These staff are – by Slovakia’s “on a learning curve” standards and by English standards too, which certainly fall in the lower echelons of European table service – profession, polite, friendly and competent. They know the menu, they know which meals to recommend for dietary requirements, they know which wines to recommend for which dishes, they’ll speak English too.

Onto the food. Pretty expensive by the city’s standards but if my bank balance permits I have no problem with paying for the extra quality. I went for a deer in cranberry sauce with chantarelle buns; my dining companion for a thick juicy fillet of steak with those delicious soft-roasted rosemary potatoes Slovakia does so well. The food was really good – those chantarelle buns particularly were divinely fluffy. And for a starter, Traja Mušketieri’s pate is justifiably renowned. What I liked best is that this restaurant is happy to offer Slovak classics with a touch of classy creativity, rather than compromise and have a menu peppered by, say, French dishes which is a trend in many good Bratislava restaurants.

Deer in cranberry sauce with chantarelle buns

Deer in cranberry sauce with chantarelle buns

It was, overall, a really good eating-out experience in Bratislava. What I would say, though, is that I do not understand why you have to pay prices that would not look amiss in a central London restaurant (12-20 Euros for mains) to get good food and courteous service. Because when you start paying much below that in Bratislava (the average main meal cost in the city is probably 5-8 Euros) one of those two essential tests of quality start slipping a little when you’re talking about evening meals. So well done Traja Mušketieri for getting it right, and here’s to hoping more will follow the high standards.

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Sládkovičova 7 (see the website for map and reservations – although reservations I would say are only necessary on Fridays or Saturdays – the place was only a third full when we were there in mid-evening)

OPENING: 11am-10pm Tuesday to Saturday.

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Mid-evening, around 8-9pm.

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Dined? Time, perhaps, for drinks at Starosloviensky Pivovar, a 600m walk east

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The High Tatras Mountain Resorts – Štrbské Pleso: Mountain Lakeshore Dining at Koliba Patria

Štrbské Pleso is a place people end up at. Its beauty is much touted in Slovakia (and it even makes a point of stating, on the banks of this lake ensconced beneath the High Tatras peaks, about how it got on the long list for the Seven Wonders of Nature). To be honest, such a bid was a bit of a long shot. For a start, a Wonder of Nature probably shouldn’t have hotels along two of its shores. It’s a very pretty place, however. And the chances are you’ll come here on your High Tatras sojourn because it’s a great base (those hotels, remember) for some truly amazing hiking (the lake is right on the country’s most-famed hiking trail, the Tatranská Magistrala), skiing and mountain climbing – not to mention being the end of the line of the Tatras Electric Railway (and “end of the line” stations always hold a certain fascination).

We’ve created a separate post on Štrbské Pleso which covers the attractions of this mountain lake and the village below it (which makes the Wikipedia entry look, dare it be said, scant). But for this post we want to focus on Koliba Patria, a fairytale-like chata (i.e., mountain cottage) restaurant on the eastern shore of the lake. It doubles up as being the most beautiful building in the area and serving the best food.

Inside… check out that stove!

Inside… check out that stove! – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

As you hit the southeast corner of the lakeshore on the main path up from the mountain railway station and the village “centre”, head anti-clockwise on the lakeside path and, half way around to Hotel Patria (who own the joint) you’ll not fail to spot the place. The inside (nice and light with lots of windows and a balcony looking out on the lake) is utterly traditional Slovak: everything done in dark wood with a huge ceramic stove typical of rural Slovakia, ski apparatus and other old farming implements on the walls, along with several pictures of the Tatras back in the days of yore. Seating is in a series of alcoves (separated by screens and making the eating experience quite private) and there’s an upstairs too generally only open for functions. Service is very good here, and they’re used to all kinds of bizarre tourist requests. But it’s certainly not just a spot for foreign tourists: it’s mostly Slovaks on a weekend day out lunching here.

You’ll find it easy to read the menus (options are in German and English besides Slovak) but not quite so easy to choose. But whilst the menu is fairly international, the Slovak classics are the thing to go for here. There’s a good intro to the Slovak sheep’s cheese known as bryndza (a tasting platter of the stuff) – or you can go for a deliciously creamy version of the national dish, bryndzové halušky (sheep’s cheese dumplings with bacon). In fact, sheep’s cheese has rarely been glimpsed in a restaurant in as many combinations – you can even (unusually for Slovakia) order it with just a salad (apples and tomatoes). The Slovak mains also have the advantage of being quite cheap (5 to 8 Euros). On the meat front, the deer with plums and Slovakia’s delicious herb-infused way of preparing roast potatoes goes down very nicely… and, if you dare, you may wish to try Slovakia’s deadliest drink, Tatranský Čai or “Tatras Tea” – a potent locally-brewed spirit with a taste like Jagermeister.

FULL MENU

When we arrived the last time, we were in need of cake, however, and coffee: and here Koliba Patria does very well. A light fluffy sponge doused in wild berry sauce and good espresso. It was excusable, of course, on that occasion: we had a long way still to walk…

Good cake...

Good cake…

So there we have it: caught between the at-times pretentious glamour of the Grandhotel Kempinski on one side and the ostentatious bulk of Hotel Patria on the opposing shore,  Koliba Patria is, quite simply, a nice and very welcoming place to stop, eat and get acquainted with Slovak cuisine in a serene surrounding. Gone, thank God, is the village centre bustle and the terrible souvenir shops. The hikes, the hotels and the beckoning ski resort have managed to absorb the crowds and left this spot relatively relaxed.

MAP LINK: Here you can see most of the lakeshore sights, plus Štrbské Pleso and Popradské Pleso stops on the Tatras Electric Railway back to Poprad

LOCATION: Eastern lake shore, Štrbské Pleso

OPENING: 11:30am-10:30pm daily

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Around 12:30pm for an early lunch, when it’s none too crowded and it’s still perfectly acceptable to begin it all with some of the delectables cakes and coffee. As it’s on the lake shore, be sure to come here when it’s still light so you can see something of the view.

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Koliba Patria can be visited on Stage 4 of the Tatranska Magistrala

High Tatras Mountain House: Chata Pri Zelenom Plese

A picture, you see, is often worth a thousand words – or more. Who wouldn’t want to stay here, on the banks of Zelené Pleso, with this sensational view of jagged mountains rearing up above you, scarred with waterfalls and part-coated in snow? I turned up here not knowing anything about the place, as I was starting off on the Tatranská Magistrala hike which runs from one side of the High Tatras mountains to the other. Chata Pri Zelenom Plese is only a 45-minute hike (heading up to the start point) or 30-minute hike (heading down) shy of the official start point of the walk, Vel’ké Biele Pleso  (see more details on the first stage of the Tatranská Magistrala from Ždiar to Chata Pri Zelenom Plese). This Chata is not by any means the most famous of the High Tatras Mountain houses (that would probably be Zamkovského Chata or Teryho Chata). But it’s my favourite, and I’ve stayed in/visited a few.  

Being unknown, whether you’re a weary hiker, a cross-country skier or climber (no more explanation of these last two activities need be given than the pictures above and below) or just someone who likes staying in formidable wilderness, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised by this place, the English translation of which is “House on the Green Lake.” The only way in is to hike or bike, unless you’ve got a fairly resilient 4 x 4. A long bumpy track of about 8/9km winds up from just south of the hamlet of Kežmarské Žl’aby on the 537 Highway northeast of Tatranská Lomnica, the easternmost of the High Tatras resort villages (see the end of this entry for directions here). There’s an established mountain biking circuit heading up too.

Being way off the most hiked sections of the High Tatras to the west, Chata Pri Zelenom Plese has something of a remote feel, but once you’re ensconced in the restaurant and you’re tucking into the decent range of very well-cooked meals (they cook better than Zamkovského Chata) you’ll feel, with the dizzying view of the high peaks through the restaurant window, very cosy and – given there’s skiers to watch and waterfalls to gawk at, very well entertained.

Room with a view...

Room with a view…

For the accommodation, there are two options: a “hikers room” for a mere 8 Euros per person, with just mattresses, where you’ll need your own sleeping bag, or slightly more expensive digs in private rooms with bunk beds. It’s basic, but in a clean and friendly way.  Showers are down in the basement: a slight disadvantage but hey, you’re an outdoor lover, right? This is warm, simple accommodation and anyway – you’ll be spending most of your evening in the restaurant with beer and that view we mentioned. Slippers to wear (as per Slovak custom) and towels are available for free.

The evening meals (set dinner 8.80 Euros or you can order meals individually) and breakfast (buffet 5.50 Euros) are of high quality. Bryndové pirohy (see our Top Ten Slovak Foods & Drinks for more on this classic national dish) makes for a divine main and follow it up with the not-to-miss poppy seed and cherry strudel.

For when the weather’s not too wild, you can sit on the lakeside terrace and stare out at the ever-changing colour of water (a kind of algae gives the water that surreal green-blue colour). If the snow’s not too deep, you can also follow the path anti-clockwise around the lake and up to the first of the waterfalls, but the ascent beyond here this way is for professionals only. If you’re here for the hiking, there are red and yellow trails to follow from here. Red is the Tatranská Magistrala Stage 2 and heading west is a very tough hike (read that last blog entry for a warning) whilst yellow takes you up to Skalnaté Pleso and on to the centre of the High Tatras via an easier route (see the same blog entry for this route description too).

Getting There

Road access is northeast of Tatranská Lomnica just southwest of the hamlet of Kežmarské Žl’aby (drivers: Google maps reveal all). See our Tatras Electric Railway post on how to get from Poprad (on the main train line to Bratislava) to mountain resort villages Starý Smokovec and Tatranská Lomnica. From Tatranská Lomnica take a bus a few minutes to Stará Lesná from where there are hourly buses throughout the day to Kežmarské Žl’aby; there are some additional buses direct from Starý Smokovec. Ask the driver to be dropped at the beginning of the Chata Pri Zelenom Plese access track.

MAP LINK

PRICES: 10 Euros per person (a mattress in the hikers room, excluding breakfast which is another 6 Euros); 23 Euros for twin room with two bunk beds (inc breakfast, subsequent nights are 21 Euros including breakfast). (2017 prices)

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

BOOK CHATA PRI ZELENOM PLESE Please note that this is an extremely remote mountain house; as per the left-hand menu on the website, booking is best through the email tatry@chataprizelenomplese.sk (where you’ll stand the best chance of a reply in English) or, if you’ve only a little time before your stay, telephone (00421) (0)901 767 420.

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

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Around Bratislava – Nové Mesto, Ružinov and the Southeast: On Cemeteries & Communist-esque Cafeterias

Martinský Cintorín in Ružinov

Martinský Cintorín in Ružinov – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

I was in Ružinov for a work meeting. I was quite excited. This was not because I was expecting anything particularly amazing from this large neighbourhood of Bratislava, the southeastern extension of Nové Mesto (New Town) just east of the city centre’s Staré Mesto (on this site we generally refer to it as the Old Town). It was because I am always excited by new things, and this was Englishmaninslovakia’s first chance to really scout out the area.

On first appearances, Ružinov appears largely industrial. Lots of Bratislava’s major businesses are based here, including the Slovak Tourist Board with whom I had the appointment – plus most of the large financial companies which make Bratislava’s economy tick. The neighbourhood’s streets are very wide, there’s a lot of traffic and a lot of rather big impassive multinational company facades (the flip side is quite a few green spaces, including a couple of cemeteries and lakes which are good enough for a jog or dog walk). The neighbourhood’s very name, actually, refers to the many rose gardens which were supposedly once hereabouts (where are you now, rose gardens?)

But I’m not going to wax lyrical about Ružinov because Englishmaninslovakia neither likes to deceive nor indeed tempt travellers away unnecessarily from a city centre which is far more charming. However it does contain two exceptional attributes, and one of them was right in the building I happened to be visiting, at Doktora Vladimira. Clementisa 10: namely the exceptional cafeteria of Apores.

What I whimsically call Communist-style cafeterias are still, 21 years on, an important part of Slovak eating culture. Picture a canteen, perhaps like one where you once had school dinners. Picture fixed formica tables, and cheap set-price lunches, and invariably surly old women ladling something unidentifiable and colourless out of a vat, and, perhaps most intense of all, water that comes with different colourings, including a garish pink. These canteens or cafeterias are perhaps not so prevalent as they once were, but they are still ubiquitous and still, I would argue – for better or for worse – an interesting cultural phenomenon for the outsider to behold. But what is almost always true about them is that the food is, well, school canteen style food. It’s not renowned for its presentation or succulent taste.

But this cafeteria was clearly cut from a different cloth. Perhaps you could even say it was a sign of how, slowly, Ružinov itself is changing. There were four gluten-free options, including delicious roasted veg, for which I opted. There were tasty soups. There was serendipitous, really decent espresso, which always cheers me up. There was a view onto the nearby park (so none of those starkly strip-lit canteen images that probably come to mind). Apores was a traditional Slovak cafeteria with a touch of city sophistication.

Because Ružinov, these days, does have a touch of city sophistication (alongside all that rawness!). The cool city hangouts are spreading out from the centre (it started with the revamped ice hockey stadium and the pretty chic eateries around Slovanet, just back across the other side of Bajkalská, which marks the conventional city centre-Ružinov divide). Watch this space. Ružinov is becoming an increasingly trendy place to go out, as evidenced by such chic hipster places as the Film Club Nostalgia, a cinema-cafe-bar

For now, however, rest easy: a good cafe serving strong espresso will hardly get tourists flocking. Nor, indeed, will one of the city’s main cemeteries, Ružinov’s Martinský Cintorín. I checked it out afterwards: a leafy spot where a few famous people in Slovakia are buried (Jozef Budský, for example, a Czech actor who helped to raise the standard of professional theatre in Slovakia no end). Nor, quite probably, will the nearby presence of Miletičova, the city’s largest fresh produce market (best day is Saturday; for an excellent post on the market visit this blog).

But should work take you out to the Ružinov area, it’s not quite the industrial wasteland it first seems.

Oh, and the colourful candle holders in the bottom right of the picture? They are part of Slovakia’s most touching traditions, and get lit up at night to remember the cemetery’s incumbents – particularly on November 1st when cemeteries country-wide are mysteriously-flickering seas of candlelight… the ceremony is known as Dušičky

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Tram 8 or 9 from Trnavské Mýto will take you there – see our list of key Bratislava transport routes for more.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Ružinov it’s only a couple of Km the other side of the admittedly ugly Slovnaft complex onto some of the Englishman in Slovakia’s favourite Forgotten banks of the Danube locations (there are a few around Bratislava, see the post for more)

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.

Bratislava Christmas Market by Miroslav Petrasko

The Old Town: Bratislava’s Christmas Market

I remember laughing the first time I heard that Bratislava’s Christmas Market, that started on 23rd November and runs until 23rd December, was one of Central Europe’s best winter festivals. With Vienna’s famous Christmas markets less than an hour’s drive away, could Bratislava’s really be considered in the same league?

Well, maybe not. But when we joined the hoards to experience it for my very first time (since then, there have been many more) I could see why people would rave about Bratislava’s festive food and handicrafts extravaganzas.

It really seems that Bratislava comes alive at Christmas. It isn’t a big city, after all, and quite often you’ll be walking through central Old Town streets like Kostolná Ulica behind the Old Town Hall, and not see another soul around as early as 9pm. But at Christmas, the people, wherever they have been hiding, emerge. Possibly they are also coming from other parts of Slovakia and even other countries, because I have rarely seen Hlavné Námestie so packed, or so animated, despite the sub-zero temperatures.

Christmas Market Food

And all because of the Christmas market: which, although you would not think to look at it, was never a traditional event in the Bratislava of olden times. Within an endearing, typically Central European encampment of red-, green- and blue-painted wooden hut-stalls you have the perimeter of handicrafts offerings, and then in the central section the smouldering aromas issuing from the food stalls: it really was like a showcase of classic Slovakia laid out for the taking, with the illuminated Baroque buildings of Hlavné Námestie framing the scene.

You could tell very soon what the most popular section was. The craft stalls, which I actually preferred, were relatively easy to browse unobstructed. But the food stalls were jostling with so many potential customers it was hard to even get close to place your order to the vendor. But it was worth the fight through the throngs: stalls were selling the likes of delectable medovina (mead), piping hot spiced but not overly sweetened wine, lokše (delicious Slovak potato pancakes, which come with fillings such as the famed Slovakian sheep’s cheese, bryndza, or sauerkraut, or perhaps duck fat paste), various assorted sausages like the traditional Czechoslovakian blood sausage called jaternice, and the pork liver burgers called cigánska pečienka.

A tip when you’re scouting for the best lokše: almost every food stall sells it, so choose carefully, because some stalls sell them when they are nigh-on bone dry. Go for a moist-looking one, and have it with the duck fat for the ultimate Slovak experience.

Slovak Handicrafts!

Somehow despite the cold a musician was churning out some typical Slovak ballads on an accordion and a stage was set for some classical music performances over the weekend (although even the most appreciative audience would surely freeze if standing there without moving for any length of time). Amongst the crafts, my favourite by far were the wonderful šúpolienky (expressive figures made from corn husks with innocent, simple features, fashioned into animals, nativity scenes or men and women doing traditional work such as collecting wood or baking vánočka (vánočka, incidentally, is another Christmas treat – heralding from the Slovak word for Christmas, vianoce – a sweet, wonderfully light bread-cake with dried fruit like currents and spices within). I also loved the room scenters – dried clove-scented fruits like pumpkins cut into small pieces and arranged artistically like hanging mobiles.

And the fun was also spreading down to my favourite Bratislava square (námestie), Hviezdoslavovo (although it’s far from my favourite to pronounce). Here a huge Christmas tree illuminated some more food and craft stalls, complementing the bright lights already twinkling from one of the city’s most beautiful buildings, the Slovak National Theatre. Men in merely shirt-sleeves (it was below freezing, remember) were carving up roasted pork, old women pottered around selling products they had knitted, that piping hot spiced wine flowed and I felt well and truly christmassy.

And it’s the same, pretty much, every year – one of several iconic, vividly-brought-to-life times in the Slovak calendar year)

Opening Hours

Bratislava’s Christmas market is on every day from 10am to 10pm, until 23rd December. 24th December, of course, is when Christmas Day is celebrated in Slovakia, so that’s why 23rd December is the last day.

WORTH CHECKING OUT IF YOU LIKE THIS:

Top Ten Slovak Foods and Drinks

Another Really Cool Market in Bratislava (that runs year-round!)

Mikuláš Day! (and Some Traditional Slovak Sweets)

On December 6th every year, every single Slovak opens presents from St Nick. A misprint? Think I’m 19 days ahead of schedule? Uh-uh. Slovakia, along with several other countries in Central Europe, celebrates Mikuláš (aka St Nicholas) Day in a far more poignant way than I was used to in England (where it gets but a cursory treatment).

My ex-girlfriend (K hereon in to save on characters) used to instruct me the night before to clean my shoes (ideally a large pair) and put them in the window to see what St Nicholas would bring to place in them. Mikulás, undeterred by the space he had to stuff the presents, managed to get, unobserved by all, no fewer than two massive sacks filled to the brim with almost every imaginable Communist sweet and chocolate! It became a thing. Mikulás Day=time for retro Slovak sweets. Some Slovaks might receive bigger presents but I was quite content getting chocs!

Upon closer inspection, it appears everywhere from the Ukraine to Germany to parts of France to various German-influenced cities in the US like Cincinatti celebrate St Mikulás/Nicholas Day with presents in the shoes. The English are missing out: this has to be a candidate for the first Slovak tradition I’m introducing to England!

Traditionally, however, Mikulás does not appear alone in Slovak homes but with an angel and/or a devil, no less. The angel would appear to bring children small (often sweet-themed) presents to reward them for good behaviour over the last year and encourage them to continue being good over the next one. But, had they been bad (or if they had not cleaned the shoes they left out for Mikulás) then the devil would come to fill their shoes with coal. I guess I have to date always been able to do just enough to avoid getting the coal: we’ll see what next year holds in store!

Anyway, I invariably spent Mikulás Day very enjoyably munching Slovakian sweets and chocolates. My favourite thus far? Sójové rezy: a surprisingly delicious sweet but one that looks quite unappetising when you unwrap it (a heavy, colourless, dumpling-like roll). Put it in your mouth, however, and the heavy soya-based Sójové rezy takes on the taste of what I can only describe as that of Baileys! Yet another example of a Slovak food that, whilst not looking that appealing, tastes pretty damned perfect.

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…