Goulash parties

It came as a blessing this afternoon – a short, but generous downpour after a long thread of scorching hot days. So very welcome, so refreshing. I stood on the balcony of our flat with arms stretched out towards the shower of tiny ice crystals falling down from the skies. I think I could hear the earth sigh with relief and gratitude as it absorbed all the moisture. Or was it me? The splatter of little ice balls gave a gentle, invigorating massage to my skin. I couldn’t feel more energized – and liberated from all the drought and heat – at least for a short while.

You don’t really want to cook when the outside temperatures reach 37º Celsia, do you? Unfortunately, it’s not much cooler inside either, so all I want to do at the moment is spend as little time as possible in the kitchen. Instead, I go for a lazy walk early in the morning, buy fresh fruit and vegetables, indulge in freshly-made local ice cream, which comes in so many exciting varieties that I haven’t managed to taste them all despite this long, dry and extremely hot summer.

While trying to avoid cooking and all major housework, I have more time for reading and browsing my older photo albums. The one I want to share with you today was created at the end of May, shortly after a cooking competition that had taken place in a small village in Central Slovakia.

It’s very common in my country to have open-air cooking competitions and/or goulash parties, as we call them. They bring people together to enjoy traditional Slovak food, as well as have fun.

The goulash party season typically starts at the turn of April and May when days are getting longer and the weather is warm enough for sitting outside.

Goulash is a kind of stew that originated in the old Kingdom of Hungary. Because Slovaks were part of it for almost a millennium, the dish has naturally found its way to our cuisine, and remains popular to these days.

It can take from 3 to 6 hours to cook a proper goulash, so there’s always much more going on behind the scenes. Singing, dancing, playing the instruments of all kinds and sizes is as much part of the event as cooking.

It’s not only friends and local sports or hobby clubs that take part in the competitions. In fact, some don’t see it as a competition at all. Quite a few families take it as a chance to get together and enjoy a day out. It’s supposed to be fun for everyone, no matter what age.

I can see your eyebrow frown upon the picture on the right, my dear reader. Don’t worry, there are always fire-fighters on the site and a fire engine ready to act in case of emergency. Besides, the temperatures on this particular day ONLY went up to 25º Celsia. What a pleasure it was compared to the tropical weather we’re experiencing now.

Beer and goulash are wonderful friends. No goulash party can be without good beer, preferably a good mix of big trade names and small brewery labels. These outdoor events are also an opportunity for local artists to show and sell their wares.

There are as many goulash recipes as there are cooks. Although the basic ingredients will always be meat, potatoes and paprika, no two goulashes will ever look and taste the same. The possibilities are endless, given the choice of spices, meat, vegetables and additional ingredients.

Before the competition judges took samples of more than a dozen of goulashes, I walked around to pick my winners. Without tasting them, I chose two that not only made my mouth water, but also stood out from the crowd.

Teenage goulash

I stopped at this cauldron because the colour and the look of the goulash immediately caught my eye. Behind it two teenage boys were sitting with their arms folded, observing the world. When I asked them if I could take a photo, they nodded quietly. ‘Who cooked it?’ I inquired further only to find out that this was their concoction. Unlike the others, this goulash didn’t have big eyes of fat floating on the surface, but a myriad of small ones, which is a sign of fine greasing. I praised the cooks and they went on to tell me that cooking was their way to fight boredom. Hmmh … well, then boredom can stir up yummy creations!

Beer goulash

To make the second choice, I used my sense of smell. It drew me towards a merry bunch of men, who clearly enjoyed not only cooking, but also entertaining their wives and sweethearts. After getting permission to take a picture, the main cook disclosed the secret ingredient for his recipe. Instead of water or vegetable stock he used beer, and the wonderful smell may have come from hand-picked forest mushrooms simmering in the stew. They were also likely to impart an additional flavour to the goulash. Not to mention the zest given by the beer, of course 😉

I had to leave before the official results were announced. It was quite obvious though that the sheer joy of cooking and spending time in good company on this bright, sunny day was what mattered most to all the participants.

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