I have a bunch of very good friends from university that I like to see at least once a year, because having a chat with them is so liberating and fun. Especially when we meet at our favourite place in the mountains – the picturesque chalet in the Vratna Valley.
A few weeks ago we had an annual reunion and although the weather wasn’t exactly ‘picturesque’, we had a great time talking, walking, drinking – and eating. Most of my university friends are enthusiastic cooks, so we either cook together at the chalet, or share what we have prepared at home beforehand.
As usual, Vierka brought one of her game specialities that sent our taste buds to heavens, so I was quick to arrange a cooking session at her house to bring her culinary skills to a wider audience.
The plan was to make and shoot traditional Slovak Pagatche, but as Vierka was also cooking a Saturday lunch in between baking, much more got onto my camera reel. Like Kostya – their laid-back cat that spent all day stretched out on the kitchen floor or his favourite chair in the adjacent lounge.
Or this ‘free range’ rabbit that Vierka’s husband had butchered the day before. Fortunately, I didn’t see it running around their well-tended garden, or graze on the grass. I didn’t even see Vierka cutting it up to pieces – she was quick enough to do it out of my sight, or was I too busy doing something else? Very likely so, as I helped with small jobs like peeling and cutting vegetables, or doing the washing-up.
Before I realized, the rabbit’s ribs, neck and tail were simmering in a pot together with the vegetables, while its thighs and back were stowed away in the fridge for Sunday lunch. Most of the ingredients Vierka uses in her kitchen are from their garden, courtyard (they keep hens and chickens), or nearby forests. Vierka’s husband is a huntsman by profession, although hunting is just a fraction of his job. He works for the Slovak State Forests, and forest preservation is both his passion and a way of life. It only takes a couple of hours to understand how much Vierka and her husband know about animals or plants, and how well they care of them.
While the soup was cooking and the dough for Pagatche raising under a dishcloth in a bowl, Vierka set about preparing Beef Stew with Garden Peas. The meat for the dish came from a local farmer, and the recipe from a Slovak cooking website, but as it often happens with experienced cooks, Vierka changed it to her liking and personal taste.
An hour later I joined Vierka and her husband for a lunch in their snug, rustic kitchen filled with irresistible smells.
Although I rarely eat meat, Vierka’s beef stew looked too tempting to forgo.
After a nice, homey meal Vierka and I set about finishing Pagatche. The dough had rested enough after the third folding, so my friend could start cutting out the cakes. I helped glaze them and sprinkle with seeds before they went into the oven.
While we were baking, Vierka’s husband was working in the garden, undeterred by a soft but persistent drizzle. He’d been up since half past five that morning to check his hunting grounds and bring fresh mushrooms for garlic toasts their neighbours were making that afternoon.
On leaving their home a few hours later, I was bestowed with a bag of forest mushrooms, a packet of Pagatche and a bottle of freshly pressed apple juice from their garden produce. As I have understood from the stories Vierka and her husband told me that day, the life in their small village is all about caring and sharing – of simple, good things Mother Nature presents us with every day.
All three recipes from Vierka’s rural kitchen coming soon!