It was a week of exploration and discoveries, sublime food and new friendships. At the beginning of September last year my daughter Monika was married to a wonderful man, and they had chosen Villa Medicea di Lilliano in beautiful Tuscany as a location for their wedding.
For me and some others from our family it was the first touch with Italy, so we put aside a few days before and after the wedding for getting to know Florence and Rome. From all the things we had a chance to see and experience, I want to write about our culinary memories, and to show a few similarities (or differences) between Slovak and Italian food.
1. Halushki vs Gnocchi
Our national dish of Halushki with Bryndza Cheese is often likened to Italian gnocchi by foreign visitors to Slovakia. Both gnocchi and halushki (halušky in Slovak) are a type of pasta, they’re similar in shape and, for the most part, they use potatoes as the main ingredient. While gnocchi are made by mixing cooked mashed potatoes with flour, halushki use grated raw potatoes instead. Also, the method of shaping halushki is different from that of making gnocchi.
Here is how you prepare halushki:
While gnocchi are eaten as a first course, usually to replace soup, Halushki with Bryndza cheese is a hearty main dish, where halushki are covered in bryndza cheese sauce and topped with fried bacon pieces.
2. Bryndza vs Pecorino
Both bryndza and pecorino cheeses are made from sheep’s milk. Slovak bryndza is closer to Pecorino Romano in taste, mainly because both cheeses are sharp and salty. The young, soft variety of Pecorino Romano also resembles bryndza in texture; neither of them can be grated.
Unlike pecorino, bryndza is made by grinding the sheep’s milk cheese after its maturation in suspended cotton cloth bags. Salt is added to the cheese at this stage.
Slovak bryndza, as well as Italian pecorino cheeses have long been made the traditional way in designated geographical areas, and as such they are protected by the EU legislation.
3. Slovak Posúch vs Italian Pizza
Nothing is probably more representative of Italian cuisine than pizza. Although it is no longer true about our posúch, this yeast-leavened savoury cake used to be very popular in the old Bratislava’s cuisine, which was once a melange of Austrian, Hungarian, Slovak and Jewish gastronomies. Yes, Bratislava (former Pressburg, Pozsony, Presbourg or Presburgo in other languages), which is now the capital of Slovakia, was an important political, social and cultural centre of Hungarian and Austrian monarchy between 16th – 18th centuries.
Posúch was made by covering yeasted dough with tomatoes, green peppers, meat, mushrooms, cheese and various herbs. Some historians say posúch was pizza’s predecessor, and the good thing is that this classic dish is now experiencing a revival in Slovak cuisine.
Despite the latest anti-gluten trend in ‘healthy’ diets, both Slovakia and Italy have remained faithful to their traditional breads. Unlike Slovak one, the bread we came across in Tuscany was white and – without salt. It’s funny that I didn’t realize it until I heard about this Tuscan tradition from other sources. It’s probably because their bread tasted so divine with a sprinkle of olive oil and herbs on top, accompanied by sautéed mushrooms and cheese on some occasions, that I really didn’t miss anything, not even the crisp outer layer and the soft inner part we like in our bread.
Slovak bread, and there’s a good variety of it ranging from a sourdough to rye one to a potato or wholemeal one, is on a par with Italian bread. We appreciate a good, honest crust and a fluffy, springy interior. Slovak potato bread, especially that from small local bakeries, is quite unique and very likely to be the most popular bread among the Slovaks.
We had them sautéed with the Tuscan bread, but also added to the pasta dishes. Italian porcini looked and tasted similar to our dubáky (Boletus edulis) – highly valued aromatic mushrooms that grow in our forests alongside other wild mushrooms. You won’t find them in regular shops or supermarkets though, unless they are dried. Dubáky and other forest mushrooms add a nice earthy flavour to our soups and stews; we also like them in risotto.
6. Steaks and sausages
Although the steak culture is quite new in my country and most Slovaks would find it strange to eat meat that is not ‘properly cooked’, a few members of my family had chosen Tagliata di Fiorentina as a main dish at the wedding reception. It was a sliced beef steak cooked rare and garnished with grilled vegetables.
When in Florence, do as the Florentines do.
When in Slovakia, you would most likely be served a thin Viennese-style schnitzel covered in breadcrumbs or naked, but always cooked to full doneness.
On the other hand, there’s a striking similarity between Slovak and Italian pork sausages. The only difference here is that we like ours to be hot, usually spiced up by red paprika, whereas the Italians also have mild and sweet varieties seasoned with fennel and basil.
7. Wines and spirits
Who hasn’t tried an Italian wine yet? And who has tasted a Slovak one? There’s a very slim chance that your answer to the second question will be positive. Italian wines are well-known around the world, yet the Slovak ones are not. Wait, no – that’s changing too! They’re just beginning to receive international recognition.
True, Slovakia is much smaller than Italy and its gastronomy is relatively unknown, but the country is geologically and geographically very diverse, which translates into a great variety of terroir and a wide selection of wines.
It is said that the further north you go in Italy, the more likely you are to drink hard alcohol instead of wine. Well, I don’t know how close this is to truth, because when we were given a taste of Italian limoncello, it was after a three-course dinner in a restaurant in Rome. I could easily live without alcohol, but I didn’t shy away from a sip on that particular occasion – I was curious to know what’s in a drink with such a melodic name. I have to say it tasted as good as it sounded.
Anyway, when it comes to drinking, the same geographical rule applies to Slovakia – the people in the northern mountainous regions prefer to drink spirits like borovička (a juniper liquor), slivovica (a plum brandy), Tatratea or a number of other fruit distillates.
8. People and hospitality
The Italians are warm, friendly, cheerful and stylish. They may not be well-organized, but they certainly know how to cook, eat, drink, dress and enjoy life. I loved their passion for food and the way they shared it with their guests. In all the restaurants and places we ate in, we could watch cooks prepare our meals – something you can rarely see in Slovakia. I also wish some of Italian happiness and positive attitude to life would rub on us Slovaks, but when it comes to hospitality and entertaining guests, I believe we are in the same class as the Italians.