Wine tasting at the castle

I’m planning to include a chapter about Slovak wines in the next cookbook – a daunting task for someone as inexperienced in the field as I am. All I knew about wine until recently was that it came in two colours – red and white. After last weekend’s wine tasting event at Červený Kameň Castle (Red Stone Castle) I feel a little more knowledgeable.

Yet the wine alone wouldn’t have exerted such a pull on me. There would have to be more on the list if I was to take a combined train-bus ride there and back again within one day. The public invitation on Malokarpatská vínna cesta (Malokarpatska wine journey) website which, unfortunately, doesn’t have an English version, promised local home-made specialities and traditional crafts markets in the castle courtyard. Plus the weather forecast was for a dry, balmy Saturday – such a rare and precious phenomenon this spring that it finally became the deciding factor. I had no desire to stay within the walls of our urban home.

I went down to the castle cellars straightaway in the hope of doing some decent photography before the crowds arrived. I knew it would be a challenge. I have a good camera, but no special lighting equipment, so shooting in dark places is a nightmare. I took dozens of pictures trying to figure out what would work best until I finally settled with the camera’s two built-in programmes.

The famed castle cellars were subtly illuminated in some corners, but that was barely enough for good photography. I discarded half of the pictures on the site, and half of the rest back at home.

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More than an hour into my troubled shooting experience, and I felt drained. When I let myself taste what I had paid for at last, my spirits were immediately lifted. Not that wine is my wish drink, mind you. I hardly ever drink booze, but if I have to choose, I always go for red wine. That said, I only needed a glass to make me feel merry, especially when that glass had come from different varieties.

Fortunately, there was some excellent food being served with the wines, and I did help myself to quite a few titbits which, together with cold fresh water, took the edge off the booze.

If you accept that no wine sampling in Slovakia will ever be complete without wholesome food, or vice versa, then the same goes for music, singing and dancing. After all, it’s another joyful way to effectively blunt the intoxication. Supposing you manage to make it to the dancing floor, of course.

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Yet I couldn’t stay to document the final stages of wine tasting at Červený Kameň Castle. I had to set on a walk to catch a bus connecting to my train. Too complicated? No, it wasn’t. The weather followed the plan and happily kept to the forecast. Before I left the castle cellars, I stopped to buy a bottle of red wine at one of the stalls. The young couple wouldn’t let me have it without sampling. OK, while I was at it, they explained the vintage’s special features, which I quite understood then and there, but couldn’t remember when I was back home.

 Their Alibernet is now sitting in our bar waiting for the right occasion.

Bear Garlic Pesto

I’m well-stocked with bear garlic right now. Two of my friends have brought handfuls of the herb straight from their gardens, the bright green leaves still glistening with raindrops when they came. Bear garlic, wild garlic, ramsons or whatever you like to call it is prolific after all the rain we’ve experienced in Slovakia this spring. The soil is moist, the temperatures have risen lately, and that’s exactly what this newly discovered ‘superherb’ needs for its growth. I use it almost every day now to add a colour and an extra kick to the family meals. Bear garlic is perfect in soups, scrambled eggs, to sprinkle over home-made pizza, or liven up salads. This year, while trying to put to good use the plentiful supply I have been given, I experimented with bear garlic pesto.

Pumpkin seeds have long been valued for the diversity of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals they contain.

Unlike in most pesto recipes you’ll find on the Internet, I used pumpkin seeds instead of pine nuts, and replaced olive oil with a rapeseed one. Both in the attempt to utilize what I had on hand in my kitchen, but they also turned out to be ingredients native to Slovakia. Pumpkin seeds usually come shelled in packets of 250 g, and rapeseed oil is procured from the locally grown rapeseed plant, which is in full bloom now, flooding our countryside with golden yellow hues.

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Bear Garlic Pesto
Serves 8

  • about 100 g bear garlic leaves
  • 50 g pumpkin seeds, dried and shelled
  • 50 g Parmesan or other hard cheese
  • about 150 ml oil
  • salt and lemon juice to taste

Method:

Put the pumpkin seeds in a saucepan and dry-roast over a medium-low heat for about 15 minutes, stirring now and then to prevent burning. Take away from the heat and let cool.

Grate the cheese finely.

Remove the stems, wash the bear garlic leaves and chop them on a board. Place in a bowl with a little oil and use a blender to break the leaves further.

Grind the pumpkin seeds (I did it in my nut-grinder, as I don’t have a food processor) and transfer to the garlic mixture. Pour in some more oil and blend again. Add the grated cheese with the rest of the oil and blend further.

Finally, add the salt and the lemon juice to taste, and give your pesto one last whisk. Transfer to a clean bowl and serve on a toast, a slice of fresh bread or with your favourite pasta.

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If not used, cover with clingfilm and store in the fridge for up to 10 days.

I found out that the pesto tasted even better on the 3rd – 4th day when all the flavours had sunk in.

Shoolantze – Slovak rolled pasta

An English-speaking lady with Slovak roots has contacted me recently asking for two ‘very Slovak’ recipes her Grandma used to make. Although I didn’t recognize them by the names given, they sounded like some sort of pasta dishes, so I asked for their description. It turned out that the first one was, in fact, a very old name for Halushki, and the second dish is very likely to be what we call Šúľance (transcribed into English as Shoolantze) today.

Šúľance are little pieces of pasta that get their name from the rolling movement (šúľanie in Slovak) applied to the dough by hand in the process of making. Most Slovaks will serve šúľance with ground poppy seeds, which are very common and popular in Slovak cuisine, but my Mum would often top them with home-made breadcrumbs or even ground walnuts. Whatever topping you’ll choose, melted butter is the vital ingredient to give ‘shoolantze’ that delicious velvety finish.

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Šúľance or Shoolantze
Serves 4

  • 600 g potatoes
  • 200 g coarse/strong/bread flour*
  • pinch of salt
  • about 150 g ground poppy seeds or breadcrumbs
  • 100 g unsalted butter, melted
  • powdered sugar for dusting
*The amount of the flour may change slightly according to the type of the potatoes, as well as the flour used. Anyway, the instructions and pictures below should be a good guide to what you need to achieve in the dough.

Method:

Clean the potato skins with a damp sponge and place in a pot. Fill it with enough cold water to cover the potatoes. Bring to the boil, adjust the heat and let cook for about 30 minutes or until the potatoes are easily pierced with a skewer.

Drain the potatoes and let cool down until they are cold enough to handle. Peel them and mash with a potato masher or a fork. Add the flour and a pinch of salt. Work into a smooth, slightly sticky dough. Cover with a dish-towel and put in the fridge for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, grind the poppy seeds, or dry-roast the breadcrumbs in a saucepan over a low heat. Remember to stir the breadcrumbs all the time to prevent them from burning. Set aside.

Take the dough out of the fridge and transfer onto a floured rolling board. Dust your hands with flour, sprinkle some over the dough and divide into 8 parts – sort of balls. To make shoolantze, gently roll each ball into a long rope of 1 cm thickness. Cut into pieces about 5 cm long, dust with flour and put aside on a floured surface.

When you have used all the dough, bring a large pot of slightly salted water to the boil. Turn down the heat and throw the shoolantze in it one by one. Depending on the size of your pot, you may have to throw them in two or three batches.

Stir gently and cook each batch over a medium-low heat until the shoolantze come up to the surface. Take them out with a sieve or a slotted spoon, and transfer onto plates. Stir in a tablespoon of the melted butter. Cover and keep warm.

When all the shoolantze have been cooked and buttered, sprinkle each serving with the ground poppy seeds or the roasted breadcrumbs. Dust with the powdered sugar and pour the rest of the warm melted butter over the top. Serve immediately.

I hope the lady who was an inspiration for this post will find what she was looking for. Thanks to her, I have rediscovered a delicious meal I haven’t made for ages. True, I had to call my Mum to tie up a few loose ends, but I believe the recipe we have put together for Shoolantze will delight many of those with a sweet tooth.

Bird’s Milk

It’s time to cook something eggy, because it’s Easter and we want to put all those yolks and whites left after decorating our Easter eggs to good use. So why not prepare Bird’s Milk – a simple yet nutritious dish which is said to have originated in France, but my mind will always associate it with my Grandma’s rural kitchen in the south of Slovakia.

Bird’s Milk (or Vtáčie mlieko in Slovak) has different names in different countries. In France alone this classic dessert appears under two names as Œufs à la neige (which translates as ‘snowy eggs’), or Île flottante (Îles flottantes in plural) – the latter being the source of the English name for Floating Island(s), a popular dessert made of whipped egg whites (meringues) floating in a custard sauce. Is that why the French call this sweet sauce ‘crème anglaise’ in return? While I wait for someone to answer my question, let’s see what we need for a Slovak version of Îles flottantes.

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Bird’s Milk
Makes 4

For the cream:

  • 4 egg yolks
  • 400 ml milk
  • 40 g sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the ‘meringues’:

  • 4 egg whites
  • a packet of vanilla sugar (20 g)
  • a pinch of salt
  • cinnamon to drizzle
  • berries of your choice

Method:

To make the cream, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar in a mixing bowl until smooth and fluffy. Add the vanilla extract and stir evenly into the egg mixture.

Heat the milk in a pot over a medium heat until steaming. Set aside. Pour a few tablespoons of the milk into the egg mixture to warm it. Stir gently and transfer the contents of the mixing bowl to the warm milk.

DSC_0084Place over a medium-low heat and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly. When the mixture starts thickening, continue cooking for another 5 – 10 minutes until you achieve almost cream-like consistency. Remember to stir well all the time. Don’t let the mixture boil or it will curdle.

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‘Vanilkový krém’ stands for vanilla cream or custard in English, while the French often call it ‘creme anglaise’.

Divide the warm mixture into dessert bowls and let cool.

In the meantine, make the ‘meringues’ by whisking the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they form stiff peaks. Whisk in the vanilla sugar and put aside.

Line a baking tray with parchment paper. Take large spoonfuls of the ‘egg snow’ and arrange them in rows on the tray. Preheat the oven to 200ºC, put in the baking tray and turn down the heat to 100ºC. Bake for about 15 minutes or until the meringues are crisp and lightly browned at tops. Let cool at room temperature.

Cover the cooled cream with the meringues, drizzle with the cinnamon and top with the berries. Refrigerate and serve chilled.

And if you ask me why the Slovaks call it Vtáčie mlieko (Bird’s Milk), I can only give a speculative answer. Those fluffy ‘meringues’ sitting in the vanilla cream remind me of bird feathers, and I’d swear I’ve heard it on some occasion that they can be shaped and decorated like birds. I may give it a try next time. 😉

Decorating Easter cookies

As Mother Nature is awakening after a long winter sleep, so is our need for more warmth, sunshine and brighter colours. Not only do they show on the streets, in the parks and more still in the countryside, the spring colours also enter our kitchens, land on our tables and brighten up our food.

I have always wanted to show you the art of traditional honey-cookie decorating in Slovakia, but couldn’t find exactly what I was looking for. Then I came across Alžbeta’s fanpage and I knew she was the right person to tell the story.

Alžbeta is the Slovak name for Elizabeth and her honey cookies are as divine as the name suggests. When I got in touch with her to make an appointment, I didn’t know what a beautiful corner of Slovakia this would take me to. Perhaps that is where Alžbeta finds inspiration for her work?

Alžbeta is a mother of four and a busy housewife, who turns into a cookie fairy in the quiet of night.

She and her family live in Kremnické Bane – a village close to the spot that was declared the geographical centre of Europe back in 1815. The ride through the vast, undulating meadows dotted with fir trees and charming chalets leaves me wondering how many more treasures like these I have not seen yet – despite my extensive travels around the country. I make a promise to return, as there is no time to explore the place now. I have come for honey cookies, and I want to make the most of the visit. A batch of freshly baked cookies is already waiting to get a festive coating.

Alžbeta gets her gear ready. The first step is making the white icing. All you need at this stage is:

  • 1 egg white
  • icing or castor sugar (about 130 g)
  • a bowl and a whisk or fork
  • plastic zip bags (10 x 15 cm)

The exact amount of sugar will depend on how thick you want your icing to be. The more sugar, the thicker icing you get.

Method: 

Now that you’re ready to start decorating, follow these tips from Alžbeta to achieve the best results:

  1. Take the bag with the icing in one hand and twist it slightly with the other one. Press the icing down towards the tip of the bag, and use sharp scissors to cut a hole in it. A small hole is good for criss-cross patterns, ’embroidery’ or ‘painting’, you’ll need a bigger one to cover or fill in larger spaces.
  2. If you don’t use all the icing, zip it up in the bag and store at room temperature for up to 24 hours. Remember to stir it well, or place the icing in a new bag before you use it again later.
  3. For colour patterns, use natural food colourings, which come in the form of powder or gel in Slovakia, and stir them into the white icing evenly. Be careful to let the colour pattern on the cookie(s) dry for at least 24 hours before applying another layer or a different colour.
  4. To create a nice, clean pattern, hold the bag closely above the cookie, move your hand slowly as if drawing, and let the thread of icing fall down while fixing or turning the cookie with the other hand.

I’ll be sharing the recipe for our traditional honey cookies on a different occasion, but the tips & techniques given above can be applied to any cookies, so if you want to channel your creative energy onto your favourite ones, feel free to experiment.

Traditional honey cookies from Slovakia

 Good luck!

Easter eggs

They symbolize spring, fertility, new life, and in the minds of the Slovaks (as well as other Eastern European cultures), they are closely linked to Easter holidays. Eggs can’t be missing on the festive table in Slovakia. They come in all possible forms – boiled, fried, scrambled or made into hrudka (egg cheese), dyed, waxed, hand-painted or wired. Yes, apart from being an important food staple, the egg is also a popular artistic medium associated with our Easter traditions.

Easter eggs woven in copper wire

Perhaps the most unusual decorative technique among those mentioned above is wire wrapping – a very old and unique craft that originated in northern Slovakia in the 18th century. Back then, wire was used to repair old pots, cracked bowls, broken jugs and other objects of everyday life. Over the centuries, the wire craft has evolved into an exquisite art that produces decorative bowls, intricately woven silver baskets, or the finest jewellery. I was lucky to meet an amiable, chatty lady who was presenting this traditional Slovak art at a food event I’ve been to recently. And guess what was the main object of her work?

Before the wire is woven onto an egg, its contents must be blown out through two diminutive holes made on both ends. Sure, it takes a lot of skill and years of practice to weave the wire onto the fragile eggshell afterwards, but on top of its decorative function, the wire pattern also serves as a protective layer.

Wire-wrapped eggs are available at most Easter markets around Slovakia.

While wire weaving is not for everyone, there are much simpler yet effective techniques to decorate your Easter eggs with. By wrapping the whole egg in a net and boiling it with peeled outer layers of an onion, or a piece of beetroot, the eggshell will acquire a natural reddish hue. If a herb or a leaf is placed on the shell under the net, the resulting pattern will be even more interesting.

A little more difficult but still doable is hand-painting and waxing – the two most popular techniques that are often taught at egg-decorating workshops before Easter.

Then you have crocheted, carved and lace-covered eggs, each of which is a masterpiece itself. Whatever technique is applied on the shell, the egg insides will never go to waste. We’ll use them in cooking (see Bird’s Milk) and baking or, in case of the dyed boiled eggs, eat them as part of our Easter feast after removing the shells.

Decorated Easter eggs (kraslice) from Slovakia

Ready for a cup of tea?

Chai, tchai, le the, te, caj, cha, che, herbata, tae, el te, tea – how many different words for this popular drink do you know? And how strong is your penchant for a really good cup of tea when travelling around the world? Surely the tea in England will be served in a different way from that in Russia, Morocco or Sri Lanka, not to mention countries like China, India or Japan, where tea drinking has taken on a spiritual dimension.

Dobrá čajovňa (Good Tearoom) in Žilina

Although Slovakia hasn’t got a strong tea culture, it does have some nice and cosy places for tea lovers to enjoy high-quality tea in. The Slovak word for tea is čaj (pronounced tchai), and if you want to get it with the right decor, look for a čajovňa (tearoom). They’re not as common as pubs or cafés, but you are quite sure to find one in every major Slovak town. Dobrá čajovňa (Good Tearoom) is certainly worth visiting for its wide choice of teas from all over the world, and a very homey atmosphere. It’s a Czech franchise based in Prague that is also operating in two Slovak cities – Žilina in the north of Slovakia and Košice in the east.

https://www.facebook.com/dobracajovnaZA/

I went to the one in Žilina to find something that would restart my immunity system after a bout of flu I’d experienced two weeks before. The tea lady suggested Lapacho and I was happy to take her advice. She lit up a candle on my table and while she was preparing the tea, we chatted about workshops and events they organize at this new venue.

The tea was served in beautiful dark blue crockery on a custom-made wooden tray. I laid back and while I was sipping my brew, I leafed through an impressive choice of teas on their menu. There was a selection of delicate white teas (such as yao bao from South China), rare yellow teas, green teas like the Japanese matcha or sencha, Indian spiced and British-style milk teas, red teas from the Chinese province of Yunnan, several varieties of black darjeeling tea from India, as well as rich, dark pu-erh teas from China. I literally got lost in all the more or less familiar names, when a young couple came in and installed themselves on the colourful cushions in the elevated area. They chose their favourite tea and a pitta bread filled with goat cheese and vegetables. I found out that Dobrá čajovňa also offers sweet and savoury snacks, some of them having exciting exotic flavours and tongue-twisting names.
Aside the tearooms like these, you’re very unlikely to get freshly-prepared loose-leaf tea in Slovakia. When you ask for tea in a regular restaurant, they will usually give you a choice of black, green, fruit or herbal tea (one type in each category) in teabags. Your teabag will be served with a glass of hot water and sugar, occasionally honey, and you’re supposed to do the brew yourself.

In mountain resorts like that of The High Tatras, you can treat yourself to a very special Slovak tea that comes with slices of lemon on the side or a shot of rum/vodka in it. Don’t confuse it with Tatratea though, which is a strong tea-based liquor made with various herbs, spices and fruit flavours. It’s a nice pick-me-up after a day’s skiing or walking in what is considered our most beautiful mountains.

How ‘A Taste of Slovakia’ was born

Although we are getting more English-speaking visitors to Slovakia than before the Fall of Communism, this little country in the heart of Europe is still largely unknown by a mainstream tourist. Yet those who come and stay long enough to explore and make friends will often return for more.

Luke Waterson – a travel writer and a great fan of all things Slovak – has recently published this piece about ‘A Taste of Slovakia’ on his website. It gives a short account of what lay behind the book birth.

http://www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk/2017/02/20/spotlight-on-jarmila-hlavkova-author-of-the-first-slovak-recipe-book-to-be-published-in-the-english-language/

Žinčica is a refreshing countryside drink, which is often served in hand-carved mugs. It’s a by-product of sheep’s milk cheese.

Chicken Braised in Beer

This is a special bonus for Cookslovak fans and followers, as well as those who have already bought the cookbook. Each recipe in A Taste of Slovakia’ had been tested at least twice, so we had a good choice of photos from different shoots when my graphic designer was laying out the book pages. Sometimes a batch of pictures came out so well that it wasn’t easy to choose just one or two. At other times, we had a completely different problem and I had to repeat the same dish over and over again to finally get a photo we were reasonably happy with.

When leafing through the book now, I can still see flaws and imperfections, but that’s what learning is about – a work in progress, constant refinement of the style and honing your skills. Although the recipe below is identical with the one that appears in the book, the photos are different, so those who own or have seen a copy can compare, judge and comment.

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Chicken Braised in Beer
Serves 4

  • 1 chicken, gutted and carved
  • 200 g smoked bacon, sliced
  • 500 g sauerkraut
  • ¾ cup dark beer (200 ml)
  • salt, pepper, caraway, paprika to taste

Method:

  1. Use half of the bacon slices to line the roasting dish. Put the sauerkraut on the bacon slices and spread around evenly.
  2. Wash the chicken pieces and pat them dry. Rub the seasoning onto the chicken and put it on the sauerkraut. Cover with the rest of the bacon slices.
  3. Pour some of the beer over the chicken and put in the oven. Cook at 200°C for about 40 minutes, adding more beer when needed. The chicken is cooked through when the meat is coming away from the bone. Increase the temperature to 250°C and cook for another 5 – 10 minutes to give the chicken a nice, golden brown crust.
  4. Serve with boiled potatoes or rice and a garnish of sauerkraut.

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The juicy sauerkraut adds exciting zing to the dish which, together with a subtle undertone of the beer and crispiness of the bacon makes for a delectable Sunday lunch.

As I wrote in the post on Decadent Sauerkraut Soup, sauerkraut is a very popular ingredient in my country now that it’s still in the grip of a long, cold winter. As for beer, I learnt about its many uses in the kitchen when I was researching recipes for my cookbook – and I was surprised by the new flavours this ingredient imparted to classic dishes.

Honey – our sweet medicine

I usually survive the Slovak flu season, which peaks at the turn of January and February, with a raspy throat and a headache that normally eases off after taking a paracetamol and drinking plenty of hot lemon tea. But this year my husband had brought home a particularly viscious strain of the virus, which caught my immune system completely unawares. I lay down in bed with fever for three days – something I can’t remember doing since my childhood! Even after my body temperature had gone down, I felt quite poorly.

My husband had a nasty cough, which he was taking medication for, but what really helped soothe his windpipe was a mug of milk with honey and butter that he always drank before going to bed. We were lucky to have a big jar of raw, unprocessed honey from Vargapál‘s farm in Eastern Slovakia, which I’d got when I was researching bee products in Slovakia for my cookbook.

On my travels around the country I’d had a chance to learn about a beekeeper’s life, the challenges they face these days, especially when tackling honeybee diseases. I understood how much work goes into procuring high quality honey, how important it is to know the honeybee life cycle, and how crucial the decisions are about moving a bee colony at the right time to ensure the bees always have enough food.

Slovakia has a strong beekeeping tradition. It’s a skill and an occupation passed down from generation to generation within beekeepers’ families. These are wise, industrious people who obviously learn a lot from bees. Here is a sample of what they can produce:

As I have found out, beekeepers are extremely open, friendly and hospitable people. They love talking about their passion and sharing the fruits of their labour with guests. Those I have met in Slovakia are nurturers more than profit hunters. I know they would never cheat on their products – it’s a matter of honour, after all. Since I discovered how delicious, aromatic and life-supporting Slovak honey is, I haven’t bought a cheap alternative in a supermarket. They will never look like this anyway:

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Trying our honey is definitely something you shouldn’t miss when in Slovakia. There are so many varieties to choose from, like a wild flower honey, a forest or acacia one, a lime tree or sticklewort honey. They will differ in colour, texture and aroma, but also in their nutritional value. The dark honeys typically have a more-proclaimed flavour and a higher content of minerals, vitamins and anti-oxidants.

Although they’re not always easy to find, there are quite a few honey-farm shops around Slovakia. The pictures above are all from the Vargapál‘s shop in Košice.