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.

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.

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.

The ball season has started

I don’t know if it’s the same in other European countries, but the ball season in Slovakia traditionally starts after Epiphany (6th January), and lasts until Shrove Tuesday, which marks the beginning of Lent.

I wasn’t originally planning to write about clothes on this site (I’m far from a fashionista), but when I spotted this fabulous dress in my news feed this week, I knew I had to share it with you. And not just because it’s so divinely beautiful. It also touched my heart.

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Slovak Haute Couture (Photo courtesy of Tamara Šimončíková Heribanová)

The dress was sported by one of the guests at the opening of the 2017 ball season in the Slovak Opera House in Bratislava. The finely embroidered top and the headpiece both come from a traditional folk costume representing Očová village in the heart of Slovakia. The skirt was designed specifically for the occasion to complement the top and give the whole outfit a more contemporary look. Yes, it wonderfully bridges our traditional arts with today’s fashion trends, as the model – the Slovak writer, journalist and presenter – wrote on Instagram. I didn’t know Tamara in person, but I contacted her immediately, and she happily gave permission to publish the photos on this site. I understood she is a lover of all things Slovak, especially traditional folk dresses, and as you can see in the pictures, she knows how to wear them.

This is how Tamara describes the outfit she wore for the prominent ball in the Opera House:

The top and the headpiece are more than 80 years old – they were borrowed from a private collection of two Slovak enthusiasts who have preserved traditional folk costumes from around Slovakia for decades. The intricate embroidery has been done by hand with a special hook-shaped needle, and is typical for the Podpoľanie (Podpolyanyie) region, where the village of Očová lies.

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The sleeves are richly embellished with ‘carved’ embroidery (Photo courtesy of Tamara Šimončíková Heribanová)

If you wonder how the ‘carved’ embroidery on the airy sleeves is done, here is the answer: The patterns are first sewn on linen by hand, then bits of fabric are cut out with special scissors. Well yes, it does take ages -and an impeccable skill as well – to make a piece like this.

And why do I have such an emotional bond with this art? I was born in Detva near Očová, and I could not only see these fine dresses being made and worn on numerous occasions as I grew up, but I also learnt to do the embroidery, though I have to say my pieces were nowhere near the exquisite work pictured above.

Looking back at 2016

There are events in our calendar that will repeat themselves with unfailing regularity year after year, though no two of them will ever feel the same. Silvester, which is what 31st December is named in the Slovak calendar, is no exception. No matter how many Silvesters I’ve lived through, the end of year never ceases to surprise me with new findings.

Although it hasn’t been the best year on the international level, the 2016 has brought a lot of positive things for my family and friends. We haven’t lost anyone, yet we welcomed a few new-borns. My eldest daughter got engaged, the younger one has successfully weathered an exceptionally difficult time in her professional life, our son has finally found his true vocation.

On a personal level, it’s been a very productive year. At long last, I managed to gather enough resources to publish A Taste of Slovakia – my first book, which started selling at a few bookshops around Slovakia and a couple of other venues, like Bratislava Flagship Restaurant, Vcelco s.r.o. Smolenice and Podpolianske múzeum Detva.

I have also shipped a few copies outside Slovakia and some buyers have taken the book as far as the USA.

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All through the year and especially during the book completion I was fortunate enough to meet passionate and supportive people, many of whom have become friends.

Thanks to you, my dear readers and fans, Cookslovak website continued growing and attracting more views. I’m extremely grateful for all your likes, comments and the positive energy you’ve brought on board.

Looking back at 2016, these top five posts have caught attention of most viewers:

1. A Taste of Slovakia

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2. Exploring Liptov

3. Let’s dance!

4. How to make ‘halushki’

5. Slovak Sour Potato Soup

It’s been really great to have you around. I hope you’ll stay with me next year and I promise not to disappoint 😉

Have a happy and peaceful 2017!

For chocolate lovers

It’s that time of year again when – apart from other goodies – we also get more chocolate, at least here in Slovakia. The reason is that on 6th December Mikuláš (Slovak for St Nicholas or Santa Claus) has his day in the Slovak calendar and, by tradition, he brings packets of sweets and chocolates to children, supposing they were nice and good all through the year. In most Slovak households children clean their boots on the eve of St Nicholas’s Day, and put them up on the window sill, where Mikuláš will leave his treats overnight.

More often than not, chocolate will also adorn our Christmas trees. If you happen to be in Slovakia at this time of year, you’ll find our shops and supermarkets filled with collections of chocolate toys, figures and little ornaments packed in festive boxes. Not only are they meant to be put up on the Christmas tree as decorations, but they can be eaten as well, so we have to make sure there’s enough trinkets up there to avoid the Christmas tree going naked 😉

For people like me though, chocolate is an all-year love affair. A cup of hot cocoa is not only a sweet memory of my childhood, but it remains my comfort drink to these days. Here is how I make it:

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3. Transfer into a mug or cup, and stir in a teaspoonful of sugar or honey.

When I want to treat myself or my special people to a quality hot chocolate (horúca čokoláda), I’ll take them to a chocolate house/bar. Now, hot chocolate means different things to different people, and not only in Slovakia. I have drunk hot chocolate in Belgium, Switzerland and England, but none of them tasted the same. Depending on the venue and the price, hot chocolate can be anything from a cheap, thin mixture of some artificial powder with water (at least it tastes like that), to a more pronounced chocolaty drink (I don’t know what they make it from, but it’s more expensive and tastes much better), to a thick, rich, warm chocolate probably made by melting chocolate chips. And this is what I’d call ‘crème de la crème’ of hot chocolate.dsc_0049In Slovakia, this ‘real’ hot chocolate comes in many different flavours (vanilla, cinnamon, chilli) and with various additions (fruit, cream, liquors). Last time we went to our favourite chocolate bar with my daughter, she ordered a mix of dark and white chocolate with vanilla flavour, and I had a dark one with bilberries.

I found mine a little on the sweet side, but I suppose I could have just asked for less sugar in it before serving. All in all, it was a delightful experience, as the place had a very pleasant, cosy ambience, and a beautiful mirror ceiling.

 

Good news!

There’s nothing more rewarding for an author than to see their book on a shelf in a real bookstore. More even, if this is a first-time author who has published the book herself after years of working on it and wondering whether all her efforts ever materialize.

I’m quite good at containing my emotions (either positive or negative), and I’m certainly not the one that would dance with her book around the flat taking selfies and posting them online. I don’t go sneaking around that store checking on the number of sold copies (though gosh, how much I’d want to know), but when I got a phone call last night saying ‘we want more of your book’, it sounded like a song to my ears! And I did feel a surge of happiness welling up inside me, filling my eyes with mist. It’s not that I’m desperate to see my name out there along with other well-established authors. I just feel immense gratitude to those who, by buying the book,  quietly acknowledged its worth and dispelled a clump of uncertainties that had accumulated in my mind over the years.

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As I said in the previous post, A Taste of Slovakia is far more than a cookbook. It blends my love of cooking and writing with a new hobby I took up on the way. It was more out of necessity that I started to take pictures – I couldn’t afford to pay a professional photographer – but as soon as I grasped the basic techniques, I found myself totally immersed in the new challenge.

The Artforum Žilina bookshop is the only one at the moment to be selling the book, but I’m trying to find more outlets to bring it to a wider audience. It’s not easy, as the market for English books in Slovakia is very small and the wholesale terms & conditions are extremely tough for a self-published author, which you’d expect, wouldn’t you? We’ll have to find a way though, and I’m happy to announce I’ve successfully shipped a few copies around Slovakia recently.

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Until I find reliable, trustworthy partners to help me sell the book outside Slovakia, I can ship individual copies by Slovak registered mail at the rates below:

Europe:  18.80 € (including postage & packing)
Rest of World:  25.80 € (including postage & packing)

As I have found out, the more copies in a package, the less the postage is per item. So if you’d like to own one, just click on the ‘Contact’ button in the top right hand corner of this page and send me an e-mail. I’ll deal with the order according to Slovak trade license conditions, and will dispatch the item(s) together with an invoice that can be paid on the arrival of the book(s).

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As you can see on Cookslovak’s facebook page, the first buyers from Slovakia have already taken a few copies of the book as far as the USA. Let’s hope the tastes of Slovakia will travel happily around the world, and inspire a good many of home cooks 😉