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.

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.

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 😉

A Taste of Slovakia

It was born – at long last! The book I’ve been struggling to publish for so long has finally seen the light of day. How shall I organize its ‘christening’? Will the book appeal to the Slovak public and, most importantly, will it find a way to international audiences it is aimed at? Too many questions to answer for a newcomer like me. It looks like there’s another challenge to take before I can claim myself a published author. Hopefully, I’ll be able to connect to such nice, helpful people outside Slovakia as I have been lucky enough to meet so far.

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As you can see in the slideshow above, A Taste of Slovakia is much more than a list of our traditional recipes. It’s a journey into this small country’s culture, the way of living, the history that is – oh, so very short. And for those who will delve deeper into the text, there is an added bonus …

I’m now trying to find my way through the rigmarole of book-selling and, even more daunting a task, international shipping. As soon as I have good news on this, I’ll be posting it here. I’m really looking forward to making a more tactile connection with food enthusiasts around the world!

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Stay in touch and wish me good luck, my dear reader 🙂

Jarmila

For beer gourmets

I don’t drink beer myself (it’s too bitter for my liking), but when I was documenting its history and production in Slovakia, I met so many wonderful people with such a great passion for what they did that I really feel tempted to give it another try. If I do, I’ll certainly go for small brewery labels, which are more expensive but, as the experts say, you’ll get more character and goodness in a couple of these curvy, original bottles than in a pack of mass-produced beer cans.

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Despite its diminutive size, Slovakia has more than 50 small breweries (or micro-breweries, as they are often called in English) on top of two medium-sized Slovak companies with a long beer-making tradition, and two giant corporations that produce ‘eurobeer’, as our beer gourmets often say with a scorn. I’m not the right person to judge the contents, but I like the variety of colours, shapes and labels small breweries bring to the market. Like the ones above and below, which I had a pleasure to shoot at Na siedmom schode beer bar in Žilina.

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On my travels around Slovakia, I learned a lot about the art of beer making. I was told that, unlike well-known European breweries, whose beer is sold in most shops and supermarkets, the ‘craft beer’ from small breweries is unfiltered and unpasteurized, which is why it is sold ‘on the spot’. In practice, it means that you can taste it in a pub or an inn adjacent to the brewery, and it often comes with wonderful local food. Turák & vnuk Brewery in Stará Turá only opened last summer, but it has already grown a sizeable body of regular visitors.

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Pivovar a pálenica Turák&vnuk
Photo credits: Martin Medňanský, Turák & vnuk Brewery

Slovak pubs that I remember from my childhood were scruffy, smoke-filled places frequented by working class men. Women weren’t encouraged to join in, so when Mum had sent us to call Dad for a Sunday lunch, we patiently stood at the door until he took notice. My university encounters with pubs weren’t much better either. I did take part in a few nights out with my classmates, but felt like a fish out of water, although I have to admit I liked (and still do) a large glass of kofola after a stressful day at school, or a long hiking trip in the mountains. Kofola is a Slovak trademark that resembles Coke in colour, but it tastes different and has much less sugar in it. It’s been sold on draught in our pubs for – well, as long as my memory can travel back in time.

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Kofola – a Slovak trademark resembling Coke

When doing my research on Slovak beer on the Internet, I came across a quaint-looking small pub that immediately caught my attention. I was curious to see the place, so I invited my son there for a pint on his birthday. What a delight it was to feel and savour the unique historical ambience of Múzejný pivovar pub near Bratislava!

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Not only did I change my view on Slovak pub culture, but I also took a few pictures for the forthcoming book. My son was a connoisseur; he had a chance to taste a new brand of high quality beer, and he was happy to show me what a good draught looks like.

Can you guess what he said the secret behind a well-draught beer was?

Cooking in the great outdoors

Summer is an ideal time for outdoor parties, isn’t it? I wonder what they look like in your country. In mine, they often take the form of cooking competitions like the one I described in the post on Goulash parties last year.

But it’s not only goulash that you can get to taste when touring Slovakia in the summer. A long thread of outdoor cooking events starts as early as in May, shortly after sheep are taken to the pastures for the first time in a year. The general public is invited to salashes (wooden cottages close to the pastures), where shepherds live and work until late September. The new season will open with a meal of mutton goulash and a drink of žinčicaamong other popular Slovak drinks 😉

Yes, you can often sample freshly-made sheep’s milk cheese on these occasions, as well as our beer.

On the first Sunday in June, when the Shepherds’ Festival takes place in the village of Východná, you will not only hear a tinkle of hand-made sheep bells, but also see our national dish of Halušky s bryndzou being made from scratch.

Around 24th June, when the name of Ján (Slovak for John) is celebrated in the Slovak calendar, you can experience svätojánske ohne or St. John’s Bonfires. They’re organised by some village communitites, and they always come with good music, local specialities and sometimes even a fire show.

If your Slovak friends invite you to an outdoor opekanie event, don’t miss the occasion. It’s a Slovak version of picnic and it involves frying a sausage or a chunk of bacon on a spit over an open fire. You can end up frying slices of bread, onions or anything that’s left at the end of the party.

There are dozens of music, dancing and food festivals all over the country in July and August. At the end of the summer, celebrations of summer harvest take place in a number of towns and villages.

The old tradition of outdoor plum jam cooking is coming back to the Slovak countryside as a day of shared cooking fun, singing and dancing.

This is by no means the end of the outdoor cooking season. Autumn will bring still more open-air gatherings where good, home-made food and a warming drink is never absent.

Traditional Slovak cheeses

If you’ve already been to Slovakia, the chances are you have tried our korbáčik, parenica or oštiepok – the three cheeses that are still being made the traditional way at salashes and small mountain farms. Depending on the place and time of year, they can be more or less salty, but that’s exactly how most Slovaks like their cheese.

The history of our cheese making goes back to the 14th century when Valachian people fleeing from Romania settled in the mountainous regions of what is now Slovakia. They were tough, hardy shepherds who had brought with them sturdy breeds of sheep fit to survive our harsh winters. The Valachians quickly blended with the native population who readily accepted their way of farming – and making cheese, among other things.

I have already mentioned a book about Slovak cuisine we’re preparing for publication right now. Let’s have a quick look at the second chapter that’s just being laid out. It shows the art of traditional cheese making in Slovakia, and although the best pictures have been reserved for the book, the ones below will give a good preview.

Whether it is korbáčik, parenica or oštiepok, the traditional techniques use the pliability of sheep’s or cow’s milk cheese at temperatures between 80 – 90ºC. The hot cheese is pulled out into long threads and plaited, rolled into small drums, or simply placed in hand-carved wooden moulds.

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There are annual competitions in some mountain villages to award the best cheeses and the most imaginative works made of them.

On top of their attractive look, these little cheesy figures and ornamental flowers are also pretty edible.

Although sheep’s milk is three times as expensive as cow’s milk, it’s also much more nutritious and easier to digest, not to mention its delicate creamy consistence and strong antimicrobial effects. It’s no wonder that the demand for sheep’s milk cheese has soared in the last decade, and our sheep farming is thriving again after a long spell of decline.

If you want to try traditional Slovak food, have a glimpse of a salash life and see our cheese being made on the spot, check out this website:

http://www.syrex.sk/?lang=en

You may find more shepherds like those in the picture below, enjoying the hard work at a salash (a wooden cottage close to the pastures) and the scenic beauty of our mountains.

 

Let’s dance!

The season of food festivals, outdoor parties and dancing shows has already started here in Slovakia. It’s that time of year when we like to get together and spend weekends out in the open, have a mug of beer and a good chat with friends, or enjoy a family meal at a village fair. More often than not, these social gatherings will involve traditional folk dancing – and singing.

As much as it’s the case with food, each Slovak region has its own music, dance, and a distinctive costume embellished by old folk motifs and dazzling hand-sewn ornaments. The Podpoľanie region, where I was born and grew up in, is famous for a unique embroidery done by a krivá ihla (or a hook-shaped needle).

Detvian embroidery from the Podpoľanie region in Slovakia

The same beautiful patterns grace traditional costumes of folk dancers from the Podpoľanec (pronounced as Podpolyanyetz) ensemble.

No matter how ‘outdated’ the music may sound to some ears, it continues to capture the minds and hearts of all generations.

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You have to be really fit and train hard to be able to do all the jumps and spins, not to mention the intricate footwork this type of dancing entails.

Unlikely as it may seem, these young people are not professionals. They meet outside their working hours and train all through the year to bring exciting new choreographies out for each summer season. Clearly there must be something much stronger than money that unites this happy folk. Is it the massive applause they get from the audience, and the enthusiastic calls for repeats that keep them going on this hot afternoon?Breathless and sweating after the performance, the dancers are given instructions from their managers. Another show starts in an hour, so they have to change quickly and get on the bus taking them to a nearby town.

Do make sure you see one of the traditional summer festivals they take part in. The sheer joy, energy and passion these young people exude certainly won’t leave you cold.

Podpoľanec (or Podpolyanyetz) folk ensemble
Podpoľanec (or Podpolyanyetz) folk ensemble

Exploring Liptov

Although it’s a small country when compared to its neighbours, Slovakia’s landscape varies quite dramatically as you travel from the High Tatras mountains in the north to the Danube Lowland in the south. A similar variety can be perceived in regional cuisines, local accents and the people’s mentality as you go from one Slovak region to another.

The Liptov region in the north of the country is certainly one of the most visited. It’s got beautiful mountains, ski resorts and thermal spas, as well as caves, cycling trails or outdoor swimming pools.

When I went to Liptov two weeks ago, it was mainly because I wanted to do some more photography for the book I’m preparing about Slovak cuisine. But at the same time, I needed to get out of the city and closer to the countryside, which brings out all shades of green and a wonderful array of flowers at this time of year.

I knew they made a famed sheep’s milk cheese at a salash (a Slovak word for a sheep farm) in Liptovská Lúžna, and had heard about the friendliness of local people, so that was where I wanted to spend my Saturday.

Getting to Liptov is easy, as it lies on the main railway line connecting Bratislava – the capital of Slovakia – with Košice, the country’s metropolis in the east. The Liptov region is served by regular fast trains stopping in Ružomberok and Liptovský Mikuláš, where you will find convenient bus services to all tourist attractions in the area. And if you’re as lucky with the weather as I was, you may soon find yourself basking in the fresh spring colours somewhere far away from the madding crowds.

I fell in love with the village of Liptovská Lúžna in an instant. Wherever I walked, my eyes met tastefully designed country houses with neat courtyards and well-kempt gardens. It looked like a long village to walk through, but it helped me feel its atmosphere and get to know the people. Some were locals, others just weekend residents spending a couple of days at their cottages out in the countryside.

It’s not very touristy up there, so I was immediately acknowledged as a visitor, and greeted with a friendly “Dobrý deň” (or ‘Good day to you’). Saturday is a ‘cleaning day’ in most Slovak households, and for village people it also means working in the fields or gardens, cleaning up courtyards or engaging in DIY.

The highlight of my trip to Liptovská Lúžna was, of course, my visit to the milk farm, which is set at the end of a small road leading to the pastures. When you see the lush greenery of the meadows, the happy sheep flock and even happier farm workers, you understand why their cheese is such a success. I particularly liked the painting on the front wall of the main farm building. It shows two happy-go-lucky shepherds from my favourite children’s book Maťko and Kubko.

I had a chat with the farm workers, and was offered to have a taste of fresh sheep’s milk cheese and a mug of žinčica. I couldn’t help but take another photo of Maťko and Kubko riding a bear – an illustration from the episode I have translated into English for the forthcoming book.

I was curious to see how žinčica was prepared, so they let me have a look inside a traditional cooking hut, where the whey was being heated slowly over a small fire.

Žinčica is a by-product of sheep’s milk cheese making process

I was told that at temperatures around 85 – 90ºC the whey starts throwing gentle bubbles, which is when the cauldron is taken off the fire and the thick upper layer is scooped away by a large wooden ladle. It is then poured into a metal milk can where it cools down, while being stirred gently to make žinčica smoother and creamier. Žinčica is often likened to an ‘elixir of life’ by Slovak cheese experts, as it is a high quality probiotic drink with a wide antimicrobial effect. It used to be an everyday food and drink of shepherds and salash workers.

There are quite a few salashes in Liptov and the one in Liptovská Lúžna is definitely worth a visit. They move the sheep pens around the village to ensure the best quality of pastures, so you may not find all the sheep in one place, but you can always buy fresh sheep’s milk products at their milk farm shop.

A welcome sign above the entrance of the milk farm shop in Liptovská Lúžna
A welcome sign above the entrance of the milk farm shop in Liptovská Lúžna