Bratislava Food Tours

curiedcovikaSlovak food has been a part of my life since I was born, but not a large part.  My family has always had a few standard recipes: pierogi, kapustnica (sauerkraut soup) for Christmas Eve, halušky (though that died off when I was young), and stuffed cabbage, which I learned on my travels was more Hungarian than Slovak—but close enough.  Other than that, though, there wasn’t much.  All the women in the family receive a First Slovak Ladies Association cookbook, but it’s just a compendium of whatever recipes anyone wanted to submit; a quick glance shows there’s really nothing Slovak about it.

This was the main drive behind checking out Bratislava Food Tours—I wanted to be able to try my family favorites and see how they differed between the motherland and my mother’s house, and I also wanted more insight into some of the traditional foods we had been missing out on over the years.

We met Linda (who at the time was very pregnant) at Bratislava Castle, where she started off the food tour with a shot of Čučoriedkovica, a delicious low-alcohol liquer that is made by mixing plum brandy with a pile of blueberries and sugar and letting it sit forever.  Needless to say, it’s a great way to start a food tour.

toastAs was our first stop, which was the Zámocký Pivovar (“Pivovar” being Slovak for “Brewery”) to sample a light beer (svetlé 10°) and a dark beer (tmavé 12°), as well as a few traditional Slovak small bites: pečeňová paštéta (liver pate) and restované hribiky na hrianke, which were sautéed forest mushrooms on toast.  I pretty much automatically love anything on toast, and anything that deals with mushrooms, and these were no exception—the sauce they were in had a deep, rich flavor that would’ve made me happy had the tour ended right then.  I hadn’t had previous experience with either of these foods as traditionally Slovak, so learning more about the cuisine of my people was off to a great start.

We then moved on to another brewery (joy!), but this time only for food and not for beer.  Bratislavský Meštiansky Pivovar served up a vianočná kapustnica (Christmas sauerkraut soup) that was slightly different from the one we had at 1. Slovak Pub the previous night.  This one left out the potatoes, but had more meat (including sausage and pulled pork) and was just as delicious—maybe more so. This only secured my love for the sauerkraut soup in Slovakia above the version I’d been having at home all those years (sorry, mom).

soup2

We stopped briefly for a savory pastry called pagáč (a word I had heard before, but apparently applied incredibly incorrectly at home) and then to a small specialty food store called Sklizeno for one of our favorite things: cheese and meat.  We were able to sample bravčová klobása (a pork sausage), ovčí syr (a very fresh sheep’s cheese) and oravský korbáčik, known as “little whip cheese” which came in small strings.

charcuterie

Next was the main course: a stop at Zylinder, a nicer restaurant, for a traditional Bratislava Sunday dinner.  Being so close to Austria, the cuisines were surprisingly similar, with a prešporský schnitzel (a Bratislava schnitzel with potato salad) and kačací konfit, which is roasted duck leg with potato pancakes, knoedel, and a terrific savory and slightly sweet stewed cabbage that had us dying for the recipe. One top of that was a plate of špenátové pirohy(spinach pierogi topped with bryndza cheese sauce).

Our final stop was at a coffee shop called Moods for Bratislavské rožky, which are small local rolls with a poppy seed and nut filling.  We’d had so much food, we could hardly finish these small bites, but we made a good show of it.

All in all, the Bratislava Food Tour was easily my favorite part of Bratislava: I had gone there to learn about the local cuisine, and I had done just that.  It didn’t only show me differences to my own family’s way of doing things, but greatly expounded on that, as most of the food on the tour I had never heard of or tried, or didn’t know was part of a typical Slovak menu.

Linda was a fantastic guide; knowledgeable, well-spoken and very engaging.  I have even been in regular contact with her over the past year to ask her repeated questions about food and recipes, and she always gets back to me quickly and patiently answers all of my questions.  When I find myself back in Bratislava, I would go back on the tour if for no other reason than to just hang out and talk about food with her.  Well, and to eat it all again.

Tasting Tradition: 1. Slovak Pub

The first thing I wanted to do in Bratislava was, of course, try the food.  I’d been having bits and pieces of Slovak food from my grandmother’s kitchen, passed down to our own, and I wanted to see how it stacked up.  I got a preview of stuffed cabbage in Hungary, and now I wanted all things Slovak.  From the looks of things—and with the help of Linda from Bratislava Food Tours—1. Slovak Pub was the place.

beerWith eleven rooms—each representing a different era in Slovak history—the pub is much larger than you would expect.  But, as it is divided up into smaller rooms, if still retains a homey feel.  And for a bar and restaurant so dedicated to Slovak history and traditional Slovak food, the bar is surprisingly forward-thinking: they have their own biofarm 25 kilometers outside of Bratislava that the chefs receive produce from daily.  The farmers also send homemade bread to the bar.

The menu’s first few pages are dedicated to information about each of the rooms, the farm, and Slovak history.  It is clear the owners are proud of Slovakia, and go so far as to take care of their own: there are discounted lunch options for all Slovak university students and teachers, and if a student comes in to study on any exam day, the bar will give them a free soup and soda.  They also have a discounted student price for their house-made beer, Dobré Pifko.

While we didn’t come close to qualifying for the student discount, we did get plenty of traditional Slovak food, and I couldn’t have been happier.  We started with a platter for two, which should have specified that the two people needed to be very hungry (there are no light meals in Eastern Europe) and some of the aforementioned Dobré Pifkos.  The platter had pierogi covered in bryndza cheese, as well as one portion of halušky (huh-LOOSH-key) covered in bryndza and another portion mixed with sauerkraut and bacon.

platterFor those unfamiliar with Slovak food (which I assume is most people outside of Slovakia), bryndza is a type of strong sheep’s milk cheese that starts off tangy and ends extremely salty.  It can come in slices that are similar in texture to feta, but unlike feta the cheese melts well and makes a great sauce.  Halušky are small, soft potato dumplings that have the texture of gnocchi but are similar in size and shape to spaetzle.  I’d never had bryndza before this (and immediately fell in love as someone who loves salty foods), and while my mom made halušky when we were younger, I don’t remember it ever being as refined as what we were served.  Two wins for traditional food.

Afterwards, we had what I was looking forward to most: traditional sauerkraut soup (kapustnica). This has been a Christmas Eve staple in my home my entire life, and I was dying to try the real thing.  As it turns out, as much as I love the one my mother makes (which is basically mushrooms and sauerkraut juice—shut up, it’s delicious), I came to find out she makes a northern style soup.  The southern style, which we had, was so much more—there were potatoes, smoked pork, paprika, sauerkraut, a huge dollop of sour cream!  This was more of a stew than a soup, and it almost made me giddy thinking I had unlocked some next level to our Christmas celebrations.

soup

Eating Slovak food in Slovakia was one of the highlights of any of my travels, and it expanded and deepened my love for my family’s cuisine.  While the idea that mom makes it best is certainly true in a lot of cases, in this one I have to give it to the old country—they opened my eyes and filled my stomach and made me as happy as I’ve been finishing a meal.