Contemporary Slovak Gastronomy

by Viktor Klimo

The Slovak gastronomy is still drawing on the experience of the period of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the World War II, it was partially closed and relatively few new elements penetrated into it. It was not the fault of the gastronomy industry that at that time the movement of goods and ideas was not as fast as at present. In the 90’s, there was a more rapid development of gastronomy, which was multiplied by the change in the social structure in Slovakia as well as by the opening of borders in 1989. This “adventurous” period is characterized mainly by the joy of newly discovered foods and meals. We began to learn how to prepare international dishes even at home, fast foods spread out, and semi-finished products and additives started to be entirely used in food and meal production. In the past, home cooking, preservation, and canning were quite common, and we were used to moderation and the occasional non-availability of certain commodities. But after 1989, we got the impression that there is plenitude of foods of any kind and it is easier to buy ready made meals. Large-scale meal production gradually pushed prices down and more expensive products, previously intended only for wealthy people, began to be produced at more affordable prices, but logically in a lower quality, which can still be noticed in the case of hams, smoked meats and cheeses. Ongoing economic changes and reforms definitively confirmed the essential condition of our gastronomy – lower prices, to which not only catering but also entire industries adapted. This situation ultimately affected home cooking and meal preparation at catering facilities. Enthusiasm for new foods and gastronomy was initially demonstrated by the fact that solely actors or celebrities appeared in television programs about cooking, which corresponded to the nature of used foods. Regarding cookbooks, the situation was similar at that time. Both media were sharply missing the voice of professionals.
Legislation changed gradually, but the food industry standards and especially their creators were not able to look after and especially to control the maintenance of the foodstuff and meal quality. Small firms in gastronomy and the food industry started up very slowly and had to overcome many obstacles. Since 1991, the liquidation of company canteens and implementation of meal vouchers gradually resulted in the changing of restaurants into places, where people did not go to have a delicious meals but to have the cheapest possible lunch. The psychological price of a meal was determined by the nominal value of the meal voucher. Owners of restaurants were only looking for ways how to gain maximum profit from that limit. Low prices and the constant reduction of food quality was unsustainable and was again present, for example, in television programs. Finally, professional chefs appeared on the scene and started teaching how to get customers to go to restaurants not only for lunch. Due to this, restaurants had to change their “fairy-tale” meals into reasonable and seasonal menus.
The eating habits of a population have been significantly affected by the availability of foodstuffs and the method of their selling. While small stores and shops with foodstuffs have remained unchanged in neighbouring countries, big hypermarkets have been built in Slovakia, often several of them even in smaller towns. Customers have learned to buy almost everything in the supermarkets, and they do not need specialized shops for vegetables, meat or bakery products. Supermarkets have became so dominant that nowadays they determine the rules of the diets of broad masses of the population. They even affect restaurants buying foodstuffs in them instead of in warehouses. On the other hand, supermarkets still do not have any counterweight in the form of farmers’ associations or common marketplaces.
At the beginning of the new millennium, gastronomy experienced a global change which affected even our cuisine. Many chefs, who worked abroad and had productive work experience, returned to Slovakia. The origin of foods and the method of their production began to be more discussed themes. However, gastronomy has been mostly influenced by the fact that the impact of foods on health and ecology have started to be taken into account. Nowadays, Slovak cuisine is increasingly affected by the trends from abroad, including the return of local foods.
In the last ten years our cuisine experienced another change – amateurs – unskilled chefs and people from completely different sectors decided to change their jobs radically and engage in the food industry. Interestingly, the majority of them are people from the field of technology. They roast coffee beans, brew beer, keep bees, and operate modern bistros. Some of them have managed to pick up the thread and restore, for example, food production conducted by their ancestors. Although not all newcomers have succeeded, many of them have managed to survive and have slightly improved the quality of the Slovak gastronomy. Whether we like it or not, sometimes they use hamburgers, chickpea patties, and tofu to achieve their success.
Chefs have gradually became celebrities. The audience watches their cooking and judgments in competitions, but also how they change places of their work. The elite part of these chefs try to educate at colleges, the students of hotel academies as well as customers. They say loudly that restaurants should not be canteens and quality meals can not cost a few euros. Thus, the gastronomy companies are gradually changing. Many combined establishments which, according to earlier criteria, we would classify as bistros, cafes, and patisseries, have been opened. Ten years ago, higher-quality restaurants offered various tasting menus containing expensive foods served in a spectacular way, but this trend is slowly giving way to having closer contact with customers and focusing on local suppliers, which, by the way, has long been customary, for example, in neighbouring Austria. Meanwhile, French restaurants voluntarily waive Michelin stars and, this year, the popular guide has awarded a street food stall in Singapore preparing roasted chickens. Gaps have been narrowing even in our country. While till now, street food stalls mostly had a bad reputation due to the low quality of meals, at present, they try to improve the quality of their meals and offer foodstuffs previously found only in physical restaurants. And on the other hand, restaurants have adopted hamburgers. It looks as if the high gastronomy and the low-level food approach complement each other.
Gastronomy has even assumed the role of a tourist destination. Local foods are no longer only an “accompanying” experience during family trips to castles or caves, but a separate attraction. People have started to visit food festivals, food fairs, or directly to taste local specialties. Gastronomy events are doing extremely well – many of them are monothematic and last several days. Wine tours and travelling events, where people visit several places, are a commonplace. In Slovakia, this trend is not a privilege of larger cities – it has been happening in smaller towns all over the country. Several events have a long-term tradition – they have been organized for decades, even centuries. The Radvanský jarmok (Radvaň Fair) is the oldest one – it has been held for more than 350 years. The Pukanské remeselnícke trhy (Pukanec Craft Market) offering drevorubačské párance (“woodcutter’s noodles”) picked up the thread of ancient traditions, and since 1993 it has been organized every year. The Dni zelá (Stupava Cabbage Festival) were first time held in 1996 and nowadays it is the largest regional event in the Záhorie region. Various competitions in the cooking of dumplings and goulash are organized in several places in Slovakia.
It has taken a little bit more time to pick up the thread of the historically known Slovak specialties, but many of them have gained the stamp of promoting and protecting the names of quality agricultural products and foodstuffs. Nowadays, 17 traditional agricultural products and foodstuffs from Slovakia have been recorded in the list of EU protected food names, such as Slovenská bryndza (Slovak Sheep Cheese), the cheese Klenovský syrec, excellent bakery products Skalický trdelník and Bratislavský rožok, sausages Spišské párky, small ham sausages called špekáčky, Žitavská paprika, the cheese product Zázrivský korbáčik, and other cheese and meat specialties. The list is not final, and other products are waiting for registration, such as a malt named Levický slad and the already mentioned Stupavské zelé (Stupava cabbage).
The EU stamp to promote and protect names of quality agricultural products and foodstuffs has helped many products from the list. Some of them are still struggling with misrepresented names and falsely labelled cheaper imitations. Regarding meat products, the problem is their price due to the higher proportion of meat, and in the case of the bakery product Skalický trdelník, it is the decision not to sell it at all markets and fairs. However, the Skalica municipality has helped with the mentioned Skalický trdelník and established a nut orchard so that the producers are not forced to use imported raw material and can guarantee a genuinely local product. The Bratislavský rožok has finally found its way into cafes, but it is crossing the boundaries of its region only sporadically.
Quality home foods are sometimes get lost in the maze of globalization, and it can be said that the best of them are mostly exported. Then a paradoxical situation may occur that you buy Austrian pumpkin oil, but it is produced from seeds grown in our countryside. Similarly, Slovak lamb regularly gets to Easter tables in Italy. In some cases, the direction of the export thrives on its turning over to increase the domestic consumption, but it is rather a rarity.
The so-called cheese booths lining almost each road have became a Slovak particularity. In some places, even automatic cheese (oštiepok, parenica, korbáčiky) machines have appeared, and in other places, cheese tarts or even “bouquets” are made of them. The sheep cheese bryndza and other chalet products have their stable home in cottages and pubs located along major transport lines. Regarding the sheep cheese bryndza, in addition to the protected geographical indication, cheese producers created their quality mark, by which they want to demonstrate that their products contain 100% and not only more than 50% of sheep milk as prescribed. They have chosen a green trefoil as a symbol of quality. Not only chalet cheeses experience a renaissance in our country. Smaller dairy producers that have learned how to make ripened cow, sheep and goat cheeses have gradually appear.
Winemaking and brewing have been very successful in Slovakia in recent years. Newly-bred varieties (e.g. Dunaj, Devin, Rudava, or Noria) but also awarded and authentic wines come from our wine growing regions. The mentioned ones found their way from Strekov to one of the best restaurants in the world – the Danish Noma. Large enterprises, family businesses, and enthusiastic individuals are engaged in viniculture, and each region organizes its feasts, festivals, and celebrations. Days of open wine vaults and shops, where people buy wine, and wine tours are also held.
Small craft breweries began to appear after the gradual closing of some large breweries. Several of them are in Bratislava, others are scattered across the whole Slovakia, but thanks to the “home breweries” they have the strongest base in Košice. Last year, one of the oldest pubs in the world with a non-stop service was restored there. The Hostinec brewery was established in the Gothic Levoča House – the oldest building in Košice. Of course, the beer is no longer the same as centuries ago, but many different lagers and less common unfiltered types of beer are brewed there, as well as in many other small breweries.
The coffee tree is not a farm plant typical for Slovakia, but the development of coffee-roasting plants affects coffee drinking and the character of cafes. Coffee made of different varieties of Arabica coffee beans ground and filtered through various alchemical equipment and ideally taken directly from farmers or at least prepared in an excellent Italian espresso machine or in a mocha pot, which in our region took the Hungarian name – kotyogó, try to push the typical Turkish coffee served in glass out of cafes. Besides the “Turkish” coffee, the term “espresso with milk” is still deep-rooted in our country despite all the efforts, associations, and Slovak world champions in coffee disciplines. It is an over extracted and overheated longer espresso with cream or milk.
Food has become an everyday presence also due to several specialized blogs (food blogs), where mostly amateurs describe their cooking, review restaurants or write culinary travel books – many of them have crowned their writing with their own books or they have begun to deal with foods professionally. Food has gradually become the central theme and entertainment, and without exception, all medias deal with it. Nowadays, producers and traders compete with specialized magazines about cooking. They publish their magazines aimed at the higher gastronomy and, of course, they advertise themselves as well as Slovak products. Today, literally everyone, even a furniture store owner, writes about food. Thanks to this interest, the interrupted traditions have been renewed, new festivals occur, and people eat more seasonal foods and learn from their grandfathers and grandmothers how to preserve and save the foodstuff. Pointless food waste, allergies and the long-term effects of improper diets have become great topics.