by Vladimír Tomčík
Due to a common past Slovak cuisine is closely linked to Hungarian, Czech and Austrian cuisine. Other factors have also affected it – Turkish ingredients and Turkish recipes, studies of the Štúr generation in the German town of Jena, Italian fireplace builders who lived here, Bosnian businessmen, Bulgarian greengrocers, the imperial court well-known for its Spanish etiquette and Spanish food. It is not possible to circumvent Jewish cuisine, Polish Goral or Ruthenian influences. Slovaks were leaving for France, Belgium and America to work, and when they returned, they cooked the newly learned dishes. Gastronomic traditions have been naturally mixed, Viennese and Austrian cuisine influenced by the Czech and Slovak cooks who cooked there. Who today remembers that in the 19th century Slovak cuisine with its quality belonged among the best European gastronomy?
Of course, this statement has nothing to do with poor people’s diet, but can be applied to the middle class and the would-be high gastronomy. Quality materials were readily available and there was no problem for a housekeeper to “plunge” twelve eggs into something. Instructions for the preparation of meals were given from generation to generation, knowledge and recipes shared. Meals were cooked according to Ján Babylon recipes. Later people used the writer’s Terézia Vansová cookbook. Chickens were not from factory farming, cows, sheep and pigs grazed freely, cream had a higher fat content, all the vegetables were organic, the wines from the region of Small Carpathians or Tokaj area were drunk at the royal courts, truffles and caviar were not rare. The purchasing center for truffles was in Nové Mesto nad Váhom, which continued until the end around the middle of last century, Bratislava the inland delta of the Danube River and sturgeons coming here from Black Sea to spawn. The largest of them, belugas, were commonly hunted and evidence that an 800 kg caught specimen exists, with up to a quarter of the weight of such a giant possibly being caviar. Between 1500 recipes from the 19th century Ján Babylon shows the amount of manuals to prepare beluga and it is striking that he recorded almost the same number of recipes for preparing truffle dishes as from potato.
It must be said that in the past, particularly in the Middle Ages, there was not a fundamental difference between individual European countries’ gastronomy. Of course there were differences between regions, based on climatic conditions and soil fertility. For example, the South, the so-called Mediterranean alimentary system had significantly vegetarian features with higher cheese consumption and a lower consumption of meat, unlike the Germanic and Nordic traditions, where the ideal man was a great eater of meat and indomitable drinker. The only notable difference – which can be called the north-south gastronomic border – was that the preparation of meals in the North was commonly based on the use of lard and butter, in the South olive oil. In the North people brewed and drank beer, in the South they cultivated vineyards and made wine. Slovakia is situated right on the edge of this culinary border. We used to drink beer as well as wine. Even today, we still drink a lot of wine, beer and strong alcohol.
Several authors point out one more periodical distinctness and it is called the cucumber meridian border, ergo in geographic terms, the east-west border. Cucumbers were grown and processed in the East, while in the west of the continent, the lactic acid fermentation in food storage was not used. Pickles (cucumbers, cabbage and so on) were a Slavic contribution to the global diet and it is also taken from people in the East, probably from the Scythians.
It should be emphasized, however, that we are still talking about the period before Europe’s discovery of America, that is the period before the European tables received potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, corn, beans and pumpkins. It had been long before some Europeans tried the heady taste of tobacco or got an incurable French disease after a moment of pleasure.
Our current Central European standard is expressed by our five meals a day – breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper and snacks between them. There is usually a hot drink (tea, cocoa, coffee), yogurt, cereals, breads and pastries with a garnish, fruit cake with butter, honey or jam at the beginning of the day. Hot cooked meals – soup, a main meal and dessert are served for lunch and dinner can also by warm, or there can be some form of cold buffet.
However, habits were once different. Five hundred years ago, people ate twice a day – the first meal of the day was consumed before noon and the second after dark. The first meal used to be cold, people ate bread, and only those who could afford it. They also ate cheeses, sausages, meat from the previous day, vegetables and seasonal fruit. Cold, boiled or roasted meat was complemented with mustard, popular grated horseradish with apples and pickles. Naturally there were differences in food consumption but these were mainly the results of differences between the social classes of past society. Meat consumption was significantly higher than we imagine today, except for Fridays and other church-prescribed fasts of course. We still used to say that he ate like a peasant during a feast.
A few could afford fresh meat. Meat was kept fresh by smoking, salting, drying and the thirst was much stronger than today. It is said that beer is our bread and back then it was really true, because beer consumption was perhaps up to ten times higher. There were several reasons, the water being of poor quality and causing disease; over salted meat caused a cumulative thirst and, for example, servants in the imperial court in addition to wine received two liters of beer per day. Moreover, beer was a Lenten drink and unlike wine could be consumed even at a time of strict fasting. Bratislava is said to be the town of wine, but also beer was drunk there in large amounts. The proof is the beer bell in the tower of the Franciscan church whose ringing ordered innkeepers to quit beer or wine pouring. In 1726 the brewing guild in Podhradie had 45 members, and when Bratislava Castle burned in 1811, 77 houses, the town hall and 5 breweries also burned.
We know nothing about the taste and the alcohol strength of beer or wine from that time. The city supervised the production of drinks, their quality was strictly controlled as well. The city councilor put on leather pants, poured beer on a wooden bench, sat down, and when it stuck, the beer was of good quality. Vines were cut on the head shape, white varieties were grown, and it is likely that wine was once stronger, more aromatic. Some records said that wine had supposedly such a level of alcohol that after igniting a fire it could burn. The production of varietal wines does not have a long tradition in our country. One of the reasons was that in transmitting the tithes the wine was decanted, mixtures originated, which meant that coupage arose a long time ago, before it became a world trend.
Eating habits began to change over time – particularly hard-working people needed strength before going to work. In our environment, both adults and children consumed bread with warm beer in the morning. Beer was often flavored so beer soup appeared. Various pulps, thick soups with vegetables, beans and broths were added to bread and beer, which we would call a snack soup today.
For dinner women prepared hot dishes, especially legume porridge, milled cereals, various soups; the upper class also ate roasted or stewed meats with sauces, poultry, fish, game, cheeses, savory and sweet puddings (flavored with honey or fruit marmalades), vegetables, fruit and bread, of course.
From time immemorial people have distinguished between two types of bread – dark and white. Wheat bread was light and rye bread or bread made from other cereals was dark. The dark one belonged to the peasants and the poor while white bread consumed by the nobility. Bread was sold in the markets. The dark one used to be stored in a dark mat on the ground, white bread and pastries were stacked on desks. The second half of the 15th century until the mid-16th century could be called a carnivorous period. The consumption of 100 kg of meat per person per year was a physiological peak, because, after deducting fasting days it was a pound of meat a day per person. Such consumption was in the North, the South ate about half of that.
Beef and veal were the most expensive. Hogkilling was a family affair, salted pork became a symbol of the countryside and beef the symbol of business development. Whoever could not even afford one of them, had to settle for mutton. Moreover, medieval recipe records indicate quantities of spices, which are harmful to your health and literally poisonous. Obviously this was not reality, but the attempt to present wealth and power and oriental spices were extremely expensive, of course.
When people talked over the differences in food consumption, it was pertinently said – it depends on the number of people. How can wet understand this? It is simple. A hectare of forest was enough for feeding one or two pigs, a hectare of meadow some sheep and a hectare of field (despite low returns until the 14th century, one grain produced three) certainly more. Cereals amounted to 90 percent of costs for meals at home at that time. At the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries in the context of new growing crops a big change occurred. While at the end of the 18th century around 195 million people were living in Europe, about 50 years later it was 288 million. One sown corn grain yielded 80 grains in our Danube region at that time. For comparison rye yields were 1:6 and wheat yields even lower.
The expansion of potato cultivation was promoted by Maria Theresa, but the suzerain constantly bumped into resistance. The reason was prosaic. People respected food closest to heaven the most – fruits and birds, what was grown underground wafted up the scent of hell. However, hunger reached such dramatic proportions that people were forced to accept potatoes. Hunger was a more convincing argument than the punishment of forty blows of the cane for peasants who refused to plant potatoes. There gradually occurred an increase in the consumption of potatoes, rice, pasta and corn, and now potatoes are considered to be Slovak ethno-identifying food.
We must mention one fundamental change – the change of lifestyle. Wit began to be preferred more than force, instead of the sword, a cord was used in fights, red meat was replaced by white meat, wine and beer superseded by coffee and tea.
Around the mid-19th century a change in quantity and quality occurred. The role of bread was reduced and white bread spread among the broad masses. This was due to the invention of metal cylinders and their use in Hungary. Even porcelain cylinders were later used (1870). Milled flour was indeed whiter, but on the other hand, it lost its nutritional value.
In our region it is ridiculous to beat one’s breast and boast about a “pure” national cuisine. After all, where else are there so many myths like in gastronomy? Wiener schnitzel is considered to be inextricably linked with Vienna, but Marshal Ján Radetzky from Radča, when he suppressed the rebellion in the north of Italy in 1848, in a letter to the Emperor wrote also about how he enjoyed the veal meat prepared in 3 layers of breadcrumbs. This food had come to Milan from Spain, where it was brought from North Africa by the Mauri, and they tasted it in Byzantium. Francis Joseph ordered a steak. However, the cook did not have parmesan so he replaced it with breadcrumbs. Likewise, goulash and paprika are a matter of the 19th century and our Central European cuisine is perhaps even more international than we expect. “Čárda” is a Turkish word; we took coffee, sugar, soda, cups, alcohol and salami from the Arabs, the Turks brought risotto, dishes for the “skewer”, “langoš”, strudel, “pagáč”, “tarhoňa”, noodles with cottage cheese, the secret manufacturing of sausages and goulash. After the invasion of Hungary in 1241 the Tartars left behind the dead, fear, a burnt landscape, but also a recipe for “Tokáň” or a new crop from the heathens – buckwheat.
Today, the world-famous Hungarian paprika was applied in the international context for the first time only in 1879, when the French chef August Escofifier cooked and the menu of the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo recorded Hungarian goulash and chicken paprikash. The peppers was used in folk or peasant cuisine were a result of the Napoleonic wars.
Naval blockades prevented the importation of exotic spices, so people started to look for alternative herbs to flavor their dishes. The pepper wasn‘t just spicy, sweet peppers were grown in Kalocsa until the 1920s.
Speaking of myths, in any lexicon we read that turkeys come from America. Matthias Corvinus, however, wrote to Ludovico Sforza and asked him to send him turkeys and people who would know something about caring for them. How is it possible? After all, the popular monarch died two years before Europ’s discovery of America. Turkeys reached the Milanese court (like many other food) through the Turks who had contact with the Arab world and the Orient. After all, how do you say “turkey” in English? Corn was Turkish grain, pumpkins also called Turk and we did not receive peppers or tomatoes from Spain, but via channels across the north African and the Ottoman conquerors.
Dumplings are generally referred to as typical Slovak food as the food is bound to mountainous regions but this and also sheep cheese refers to another myth. Apparently this is a Romanian product. Although sheep breeding was promoted in our country with Wallachian colonization and “brânză” in Romanian actually means cheese, what we called now “bryndza” (sheep cheese) originated in Slovakia. The original sheep cheese was hard cheese. Lamb and sheep guts were supplied from Slovakia to Vienna for making sausages and in addition dealers started to ride in sheepskin and later churned goat cheese. Dealers of this hard cheese were called “kaštikári” – from the German word “käsestechen”, the “cheese poke”, “hacking off” like parmesan. Finally Jan Vagač from Stará Turá invented the milling of sheep cheese, its mixing with a saline solution and in 1787 founded the first factory for sheep cheese called “bryndziareň” in Detva.
How else have we contributed to European gastronomy? We in Central Europe have oregano at home, without which today one cannot imagine Italian cuisine. Of course, we did not find that this herb was first used by peasants in Modrý Kameň, Győr or Raiding. Something clearly Slovak, however, is Čabianska sausage. Throughout the entire lowlands, in present-day Serbia, Romania and Hungary, it was made by Slovaks, who moved here three hundred years ago. In Békéscsaba they began the tradition of the famous sausage festival, attended by five hundred teams and the event had a hundred thousand visitors. If we want to be consistent, our ancestors learned about the production of sausages from the Turks. We cannot forget Ányos Jedlik, the inventor of soda bottles and not to mention Želiezovce. In a manor house, the inventor of the famous Sachertorte, Franz Sacher cooked. H is son Eduard was also born there, the founder of the famous Viennese hotel in which his father perfected the cake and made it famous. When mentioning candy, the Wendler and Schwapach bakery exported nut, poppy and chestnut rolls overseas twice a day in wooden boxes and on the café menu on Rue de Presbourg in Paris there were Bratislava rolls for many decades.
Who today remembers the famous Bratislava crackers? You can encounter them in the Austrian Alps and the truth is not the legendary Slovak restaurant in Bratislava’s Luxorka. Unlike neighboring Austria, our restaurants lack traditional home cooking, it’s difficult to encounter regional gastronomy and also the offer of seasonal dishes is poor. Surely, traditional cuisine is not a panacea and one can only hope that people will gradually learn not only to explore, but also demand quality gastronomy for adequately expended means. There is hope with beer and coffee. In cafes now you can get quality coffee and a true taste of different kinds of unfiltered beers created by a microbreweries.
Hopefully, there is hope. For even Bernard Shaw said that there is nothing more sincere than the love of food.