Welcome to my world!

I've developed a passion for cooking since childhood, but in the past six years, that passion has grown into a geeky obsession. I love cooking, baking, and most importantly, sharing the love of food with family and friends. I invite you along on my journey of food discovery and passion.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Holiday Road - The Hambrick's European Adventure Part 1 - Slovakia

Sadly, we tried McDonald's in 3
countries - it was easy to order

Guten tag dear readers! I write this sitting in Berlin, Germany, which is about as exciting as it gets! IceDaddy and I had the opportunity to travel back to Europe much sooner than we planned courtesy of my baby brother getting married here! Well, not here, but in Central Europe. His bride, though now living in the US, was originally from Slovakia. For those that don't know the history or location, the blog posting will probably give you WAY too much info, but if you're ever planning to travel there, I hope this provides you valuable tips as a fellow foreigner. Beyond the history info, I'm going to describe the non-traditional wedding feast we enjoyed since it was so unique and absolutely delicious!

Slovak Republic history - Slovakia for short, is a country of beautiful hills, mountains, and sparse population. The largest city, Bratislava, has about 1,000,000 people. The next biggest city, Kosice (pronounced Co-sheet-za), has about half of that. Slovakia became its own country in 1993 after separation from the Czech Republic (together forming Czechoslovakia prior to 1993). The separation, termed The Velvet Revolution, successfully saw the removal of the authoritarian government. Today, the countries exist separately and are part of the European Union.

We actually stayed about as far East in Slovakia as you can before coming to the Ukraine, nearby to a village Michalovce. Our hotel and the wedding were both about 15 minutes from the village, but in opposite directions. The hotel, Hotel Euro Penzion Salas, was a hidden gem. It is located on a lake popular for outdoor activities in the summer. As we were traveling in late September, they were in the off season and thus we were two of only a few guests. The room is huge - three separate areas for bathroom, bedroom, and a living room opening to our own private balcony. It was a rustic lodge feel, and other than the bed (not comfy by American standards though others in the wedding group said theirs were fine - could have been ours), and bathroom (a little dated), this place ooozed warmth and charm. They recently renovated all of the outside areas with new flagstone steps, garden, and outdoor searting (easily seating 100+ on their patio).

Now, we later found out that basically NO American tourists really ever visit this area. It's literally backing up to the Ukraine, so you have to travel pretty far (about 3 hours from Budapest, Hungary). That mean that the entire town was fascinated by our visit. Not only was my brother (the new husband) there, but myself, IceDaddy, and a friend of my brother who was working in Paris and flew in. None of us four spoke any Slovenska upon arrival, but trust me, the universal language of both food and love (ok shots of vodka if I'm being honest) enabled us to understand each other.

One of many vodka shots
After a long, fairly arduous drive from Wroclaw, Poland, we arrived at M's (the bride) family home. This drive involved highways to Krakow and country roads after. When I say country roads, I kid you not when there were places it was one lane because the road fell off the mountain and they just put up a barricade rather than fixing it.

After about 10 hours of driving plus two hours of having to find clothes because of American Airlines screw-up, we made it to M's family home. The drive was worth it - they immediately welcomed us with shots of vodka, both homemade and non. Now, neither Ice nor I are vodka experts, but I generally know a good from a bad (at least in terms of how "harsh" it goes down. If ever you think to try Nikolai vodka, you might want to reconsider - it's a bit harsh. Now, we also had some homemade liquor that literally tasted like a reposado tequila. I have no idea how they make it, but it wasn't bad. Ice was driving, so he had one and tried a local beer. For those used to our typical American bottles, these were more like "40's."

Everyone was so excited for our visit - I think M's mom and sister were glad to entertain. First we had a delicious chicken soup with homemade noodles (vermicelli-like). I am no big fan of chicken soup, but this one was great, and as a person that makes my own noodles, I really respected the work that went into the dish. From there, they brought out local bread (a cross between rye and white bread), pickles, along with homemade smoked kielbasy (their spelling) and smoked pork shoulder. When I tell you this was smoked for 3 days, the smoke ring basically went to the center of the meat. I would put the flavors up to Texas bbq (though different from that). With pride, we were told by M's dad that the pork was from their own pig that they butchered. When I say they butchered it, I don't mean she was sent off to the sausage factory. I mean they butcher the pig in their backyard. Wow!!

Our main course was a simple meal of a chicken stew (similar to tetrazzini) and rice. Tasty and filling, especially after only eating McDonald's in Poland because we could order there - Mc Royal with cheese does translate! Now, the other part of their culture is to celebrate with drinks. As Ice was driving, I shared several shots of vodka with M's dad (four in about 40 minutes). For those that know me, I'm not used to drinking like that, but blessedly, I think the food absorbed a good amount of the alcohol (thanks for the idea of the asparagus sandwich Collin!), so I managed ok. I think we all knew what we might be in for the next day however....

The wedding couple... Congrats!
 Wedding day!!! The day began early with the wedding at 9 am and a little breakfast snack. The same pork, kielbasy, and bread were present, plus ham sandwiches with hardboiled egg and pickle. They also had a savory biscuit (more like a cookie) made with pork fat. The ceremony was Greek Catholic (an offshoot of Catholicism more common in that area) where the priest said a full mass and then Brad and Marianna took their vows. Not knowing any of the language, we just took in the beauty of the hand painted frescoes on the ceiling and walls in this picturesque 100+ year old church. Following pictures, we traveled back to M's house for a celebratory shot and thus the party began at 10:30 a.m. Happily, the reception was to be at the same location as we were staying, so drinking could commence in earnest....

M and B (the wedding couple) wanted to have a meal of mostly traditional Slovak cuisine as this would be our first exposure to it. Additionally, instead of the usual all-night event, they wanted to have the event from around 1 pm until 8 or 9 pm to allow for a reasonable amount of rest. That or they were afraid we couldn't "hang" with the locals if you will.... I think what they ended up doing was just perfect - it was a really nice event, we had amazing food, and the attendees (mostly) did not get sloshingly drunk.

Now, the table was set a bit differently than perhaps we are used to. Each person had a plate and silverware (two sets), but in addition to that was a highball glass (to be used for soda or sparkling water), a wine glass filled with a sweet wine and lemon slice (called a "martini" in France)... and a shot glass. There were a planned six courses, plus the table contained fresh fruit, nuts and pastries. Now, I hadn't mentioned them, but the pastries were actually different types of layered tortes - each with different flavors and sliced into modest portions. I had assumed they were ordered from a bakery, but M informed us that neighbors baked them and sent them over as a wedding gift. Literally there was probably a full sheet cake of them, plus a wedding cake for later. The snacks were intended to tide us over during the time between courses. This was going to be a 7 hour meal.

Our first course was actually a surprise - prosciutto and mozzarella with fresh tomatoes. Nope, not traditional, but tasty. The tomatoes literally tasted garden fresh and, based on the observation of how many people have gardens and grow a fair amount of summer produce, I definitely believe these were locally grown. Ice was pleased since this reminded him of our trip to Rome last year and the flavors definitely mirrored that. It was a great (and light) start to the meal. Additionally, there were two "martini" toasts. The martini is basically a sweet white wine with the lemon slice. A summer cocktail if you will.

First course

Next up was chicken soup, similar to what we had the day before, but just not as tasty. I guess mom does make it best! This was one of the longest pauses between courses after that. There started to be a fair amount of vodka toasts as the couple made the rounds of the table. 30 people were at the main table, with 6 to the side in a room decorated like a bavarian country chalet. We sampled the pastries (lemon torte was the best) and visited with B's American friend. At this point of the day, the game plan for survival emerged. We were constantly requested to do a toast with Hrushka (a pear vodka), Nikolai vodka, or another spirit. Knowing that it would be both foolish and impossible to drink every time offered, we started rotating who would take a shot, taking 1/4 or 1/2 shots, and eating bread and snacks. Among the four Americans, we took upwards of 40 shots (again, not all full shots). I personally had 10 (some 1/4 or 1/2) by the end of the evening - absolutely a record by far.

Third course

Third course was perhaps the most unusual to me, though I'm told it's traditional there - a fried pork chop topped with a gravy made with chicken breast pieces, peas, and carrots (like a tetrazzini), fried potato wedges, rice and a garnish of a tomato slice and lettuce. It tasted good, but just was something I had to accept as different - I would not think to put the chicken "gravy" over the fried pork chop. Tasty either way.

Fourth course was a sweet course - potato pancakes (but more like a crepe) with a strawberry jam and chocolate. Delicious, but with so much ahead (and to come), we paced ourselves accordingly. The interim course (I say that because it wasn't designated as its own) was a smorgasboard of stewed beets and cabbage, kielbasy, pierogi, and condiments such as sour cream and mustard. I have to say, I expected the pierogi to be the best I've had, and they were tasty, but not the most amazing thing I ate. They were a dough with dill and a cheese filling.

The Duck

Potato Pancakes

The piece de resistance of the meal was a course of duck legs that I believe were first cooked confit and then roasted to crisp the skin. Paired with delectable potato pancakes dripping with butter, it was a decadent end to the meal. Ice voted the duck as the best, where B and I absolutely loved the pancakes.

The wedding cake was almost an afterthought - people actually forgot to eat it (there was no big fanfare for cutting the cake), but it was good - chocolate cake layered torte-style with chocolate mousse filling.  I would be lying if I said that the wedding cake eating was the end - rather, people began to dance to the traditional Slovak music (including all of us) and continue to toast the occasion with vodka (now including Finlandia). With the "divide and conquer" strategy, we all managed to finish the night and just relaxed after the guests had gone.

We are so grateful to the hospitality and warmth shown by the Slovak people - everyone was helpful and friendly and welcomed us openly. We wish that more people could experience a tradition such as this - for us fast-paced Americans, it represents a reminder to slow down and enjoy something different and to truly savor the experience both before and after. I know we did!

No comments:

Post a Comment