food

Terchová, Malý Rozsutec and Jan the Philospher

A shepherd's hut at the start of the hike.

A shepherd’s hut near Štefanová in Malá Fatra National Forest.

After some time in the Czech Republic, a 10-hour train journey took me back to familiar territory near Žilina, Slovakia. I had been to Žilina a few weeks before and had explored some of the expansive Malá Fatra Fatra National Park, but this time I wanted to take on some of the bigger mountains on the opposite side.

The village of Terchová is close to the mountains and has enough lodging to keep up with the peak hiking and skiing seasons, making it the ideal jumping-off point. A page on the town’s website lists all of the available accommodation. Since it all looked pretty comparable and affordable, we picked one called Laurenčík at random and booked it for the weekend. Luck must have been on our side, because when I arrived, I found a lovely apartment with comfortable rooms and a kitchen complete with any appliance or tool I could ever need. As if that wasn’t enough, the owner, Jan, was easily one of the nicest, most genuine, and most interesting people I have ever met. Despite only knowing a few handfuls of English words (although he speaks Slovak, Russian and German, so shame on my for my mostly monolingualism), the older gentleman, who as it turned out to be a published philosopher, was able to converse with us in a Slovak/English combination about nearly anything with surprisingly little confusion.

After an early night on Friday (I don’t know which wore me out more, seven hours of lessons with 13-year-olds or 10 hours of solo train and bus travel), we rose early to take on the mountains on Saturday morning. After gathering some supplies at the grocery store, Jan graciously gave us a driving tour of the highlights of Malá Fatra National Park and dropped us off at our trailhead in  Štefanová. We had found a basic route from here to Velký Rozsutec, the tallest mountain in the area, online. Our only real concern was the fog coming in,which can make the higher peaks unsafe in the spring, but we decided to head up with the hopes of an afternoon clearing.

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After an easy walk out of Štefanová on the yellow trail, we were pleasantly surprised to find the first leg of the hike to be even more entertaining than expected. Instead of an anticipated slow incline up the blue trail to the saddle between Velký (big) and Malý (small) Rozsutec, we found a path through a gorge filled with fun technical aids such as ladders, chains and bridges. Of course, the scenery was pretty sweet when climbing above rushing waterfalls and using chains to scramble up rocky ledges, and the obstacles were so much fun that we didn’t realize how much work it really was until our thighs were burning at the end.

Crossing the gorge by ladder.

Crossing the gorge by ladder.

Even this adventurous dog is a little hesitant about this.

Even this adventurous dog is a little hesitant about this.

But he got some assistance.

But he got some assistance.

Scaling waterfalls.

Scaling waterfalls.

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Soon To Come – Ledges, Ladders, Chains and Waterfalls

It’s been hard to find the time to sit down and write with the pressure to squeeze as much into my last few weeks in Eastern Europe as possible.  May has been a pretty amazing month from a hiking perspective with a big trek in Malá Fatra National Park and a return trip to Slovenský Raj, or Slovak Paradise, which had a completely different character than when I last visited it in November.  Both hikes were heavy on adrenaline with dramatic drop-offs, rickety ladders and rusty chains and proved to be some of the most interesting I’ve done to date. More pictures and details soon to come.

Close to the edge at Tomášovský výhľad in Slovak Paradise

Close to the edge at Tomášovský výhľad in Slovak Paradise.

Ideal climbing scenery in Slovenský Raj.

Ideal climbing scenery in Slovenský Raj.

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Lost Days in Krakow

St. Mary's Church dominates Krakow's main square.

St. Mary’s Church dominates Krakow’s main square.

I’ll admit it, I was bad in Krakow. I got so caught up trying to squeeze as much of this spectacular city into three days as possible that I was remiss with my camera and less than dutiful with my note-taking. We were having so much fun and doing so much that it seemed like we had just got there when we had to leave, which to be fair, was basically true.

Fierce lions keeping watch in the Old Town.

Fierce lions keeping watch in the Old Town.

We did manage to fit in several amazing meals in during that short time.  This included the best burger I’ve seen thus far in Eastern Europe, and rivaling the best ever, at lovekrove (it even had guacamole!), my first ever raw vegan experience at RO RAW, some apparently quintessential Polish pizza-bread things called zapiekanke and, of course, traditional pierogies and sausages at the Easter Market.

Sheep-shaped bread and sausage. About as Polish as it gets.

Sheep-shaped bread and sausage. About as Polish as it gets.

As always, we took full advantage of the fantastic free (read: tip what you can or feel is right) tours which you can find offered in so many European cities and were overwhelmed by Krakow’s amazingly rich history. (Most of its architecture was spared in WWII, which is rare.) Of all of the spots in the city, I gravitated most towards the Jewish District, Kazimierz. It hums with youthful energy, full of totally unique restaurants, pubs and shops in addition to important tourist sights such as synagogues and churches.

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The entrance to the last active synagogue in the old Jewish Quarter

Unfortunately, as upbeat and fun as this district now is, one can’t forget the somber and scarily recent history of persecution, mass deportation and genocide that began here during the Nazi occupation during World War II, which leads me to a much more serious part of our visit.

Down a side road in Kazimierz.

Down a side road in Kazimierz.

I can’t fully explain the experience of going to Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. What I can say is that any one who feasibly has the opportunity to see it for themselves should be sure to take it.  It isn’t until you step onto the grounds that you can completely (or at least speaking for myself) understand the horrifically efficient and scarily regimented way such unfathomable crimes of hate were carried out here. To see the expanse of the grounds sprawling all around you and to take stories from history books and place them in a real location is an experience that will stick with you for a lifetime. Hopefully it will serve as a grim reminder that vigilance against such inhumanity is necessary in the future.

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A restored Jewish Cemetery in Kazimierz

Despite the dark parts in its history, Krakow has emerged as a vibrant city of hope. The energy, architecture, food,history, both the bleak and the inspiring, and most importantly, the people, are all part of what makes Krakow a city which proved to be above and beyond the mass amounts of backpacker hype that it receives. Prior to visiting, I thought a week in any city of that size would be excessive. But now, seeing all it has to offer, I know I’ll have to return for at least that long to make up for this three-day blur of a trip.

Luckily – for those interested interested in knowing more about the specifics of Krakow – Chris happened to create a much more witty and detailed record than I. You can check it out in his post on his blog A Wayfarer’s Murmurings.

Entering Wawel (it sounds less silly, as it's properly pronounced Vavel) Castle.

Entering Wawel (it sounds less silly, as it’s properly pronounced Vavel) Castle.

How Rochester made the cut and New York City did not is beyond me, but go Upstate New York!

How Rochester made the cut and New York City did not is beyond me, but go Upstate New York!

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RO Raw: An Adventure in Raw Dining

Adorable Veggie friends brighten up the room

Adorable Veggie friends brighten up the room

The last time I ordered a salad in Slovakia, the roasted mushrooms and tomatoes I had expected arrived on a bed of cheese cubes rather than lettuce.

Even as a self-proclaimed dairy queen and carb-lover, spending a significant length of time on a Eastern European diet of heavy meat, potato and cheese dishes can really leave you craving something green. So, after hearing about RO Raw, a raw vegan restaurant in Krakow from a delightfully non-preachy enthusiast, I was intrigued. A  longing for fresh veggies combined with a curiosity of how anything but a glorified salad could be made with just raw, vegan-friendly food kept the place in the back of my mind until I finally made it to Poland over Easter break.

I must admit, I initially approached the idea with caution. I was really hungry and in the back of my mind wondered if I might need another meal later in the evening to sustain me. But as soon as we walked into the bright, whimsical restaurant in Wolnica Square and took our seats next to a stuffed carrot and broccoli stalk, I had a good feeling about the whole experiment. Once I saw the ingredient combinations on the very conveniently English-friendly menu, I knew we’d picked a winner.  After starting with shakes, one Green Insanity (apple, banana and spinach) and one Brazilian Delight (Brazilian nuts, pineapple nuts, cranberries, banana) we struggled to choose from a menu where everything sounded fresh and fantastic.

Our Green Insanity and Brazilian Delights Shakes match the decor.

Our Green Insanity and Brazilian Delights Shakes match the decor.

The first step was to eliminate the additional normal, but not raw, vegan section. If we were going to try it, we were going to go all of the way.  After that, it became more difficult, mostly because of the high number of unfamiliar items. Vegan sandwiches made on raw bread. How does that work? Raw soups? They can also be served at 41 °C, thank God. Pumpkin Tagliatelle or Carrot Spaghetti? The possibilities, which I thought would be so limited, were endless.

Luckily our waitress was one of the most patient, kind and genuine I have encountered in Eastern Europe, or quite possibly ever.  She answered our probably stupid questions about just about every item on the menu, the restaurant and the vegan scene in Krakow as a whole. Finally, she helped us decide on the Discover Raw which included samples of Raw Pumpkin Cream Soup, A Passion for Fresh Salad, Raw “Pierogis”, the Raw Sandwich, and Zucchini A La Lasagne to seal the deal. Continue reading

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Welcome to Catlanta

As my brief hiatus from Eastern Europe draws to a close, I decided to make good on a long-time promise to pay a visit to my brother and friend in Atlanta.

I headed south thinking I knew two things about myself. One – I am not a cat person. Two – I was probably not going to love such a big, sprawling, southern city.  Atlanta proved me wrong on both counts.

Jon’s roommate’s spunky cat, Zenon, warmed me up to the idea of making feline friends with her spastic antics and cuddly disposition.  Then Piper, a cat who lives along Atlanta’s pedestrian path, the BeltLine, who has her own mailbox and more followers on twitter than I do, confirmed to me that cats are actually pretty cool.

As for the city itself, between tasting handmade truffles at a “Cacao Laboratoire” in Inman Park, belting out karaoke at a trucker bar outside the city limits, watching the sunset over the skyline and accidently seeing a dolphin musical at the aquarium, I would say I got a pretty well-rounded sampling of what Atlanta has to offer. And truthfully, I think it has a lot. I could ramble on and on about how enjoyable the experience was, and about how I started to picture myself going for morning jogs on the BeltLine and finding a refurbished cotton dock loft of my own, but I think these pictures are pretty neat, so I’ll let them do the talking.

Zenon: a lovable cat with an expressive face

Zenon: a lovable cat with an expressive face

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Zenon peeks down from the beams of the old cotton dock turned into a loft

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No loft is complete without sweet tunes and sweet moves

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You don’t have to ask me twice

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Truffle sampling session

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Salaš Krajinka – An Education in Cheese and Hospitality

View of the hills surrounding Ružomberok

View of the hills surrounding Ružomberok

It’s not difficult to find a place to rustle up a plate of bryndzové halušky anywhere in Slovakia, or a really good plate of it for that matter.  But when an opportunity comes to sample some halušky from the restaurant featured in the sheep cheese section of the trusty Lonely Planet guidebook (yes, there is a sheep cheese section), you must not pass it up. At least, that’s my philosophy.

Salaš Krajinka, a rustic, traditional Slovak restaurant, is two kilometers outside of Ružomberok in the Liptov region. I assumed in a country with an extensive public transportation system, getting from the town to its famous restaurant would be no problem.  But when I called for instructions the man on the other end of the line informed me few buses run there from Ružomberok, making life difficult for the car-less, such as myself and my traveling cohort.  Chris and I resolved to bite the bullet and call a cab, as the restaurant visit was supposed to be the main event of our Saturday. But before I could hang up to make the call the mysterious man on the phone offered to pick us up in town, an offer too good to refuse.

Twenty minutes later we were in the backseat of a Volvo, zooming between the rolling Low Tatra Mountains with our new friend Joe, discussing all of the nitty gritty details of Slovak cheese business.  Joe, whose family has been producing cheese for generations, appeared to be in his mid-30’s and was dressed casually with a frayed red and yellow Yankees hat atop his head. He seemed to be the face and unofficial (or maybe official) public relations man for Salaš Krajinka, and a good one at that. He had travelled extensively and proved to be an excellent conversationalist with his easygoing manner and perfect, accent-less English.

As we moved along the winding main road leading to the restaurant, I explained that we were extremely interested in behind-the-scenes information about our newfound love of bryndza, and its link to Slovak culture.  We really lucked out as Joe proved to be a walking encyclopedia on all things sheep and cheese, and being a very big advocate of understanding what you’re eating and how it was made, he was eager to share all he knows.

The beloved Milka cow, apparently great misleader on realistic cow coloring

The beloved Milka cow, apparently a great misleader on realistic cow coloring

“Kids today think that cows are lavender and white because that’s what they see on the chocolate bar wrappers,” Joe said, referring to the popular Milka chocolate bars sold throughout Europe. “They have no idea where what they’re eating really comes from.”

The truth is if more of today’s generation did understand how their national food was produced, they would realize it is a process that pays respect to generations of Slovak sheep farmers and mountain culture, and therefore one to be preserved. Joe’s family and many other farmers throughout the country pride themselves on keeping up the tradition and quality of both sheep and cow cheese production, which has been a part of Slovakia’s culture since it became a staple in the 17th century.  “How we make it is the way it always has been made and the way it always will be made,” Joe said.

Before we knew it, we were pulling into the restaurant’s driveway.  As we ascended the hill that the Salaš sits upon, we passed one hut selling the homemade cheese and another selling tea and freshly baked pastries.  The space between the huts and the parking lot is spattered with quirky wood sculptures and a few strutting chickens. The restaurant itself is a sprawling one-story building, reminiscent of the traditional Slovak log houses seen throughout the countryside.  It was here that Joe apologetically left us for a work engagement, but promised to return in a little while to give us a tour of the in-house cheese production.

Since we had some time to kill, Chris and I thoroughly explored the property.  This included taking cheesy posed pictures with the sculptures, failed attempts to capture some of the resident rabbits, successful attempts to communicate with local goats, sampling some scrumptious blueberry-filled pastries, and finally heading to the restaurant for our main event.

Some of the farm life in action

Some of the farm life in action

The inside of the restaurant is as charming as the outside with wooden beams and a huge clay stove.  Of course the real selling point is the back wall, which is made entirely of windows looking out onto the fluffy sheep that produce the diner’s cheese.  The snappy service must be necessary to handle the constant flow of people coming through the double doors. Even at 3:30 p.m. in the “off-season” Chris and I ended up sharing our table with another couple, a practice which is much more readily accepted in Slovakia than I imagine it would be in America.  We ordered the legendary bryndzové halušky with extra smoked sheep cheese on top rather than the traditional fried bacon fat. (We figured if there was ever a good place to double up on cheese, this was it.)  Even though our dishes came surprisingly quickly, the plates of potato dumplings smothered in gooey sheep cheese were nothing short of perfection. Continue reading

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Homemade Halušky

Homemade Bryndzové Halušky – the best I’ve ever had.

As the weather grows cooler here in Eastern Europe, I expected my cravings for my  favorite comfort food, homemade macaroni and cheese, would be becoming unbearable and impossible to satisfy. But luckily, Slovakia has its own alternative to macaroni and cheese, with which I have a new love affair.

Halušky (ha-loosh-key) is Slovakia’s very own warm, rich, cheesy, carb-loaded dish, and it comes with a more historical, sophisticated sounding name too, if you ask me. It is made from a base of little potato dumplings, most easily compared to gnocchi, covered in creamy bryndza, or soft Slovakian sheep cheese. The dish is then topped with tiny pieces of bacon or smoked pork fat and voila, you have Bryndzové Halušky.

While the dish is available in all typical Slovak restaurants, and always done very well, this past weekend I had the amazing opportunity to observe traditional Saturday halušky preparations in a Slovak home.  Although I’m sure I will have much more difficulty and less astounding results when I try on my own, I will say the entire process appeared more simple than I suspected. This is definitely due to our chef’s practiced hands, but I think the recipe would be manageable for anyone with even minimal experience in the kitchen.

Below is a recipe I found to be closest to what I witnessed in the kitchen last Saturday.

Our host creates the dumplings using a special straining device.

Bryndzové Halušky

Ingredients

2-3 potatoes
1 egg
4-5 tbsp flour
3 tsp salt
3-4 slices of bacon
100 g sheep cheese

Preparation

– Peel the potatoes and shred them. Add egg, flour and 1 teaspoon of salt. Prepare a dough which is not hard in texture. Add flour or water to achieve the right consistency.

– Boil water and add 2 teaspoons of salt.

– Cut the dough into small pieces and throw in boiling water – make sure the water is boiling.

– When the dumplings or halusky are ready they will float at the surface of the boiling water.
Pick up the halusky from the boiling water.

– Cut bacon into small pieces and fry.

– When the bacon is fried, top the dumplings with the fried bacon and cover with sheep cheese.

* Variations – Our host prepared a larger serving, which required more potatoes and then added enough flower to allow the spoon to stand up on its own in the batter.  She also used a special strainer-like device (pictured above) to create the dumplings and added some milk with the cheese.

Needless to say, the resulting meal was filling and phenomenal. And even after eating what will forever be on the Top Ten Most Satisfying Meals of My Life list, there was still a little room for some Babovka (Slovak pound cake).

We still managed to eat a couple of slices of delicious babovka.

Unfortunately, even restaurant halušky will probably never quite measure up to this meal again. Not that that will keep me from ordering it frequently.  But thanks to a generous gift of a halušky dumpling strainer of my very own, this does not have to be my last homemade experience.  Upon my return to the United States, or at least the next place I have a sufficient ktichen, I will be able to practice my own halušky-making skills. It may be a little more difficult than preparing a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese, but even more satisfying too.

For more about our gastronomically fantastic weekend – check out Chris’ post Some Slovak Hospitality.

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