Halušky for Hamšik

For England’s final group game at Euro 2016, England faced off against Slovakia having essentially assured themselves of qualification with a dramatic late win against Wales. English food also struggled to defeat the Welsh, with the simple toast and cheese combo of the Welsh Rarebit every bit a match for its English counterpart. That left just Slovak cuisine as perhaps England’s last chance to prove culinary superiority over their European counterparts.

bI said after the Wales game that Slovakia are a bit of an unknown quantity and that is at least as true of their food as it is of their football. England had only played the Slovak national football team three times in their entire existence before this week, winning each time. Perhaps the scarcity of previous encounters has a little to do with the fact that Slovakia has only existed as a separate, independent nation for a couple of decades. That same relatively short history as a distinct entity has meant that Slovakia has also not had much time to establish a distinct and recognisable cultural identity internationally.

In terms of their food, it seems that Slovak cuisine has taken on the inspiration of the countries that have shared its history, either has conquerors or neighbours. The Slovak people were ruled by the Kingdom of Hungary (and, later, Austro-Hungarian Empire) from the early Middle Ages until the end of the First World War, when the post-war peace settlement founded a new country of Czechoslovakia, covering the present day Czech and Slovak Republics. After Czechoslovakia’s turbulent twentieth century of Nazi occupation and communist rule, the country’s Velvet Revolution to re-introduce democracy was followed swiftly by the Velvet Divorce that split the country into its two constituent parts  in 1993.

Chicken paprikashThe main similarities with and influences on Slovak food, therefore, come first from Hungary and then from the Czech Republic. Fortunately, then, although Slovakia is the only country in England’s group that I have never visited, I have been to those two, so know a little better now what to expect from Slovakia’s culinary offerings: soups and stews, cabbage and sauerkraut, spicy or bloody sausages, dumplings and potatoes, that sort of thing. Hungarian-style goulash and Polish-style kapusniak, for example, both have their popular Slovak equivalents. In fact, the paprikácsirke (chicken paprikash) that we ate for Hallowe’en a couple of years ago (as it’s what Jonathan Harker eats in Dracula) would make a perfectly good Slovak meal as well.

According to the Lonely Planet Guide to Central Europe, Slovak food is ‘basic Central European fare: various fried meat schnitzels with fries and hearty stews with potatoes.’ It does, however, cite one dish in particular as Slovakia’s ‘national dish’: bryndzové halušky. This, then, would be what we had for our Slovak Euros contender.

aAnd just what is bryndzové halušky? Lonely Planet calls it ‘gnocchilike dumplings topped with soft sheep’s cheese and bits of bacon fat’ and it seems like it really is just about that simple. It’s basically two Slovak favourites – halušky (the dumplings) and bryndza (a creamy, crumbly sheep’s cheese that is one of the few products originally recorded as eaten by the Slovak people that was then exported across the former Austro-Hungarian Empire) – thrown together and topped with bacon.

Halušky (known as galuska in many other countries) are a staple starch of much of Central and Eastern European cooking, but not something that we are terribly familiar with in this country. Essentially, they are made of a dough that mixes grated potato and flour that is then cut into small dumplings, which are dropped into boiling water and cooked until they float to the surface. The process is pretty simple, but, not being experienced with making them, I’m not completely sure my dough was the perfect consistency or my halušky the optimum size. They seemed a little heavy and stodgy, but maybe they’re supposed to be like that, I don’t know.

The cheese also proved a bit of an unknown, with Slovak bryndza not terribly easy to come by. According to cheese.com, ‘Generally, the cheese is quite salty and crumbly if standard salt is used but some producers add saline solution to make it salty, which then changes the texture to soft and spreadable. It is white to gray in colour, tangy to taste and slightly moist. The flavour graph starts from being slightly mild to going strong and then fading with a salty finish,’ which is quite a variety of elements to find a substitute for. According to EU Protected Designation of Origin status, Slovak bryndza must also be made of at least 50% sheep’s milk. The website Cook’s Thesaurus suggests that a crumbly, white sheep’s milk cheese like feta would be an acceptable alternative (albeit saltier), but this didn’t seem to account for the possibility of bryndza being smooth and spreadable, a useful consistency to coat the dumplings. Wikipedia, meanwhile, identifies a number of ‘comparable cheeses’ including feta and ricotta, the latter being much softer and smoother. I, therefore, decided to use a mix of 50% crumbly sheep’s milk feta and 50% smooth cow’s milk ricotta as the best option for fulfilling the cheese element of the dish.

UntitledThe cooked halušky are then tossed in this cheese and topped with bacon lardons. Apart from the slightly time-consuming preparation of the dumplings, this was as easy a dish to make as the one for Wales last week. Traditionally it is drunk with žynčica, a fermented sheep’s milk drink made from the by-products of producing the bryndza cheese, but if the cheese was hard to come by, there is no way that we were going to find that in the shops. Fortunately, Slovakia shares its Czech neighbour’s pilsner brewing tradition, so this proved a suitable accompaniment.

Overall, I liked the bryndzové halušky relatively well, despite the slightly stodgy dumplings. It’s essentially just potato, cheese and bacon after all. But I do think that England could probably do something better with those three ingredients, probably with turning the potato into chips rather than dumplings. In this case, then, I’d have to say that (unlike their lacklustre result in the football) England beats Slovakia. When looking at the group as a whole, I think that the teams that qualified on the basis of their football – Wales and England – probably just about deserve it on the strength of their food as well. In both cases, though, the competition is only likely to get harder from here.

Plum Professor Plum in the Dining Room: Potatoes, bacon and cheese. What’s not to love? It would have been interesting to have this with the  right sheep’s cheese, since it’s so hard to really match cheeses. The dumplings were a bit heavy (a bit like when I decide to make gnocci from scratch, from time to time) and the cold cheese didn’t really help with that. I think with sharper cheese, lighter dumplings, and exactly the same crispiness of bacon, and we’d be on to a winner here. I’m certainly up for having another go at it (or going to Slovakia to try the real thing).

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