I was invited to attend a wedding in Slovakia on July 18th, 2015.
Its 5’oclock in the morning, there are only ten left from the group. We grasp the railing tightly as we make down the stairs. Stepping outside into the warm Slovakian sunlight rising over the Tatra Mountains. Heads pressed together like teepees with half-closed eyes as we made our way home. There were familiar characteristics of weddings I have attended before; romance, dancing, food, drinks, kisses and drama. All these generics amplified to another level; this was a Slovakian wedding. For those fortunate enough to live through it, it is certainly a story worth telling.
I started the trip in Paris, staying at the Hotel Bruxelles on the Rue de Meslay in the Republique District. For a three-day stay it cost €290. The room was small and the bathroom even smaller, anyone short of a contortionist could have picked up the soap in the shower if you dropped it. This was no matter; I hadn’t come to Paris to sleep, I came to eat. After I checked in to the hotel I wandered one block over to the Café Republique and began my culinary pilgrimage to the place where modern cookery all started. I wanted to dive in to French cuisine as soon as possible, this was Paris and the core reason for doing anything was food.
I ordered Escargots Du Drapeau (€15). Plump and succulent French snails in a parsley butter. A personal favourite of mine and never a disappointment.
The Foie Gras Pate (€18) is a staple in any French cookery exploration. It was smooth and light, served with a black currant relish and home-made bread.
Cuisses de Grenoulle (€12). Frog Legs served with garlic and parsley. Frog legs are a tasty and memorable dish if you don’t mind picking through millions of tiny bones to get at the protein.
Tartare de Boeuf (€17). Coarsely ground Pigalle steak tartare with roast potatoes, balsamic salad, chives and an egg yolk to dress.
I went to Hemmingway’s old haunts in the Latin quarter and had lunch at La Contrescarpe at 57 Rue Lacepede around where he lived in A Moveable Feast in the 1920’s.
The food was great, but the atmosphere and history of the Latin Quarter made the meal an experience, imagining the great authors I so admire of the 1920’s huddled in the back for warmth, a bottle of red wine on the table with scribbled loose leaf paper strewn across it. Writing furiously with a pen between their thumb and index and a rolled cigarette between their pinky and ring.
The Club Sandwich (€16) was heavy and filling, a great dish to split between two people leaving you satisfied yet yearning to sample some of the other delectable dishes at this historic bistro.
The Cheese Risotto (14€). In food, more doesn’t necessarily mean better. Sometimes two or three components cooked to perfection are better than twenty cooked to mediocrity. This dish was perfectly al dente and oozing with parmesan and cream. One of my favourite dishes I tried in Paris.
I sat for hours nursing my wine, even ordering a Chocolate Fondant (€9) with strawberry sorbet and white-chocolate cream, probably not what Hemmingway would have paired with whisky, but I was drinking cabernet and it was wonderful.
Paris is an expensive city for tourists. The locals grab a bottle of wine and sit beside the Seine wasting away the twilight hours. This would be preferable if the duration of your stay were three months, but with only three days I chose the café scene where you can prepare to spend €18 on an Assiette de Fromages (plate of cheeses) and €8 on a 50cl beer. It depends where your priorities lie.
I was invited to stay with the bride’s parents and sister in their house in Poprad, Slovakia. I left Paris, a full stomach and emptier wallet, and caught the flight to Vienna, Austria. Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia is only a 45-minute taxi from the airport driving through blooming summer fields of green grass, flowers and windmills. The train was a four hour ride northeast to Poprad. I bought my ticket and with an hour to kill before departure, went to the Penzion Antic Cafe next to the station for my first experience of traditional Slovakian food. Everything in Slovakian is Slovakian, especially the language. If you wish to simply pack a bag and walk around speaking English you will probably have a very frustrating and confusing time. Luckily for me, the bride’s sister was my guide and aided me throughout the trip, although even she got a bit frustrated with the ticket agents from time to time.
I tried Vazecka Delicacy (6€), a home-made potato and garlic pancake stuffed with sautéed beef, onions and peas with red and white cabbage. It was hearty and delicious and exactly what a traveller needs, no wonder the restaurant had so much success conveniently located beside the bustling train station.
I bought a first-class ticket (26€) and made my way northeast to where the wedding was held. The tracks laid through Slovakia are among the most pristine and beautiful train lines in the world with rolling green hills met by farm patches, sparkling streams and lakes at every turn. My face was glued to the window for hours watching the award-winning nature documentary behind my own bug-splattered glass.
I arrived in Poprad and took a cab from the train station to the bride’s parents apartment. It was on the fifth floor of a tall, orange checkered building with bright yellow patios that overlooked the Tatra Mountains in the distance. You could see the mountains from the street, but the view from the patio was even more spectacular.
I was greeted at the door with the traditional custom of bread, salt and a small glass of schnapps. It gave an immediate feeling of hospitality that did not subside throughout my entire stay. I put my luggage in the living room and was sat at the table for my first home-cooked Slovakian meal.
I was offered an aperitif of schnapps and a bowl of potato, carrot and vegetable broth soup. It was rejuvenating after the beautiful, yet tedious travel, and delicious all the same.
The next course was Bryndza Halusky, a Slovakian dish made with potato dumplings, sheep milk cheese, shallots and bacon. A long Slovakian favourite of mine and a dish I request whenever I’m able.
Tatiana, the bride’s mother, was told of my infatuation with duck before my arrival, and presented a Charred Duck Maryland with potato dumplings and steamed red cabbage as the main.
The bride was coming from Sydney and was a few days behind us finishing up some final wedding details, allotting us the time to sample from some of the best cafés in Poprad.
There were many traditional Slovakian restaurants around Poprad, among my favorite was Stodola located on the second floor of the Maxx shopping centre. The Goose Liver (€6) sautéed with onions in a potato pancake was earthy with the strong taste of un-purged blood, but the flavours surrounding the metallic tasting livers seemed to cut a bit of the edge off the traditional dish giving it a bold, rich taste. The pricing in Poprad is more fare than other parts of Slovakia and even most of Europe. Any standard dish was around €5 and a 50cl beer was €1 or less.
The bride and groom made their way into town bringing with them an anticipation and electricity in the air, the kind only a small-town Slovakian wedding comprising over 100 guests from six countries could create. I was in charge of food for the reception at the house for the immediate family and special guests. I prepared a simple Cheese Frittata with mushrooms, bell peppers and zucchini while saturating the dish and plate with various cheeses I had picked up in the Polish markets, pears and hard-boiled eggs.
The guests began filing in at 12:45pm and crowded around the living room. The groom, Peter, came about an hour after the guests and asked the bride’s father for his daughters hand in marriage. He luckily said yes, I had travelled a very long way.
There was a bus waiting to shuttle all of the guests to Strba, a town 20 minutes west of Poprad where the groom’s family house was. As we arrived we were immediately pinned with floral arrangements on our lapels and handed a shot of vodka.
The Horec, a traditional slovakian performance group, were singing on our arrival all dressed in authentic garb. The group has long since broken up, all moved on with families and other priorities. The groom, Peter, used to be a member of the Strba Horec as a boy, and for reunion sake they only get back together to perform when someone from their own group gets married. A once in a lifetime performance to witness.
We mingled for a bit, talking with a few guests and taking pictures. Then the Horec began to walk, the crowd began to shift and we exited out the back gate of the grooms house all singing Slovakian songs, the bride leading the procession arm in arm with the best man, the groom with the maid of honor and sister, Maria.
The town lined the roads watching as the enormous snaking crowd made its way through the streets. People pulled over and clapped or watched from windows as the spectacle passed by. The crowd arrived at the church steps, halted by the Horec singers who held up blue and white banners blocking the doors. They demanded a bribe to allow the couple to enter the church to be married. The groom offered them food, they gave it back. The bride gave them a bottle of vodka; they hid it but still wouldn’t allow them to enter the church. Finally, after receiving an envelope full of money, they parted the curtain and let all the guests enter the church.
They were married. It was beautiful, but all in Slovakian so I can’t tell you exactly what was said, except there were two “yes’s” and a kiss, a good sign to look for if you ever find yourself at a foreign wedding in life.
The reception was held at Cafe Reduta on Namestie svateho Egidia in the heart of Poprad’s main street. It’s a wonderful thing to go to a wedding and not be able to speak to anyone. There is no pressure to make small talk and everyone around you seems infinitely more exotic and interesting. You fill in the blank spots of a conversation with your imagination. Some people at my table spoke English, and they were in fact as interesting as I had imagined; a scientist from Stuttgart, a Skoda executive from Prague and a Slovakian military fighter. Their partners said we are not allowed in the same room ever again.
The starting dish was a Bryndza and Ham Cannelloni with tomato, balled honeydew, balsamic glaze and garlic baguette. After the already long day it was near impossible to sit in front of this dish without attacking it before the maid of honour gave her speech. Like a dog trying to learn a new trick, we all sat patiently waiting for the cue to dig in.
The main course was served shortly after the starter, a duo of Crumbed Chicken and Bacon-Wrapped Filet Mignon. The dish was served with rice, a potato and garlic rosti and chicken stock.
After dinner we were traditionally supposed to cut the cake, but everyone got up and started drinking and dancing. We never ended up cutting the cake, the bride said we all looked like we were having too much fun.
Allow me to set a scene of the wedding if I may. You are happily dancing away when someone you don’t know, never met, never did anything to throws a shot of Vodka in your face. You look at it, bewildered by the clear substance and think, “what is it?”. Then your brain quickly snaps into focus and realises its vodka. You have two choices, take it or say no. You take it, in Slovakia there is only one choice. This happened approximately every five minutes.
At midnight we were all seated while the Bride, groom and the Horec put on a traditional wedding show for us. The groom, being part of the group in his teen years, even busted out the Fujara, a traditional Slovakian shepherds pipe, to show all the guests he still had it.
The Horec then hid the bride and the groom had to find her. All the woman of the Horec were playfully pretending to be the bride, but the groom said he didn’t recognise them and continued to look for his own. Only after a little bit of help from the boys did he spot her behind the curtain.
The ceremony concluded crowning the bride with a traditional Slovakian headdress signifying that she was now a married woman. We all cheered, and in high spirits commenced to dance around the room until the sun came up.
The day after the wedding we all returned to the groom’s house for a post-wedding reception for friends and family. The grounds were beautiful with rows of planted potatoes, cabbage and carrots adjacent to the rabbit enclosures near the shed. There were blackberry and rasberry bushes everywhere you could just pluck and savour.
We all shared Pork and Beef Goulash cooked under a wood fire with potato and onion from the garden.
If you were so inclined to revisit the hair of the dog there were bottles of vodka chilling in the brisk well water at the far ends of the grounds.
After this we said goodbye to one another and slowly migrated back to where we came. Everything about Slovakia was beautiful; the landscape, the culture, the food and especially the kind and generous people I had met. I had some preconceived ideas of what Slovakia would be like, but nothing I imagined held a candle to the experience this country gave me.
A special congratulations to Peter and Lucia Kicin on their matrimony. Thank you for the invitation, it may have caused some internal damage, but a small price to pay for such a lovely experience.