Breaking Bread With Slovaks And Czechs
My friend from America would like to know: What is your favorite food to make at home ?'
AN old roommate of mine was teaching English in Czechoslovakia, which is now officially divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Based in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, she taught children aged 9 to 11 in what used to be the Russian-language classroom. They are so eager to learn, she said of her students, "They're like little sponges."
I was traveling in Eastern Europe as a big sponge. I had visited Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia, a year earlier, but never ventured any farther east. This trip took me from Budapest to Krakow, Poland, and then through Czechoslovakia.
Czechoslovakia was a fish-shaped country with a long history of interfering neighbors, redrawn borders, and political unrest. For many American tourists, Prague was Czechoslovakia, and few were aware of the differences, including language, between the Czechs and the Slovaks.
With the breakup of Czechoslovakia pending, people expressed feelings of uneasiness. Some were in favor of it; others were not. People only seemed comfortable sharing their feelings and opinions while sharing a meal. An anchor to tradition, food became a permission-giver to conversation.
My traveling companion and I entered Slovakia in the most magnificent way: the High Tatras, a concentrated mountain range with some of the highest peaks in Europe outside of the Alps. After several days in the resort town of Stary Smokovec, we journeyed west by train across the country, blurring by farm towns, pockets of rust belts, industrial plains, and mining devastation. We spent a few nights in beautiful Karlovy Vary, the famous spa town, then back to Prague (Praha), which had become more commercial ized since the first time I had visited, but magnificent all the same.
On to Bratislava. As many guidebooks are quick to point out, Prague, with its grand architecture, is a lot different from Bratislava with its gray Soviet housing tenements. However, given a chance, Bratislava had a great deal to offer, we were assured, especially warm hospitality.
We met Iveta Suranova, a young woman with a round face and dark, button eyes, who had us over for dinner one night. "I want to make you Bryndza Halushky, a favorite Slovak dish," she said. As is customary, we removed our shoes upon entering the flat. We met her mother, father, brother, and dog. Then we witnessed her creation of the potato dumplings with sheep cheese and bacon which, it turned out, were so filling.
"Dobru Chut' " (DOH-BROO HOOT; good appetite) was announced, as always before a meal. In fact, starting without it would be considered rude. After dinner, we lingered over some sweets and discussed Iveta's plans to take university entrance exams as well as the Czech-Slovak situation. Iveta's father works for the local city government, and her family favored Slovakia's independence.
We stayed with Eva Paskova, a Czech woman in Bratislava. Strikingly tall with dark gray hair running down her back and pale blue eyes, Eva lives with her 18-year-old daughter, Barbara, who wants to be a model. Eva is district director for Strom Zivota (Tree of Life), a nonprofit organization that runs summer camps for children involving environmental clean-up and restoration as well as fun. She was a big fan of then-Czechoslovakian president Vaclav Havel and didn't want to see the breakup happen.
Having Americans in her household seemed to make her happy. The last time she spoke this much English, she said, was more than 20 years ago, when she and some girlfriends worked in a resort town in southern England.
On our last day in Bratislava, we joined Eva at the breakfast table. She had made us buchty.
I asked her for the recipe of these delightful buns with poppyseed filling, and she was all too happy to comply. Her dictation of the recipe was sprinkled with snippets of her life.
"The first time I made buchty was when I was first married. They were for my first husband, and I wanted to impress him, you know. But then I forget they are in the oven and they [burned]," she recalled. "My husband said `Oh, they're OK' and took one to eat. A year later I found that buchty [in the cabinet] under the sink." She cracked a smile.
What was it like when the borders reopened in 1989? "Euphoric feeling, everybody." She had participated in anti-government demonstrations in Bratislava's main square, which rivaled those of Prague's in numbers of people. As soon as she could, she went across the border to nearby Vienna.
Eva finished dictating the recipe, recalling: "My mother made them for us [as children]; some [filled] with poppycorn, some with curd, and some, jam. We always wanted a curd one, and it was like a game to find out."
I split a buchty in half to examine the filling. By the way, she mentioned, "These are Czech buchty. Slovak buchty are a little different."