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Tlačenka, taste and test of Slovakness

As a foreigner, I always loved Slovak cuisine. Halušky, strapačky, veterníky, poplamúchy, sviečková, placky or granadír, when I eat with Slovaks I feel happiness. And they notice it! Slovaks are often surprised to see that an Italian is a fan of Slovak meals. They are usually disappointed I cannot keep up with their drinking speed, but I see the joy in their eyes when I clean the plate and I ask for more, and some of my friendships began at the dinner table.

There is, however, a food that I never fully understood in this country: tlačenka. Made of pork scraps, trimmings and fat left over from butchering, tlačenka doesn’t look appealing and I didn’t like it the first time I tried it. This could be the end of the story for me, but for my Slovak friends, it was not. They are so passionate about it, that they could not accept it. They insisted it’s delicious and they wanted me to taste it again, “you didn’t try the good one!”. I began comprehending the importance of this topic, and I accepted my destiny, a destiny of tlačenka.

So, my girlfriend and her family invited me for a trip to a traditional Slovak krčma, and in the meanwhile I did my research about tlačenka and its mysterious popularity: my colleagues were producing it at home with their grandparents, my roommates were smuggling it in their backpacks, my neighbors were using photos of tlačenka as their profile pictures on Whatsapp, and there were private groups on Facebook solely dedicated to this delicacy.

I understood that tlačenka is more about national pride than about food: a culinary symbol, a meal milestone that represents Slovak heritage better than a badge.

The day of tlačenka arrived, and during the road trip, Jaro, my girlfriend’s brother, kept on telling me how delicious tlačenka is in this krčma, “you must try it without vinegar first!”. We arrived there, and the place looked quite peculiar: heads of big dead pigs and boars were hanging on the wooden walls, each head labelled with name and age of the animal.

I was still gazing in awe at the pigs’ heads when the waiter arrived. I knew I didn’t have any choice but to order tlačenka. While we were waiting for the food, I noticed that the other customers around us were talking about bravčové mäso (pork) in all shapes and forms: I heard people mentioning klobása (sausage), slanina (bacon), and domáce zabíjačky (pig slaughter), in each and every table I was able to eavesdrop. Even at my own table, Jaro and Mirka are explaining how tmavá tlačenka is made, and it doesn’t sound like a bedtime story.

At this point, I learn my lesson: this is not an invitation for dinner, but a secret test to decide if I am ready to become a bit more Slovak, if I am willing to embrace the dark side of the rich Slovak culture. I taste again the tlačenka, “It’s good!”, I lie.

Everybody looks relieved and satisfied. “How funny”, I think “that, among a variety of tasty dishes, so many Slovaks, including my girlfriend’s family, apparently elected this specific one as the key to Slovak gastronomy”. And I also think, “Pork is really the king of Slovak cuisine: it’s in a lot of dishes, and so many towns, villages and businesses revolve around it.

In fact, in this very moment, I am eating pork, looking at boars heads, reading pig names on the pig wall of fame, and listening to people discussing pork recipes and traditions. It can’t get any more Slovak than this!”.

But I was wrong. Right when I was contemplating that thought, the drinks arrived. My girlfriend and her brother had ordered hriatô. I didn’t know what it was, but it only took one glance to find out that, floating in this plum brandy with honey, there were pieces of bacon, fried with a bit of lard. I tried not to look shocked, but I had to ask a few times: “What is that? What do you mean fried slanina? Why is it in the glass? And we drink it?”.

“You should have expected it”, I said to myself, “after eating pork, seeing pork on the walls and listening to pork talks, drinking pork was only the next logical step!”.

So I said na zdravie, I drank the hriatô, and once again I realized Slovakia is a magical place that will always surprise me. And in a good way: unexpectedly, I liked the hriatô. Much better than the tlačenka, that’s for sure.

Author: Luca Trifiletti

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