Tuesday, June 24, 2008
My friend Tanna and I were conversing via email some time ago when she thought to ask if I knew anything about bryndzové halušky, the national dish of Slovakia. Given that Slovakia and Poland share a common border through the Carpathian mountains and that my wife is Polish, it was a reasonable question, but upon enquiry, ultimately fruitless.
Somehow though, bryndzové halušky became stuck in my mind, somewhat like an itch that couldn't be scratched and so began a slow investigation. It was a dish that was conceived in the mountainous region of Slovakia and Poland. The Carpathian mountains stretch all the way to Romania and it was Romanian shepherds who introduced sheep herds to the region, starting from the 13th or 14th century. Their name for cheese, bryndza, has come to be associated with the famous sheep's milk or shepherd's cheeses throughout the mountains.
Potato dumplings are common to many central and eastern European countries, but it was the combination of cheese and dumplings, that made this dish both satisfying and fortifying in this cold climate, especially of Slovakia, which is dominated by mountains.
A search of the internet threw up a few recipes in English, but one complication was that I had no idea how it should taste. Another difficulty was that the bryndza (soft sheep's milk cheese), which has a central role, pretty much can't be obtained anywhere outside the region, as it's made from unpasteurised milk.
If only I could find some Slovakians, maybe they could tell me how to go about it.
An email to the Slovakian embassy, here in Canberra, went unanswered. There was a blogger who had some Slovakian heritage, but her mother and grandmother couldn't help. You Tube had some folk preparing the dish on camera, parts of which were useful, but as they spoke in Slovakian, the full picture wasn't available.
I was on my own.
The halušky or potato dumpling part was really the easiest to get a handle on, as working with this mixture is something that is common in our kitchen and getting the shape wasn't too difficult either as instead of a sieve with large (1cm) holes through which the batter is coaxed, we had a spatzle maker, which made essentially the same shape, just a little smaller.
Bryndza was the problem child. Over time, there were a few different thoughts. A specialist cheese shop suggested using the more available goat's cheese, but that felt like it would change the character of it as sheep's milk is a bit sweeter and let's face it, not goaty. There was a semi-hard cheese that I bought, but had a change of heart when remembering that there needs to be a gently sour tang, which it didn't have. Fetta cheese melted into a bechamel sauce was another line of thought that was discarded as not feeling right.
Then came the breakthrough. How about some sheep's milk yoghurt mixed with some mascarpone?!!! Initially a spoon of each was mixed together and there it was, finally, a soft creamy cheese that was both slightly sweet and sour. From go to whoa, this point had taken some six months and now the dish could finally go ahead.
(serves 6 to 8)
1kg white, starchy potatoes - not waxy
1 cup milk
plain (all purpose) flour
250g mascarpone cheese
500g sheep's milk yoghurt, drained in muslin for 2 hours
fried bacon pieces or melted dripping
sour cream - optional
In a large bowl, grate all the potatoes to a pulp, keeping all the water* that forms. Add the milk, salt to taste and enough flour to form a thick batter that holds its shape when dropped from a spoon. With a special halušky sieve or spatzle maker, pass the batter through into a large pot of boiling salted water. If you don't have these implements, pour the batter onto a board, tilt over the water and slice off noodles with a knife. They are cooked when they have all risen to the surface. Scoop them out into a bowl until the batter is all used up. Mix the mascarpone with the drained sheep's milk yoghurt and add to the bowl with the halušky and mix well, until all the noodles are covered. Ladle onto plates and garnish with bacon or melted dripping. Serve with sour cream if desired.
* some recipes call for this water to be removed, but you must carefully retain all the starch if you do this
NB: Sorry for the saffron hue to the photos, it was due to the light source. The dish is really a creamy white.