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SLOVAK MATTERS

The trouble with mak

YOU MAY not realise this, but Marmite is actually the modern equivalent of ambrosia, nectar of the gods - a taste sensation that makes it worth getting up every morning. For those of you who don't recognise that description, let me put it another way: Marmite is that disgusting British version of vegemite (brown sludge for spreading on toast), which smells foul and often makes people sick.
Marmite spread thinly on buttered toast is, for me, the perfect start to the day. I use just a hint of it, but despite that I get through so much of it that almost all my visitors from abroad are forced to smuggle jars across the border.
So why, in a column about the Slovak language, am I writing an advert for a British product? It's a love/hate thing. Every country has foods that some people cannot get enough of and others hate with a passion - in Slovakia it is poppy seed (mak).

YOU MAY not realise this, but Marmite is actually the modern equivalent of ambrosia, nectar of the gods - a taste sensation that makes it worth getting up every morning. For those of you who don't recognise that description, let me put it another way: Marmite is that disgusting British version of vegemite (brown sludge for spreading on toast), which smells foul and often makes people sick.

Marmite spread thinly on buttered toast is, for me, the perfect start to the day. I use just a hint of it, but despite that I get through so much of it that almost all my visitors from abroad are forced to smuggle jars across the border.

So why, in a column about the Slovak language, am I writing an advert for a British product? It's a love/hate thing. Every country has foods that some people cannot get enough of and others hate with a passion - in Slovakia it is poppy seed (mak).

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with a little poppy seed. It's just that Slovaks don't seem to believe in a little poppy seed. On the one hand, it is used in Slovak phraseology to mean 'not even a tiny amount' - 'ani máčny mak' (not even the poppiest poppy seed), and on the other hand in 'mala detí ako maku' (she has as many children as poppy seeds) it means far too many - which fits with my opinion of its use in cooking.

Take maková štrúdľa (poppy seed strudel), for example. It's just like apple strudel (jablková štrúdľa), but without the apples and with mak ako maku.

Then there is makové pupáky/pupáky s makom (literally 'poppy seed blackheads'), which despite its name is actually a very tasty sweet dumpling dish, made with butter and icing sugar, except for the fact that it is covered in, yes, mak (but is just fine when you've scraped the mak off).

The list of Slovak poppy seed products goes on and on - makovník (cake), makové rezance (noodles), makové buchty (buns), bratislavské rožky (Bratislava rolls), moravský koláč (Moravian cake), lekvárovo-makové tašky (jam and poppy seed parcels), lekvárovo-makové pirôžky (jam and poppy seed patties), to name far too many.

And lest we forget - this is a product which is banned (zakázaný) in most civilised countries and used to be used to 'help' children sleep here in the form of makový odvar (poppy seed tea). I can only hope that the European Union sees fit to ban it Europe-wide.

In the meantime, here are a few pointers for when someone offers you mak or something equally revolting - like držková polievka (tripe soup) or konská salama (horsemeat salami), a Czech speciality.

First of all you can decline completely, but make sure you add a reason to avoid being impolite: Ďakujem, ale už som jedol (thanks, but I've already eaten) or ďakujem, ale už mám plný žalúdok (thanks, but I've already got a full stomach) is a good start, but don't expect it to actually work.

Slovaks are very good hosts, and cannot understand that people might not want to partake of their hospitality. You could try feigning illness, with mám žalúdočné problémy or je mi zle od žalúdka, which both say you have stomach problems. However, you may well find that you then have home remedies forced on you instead, which are likely to a) be much worse than the wonderful food offered, and b) involve lots of alcohol.

Which reminds me, it's worth arming yourself with a few phrases to avoid having too much alcohol forced upon you. The most effective has to be prepáčte, ale šoférujem or som tu autom (I'm sorry but I'm driving), but can only really work for one person in a group, which means the others will have to try bohužial, beriem lieky (unfortunately I'm on tablets) or perhaps even nepijem zo zásady (I don't drink on principle) but that is likely to be taken as a challenge by your hosts.

Back to the mak. If you want to be really polite it's better to have just a taste (iba ochutnám), a little (trochu), or you can raise a smile to your hosts lips with one of the many diminutive versions of the latter one: trošku, trošičku, trolinku, trolilinku.

Pozor! Warning! Slovaks have a very flexible idea of what constitutes trochu. Even a trolilinku of homemade alcohol is enough to knock you sideways and certainly enough to take you past the zero blood-alcohol limit for driving.

Slovaks are (quite rightly) proud of their culinary expertise and just as the fastest way to a man's heart is through his stomach (láska prechádza žalúdkom), the fastest way to a Slovak matriarch's heart is by praising her homemade (domáce) food.

Before you eat it you can praise the way it looks, tie koláče vyzerajú úžasne (these cakes look wonderful), and afterwards make sure that you praise the cook (ste naozaj výborný(á) kuchár(ka)!). Be warned though, you are inviting many more helpings.

Slovak Matters is a regular column devoted to helping expats and foreigners understand the beautiful but difficult Slovak language.

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