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Light the Slovak fire

IT IS LATE summer, and the smell of smoke hangs in the air. As sure as you can catch the pungent whiff of burning leaves and waste from raked fields, so too might you taste the plumes of smoke rising from fires as families and friends opekajú.
Translated by my dictionary as to roast, brown, grill, broil, toast, frizzle, and bake, opekať, or the practice of cooking meat over an open fire, is as Slovak as barbequing is American. But the two have very different flavours, and the opekačka is a rustic affair.

IT IS LATE summer, and the smell of smoke hangs in the air. As sure as you can catch the pungent whiff of burning leaves and waste from raked fields, so too might you taste the plumes of smoke rising from fires as families and friends opekajú.

Translated by my dictionary as to roast, brown, grill, broil, toast, frizzle, and bake, opekať, or the practice of cooking meat over an open fire, is as Slovak as barbequing is American. But the two have very different flavours, and the opekačka is a rustic affair. Though it can take place just behind your dom (house), or next to your chata (cottage), the roasting often takes place in a woodsy area somewhere, at least a 10-minute walk down a trail or up a hill.

For a little bite of Slovakia, the experience can be repeated anywhere. Here are the simple steps.

First, find yourself an ohnisko, or fire-pit. At my last opekačka, we sat on a cliff face overlooking the Danube and the Morava Rivers where they meet at Devín Castle, the fields of Austria stretching away in patches of light and dark. Do not let your peaceful surroundings distract you for long, however; you must gather firewood (nazbierať drevo na oheň). You need twigs (vetvičky) or brushwood (raždie) to start the fire, some medium-sized branches (konáre), and then a big log (poleno) or two for when the fire gets up to its full roar.

Incidentally, when things do heat up and folks are roasting left and right, movement around the fire seems to get chaotic. At that moment you will likely want to ask someone to "please pass the mustard" ("prosím si horčicu") and they will likely not be listening. At this juncture, think log and say "čo si hluchý ako poleno? Podaj mi prosím ťa horčicu!" ("what are you deaf as a log? Give me the mustard please!").

But it is not mustard time yet. Nor is it time for me to teach you how to light a fire (zapáliť oheň). Each of us must light our own fire in this life, and I am not the one to tell you how to do it. However, you will likely need zápalky (matches).

Once the fire is in good shape, turn your attention to your ražeň - your roasting stick. Take your vreckový nožík (pocket knife) and find a stick, preferably a new one that is still a bit wet and supple. Also take care to find one of appropriate length. If you find yourself with a palica that is too short, you are at risk of losing the hair on your hands and fingers, and of being the butt of a number of jokes that can get quite out of hand.

There are a few Slovak techniques to roasting with a stick over an open flame that deserve mention. The first is to cut your špekačka, or roasting sausage, in a cross to form an x at either end. This will help the meat cook evenly. This practice has a corollary: Because your špekačka is cut open, it leaks its fatty oil (tuk) into the fire. To avoid this waste, Slovaks cut a piece of bread and occasionally drip the fat (odkvapkať tuk) onto it.

What normally gets roasted? In addition to the špekačka, Slovaks fire up špek or slanina (bacon), klobása (sausage), and even sójové špekačky (soy sausages) are widely available. In addition, you can opekať cibule (onions) and kukurica (corn), or throw zemiaky v šupke (potatoes in the skin) into the pahreba (embers).

Any new roaster quickly learns that cooking a piece of something tasty over a fire is harder than it looks. First of all, it takes a long time. Remember, trpezlivosť ruže prináša - patience brings roses, or a hot, juicy morsel in this case. Second, be careful your morsel does not slip off and fall into the flames. That would be a škoda (shame).

Perhaps most importantly, though, where there is fire, there is dym (smoke). No matter how often you move, the wind seems to change direction and the smoke follows you. It is said in Slovakia that if the smoke of a fire blows on you, it means that you did not wash yourself, a belief that is beguiling in its reverse logic.

Finally, your clothes stinking from the smoke, your hands swollen with heat and blackened from handling wood and ashes, and your legs bitten by komáre (mosquitoes), you finally sink your teeth into your dinner. Mňam (yum).

Once you have eaten your fill, the logs are left to burn themselves out and around-the-fire conversation begins.

When, as it often does, talk turns to serious matters, do not forget the fire. If you are sure of your stand in an argument and have nothing more to say on the matter, stop the debate with "strčil by som kvôli tomu ruku do ohňa" - "I would put my hand in the fire for it".

These conversations are destined to die down, as is the fire, which begins to dymiť (smoke). Though one or the other of you might throw on another branch and rozdúchať (fan or blow up) the flames a bit, these attempts are half hearted. In any case, by now you are tired and the mosquitoes are closing in.

As you leave, do not forget to put out the fire. The Slovaks have their own special technique, which I will leave to your imagination, or save as a surprise for those yet to come.

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