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SLOVAK MATTERS

Have a tasty fistful

FISTFUL soup is a classic dish that, unfortunately, is not often served on Slovak menus. This is most likely due to its humble folk history. Its disarmingly descriptive name, hŕstková polievka, tells you exactly what will be in your bowl - a fistful of whatever is at hand.
The name may also suggest to some that those making the soup are too poor or simple to have anything else to throw in the pot. However, the result is something not unlike minestrone, although less dogmatic in its ingredients. As anything will do, the soup's flavour is a momentary snapshot of the season and your kitchen.

FISTFUL soup is a classic dish that, unfortunately, is not often served on Slovak menus. This is most likely due to its humble folk history. Its disarmingly descriptive name, hŕstková polievka, tells you exactly what will be in your bowl - a fistful of whatever is at hand.

The name may also suggest to some that those making the soup are too poor or simple to have anything else to throw in the pot. However, the result is something not unlike minestrone, although less dogmatic in its ingredients. As anything will do, the soup's flavour is a momentary snapshot of the season and your kitchen. Allow me to prepare you a serving of just such a stew of tasty Slovak words and moments.

Let us start with something you can sink your teeth into. Most such ingredients come out of the dirt, and I had the pleasure of spending a few days on a farm (gazdovstvo) a few weeks ago for what was, for an urbanite like me, no small encounter with dirt. Seated just under the crest of a low ridge, the farm looked out over the turning leaves in the valley below and the rolling clouds overhead.

I did not spend too much time gawking. Instead I sat and dug up carrots for two days to protect them from the nightly waves of frost (mráz) that were deepening like an incoming tide. I was rubbing the dirt from the carrots and tearing off their greens, called haulm in English and vňať in Slovak. Incidentally, though vňať is not commonly eaten, it is useful for flavouring homemade soup stock.

On this farm, however, we were feeding the vňať to the goats, a species that, despite their crooked legs (pokrivené nohy), can move surprisingly quickly when they see some tasty morsel. Imagine my shock when one broke from a farmer's grip and bolted for my pile of carrots, the fruit of my hard labour, and snatched one. I was frozen in shock; though not so much by the goat's cheeky (drzý) trick as by the farmer who yelled at the top of his lungs "chicken coop hayloft pigeon coop!"

Chicken coop hayloft pigeon coop? Dedicated readers of Slovak Matters may remember from past columns that kurník šopa holubník or, alternatively, just the first or first two words, is a polite way of voicing discontent that is uniquely tied to the barnyard. Even more intriguing is the similar exclamation "bastri guli motyka", of which the first two words have lost their meanings, or never had any in the first place, while the last means "hoe". How can it be that Slovaks use words that are not in the dictionary and have no known meaning?

I would have wondered longer, but there was work to do; namely we had to beat away the goat and then makať (hurry or plug away) to finish the carrots before it got too dark and cold. I do not want to be a softie (mäkký), but my nose was running, occasionally my legs would fall asleep (tŕpnuť) from sitting on the ground, and the gusty wind was not altogether warm.

Perhaps my hosts noted my discomfort as the next day they asked me to stay in the house and cook lunch, something I am sure they later regretted, as I added far too much pepper to the soup.

But let us continue, lest I grumble (hundrať) too much and ruin our soup. Feeling is an important ingredient in all cooking - a grumpy (mrzutý) cook makes grumpy food. For your own hŕstková polievka then, I suggest you head out and fall into somebody's eye (padnúť do oka), that is, catch the eye of some lovely person. Once you have fallen in, pull yourself together and head home together - cooking is always better for two - get the picture (si v obraze)?

Finally, there is the word common (bežný), which is, well, so common that it is as natural an ingredient in spoken Slovak as pepper is in soup. I'm not sure how I went so long without it and I now recall those days as dull and tasteless. It is useful as an adjective - for example, a common thing is a bežná vec and small talk is bežný rozhovor. But it is as an adverb that it really shines with a meaning that native English speakers will find similar to "all the time", as in "Slováci bežne používajú toto slovo" - "Slovaks use this word all the time".

Indeed, some Slovaks use a healthy amount of this word in their everyday speech, but I recommend just a pinch to add a little flavour to this fistful of words that, I hope, will also make a tasty mouthful.

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