October 11, 2010
VINOBRANIE IN SLOVAKIA
By: Allan Stevo
As summer comes to an end, the grapes begin to sweeten on the vine. The sweeter the berry, the stronger the wine. And just like many Americans long for football and all its fanfare, as the air gets chilly many Slovaks around Bratislava get exited for Vinobranie – the celebration of the grape harvest.
Pezinok, Rača, and Modra are the biggest near Bratislava, but many towns and families around Slovakia have forms of grape harvest celebrations, some large enough to include several towns and cities, others that are intimate with just a few family members and neighbors enjoying that year’s harvest.
Vinobranie is a compound word – vino (wine) and brať (take) – used to refer to the celebration of the grape harvest and to the grape harvest itself. The weeks of September are punctuated by this weekend event as busses leaving the center of Bratislava become so packed that drivers must turn passengers away. Rača, Modra, and Pezinok host visitors and vendors for one weekend each.
The star of vinobranie is burčiak, a usually sweet and flavorful drink that consists of grape juice that’s been allowed to ferment. It’s no longer grape juice, and it’s not quite wine. Somewhere in between, this drink is consumed and sold by people anywhere you turn during vinobranie. All around are carnival rides and games, Slovak and Czech musicians perform, and from morning late into the night fun is had by the smallest children to the oldest couples enjoying a burčiak as they walk through the vinobranie balancing themselves with a cane. Many other festive treats are sold alongside burčiak.
During vinobranie, the roads are lined with booths where venders sell crafts, medovina, beeswax candles, wooden goods, confections, and many more fascinating items that can be browsed for hours. But the hardest to miss stands are the ones that draw you in long before you can see them – onions grilling, marinated meat alongside them. After being drawn in by the smell of that pair cooking, you can’t help but glance over even at the most poorly assembled booth, just to see how the food looks. Next to burčiak, the food being cooked on the grill is the guest star of vinobranie – cigánska pečienka.
Cigánska pečienka, which often gets translated as “gypsy liver,” is a marinated, ultra-tender pork cutlet or chicken breast filet with no breading, cooked in fat, eaten on a soft, giant roll dipped in the juice from the meat, topped high with sautéed onions, cabbage, mustard, and hot peppers. It’s warm on a cool day, it’s meaty and satisfying after hours spent getting to and walking about the festival. It’s a satisfying reward to be enjoyed a few times a year. And for a foreigner, simply hearing of this mystically named item – “gypsy liver” – is enough to want to try it at least once.
Another favorite is lokše – a flat cake made of potato dough rolled with sweetened poppy seed or nuts; others prefer a savory goose liver pâtè on their lokše; still others opt for bacon bits and lard. Most vendors sell the abovementioned lokše favorites. The options, however, are unlimited and just like any free market – if the authorities allow each vendor to decide what product he or she will offer to the customers who come his way, there will always be a multitude of unexpected options that appear on the market. With 100 stands that each look approximately the same, a vendor needs to get creative to distinguish his food from a lower priced competitor. The creativity and competition makes vinobranie a fun place to just roam around observing.
This year my Modra vinobranie was spent with my friends at a family wine cellar. Just off the main street and it bustling crowds balancing their sweet drinks as they walk, we were sitting among friends and family drinking the proprietor’s burčiak, eating the meat off the owner’s grill, singing Slovak folk songs. Hundreds of smaller celebrations among friends happened that evening in Modra, where the best burčiak was not sold, but given away. Where the best fun came not from an internationally known band out on the square hired for the night, but from a few people among friends and family playing the fiddles and accordions that they where forced to learn as children.
Vinobranie and burčiak
But let’s turn back to our star. The prima donna, the fickle burčiak.
At vinobranie, if you’ve appreciated a particular vendor’s burčiak enough, you are likely to ask him to fill a plastic bottle or two that you can take home to family and friends. This is the point when the burčiak becomes especially unruly.
That the burčiak is still fermenting says much about its personality. As the process of fermentation changes sugars to alcohol, carbon dioxide is given off. This means that you are forced to treat a bottle of burčiak with the utmost respect. Do not leave burčiak in a hot car, sealed tight. Because that will be enough to make a bottle of burčiak explode. While it is pleasant to drink, it is not pleasant to clean off of upholstery. For that matter, you should also not leave it sealed in your refrigerator. While it is unlikely to explode there, you will pull out the taut, high pressure bottle and must either decide to open it or place the time bomb somewhere that no human being will ever find it. I’ve seen many friends who ought to have known better accidentally screw the top of a bottle of burčiak down all the way before placing it in the refrigerator door. If you’re lucky, only a little burčiak will dribble out onto your kitchen floor. If you’re unlucky, like the hot car, a mist of burčiak will go everywhere. Additionally, never shake burčiak; never agitate it. Following these handling guidelines and this vinobranie prima donna will stay put in her bottle until you pour her into a serving glass.
Some burčiaks are sweet, some of them are sour, some of them taste like a bunch of grape seeds have been crushed in your mouth – really terribly astringent. All of these seem to have their adherents who appreciate them. The flavors of some individual local grape varietals, used for both white and red wines, can be really pronounced in burčiak, making for a flavorful drink.
Traditions by which we define our cultures
A few weeks back, my friends called their 16-year-old daughter on Skype and put me on the line with her. She is away from Slovakia, studying in the U.S. When I asked her what food she missed most from home right now, what taste she’d most like her mom to send her in the mail, she didn’t say cookies or some kind of desert. She didn’t mention the unique and popular Kofola or Vinea as her number one choice. What she really missed was burčiak. It was mid-September, the weather was growing chilly in her Midwest town, just as it was in her hometown back in Slovakia. In one place, her family and friends were tasting the delicacies of the season, in another place, few people would even think of sampling a half-fermented, unfiltered, evidently high fiber grape juice.
Many of us have our own pleasures that we associate with the turning of the seasons. To some Americans it’s a game of football, in addition to countless other traditions. To some Slovaks, it’s the taste of burčiak, or a trip to vinobranie, a taste of fresh squeezed grape juice the day of the harvest, something delicious from grandma’s kitchen, or a hike up into the hills to pick wild mushrooms.
The change of seasons from summer to autumn is meaningful to us, so much so that we fill this harvest time with rituals. Halloween and apple bobbing, barn dances and homecoming.
As turkey was once a luxury to celebrate a successful harvest, a successful year behind you on Thanksgiving in America, goose is a tradition in the wine growing areas around Bratislava at the same time of year. The harvest is in. You know whether the year ahead will be a meager one or a prosperous one.
Whether a Slovak or an American, it is a time to celebrate the bounties of the earth.
Allan Stevo is a writer working on his next book. You are welcome to read more of his work by visiting www.AllanStevo.com