“I brought something else to cook too,” the small woman said when she came in, “a specialty to this region, opantance.” I peered into the bag she held open and saw millet.
I was at a friend’s house to learn how to make pulled strudel (recipe here) from her mother, who also brought ingredients for a lesser known regional dish, opantance, millet and flour gnocchi baked together and topped with caramelized onions or other toppings.
We got to cooking and baking and she got to talking.
“I remember the first time I made bread, I was 10 or 11. I wanted bread but everybody else was out in the fields so I made it myself. There used to be so many mills here.” She named places where there used to be at least 5 or 6 mills close by. “They used to say, that this one or that one was better. That one used to use water to hose down the mill so there wasn’t so much dust everywhere, but then the flour was more wet and it didn’t bake as well. Everybody had their own plots of fields and brought their own wheat or rye to be milled.”
Teta (aunt) is the kind of woman who knows everybody in a small town. “Your husband is from Križovany nad Dudváhom? Mr. Whatshisname, you know, whose house you were looking at, his wife was from Križovany. She was a teacher, I think. Križovany has a beautiful kroj (traditional dress), lots of gold embroidery on the sleeves. Here in Smolenice we just had white embroidery, Horné Orešany (neighbouring town) had more wine and were richer, they had red and colour in their embroidery, and then places that had lots of wine and were better off, they had gold.”
“These girls, when they wear only two skirts, that’s not a kroj. We wore at least four skirts and underskirts. And for women who were more straight, if they didn’t have hips for the skirts to be tied around, they wrapped cloth around a chunk of cleaned corn cob and tied it on first under the skirts so that they had hips. And those new dresses with ribbons down the middle, hmph, those aren’t kroj either.”
Teta was referring to the trend of younger women who don’t want to wear so many underskirts because it makes them look wide. I’ve worn one, and it definitely broadens the hips. It’s an outfit to emphasize a robust woman capable of working hard and bearing lots of children, not the slender figure we desire now. The new dresses are modern cuts of dresses with folk embroidery and wide sashes hanging down.
I mentioned how I could never tie the skirts tight enough on my daughters when dressing them for folklore concerts. You have to cinch in the apron and back skirt hard, holding the first tie with a finger before closing it with the bow. When they take off the skirts, red lines wrap their bellies, but if I try to loosen it they protest, saying it isn’t tight enough.
Teta nods. “My mother, when she was older and had stomach problems, she couldn’t tie the skirts so tight, so she made something like suspenders to hold up the skirts under her vest.”
She recalled the days when she was young. “It was a tough life. My mother had to get up early, milk the cows, come in and made breakfast and then go out to feed the animals, then deal with the milk…it was a hard life.”
I asked her if she remembered anything from the war. “No, I was only four when the front came through, so I don’t remember much. I only remember that we packed up a bunch of hay and food and duvets and went into the hills. You know where the shrine to Mary is in the forest, behind it is a gully and a lot of us made tents and hid in the gully for a few days, until the front passed through.”
I originally met the family when the granddaughter came to me for English conversation. Only 15 at the time, she had excellent English for never having lived in an English speaking environment. Last summer, she worked in America. Now she is going to university and was home between tests (exams here seem to drag on for a long time, with no classes).
Three generations cooking together
The grandmother directed the cooking in the kitchen. She’s the only one who makes pulled strudel anymore, it’s tricky work. While making opantance, she drained the gnocchi in the pot but had trouble holding the lid on as well, hot steam rising from the sink. “Can’t we just use the sieve?” asked her daughter. “No,” replied her mother, “and I’ll show you why in a minute.” Did I only imagine an eye roll?
Teta points out the huge ceramic bowls and plates her daughter has. A long time ago, she says, they just put the food in the large bowl and everybody ate out of it with their own spoon. With a large family, if I didn’t have a dishwasher, and in fact had to pack in and heat the wash water, I think the communal bowl sounds like a great solution over washing dirty dishes that seem to multiply every time I turn around.
Besides many grain mills, there used to be a number of pottery makers and kilns in the area too, but before her time, Teta says. Her daughter shows me one of her treasures, a water jug made by a relative in 1892.
Opantance is a dish reminiscent of bygone days. It mixes millet with flour-based gnocchi (šúľok) that is then traditionally topped with caramelized onions. In fact, this was a Lenten dish specific to wine-making area, a filling vegetarian dish. While I might think of this as a side dish, it is meant to be the main dish.
While we ate it for lunch with caramelized onions, any number of topping would taste good. Teta likes to eat it plain with homemade canned fruit. I put together a topping of bacon, onions, oyster mushrooms, and blue cheese, because I was feeling decadent. I also sauted leftovers with sauerkraut, which was maybe my favourite. Slowly sauted peppers, onions, zuchinni and garlic would also go well. Honestly, any topping you can think of would taste good; the millet and gnocchi are an open slate, like rice or pasta.
Millet is a seed you might be more familiar with as bird feed, small round yellowish balls. There are a number of different kinds of millet which grow well in dry conditions and have a short growing season. Proso millet is the kind available here. Apparently, teff and sorghum are technically types of millet as well. Millet has a slightly sweet, slightly nutty flavour, giving a subtle complexity to the gnocchi, as well as adding fiber, B vitamins, and other nutrients.
Grains like millet and buckwheat used to be staples in Slovakia but, after its introduction into Europe, the potato took over as the popular crop of choice due to its high yields and lack of processing after harvest. Potatoes are very popular in Slovakia, seen in widely used recipes like bryndzové halušky (sheep cheese dumplings), strapačky (dumplings with sauerkraut and bacon), and lokše (potato flatbread). Today, many Slovaks haven’t even tasted millet much less know how to cook with it. I think many don’t know what millet is.
Teta told me that there are two ways of making opantance. The way she showed me was to make the millet and gnocchi separately, and then combine them and bake for a bit in the oven. The other way to make them, perhaps the original way, was to cut the gnocchi, mix it with the millet and cook them together in water. The tricky part of cooking it this way is needing a precise amount of water and heat – it can easily become a pot of mush. But it would use less dishes too, which is always a good thing.
A note about the flour: we made the šúľok with a semi-course grind of flour, called polohruba flour. One video I saw called for course flour, hruba flour, which would be something like semolina flour. Like pasta, which I’ve made with all-purpose flour, they are pretty forgiving and you can make them with whatever flour you have available, although the exact amount might change based on what kind of flour you are using. Some make softer šúľok, others a harder dough (although the softer is faster to roll). Some make the šúľok a little longer than Teta. It’s a dough that doesn’t need to be precise.
Also, I was told to put the optantance in the oven to bake, but I’m not sure what difference it makes. I’m lazy, so I count it as an optional step. And who wants to make more dirty dishes?
Opantance: Slovak millet and gnocchi with caramelized onions
This regional Slovak dish uses millet, once widely used in Slovakia but now less known. Mixed with gnocchi, it makes a satisfying dish suitable for any number of toppings, including but not limited to caramelized onions.
- 5 onions
- 3-4 tablespoons lard or other fat, divided
- 1 cup millet
- salt (see amounts in instructions)
- 3 1/4 cups water, divided
- 2 cups flour see above
Cook the millet. Add lard or other fat to a small pot and pour in raw millet, stirring for four minutes until it is lightly toasted. Add half a teaspoon salt and 1 3/4 cup water. Stir, bring to a boil and then set over low heat and put the lid on. Let the millet cook for 15 minutes, then take off the heat and let it sit while preparing the rest of the ingredients. Alternatively, if you are into soaking grains, soak the millet overnight covered in water, drain, and cook it with only one cup of water.
Bring 1 1/2 cups water to a boil in a small pot with one teaspoon of salt. Take the pot off the heat and slowly pour in the flour, stirring all the while. Pour in flour until you have a stiff dough, and there is extra flour in the pot. Exactly how much flour will depend on the type that you have.
Dump the flour mixture onto a flat surface and knead it until the dough is smooth. You may need to let it cool as it will be quite hot. Break it into three or four pieces and roll it with your hands. Make a 'snake' about about 1.5 cm (1 inch) thick and cut it into approximately 1 cm (3/8 to 1/2 inch) pieces.
Pre-heat the oven to 180C(350F). In a medium sized pot, bring 2 litres/quarts of water to boil with 1 tablespoon of salt. Dump in the gnocchi and cook until they float, about 7 minutes. Drain the gnocchi, mix in the millet, and pour into a 9x13 pan to bake for 10-15 minutes (optional).
If you want the onions nice and sweet and soft, start cooking them at the beginning. Otherwise, cook the onions while the opantance is baking. In either case, slice onions and add to 2-3 tablespoons of lard over low heat (to caramelize) or medium temperature. You can also add any other flavours you would like, such as bacon, peppers, mushrooms, zucchini, and garlic. Saute desired ingredients and spread over opantance. Serve hot.
This video, while in Slovak, shows them making opantance at the 1:44 mark.