The Christmas Market in Bratislava
Last year, I was blessed to spend the holidays in Zuzana’s native Slovakia with my in-laws. It was three weeks of loving relatives, lavish meals, fine spirits, and quality shopping. A glorious European Christmas and New Year’s to remember.
Beyond all the celebration, one of the biggest highlights for me was a visit to Bratislava’s grand Christmas Market. We’ve touched upon these special markets in the past, and Slovakia’s capital did not disappoint.
The tradition is not new to me, as Chicago has held its annual Christkindlmarket for twenty years now. However, the gathering of makeshift shops in Daley Plaza would be considered modest compared to the large string of merchants and attractions spanning over both Hviezdoslavovo Square and the Main Square in Bratislava. I’m not kidding, it’s huge.
A visitor strolling the fair would be overwhelmed with offerings of holiday ornaments, decorations, hand-made gifts, live music, ice skating, and of course all the Central European delicacies known to such a market. Savory delights such as schnitzel, leberkäse, potato pancakes, kebabs, and sausages; sweet treats like strudel, crepes, and gingerbread; and topped with traditional mulled wine.
While the traditional treats are always wonderful, it’s the small cultural spins you find that make a foreign Christmas Market even more interesting. For Zuzana, it was the simple delight of fresh roasted chestnuts. For me, it was a local sandwich known as Cigánska Pečienka (“see-gahn-ska peh-chee-en-ka”).
Now the name itself has come under some scrutiny, as pečienka literally translates to “liver”. Google though translated the entire name as “Gypsy Roast”, which speaks deeply of this sandwich’s origin. It was originally crafted by the gypsy population of Central Europe, and has always been known as a street food. While I finally tried it at a Christmas Market, travelers to Central Europe can also find cigánska pečienka at outdoor flea and farmers markets.
Looking for more insight, we asked Zuzana’s mother about the name. She stated that the gypsies usually acquired cheap cuts of meat for these sandwiches, hence why locals would call the cuts “liver” in a slang sense. She did iterate that liver was never used in cigánska pečienka.
The makeup of the sandwich is a cutlet of pork, chicken, or beef that’s brined in a mixture of milk with seasonings, then cooked on a flat grill with lard. The final assembly consists of a lightly toasted bun with your cutlet, some sauteed onions, and condiments such as mustard and/or hot pepper sauce.
Beyond making sandwiches, the brine recipe itself is wonderful for pretty much anytime you want to prep chicken or pork. Ever since learning the recipe, I’ve often used the cigánska pečienka brine just to season and tenderize chicken breasts for broiling. Not exactly the same experience as the outdoor market, but still delicious.
Ready to try it? Here’s how it’s done.
Cigánska Pečienka (Gypsy Roast Sandwich)
For the brine:
- 2-4 chicken breasts sliced thin (or pork or beef cutlets slightly tenderized)
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 tsp of salt
- 1/4 tsp of pepper
- 1/4 tsp of paprika
- 1/4 tsp of cumin
- 2 cups of milk
For the final sandwich:
- Pork lard for frying
- 1 soft bun, sliced and lightly toasted
- Sauteed onions
- Hot Pepper Sauce (optional)
- Mustard (optional)
- In a sealable container or bag, combine the garlic, salt, pepper, paprika, cumin, and milk.
- Place your choice of meat into the container and coat the cutlets with the brine.
- Seal the container and leave it in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours. Overnight is better.
- Heat up a flat grill or frying pan (on the stove) to a medium-high heat.
- Remove the cutlets from the brine, allowing excess liquid to drain off them.
- Using a brush, paint each side of a cutlet with the pork lard, then place it on the flat grill (or frying pan).
- Cook each cutlet to perfection, occasionally painting them with more lard to baste.
- Assemble your final sandwich with the cutlet, bun, onions, and your choice of condiments (hot pepper sauce and/or mustard).
When preparing your meat for the brine, you'll need to make them thin enough to work in a sandwich. For chicken you can slice the breasts thinner, but for pork or beef it's suggested to pound them a bit thinner with a meat tenderizer. Leaving them thick will create a sandwich difficult to eat.
On our sandwich, we used Ajvar (“i-var”), a red relish made from eggplant, red peppers, and garlic. It comes both in mild and spicy forms. While not completely traditional, it did add a nice twist.
If you choose to use lard, make sure to buy real pork lard from a deli, and not the packaged low quality stuff you'll find in some grocers.
Already you can see variation options in the meat you choose and the condiments you desire. I found kaiser buns to be ideal for the sandwich, but you're free to use whatever buns or bread you prefer.
I know some get queasy on the thought of using lard, but it will best create the final flavor found in the local markets of Slovakia and the Czech Republic. As stated before through, make sure you find good quality pork lard and not the pre-packagaed stuff. If you would rather not use lard (or can't get any), then try butter, margarine, or even your favorite cooking oil.
Healthy It Up
While frying in lard is "traditional", you can go healthier by brushing the cutlets with your favorite cooking oil and broiling them in the oven. Even if you're not wanting sandwiches, the brine and broiling of the cutlets makes a nice dish for easy dinners.