Traditional Slovakia – Poppy Queen from Jarna
2020, 19 June / Author: Xenia K.
Proofread by: Sherry R. / www.iproofing.net
Have you had enough of Covid-19 related articles? We have. We desperately needed a change. So we went off to Jarna to meet the Slovak Poppy Queen. Now, we are inviting you to her kingdom.
What do you imagine when one says „poppy“?
Gangs that distribute opium? Morphine that relieves pain? Or a field full of red flowers?
Be assured that most Slovaks picture poppy seed strudel, buns or potato gnocchi with poppy seeds.
The poppy has been a traditional ingredient in home cooking in Slovakia for centuries. This plant is at home here.
There is one very unique poppy field in Slovakia, where poppies are harvested by hand. These fields are lovingly managed by one lady, Gabika Čechovičová, who has been working with this beautiful, healthy and useful crop for more than 25 years. Let´s go then.
The village of Jarna is located near Cifer in the Trnava region, about an hour´s drive from Bratislava. It is one of those beautiful days of June, and we are turning off the main road into the fields. And then we spot it. We are looking at the flood of white, pink and purple poppy flowers in amazement. Delicate flowers are swaying in the gentle breeze, green heads of future crop peek out among them and honey bees are dancing around. We are on the spot.
Mrs. Gabika is waiting for us already. The passion with which she talks about poppies will get you. We listen carefully, she knows everything about this topic. Since we were totally enchanted by the flowers, our first question is about their colour.
„No, red coloured flowers represent wild poppy, from which poppy seed is not obtained“, says Gabika smiling.
„Food poppy has white, pink, cyclamen, pale purple and dark purple flowers. In addition to the classic blue poppy, we grow white poppy, which tastes nutty, brown poppy, which tastes like sunflowers, and grey poppy, which is sweeter than the classic blue one“, Gabika continues.
„No, you can´t recognize which sort it is by the flower colour. But blue poppy mostly has white flowers.“
„The poppy is sown in early spring, when snow starts to melt, so there is still enough moisture in the soil, as dry weather does not suit poppies. Dry and warm weather during spring always scares me, as weather is the major factor that affects the quality of poppies and the crop yield.“
The quality of the poppy is so variable across Slovak stores, very often it is bitter and stale, so we ask why that is.
„The poppy is an oil plant. When a poppy seed is damaged, poppy oil is released, causing the poppy to rot and become bitter. Damaging poppy seeds during harvesting by machines cannot be avoided. On top of that, other plants which are present in the field during the harvesting of poppies, become part of the yield, which also degrades the quality. That is why we, here in Jarna, harvest poppy heads by hand, one by one.“
This seems almost impossible, as Mrs. Gabika manages more than 40 hectares...
„We do not grow poppy over the whole area, only about a half of it. The fields need to rest and the plants have to rotate, so we grow poppies on the same area only about every 2-3 years. We alternate with nitrogen-binding plants, such as peas, barley or lucerne.“
Suddenly Gabika spots a pierced poppy head. „Poppy weevil (latin: Ceutorhynchus maculaalba) is a small beetle parasite which can seriously damage poppy plants. It pierces a hole into a poppy head and lays eggs in it, which irreversibly devalues the poppy. You can eliminate such a poppy head only when harvesting by hand. My pickers know that such poppies need to be broken off, thrown to the ground and that they must not land in the basket under any circumstances.“
The poppy is now, in June, in full bloom and the heads are still green. In the second half of the summer, Gabika starts testing the poppies for maturity. The poppies are ready to be harvested when the heads are dry and brown and after breaking the head off, the poppy seeds inside rattles nicely. After being removed from the poppy head, poppy seeds no longer change colour. Approximately 50 pickers harvest about 10-15 tons of poppy seed by hand in August and September, in Jarna every year.
After the harvest, empty poppies and parts of the stems remain, which can be used further in either the pharmaceutical industry or made into pellets, which have higher fuel value than wood due to the oil content.
It is well-known that opium is produced from poppies, so we start asking about it.
„I am so sorry that there is a lack of education in this regard, which causes bureaucracy where it is not needed at all, as well as unfounded consumers concerns“, explains Mrs. Gabika.
„There are morphine and non-morphine varieties of poppy. Food varieties are generally non-morphine or very low morphine respectively. It would be almost impossible to produce opium from those. Cultivation of morphine varieties is much more strictly regulated than the cultivation of food varieties and this process is usually fully supervised by drug manufacturers in liaison with Slovak Ministry of Healthcare.“
Our excursion in the fields is coming to an end, we move inside where we can taste amazing poppy seed strudel with sour cherries. Mrs. Gabika bakes every single evening so that the fresh strudel is on the counter in Bratislava Fresh Market next morning.
Poppy is also used to make poppy oil, the use of which helps to treat joint diseases. Gabika is also showing us poppy chocolate, poppy lollipops and poppy soap which has an excellent peeling effect.
We do not want to leave, but we do not want to linger any longer either.
Our visit to Poppy Kingdom is over. We understand that it is hard work every day, rather than some rural idyll. None of it would be possible without Mrs. Gabika, her sense for keeping traditions, her perseverance and passion for what she does. Her motivation sounds like „the right of every single person in Slovakia to enjoy high quality poppy“, what else shall we add?
We have to say good-bye. Wishing Mrs. Gabika favorable weather, honest pickers, loyal customers, curious prospects, and a lot of health and energy to continue.
For those of you who want to support this extraordinary traditional entrepreneurship, visit the shop Mak z Jarnej in Bratislava Fresh Market and buy something for yourself, your family and friends. If you have enough courage, ask your Slovak friends to cook potato gnocchi with poppy seeds for you and you may fall in love with poppy forever.