Pozdravy from Praha! We are in the land of heavy fare, and so accordingly, we have stuffed ourselves with rich and hearty food during our time here, at least at lunch. We were still full come dinner. But we’ve also been able to walk it all off, easily, in order to see a good amount of beautiful Prague.
Czech cuisine has long been influenced by its neighbors, mainly Austria and Germany. And vice versa. We saw a ton of overlap, such as schnitzel and encased meats. Food is so transient, especially now when in most major cities you can get food from around the world. That being said, one of the dishes I was very keen to try was guláš. Goulash is most famously from Hungary, but the Czech Republic has its own version too. Unlike the Hungarian variety, which is more of a complete stew, Czech guláš is all meat. And sauce. But mostly meat. Traditionally, it’s served with knedlíky, which are bread dumplings. It’s intensely hearty, and plenty to fuel us as we walked down cobblestone streets to see Charles Bridge, Prague castle and Petrín Hill among other sites. I made sure to try two kinds, beef (with dumplings) and pork knuckle (with horseradish). The beef I think was better, especially since a spoonful of horseradish you’ve mistaken for shredded cheese is a shock to the mouth.
Of course, one reason why the meals are so filling are the sides and soups that go with them. But oh, they can’t be missed. The homemade sausages from Lokál were good, though more like hot dogs than wursts. But the cabbage soup, zelňačka, was just fantastic. It was tangy and spicy and light. My spoon was never put down. I will definitely be finding cold winter days to make this soup back home. It’ll be interesting to replicate the original, since the cabbage is lacto-fermented, but I’ve been curious to try more types of fermentation/preserving since delving deep into making my own strained cultured yogurt and of course bread.
According to food lore (if that is a thing), chlebíčky, or open-faced sandwiches, were invented in Prague by a man named Jan Paukert. So, we sampled some at the restaurant aptly named Jan Paukert. They were decent, and just filling enough to compensate for our magnificent lunches of guláš and soup. There are a ton of options to choose from, but in the moment I went with salami, and salami and madeland. (I think madeland is a type of cheese from The Netherlands.) I’m not sure what the original sandwich was made from, but the spirit remained the same. The bread that is used is a special kind of bread called veka. It’s like a baguette, but it’s wider to accommodate the toppings, and definitely chewier and less crusty than a good piece of French baguette. Veka can also be used to make bread dumplings, too.
And here’s some more rich, sauced food in the form of chicken in cheese sauce with potato patties or bramboráky (and Keith’s veal schnitzel — we shared both plates). It was probably my least favorite meal so far, but that might have been the restaurant’s doing more so than the food. Because what shouldn’t taste good either breaded and fried or smothered in cheese sauce. And I thought the French loved their sauces. Luckily, we had plenty of great meals to leave us with a lovely impression of Czech food.
In case you hadn’t noticed, sweets and street food are an invariable part of any holiday. Enter the trdelník, which combines both into one delicious treat! This was actually the first thing we ate in Prague, and I was so intrigued. You can find trdelník all over in food stalls around the city, with the dough carefully formed around rolling pins (that are rolling), baking above a coal pit. When you order one, the rolling pin is picked up from the grate, a portion is sliced off, and it’s further rolled in sugar. Not only do they smell good, and taste good (obviously), but it’s fun to peel off bits of the cylinder as you walk around town. I can only imagine how cheery it is to have some trdelník in the winter with a mug of spiced wine. Perhaps one holiday season I’ll find that out!
Not all of the sweets are found on the streets. I wanted to try ovocné knedliíky, aka fruit dumplings, but unfortunately I wasn’t hungry when I was able to find them on a menu. We did however eat some delicious little traditional cakes – kubisticky veneček and rakvička se šlehačkou at the most beautiful Czech Cubist café, the Grand Café Orient, inside the House of the Black Madonna. You may ask: What is Cubism? It’s an art movement you’d associate with Picasso and Paris in the early 1900s, and when applied to architecture, it’s about combining geometric shapes in juxtaposition with classical design. It focuses on powerful simplicity, and actually has more relevance to art and design today than you might realize. The Czech Cubism movement was perhaps second in importance only to Paris, emphasizing sharp lines and glass/crystal (and luckily for them, Czech has a ton of crystal). So many grand cafés and hotels were full of beveled glass and crystalline decorations. Cubism went out if fashion in the 1920s and the Grand Café Orient actually closed. But now in an era when anything goes, it’s back, opened eighty years after the fact. And lucky for us, as we appreciated a coffee break back in time in Cubist style with some Cubist stylish treats to match. Well, one was Cubist. The other was circular.
No visit to Prague would be complete without at least mentioning the pivo. Czech citizens drink more beer per person than any other nationality, supposedly. And in Prague, it’s true what they say: Beer is cheaper than water. In both the supermarket and most restaurants. Czech beer, in my opinion, hardly stands up to its western Belgian and German cousins, especially to someone who doesn’t care too much for beer. [A keen observer would notice that this trip, which is to celebrate Keith’s 30th birthday, makes it’s rounds through countries known for their beer.] But, it is cheap. (1 kč = $0.20 apprx.) If and when the Czech Republic does adopt the euro, we’ll see what happens to prices of beer and food, and everything in general. Perhaps another country will overtake the Czech Republic as the beer drinking capital if the world (per capita 😀).
I definitely enjoyed our visit to Prague. We got to feel a little bohemian, a little Central European, and very satiated! Eating food that is such a big part of the cultural heritage of a country can’t help but make you feel a bit more connected to the place you’re visiting. So while we were only in Prague for a few days, I got to understand what it’s like to be Czech for a time. And it was good!