The cuisines of The Czech Republic and Slovakia are warming, hearty and traditional, focused on rich soups and sauces along with tender meat (often hunted game) and fluffy breads and dumplings. Much of the cuisine is based on ingredients that can be grown domestically, such as potatoes, cereals, cabbage, legumes, dairy, pork, beef and poultry. In some places that are close to large water sources, freshwater fish is also popular, and indeed carp often takes centre-stage on the Czech Christmas table. This focus on domesticity can perhaps best be seen in the custom of zabijačka, which translates to pork feast, and involves the slaughtering of a home-bred pig in the owner’s backyard. Despite being a somewhat gory setting, friends, family and neighbours gather together for the event, all taking part in processing every single part of the pig into various foodstuffs, including the blood and intestines. At the end of the day, everyone who helped out gets some of the spoils and goes home happy and fed. Although a first response to this sort of custom might be a little nauseated at the thought of the gore, I think that it’s a wonderful way of bringing community together and focusing on making the most out of the death of an animal (who probably led a very happy life). This region is known for their folk traditions and love of beer, wine and music. One custom I found particularly charming is that on May 1st husbands/boyfriends should give their wives/girlfriends a smooch under a cherry blossom tree, followed by a trip to the pub and the consumption of much beer. The vistas of this landlocked region are also famously beautiful, including breathtaking mountains, lakes, forests and ancient castles. Notorious people from these parts include Sigmund Freud from The Czech Republic and Andy Warhol’s parents from Slovakia. An interesting combination of celebrities indeed! I may need some time to reflect on whether and how their combined achievements are reflected in the cuisine…
Soups are a huge part of Czech cuisine, and there are so many that are integral to its national identity that it was difficult for me to choose just one. Indeed, a popular saying in the Czech Republic is “Polévka je grunt!”, which literally means “soup is the base”, and there is a regular soup festival in Prague called Polívkování. Kulajda is a traditional Czech soup, made with potatoes, wild mushrooms, cream/sour cream, and dill. It is traditionally served with a poached quail’s egg, however, I couldn’t source one so I used a boring chicken egg instead. The recipe originated in southern Bohemia, and the name is thought to have derived from a famous chef who lived there in the 1800s and, delightfully, was a woman. Her name was Adelajda Kuhová, which would have been pronounced “Kuh Adelajda” in the custom of the time, which could be imaginatively condensed to “kulajda”. I was certain from the beginning of researching this recipe that I would adore it, as I love mushroom and dairy combinations of all forms. I used dry mixed forest mushrooms, which gave a wonderful earthy depth to the soup. However, the taste would undoubtedly be better in the Czech Republic, as it is a country notoriously mad for wild mushrooms, with more than 80% of people picking mushrooms at least once a year. A good reason to visit in person, I suppose – I’ve been fantasising about picking and eating wild mushrooms in the beautiful Czech forests all week!
Pečená kachna, knedlicky and red cabbage
Astute readers may remember that I have developed an unprecedented passion for duck over the course of this cooking challenge. When I saw that pečená kachna (meaning roast duck) could be considered a popular national Sunday roast dish for the Czech republic, I therefore immediately added it to my itinerary. The duck is spiced with caraway seeds, some orange juice and salt, then roasted until tender on the inside and crispy on the outside. A quick google image search of pečená kachna will reveal that there are only two truly acceptable things to serve the roast duck with: knedlicky (boiled dumplings) and braised red cabbage. I made the knedlicky by combining plain flour and yeast with eggs, milk, water and a little sugar. I then let the dough rise, finally forming it into large round oval loaves and boiling them in water. I then cut slices of the dumplings to serve. I’d never encountered dumplings that needed to be sliced, as the ones I’ve had previously were boiled in small mouth-sized portions. I quite liked the result of these large ones though – there was a larger ratio of light, fluffy insides than wet, slimy outsides. I made the cabbage by stir frying it with some onion, bay leaf, sugar, vinegar, caraway and a little red wine until tender. I drizzled some of the duck drippings over the dish after serving, as is traditional. Altogether this was a delicious combination – it’s easy to see why it’s a classic. It has a wonderful combination of sweet, sour, salty, umami and acidic components, as well as the contrasting textures of the soft dumplings, chewy cabbage and crispy duck skin.
Bryndzové halušky is considered the national dish of Slovakia, although it’s also commonly eaten in the eastern Czech republic. So beloved is this dish in Slovakia that there are numerous songs written about it, and even an entire festival held in its honour in the Slovak mountain town of Turecka. From what I can discern, there are two major events in this festival – the first a competition for the best cook of halušky, and the second a competition for who can eat the most. I’m not sure which would be more spectacular to watch… The dish is sort of comparable to German spätzle or Italian gnocchi, being a rustic pasta/dumplings made from potato and flour. It was originally considered peasant food, originating from the north of Slovakia, where sheep and potato farmers would tuck into it regularly for their lunch after a long morning of manual labour. I made it by food processing raw potato to a paste, then adding salt and plain flour. I then made small free-form shapes from the dough and boiled them in water. Traditionally these dumplings are served with a local white sheep’s cheese called bryndza, but I substituted with cottage cheese, which was nicely light and tangy to complement the heavy starch. I then topped the dish with salt, pepper, small pieces of bacon and chives. Nobody could call this meal healthy, but certainly it’s a delicious experience, as you would expect from a combination of potato, dairy and bacon.
Svíčková na smetaně
Svíčková na smetaně is a Czech dish that is often cooked for Sunday family gatherings, special occasions like weddings, or even Christmas lunch. It consists of a piece of beef sirloin, studded with pieces of smoked bacon, and slow cooked in the oven sitting in stock seasoned with lemon zest, bay leaves, vinegar and mustard, as well as finely chopped root vegetables, such as onions, carrots, celeriac, leeks and turnips. Once this mixture is cooked on low for a few hours (adding hot water regularly when it evaporates), the meat is removed and the sauce simmered on the stove until thick and homogenous, at which point it’s cooled and mixed with sour cream. This dish is often served with a lemon wedge, cranberry jam, sauerkraut and one or more of the many varieties of dumplings like the aforementioned knedlicky, as well as potato-based or houskový knedlík. Houskový knedlík were my choice, and I made them by combining stale bread cubes in a batter of milk, eggs, beaten egg whites, flour and parsley. I then rolled cylinders of the thick batter into alfoil, and boiled them until solid and fluffy. The svíčková na smetaně was a delicious flavour – the meat had absorbed all of the wonderful flavours of the sauce, and was nicely tenderised by the vinegar and one cooking process. The sauce had an earthy sweetness from the root vegetables, as well as a tangy kick from the vinegar and mustard. One of the first written records of this dish was from another female chef of the 1800s, Magdalena Dobromila Rettigová, who was also a famous food writer. I love all of these wonderful pioneering women in the food industry from the history books of The Czech Republic! That aspect has made me warm to their food just as much as the artful balance and comforting flavours and aromas characteristic of the cuisine