Czech cuisine will come as a pleasant surprise to gourmets. Although the cuisine shows influences from neighbouring countries (Hungary, Austria and Germany), the greatest inspiration remains traditional old Bohemian recipes. The basis of Czech food are ingredients which could be grown at home – above all grains, pulses, potatoes and meat. From these seemingly simple ingredients superb and imaginative dishes were made which can only be found in Czech cuisine. These include Czech dumplings, a rich selection of sauces and soups, sirloin in cream and the signature dish, pork and dumplings with sauerkraut.
Soup forms the foundations
The eating habits of those who inhabit the Czech lands differ little from those in other European countries. Three meals are eaten in the course of the day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. The main meal of the day for most Czechs is lunch. Whether at home or in a restaurant, lunch usually consists of three courses: soup, a main dish and dessert (or salad). Soup forms the foundations of any meal, say Czech mothers to their children. If you are recovering from an illness or you want to calm a bad stomach, beef or chicken broth (hovězí or kuřecí vývar) is recommended. Broth with homemade noodles and liver dumplings is a common dish at wedding receptions. In addition to clear broths, Czech cooks can also make excellent thick soups made with meat, vegetables and pulses. From the variety of these kinds of soup, which fill the belly almost as well as a main meal, try potato soup (bramboračka) fragrant with marjoram, goulash soup (gulášová polévka) served in a small round loaf of bread, or tripe soup (dršťková polévka) made with beef.
Meat (maso) is an ever-present on Czech menus. The most common types of meat to appear on your plate will be pork (vepřové), poultry (drůbež) and beef (hovězí). Less common are lamb (skopové), game (zvěřina) and fish (ryba).
Beef is normally served with various kinds of sauces (omáčky). Sauces are one of the signature components of Czech cooking and diners can choose from tomato (rajská), horseradish (křenová), mushroom (houbová) and dill (koprová) to name but a few. A sauce is also an important component in one of the most characteristic of all Czech dishes: Sirloin in cream sauce (svíčková na smetaně). It takes great skill to produce good sirloin and is a test for even the best cooks – so why not try to prepare it yourself? Beef layered with strips of bacon are steamed with chopped vegetables and spices until soft. The steamed vegetables are then passed through a sieve, and this sauce is then loosened by adding cream. Serve with dumplings, a slice of lemon and cranberries. The success of combining beef, sauce and dumplings is seen in a number of other dishes such as Znojmo roast (Znojemská pečeně) in a spicy sauce with finely chopped Znojmo gherkins.
Although dieticians do not have a favourable opinion of pork, this type of meat is an integral part of Czech cuisine. Other typical Czech dishes are pork with dumplings and sauerkraut (vepřo knedlo zelo) and roast pork with dumplings, sauerkraut and gravy. A dish served on special occasions is pork schnitzel (smažený vepřový řízek) fried in breadcrumbs and served with potato salad. Smoked meat (uzené maso) is served cold as a starter or as a main meal with potato dumplings and a sauce. Sausages and alike aren’t exactly diet food, but many Czechs could not imagine mealtimes without them. Salami or ham with bread or rolls is a common breakfast, snack or cold dinner.
Old Bohemian dishes are proof that poultry was popular with our ancestors – dishes such as roast duck or goose (pečená kachna/husa) with sauerkraut. Chicken (kuřecí) forms a regular meal in Czech households and is prepared in traditional and more exotic ways.
If you are fortunate enough to discover Rabbit with garlic (králík na česneku) or with cream sauce (se smetanovou omáčkou), be sure to try it. Game dishes, such as roast venison or venison goulash, are also recommended.
It would seem that those who like fish do not have much to choose from in a Czech restaurant, but even in this area there are several Czech specialities. Carp (kapr) is traditional Christmas food, but you can eat it at any other time of year should you wish. It can come fried, or prepared in several other ways. As far as other freshwater fish are concerned, you won’t be disappointed with dishes made with trout (pstruh), eel (úhoř) and pike (štika).
There are many meat dishes in the Czech cookbook, but vegetarians also have much to choose from. Diners can order vegetarian versions of mushy peas, lentil soup and various sauces (these dishes usually contain meat). Czech vegetarian dishes include fried cauliflower (smažený květák), mushroom omelette (smaženice z hub), egg and dumplings (knedlíky s vejcem) and fried cheese (smažený sýr).
Dumplings or french fries?
If we want to identify a phenomenon peculiar to Czech cuisine, somewhat surprisingly neither meat nor any other special ingredient comes into the equation. It is a side dish! Dumplings are made in other places other than the Czech Republic, but the Czech version has the right to be called unique. Apart from the classic dumpling made from dough, there are Carlsbad dumplings, so-called ‘hairy’ (chlupaté) dumplings (made with raw potatoes) and potato dumplings (bramborové). Potatoes (brambory) have become such a part of Czech cuisine that there are countless way of preparing them. In addition to chips and mashed and boiled potatoes, why not try a typical side dish to meat or goulash – potato pancakes (bramboráky).
Regional specialities are one reason to take off on a gastronomic tour of the Czech Republic. In Prague there is Prague Ham (pražská šunka); South Bohemia is the centre of attention around Christmas time thanks to its Carp farms; Pardubice gingerbread (pardubický perník) is a favourite among children across the country. Mature Olomouc Cheese (olomoucké tvarůžky) is adored by some, hated by others. The specific aroma of the cheese (those who hate it would say smell) is what people love or detest the most. This phenomenon of Czech cuisine even has its own museum (www.tvaruzky.cz). Frgále, large circular tarts with several fillings are a speciality of the Wallachian Region, while tarts (koláčky) filled with cottage cheese and decorated with jam can be enjoyed in central and southern areas of Moravia.
Christmas dinner wouldn’t be the same without Carp and potato salad. Another integral part of the Czech Christmas celebrations are Christmas cookies. Some of the ever-presents on Czech Christmas tables are honey gingerbread (medové perníčky) decorated with icing, vanilla rolls, Linz pastry and Christmas loaf (vánočka) with raisins. Baked sweet dishes at Easter reflect Christian symbols: Lamb shaped sponge cake are baked in special moulds and other types of cakes and doughnuts are also prepared.
Traditional Czech Sweets
Even in the dessert category we begin with dumplings. Sweet dumplings (made with dough, semolina or cottage cheese) are filled with fruit, sprinkled with poppy seeds, grated cottage cheese or nuts and dowsed in melted butter. If this has got the juices flowing, what about buns (buchtičky) filled with vanilla sauce, potato cones (bramborové šišky) sprinkled with fried breadcrumbs or pancakes (palačinky) with fruit or marmalade. Apple strudel (jablečný závin) is just as good in the Czech Republic as it is in other countries, and you won’t find such good traditional doughnuts with poppy seed, jam or cottage cheese fillings anywhere else.
Beer is regarded by the Czechs themselves as their national drink – whether dark, light, mixed, wheat… There are over 470 different types of beer in the Czech lands. In all Czech restaurants, beer gardens and clubs quality beer is an essential part of the experience. The very best types are the world-renowned light and dark lagers. The atmosphere of a typical Czech pub and the sense of a relaxed conversation among friends are essential for the beer consumption ‘ceremony’.
The best-known brands of Czech beer
Pilsner Urquell (www.pilsner-urquell.cz) and Budějovický Budvar (known elsewhere as Budweiser) (www.budvar.cz) – there are many imitations, but only the beer brewed in Pilsen and České Budějovice are the real deals with their unique and exceptional tastes.
Other popular Czech brands are Gambrinus (www.gambrinus.cz), Staropramen (www.staropramen.cz), Krušovice (www.krusovice.net), Radegast (www.radegast.cz), Bernard (www.bernard.cz), Velkopopovický kozel (www.kozel.cz) and many others.
In addition to the large breweries, the Czech Republic also has many small micro-breweries, often with stylish beer-cellars attached, such as Eggenberg (www.eggenberg.cz) in Český Krumlov.
The culture of beer-drinking in the Czech Republic
Before making your way to a traditional Czech pub, read the following tips carefully:
The one brand of beer served in a restaurant can be seen on the sign hanging outside. Do not expect to find any other brands served.
Beer is served in half-litre glasses; for a smaller glass (0.33 l) it is necessary to ask specifically (say “malé pivo”).
The world’s best beer is also the cheapest! For a half litre the usual cost is from 17 to 30 CZK (0.70–1.05 euros)
If you simply order a beer, you will get light (ten-degree) beer; if you want the stronger variety (usually twelve-degree) you have to ask specifically.
The moment when you place an empty glass on the table is often a sign for the waiter to bring another!
On the tally-sheet that the waiter leaves on the table, a single line is made for each beer ordered – so that all the beers drunk fit on the narrow sheet!
The majority of waiters believe that there is always room for one more beer
Points of interest
- Brewery tours
Many breweries organise brewery tours along with a tasting session.
- Beer festivals
In the summer, both large and small breweries hold special beer festivals. In addition to the requisite tasting sessions, there are concerts and various competitions.
- Special types of beer
Alongside the most common light lagers, the Czech range of beers also includes coffee or cherry-flavoured beers; one rare feature is vanilla beer for Advent.
- Beer souvenirs
If you wish to take something home as a momento, try collecting Czech beer mats (the cardboard coasters where the freshly drawn mugs are placed). Each brewery makes beer mats with an original design.
The best wine producing regions can be found in South Moravia. White wines from the area have won awards at international competitions, and some of the most popular types are Veltlínské zelené, Müller-Thurgau and Moravian Muscat. Red wines such as Frankovka and Svatovavřinecké are not far behind. Wine shops selling Czech, Moravian and other wines from around the world can be found across the country, but you cannot beat the atmosphere of a real wine cellar. These are best enjoyed when following a so-called wine route which link the various wine producing regions. (www.wineofczechrepublic.cz)
A bottle of Becherovka makes a great souvenir for visitors to the Czech Republic to take home. This bitter herb liqueur hails from the famous spa town of Carlsbad, where thanks to its curative properties, people call it the ‘13th spring’ (www.becherovka.com). When at a Czech spa, be sure to try some spa wafers – they’re delicious!
In the past, Czech cuisine was criticised for lacking fresh vegetables and fish and for being too high in calories. In the past few years a lot has changed. The influence of international cuisine can now be felt in restaurants and on dinner tables in ordinary Czech families. Italian cuisine has become popular with its emphasis on the finest raw ingredients; Chinese, Vietnamese and Mexican restaurants have sprung up all over the place. In large towns and cities in particular you can now eat in luxurious restaurants, authentic Czech pubs and in eateries belonging to fast food chains. (www.squaremeal.cz)