Monday, 2 May 2011

Czeching out Eastern European cuisine

I've just returned from a lovely, albeit too brief, trip to Prague with my boyfriend. I was excited about this for a number of reasons - the five star hotel with spa and epic buffet breakfast, the prospect of relaxation, the fabled beauty of the city - but mostly I was keen to sample the cuisine. My guidebook disparagingly pointed out that "since Czech cuisine largely consists of dumplings and cabbage, it's never likely to win any awards". However, as an avid fan of Moya, Oxford's only (to my knowledge) Eastern European restaurant, I was pretty sure that Czech cuisine had slightly more to offer than the ubiquitous dumplings and cabbage. 

Also, I absolutely love dumplings and cabbage. I've mentioned before on this blog that my favourite foods usually involve some type of dough...or in fact, just some type of stodge. This is usually a pejorative term when applied to food, but I don't think it has to be. There's nothing wrong with a bit of stodge. In fact, often, it is exactly what you need. Long and difficult day with not much opportunity to eat anything? Stodge. Hangover? Stodge. Exam-related stress? STODGE IS THE KEY.

Ahem. Anyway. My first impressions of Prague were largely temperature-related, in that it was bloody freezing and I hadn't packed any warm clothes. Clever. My second impressions were largely monetary, in that it was bloody expensive. They say first impressions often turn out to be wrong. This was not the case. Prague was a) cold and b) incredibly expensive. On our last day, we went to a restaurant with a lovely set lunch menu that cost about a fiver for two courses. Too good to be true? Of course. The bill arrived, and we were charged £10 for a bottle of water. I drained my glass, just to check it wasn't, in fact, champagne, which would have explained the hefty price tag. Unfortunately not. The other shock came when I bought some potato gnocchi from a market stall. Street food, in my experience, is normally both cheap and tasty. It was tasty, but it cost me SEVEN POUNDS. For a tiny little box of potato dumplings. I still haven't come to terms with this fact; my boyfriend will testify to the fact that the recollection of it fills me with pure, unadulterated rage. I can understand paying a bit more for meat, or fish - especially as Prague is about as far from the sea as it is possible to get, unless you live in central Africa - but for water and potatoes? Really?

Anyway, I will try and suppress the inner potato demon struggling to break free inside my soul, and talk about one of the joyous things I discovered in Prague. This was brought to my attention on the first day, when we stumbled upon an Easter market in the central square, full of red-topped stalls proffering their wares - a mixture of tacky souvenirs, quaint handcrafted objects, and food. In every direction there was a hunk of pig spit-roasting over a fire, wafting the scent of barbecued meat, and almost every other person we passed seemed to be clutching a large bread roll struggling to contain either an enormous red sausage, or a chicken kebab.

However, interspersed with the aroma of sizzling meat was another scent altogether. This is, essentially, what I imagine heaven smells like. A delicious waft of sugar, cinnamon and baking dough, that drew me to it almost instantly. The stall proclaimed itself "TRDLO". If there's one thing I'd like to accomplish before I die (and reach heaven, perfumed with cinnamon and sugar and baking dough), it is to find out how on earth you pronounce that word. It would seem that vowels are also in short supply in Prague, along with cheap potatoes and reasonably-priced water.

Upon closer inspection, TRDLO (it will remain capitalised, in order to impress its goodness and curious spelling upon all my readers) turned out to be something so simple yet so divine I can't believe I've never seen or thought of it before. A strip of sweet dough is wrapped around long poles, which are then rotated over burning coals until it bakes to form a crispy crust and a soft, brioche-like centre. It's then dipped in either toffee and almonds or cinnamon sugar. If there's one thing - just one thing - I want you to take away from this post, it is the sheer, mind-boggling deliciousness of TRDLO. They remind me a bit of New York pretzels, the big doughy ones, dipped in cinnamon sugar - I remember discovering them on a trip to the city when I was 15. However, the beauty of TRDLO is the way the dough is coiled, enabling you to pull it apart in long, curly strips. The contrast between the crust, sprinkled liberally with crunchy sugar and fragrant cinnamon, and the still doughy centre is a thing of beauty. Truly. (TRDLY).

However, man (or gluttonous woman) cannot subsist off TRDLO alone, and so we gravitated towards the speared pig. We saw locals munching on "Prague prosciutto", which is just a fancy term for large chunks of meat hacked off the rotating porcine thighs and served with a simple piece of caraway-flavoured bread. I was immediately intrigued by the halusky, a huge pan of what initially looked a bit like tartiflette but upon closer inspection turned out to be potato gnocchi mixed with sauerkraut and smoked bacon. Having been up since 3.50am and eaten only a takeaway porridge from Pret a Manger (which was disturbing, in that it made me realise my usual daily serving of porridge is about five times larger than what such outlets consider a 'normal' portion), I gravitated towards the big pan of stodge and meat.

I later tried another version of these gnocchi (the ones I paid SEVEN POUNDS - SEVEN!) for, served with a creamy spinach sauce that looked a bit like pesto. Both were absolutely delicious - more rustic and odd-shaped than Italian gnocchi, but exactly the thing for a very empty stomach. The bacon and sauerkraut version was wonderful - the sharpness of the pickled cabbage and the smoky bacon stopped the whole thing from being too stodgy (though I do have a very high stodge threshold). I ate it greedily with a plastic fork, standing at a little table near the pig barbecue, while Jon tucked into one of those startlingly-red sausages. This was also delicious - quite spicy, and immensely meaty. I then wandered around taking voyeuristic photos of foodstuffs. The guidebook's list of 'must-see' attractions remained unthumbed throughout the entire trip - I was far more interesting in wandering around Prague's eateries. Though we did go to the castle.

That night we had proper restaurant food, at a lovely little place called U Modre, quite close to the square. It was practically deserted, which meant we got a gorgeous little table by the door with a fancy sofa to sit on, and were waited on hand and foot. I was tempted by the "all you can eat" set menu, which featured an enormous array of Czech dishes served in small portions, but eventually realised that I would feel grotesquely sick if I ordered it, because I would eat until I was close to paralysis. I have no willpower in foreign countries when it comes to food.

Instead, I ordered the intriguing "leg of wild boar with rosehip sauce and Carlsbad dumplings". This was incredible. I was half afraid I'd be presented with an entire shank of boar, knowing the Czech predilection for whole pig limbs, but the presentation of the dish was refined and elegant. Several slices of meat, served in a creamy sauce, garnished with a sprig of thyme and with the dumplings on the side. These are different from the normal Czech dumplings (actually more like steamed slices of bread than the kind of dumplings we English would put in a stew) in that they are made from cubes of bread bound together with egg, milk and herbs, so look rather knobbly and charming. They also have slightly crispy bits throughout. The rosehip sauce was delicious, providing enough sweetness to marry beautifully with the rich meat. Jon had crispy duck breast with prunes and potato croquettes, which were little balls of deep-fried mashed potato. Again, the sweetness of the sauce went beautifully with the meat, and the skin was crisped to perfection. 

For dessert, we shared an apple and walnut tart, and a "cottage cheese strudel". The latter I assumed was a mistranslation, but when it arrived it did in fact seem to have cottage cheese in the centre. This was no bad thing; along with pieces of apple, it was enveloped in beautifully soft, light pastry. The apple and walnut tart was half cheesecake and half crumble, with gorgeous crunchy pieces of nut and a lovely apple puree to add sweetness. Seriously wonderful desserts. It's nice to eat something with apples in, for a change; I don't tend to use them much in my cooking after December, for some reason. I might have to attempt a cottage cheese strudel sometime soon.

Another wonderful discovery made at the Easter market was bublanina, which translates as 'bubble cake'. I'd been eyeing these glorious little cakes for a while, as they sold them at the TRDLO stall (it took me a couple of days, though, to look past the sugared dough rolls). Intrigued, I bought one, and devoured it within minutes. It is rather like a clafoutis, in that it features fruit suspended in a light batter, but it also has a thin layer of buttery crumble topping. Initially I thought it was just a blueberry cake, but I found plums, raspberries and even a strawberry in there. Which has genuinely changed my life, culinarily speaking, because I have always been under the impression (aided by many cookbooks) that one should never cook a strawberry. Yet when encased in this sumptuous cake-like batter, the strawberry softens to something gorgeously jammy that contrasts wonderfully with the slightly vanilla-scented sponge. I can't wait to try out my own version of this bubble cake - so called, apparently, because the batter bubbles up around the fruit.

The Czechs apparently have a very sweet tooth (or should that be sweet teeth?) which was apparent from the numerous crêpe stalls and ice cream stands around the city. No more so than Italy or France, though. We had some very nice ice cream, including an interesting sesame seed and chocolate combination, but I think the TRDLO and the bubble cake were my favourite sugary delights of the trip. That is possibly because I had just spent a week in Italy, so my ice cream palate was rather jaded.

Another good find was a small market we stumbled across on the last day, with lots of fruit and vegetable stalls. Nothing particularly spectacular, but they had these gorgeous little punnets of berries for sale. They were tiny, and I think meant as a snack more than anything else, as they came with little plastic ice cream spoons tucked into the corners. The Czechs do seem to like their berries; instead of the classic lemon and sugar filling for crêpes, they seem to go for some sort of berry compote, and we found blueberry sorbet in one of the ice cream parlours, which I haven't seen before, even in Italy.

One of my meal highlights was a trip to a restaurant called U Sadlu. It has to be seen to be believed. It's laid out like a kind of faux-Medieval banqueting hall, complete with fake suits of armour everywhere and heraldic crests on the walls. It's lit basically just by candles, and the cutlery is on the table in a large metal flagon. Tables are long wooden affairs with matching long wooden benches. As Jon said, it's the kind of place you'd steer clear of in the UK, but somehow on holiday anything goes. Their menu actually read rather appetisingly, and featured titles such as "Dishes from the Water Realm" for the list of fish options. Given the setting and bizarre olde English language of the menu (sharing plates were described as 'Dishes for the Two Wayfarers'), I was apprehensive about the food, but needn't have been.

I had venison paté with a cranberry compote, served with lovely thick bread, which was truly delicious. I also had 'aubergine with Balkan cheese', which was a plate of wonderfully soft, smoky aubergine slices topped with a very salty, crumbly cheese, and green olives. This was incredible, the salty cheese and olives a perfect match for the rich aubergine. Finally, I tried trout in an almond crust. I was presented with a whole grilled trout, topped with something that looked like scrambled egg but turned out to be - obviously - almonds, in some kind of mixture, possibly involving breadcrumbs. The fish had been stuffed with dill, which gave it a lovely fragrant flavour. Unfortunately, by this point I could only eat half of it as I was so full. Jon had a hilarious goulash, which featured four different types of dumpling, as well as a fried egg and several enormous pieces of crispy bacon. Oh, and the actual goulash itself. It was the kind of thing you'd probably want to eat in the Arctic to sustain yourself when you need 5000 calories a day. The goulash was delicious, though, despite the carbohydrate party going on around it. It was, completely unexpectedly, one of the best meals I ate in Prague.

For our last meal we went to a very posh hotel restaurant - the one that charged £10 for the water - and had an excellent vegetable broth with homemade noodles, followed by stewed pork shoulder with sauerkraut in a creamy pepper sauce. With dumplings, naturally. The dumplings were light and fluffy, the sauce perfectly piquant, and the meat beautifully tender. We also ate little plaited brioche rolls and salted butter. Delicious - shame about the water.

Another excellent dinner was at a restaurant very near our hotel, called Hybernia. It specialised in charcuterie and kebabs (the proper, chunks of meat on a stick kind, not the student kind), which I didn't find out until after I'd eaten there, but luckily I did in fact have a kebab. Jon and I shared a quarter of crispy duck to start, which was served with two types of cabbage (red, and pickled white), and two types of dumpling (bread and potato). It was delicious, everything a good crispy duck should be. I'm used to eating it with Chinese pancakes, hoi sin sauce and cucumber, so it was interesting to try the Eastern European way of doing crispy duck. It seems to be a big thing in Prague; a lot of pubs advertise the following:

If that doesn't make you want to go to the country instantly, what does? After the duck (a completely unnecessary piece of ordering, once we saw what followed), we were presented with our main courses. For Jon, an enormous bucket of glazed chicken wings with tortilla chips and three different sauces. For me, a chicken and vegetable kebab. What was unusual about this kebab, however, was that it was presented vertically. It came in a special holder on a giant plate, and stretched about two feet upwards into the air, heavy with chunks of marinated chicken, huge pieces of fatty bacon, grilled pepper and grilled mushrooms. I'd unthinkingly ordered more grilled vegetables on the side, so this kebab towered over a plate replete with slices of chargrilled veg, and also three little buckets of dipping sauces. It was almost a shame to dismantle it. The vegetables were perfectly caramelised, and the chicken was superb: it had been marinated in yoghurt and spices. Jon's chicken wings were also delicious. I tried to steal a copy of the English menu, because there were some absolutely hilarious mistranslations in it, but in the end I didn't, so you'll just have to imagine them.

Last but not least, I feel I should mention a restaurant called U Male Velryby, or 'The Little Whale', which is near Prague castle and which we visited on our last night. It served Mediterranean, rather than Czech, cuisine, but this was quite nice after the dumpling- and TRDLO-fest of the past few days. The real surprise here was the homemade bread. I was absolutely in awe of this bread. It was thick, dark, studded with walnuts, and had a texture and richness that was more like cake than bread. The waitress seemed delighted when we asked for more, as she said often people don't like it. I could have eaten just that bread for my entire meal. Apparently it's just a soda bread recipe to which the chef adds walnuts. I've made soda bread a few times, and never has it tasted that good. I've been inspired to perfect my recipe now. Other than the incredible bread, I had a seafood pie, which was OK but nothing to write home about (except, ironically, I am blogging about it), and Jon had a steak served with a mushroom-filled pancake, which was absolutely delicious. But the bread was the real highlight for me. As you may have noticed, I like dough.

There were a few things I wanted to try but didn't: pork knuckle, for one, which is quite a big Czech thing apparently...roast rabbit...freshwater fish...goulash - I had a bit of Jon's but didn't have one to myself at any point. Another thing I was eagerly searching for was a fruit-stuffed dumpling served in a butter sauce, like the one they serve at Moya. I am so glad Moya exists, because I can still get my stew and dumpling fix despite being home. And it will probably cost less than in Prague. Overall, though, I think I did pretty well at sampling the spectrum of Czech cuisine. My overall impressions are pretty positive. It will never have the sheer variety and vibrance of Italian cooking, my all-time favourite, but there are a few truly delicious Czech specialities out there, and they definitely know how to do patisserie. A lot of people accuse the food of being on the bland side, but I don't think this is true. Meat is often deliciously spiced, and stews are wonderfully fragrant; yes, the dumplings are quite bland, but so is pasta. The one thing I would say is that the Czechs aren't really into their fresh vegetables; veg tends to come pickled, if at all. But that may just be the restaurant way; after all, no real people eat the kind of food that restaurants serve, every night. There is a huge variety of places to eat out in the city, many of which steer away from Czech cuisine towards French, Italian, and Thai. Prague and the Czech Republic are not exactly devoid of culinary joy...even if you will pay a rather steep price for such joy.

Also, I apologise profusely for the hideous pun in the title. But you can't be cross with me, because I have shared TRDLO with you, and thus made your lives a tiny fraction better.

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  1. It's nice to hear your view on eastern cuisine Elly. I'm in Poland for the year and I think it's pretty similar to Czech cuisine what with the dumplings and meat plus lack of fresh vegetables. Here the dumplings are called pierogis don't know if you have ever tried them but they do sweet versions which are very popular too: with fruit and cream. They are made exactly the same way as the savoury ones which is interesting.

    As for the water, it's also very expensive in Poland. I remember on our first trip to a restaurant back in September my whole meal was the same price as the bottle of water!

  2. Really?! Good to know it wasn't just us getting charged crazy prices for water!

    I've heard of pierogis but I've never tried them - are they a bit like ravioli? The Guardian had a recipe for them a while back which I keep meaning to try. The sweet ones sound delicious - I love fruit dumplings.

    I think I'd definitely go a bit mad at the lack of fresh veg if I lived in Eastern Europe...!

  3. Yes they are like stuffed moon-shaped ravioli and can be either sweet or savoury. Traditionally they are boiled and then some kind of sauce is added (cream for the sweet ones and usually butter or sour cream for the others) but they can also be fried, baked or grilled so they are quite versatile! I'm not sure how hard/easy they would be to make but I'm pretty sure you would manage just fine given your culinary skills.

    Oh believe me, I am going a bit mad to be honest, there is only meat here! As much as I love it I miss my seafood and fish so much that when I went back home in January I refused to eat anything else all week! Plus, like I said, the quality of the fresh products isn't the best which makes reading your blog very hard for me. More than once I've found myself salivating over clams, mango, or prawns!

  4. What a gorgeous photoessay on your trip to Prague. I enjoyed this armchair visit very much.

  5. Thanks Rachel! I quite enjoyed writing it...made me feel like I was there again!

    Annie - I can feel your pain re: seafood. It's my favourite thing to eat, I'd hate to be deprived of it. I'm sorry for taunting you with my recipes...I'm going to make a few Czech things soon though so maybe that'll make you feel more at home!


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