Last year I went on an exchange trip between my local village, Cernovice, and their twin, Biglen, in Switzerland. The pretty Emmental countryside was full of grass meadows and happy cows, and not a single fat northern bloke in a vest. Our town mayor had held a meeting where we discussed what presents we could take to give our Swiss friends a flavour of Bohemia. The decision was cheese and chocolate, and explaining the idiom “taking coals to Newcastle” was unfortunately beyond the grasp of my Czech conversation abilities. However, it did get me thinking about what foods are really unique to Bohemia.
- Local bread – light, fluffy Housky and Rohlik rolls as well as the more substantial rye bread loaf. You need to buy rolls in the morning from the bakery as they become rock-hard in a matter of hours. To be properly Czech you must fight the urge to cut open the rolls and make sandwiches – instead butter and cheese must be applied to the outside of the crust, making eating them a fine balancing act.
- Bohemian Sekt – we cannot, of course, for legal reasons call this pink champagne. There is also an alcohol free version of this drink, which is very nice of you’re not on the booze and want something a little more grown-up than Kofola.
- Kofola – a kind of cross between cola and root beer. This is available on tap in most establishments serving beer, and is the drink to turn to if you want to pass as a local or reminisce on your communist childhood.
- Blueberry yoghurt – In the Czech Republic, blueberry is your go-to fruit flavour. In the same way that the strawberry is ubiquitous where I come from, you will find blueberry everything – including syrup for diluting into drinks (or squash as we call in the UK). In July, the extensive forests of Bohemia are full of bilberries – the small, wild blueberries – and you can also find cranberries, raspberries and tiny, flavoursome strawberries.
- Elderflower cordial. As common as orange squash in these parts. In the supermarket, look for Jupi with a picture of elderflowers.
- Bohemia Chips – once I left the Czech Republic to live in the UK, these crisps are what I would beg from anyone who was planning to visit. Now I live just five miles from the factory where they are made. Coincidence? Current flavours of interest are mushroom or rosemary. The old-favourite is paprika.
- Dried apple. In a country where cider is a foreign drink, they turned their apples into spirits or dried them into circles “Krouzky”, which could then be snacked on through the winter or made into natural apple tea. The locally produced apple juice is also excellent, inexpensive and commonly available.
- Lime flower tea- the Linden Lime tree is a national symbol. The flowers are gathered and dried in early summer. In shops, look for tea with the word “Lipa”. I find it highly reminiscent of the scent of washing powder. You may not.
- Local cheeses are a blue cheese called Niva and a mini Camembert called Hermalin. I’d say they’re nothing to write home about, however, you might as well try them while you’re here. Farming methods were standardized across the soviet union, leading to wierdnesses such as pigs and cows being kept inside barns all summer as well as winter in massive factory farms, and all local variation in food production being suppressed. It is taking some time for the idea of local to catch on here, as you’ll see if you visit Farmer’s markets outside of Prague. Things are changing, but let’s just say people here eat a lot of Edam.
- Nealko beer. The Czechs have a proud heritage of beer production, and zero tolerance in law to drink driving. As keen beer consumers, the natural result of this equation is that their alcohol free beers are really pretty good. One local company which you’re unlikely to see anywhere outside of the Czech Republic and produces an excellent range of alcoholic and alcohol free beers is Bernard (produced Bear Nard with two rolled r’s). Czech beer bottles are robust because they are reused via a deposit system, so don’t throw them away!
- Tartar sauce – this is the local condiment of choice. You’ll find it a necessary accompaniment to the popular and common “American” potatoes, breaded pork & fried cheese, which would be hard to eat without it.
- Locally produced chocolate. Full disclosure: the Bon Bon company you’ll see all over the Czech Republic hales from my local village, where they have an excellent cafe with every form of chocolate available. As a gift to take home, their range of chocolate confectionery is hard to beat, if you can resist eating it all yourself.
Finally, if you are staying somewhere with access to a kitchen I recommend:
- Waldorf salad made with locally grown apple, walnuts and a little ground elder (the wild cousin of celery).
- Sekanice – a cut stuffing loaf. There are both veggie and pork versions of this recipe, but the main constituent ingredient is nettle. As in stinging nettle. After a long, hard winter under feet of snow, the hardy perennial nettle is the first edible green which pops up in Bohemia, and was traditionally an important source of nutrition. Nettles can also be used as a substitute ingredient for Kale Chips & once they are baked in salt and oil are surprisingly moreish.
- Wild mushroom pate – as mushroom collecting is part of the national psyche. Porchini and Chanterelle should be sampled and a pate made with equal parts butter, cream cheese and lightly cooked mushroom is the best way to experience their flavour. Please don’t pick the mushrooms yourself. Urban legend has it that ten people a year die of mushroom poisoning in the Czech Republic, and it’s not a pretty way to go.