Postcard from Prague
Being a food writer, I usually head to culinary destinations: Spain, Italy and the like. I need some pushing to visit a country decidedly NOT known for good food. We were meeting in Prague, my first time. “It a GORGEOUS city!” my Parisian friend promised. “But the food?” I queried, with a cynical scowl. She shrugged and rolled her eyes nervously. But my doubts were to be assuaged.
The Czech Republic, historically comprising Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia, has seen many upheavals since it was recognized as an entity in the 9th century. Occupied by Germany after WWII, it was a Communist state for 40 years until the Velvet Liberation of 1989 brought democracy and relative stability. Under these trying political circumstances, good food and drink fell by the wayside. But things have changed.
First, there’s beer. As the oldest producers of beer, Czechs have high standards for good brew, and it’s nearly impossible to find a bad one. The national brand, Urquel, makes a textbook pilsner, and countless craft breweries have popped up recently to fill the new demand for other types of beers. Bad Flash Bar, located in a residential zone, offers more than 200 local craft beers.
Under communism, a single government-owned company ran all restaurants and cafeterias. The “Book of Standards”, a mandatory unified cookbook, standardized commercial kitchens, so creativity was lost. But, in recent years, young chefs have returned to their roots, cooking with great local ingredients and experimenting with tradition.
Food writer and culinary tour operator of A Taste of Prague, Jan Valenta, says, “People are more sophisticated and demanding, better travelled than before. If there is any big influence, it’s Nordic cuisine, because Scandinavia shares the same short growing season, and thus we, and they, have no access to truly seasonal produce for much of the year. That’s why there’s been a big focus on preservation methods like fermentation, which is common up north. And new restaurants put more value on creativity in the kitchen: Prague is now home to several Michelin-starred venues.”
One example of the new breed of internationally influenced kitchens is Eska, a hip, modern place set in a lofty refurbished factory. Acting chef Tomas Valkovic creates such dishes as fermented red wheat with mushroom and egg, potatoes in ash with smoked fish, and roasted celeriac with fresh cheese. Roots and preserved ingredients are the common thread to his cooking. “I focus on what’s local and in the market, what country folk have always eaten,” he says. A few years ago, Czecks went for gloppy pseudo-French food, similar to what was offered in Mexico City. Eska is representative of the new generation’s respect for national culture, a trend very like that in Mexico of the last ten years.
Valenta adds, “Due to the massive tourism we have in Prague, there is still a big divide between where the locals and the tourists eat. The latter tend to demand “views” and “picturesque surroundings”. The restaurants know this and focus more on the visuals than on the food.” So culinary tourism has yet to take hold in Prague. But that is rapidly changing. At home we can safely say that Malinche is dead; in the Czeck Republic Lenin is gone and Redzepi has taken their place.