Christmas isn’t a season. It’s a feeling. ∼ Edna Ferber
[Note: Article mentions pork and alcohol]
This is a foodie’s diary in the historical city of Prague in December… and a Christmas winter wonderland thrown in! It’s December and it can’t be but Christmas in the air. The December issue of BBC GoodFood ME carried an article of mine which traces out my culinary journey of Prague – from street food to fine-dining and all the way to the Christmas markets to an exclusive restaurant that I had visited while I was in Prague. I dined all alone there – my first dining experience in a Michelin star restaurant, because my bunch of travel girl buddies who had accompanied me, preferred to spend their money on shopping and sightseeing rather than dining here. Apart from my article, the December issue is filled with many more festive ideas, Christmas recipes or simple ideas to brighten up this festive month. So do get a copy off the shelf and here’s a peep into the article with excerpts that has been published in the magazine and some additional photographs thrown in from my personal album, in addition to the ones that I’ve shared with the magazine.
I checked the weather forecast of Prague before landing there from sunny Dubai in December. It was going to be 0ºC with occasional cloudy skies and maybe a bit of rains. Well, practically everything that a Dubai-ite desires for – snow, clouds, rains and… Christmas! This trip did warrant shopping for real winter clothes, not the fancy warm sweaters that we strut around in Dubai winters. So with overcoats and mufflers, leather gloves and snow boots, I was ready to roam around Prague, in the midst of what many would describe as the most beautiful Christmas Markets in Europe. Before I landed in Praha or Prague, I had a weird notion that Czech food consisted only of Goulash borrowed from Hungary, that had to be guzzled down with Pivo or the Beer. Home to the famous Pilsner Urquell and Budweiser Budvar, the Czech have a rich tradition of brewing and Beer tours with a visit to a local brewery is a must. The receptionist of our hotel apartment who also doubled up as a city guide during the day, told me to taste Guláš or Goulash cooked in the Czech style, in small family run restaurants from one of the lesser-known alleys around town. Her suggestion also included Sausages that hung temptingly from the roadside mobile kiosks and the traditional home-cooked Czech food served by the locals from make-shift food stalls, which are set up in the heart of the city during the weekends. Not to forget the traditional home made sauces, which accompanied the wild games that were served in some of the well known restaurants flocking the New Town. The list went on and soon I wished that I had lost the ‘thing to eat’ list. Having Goulash on my tasting-wish-list was good enough because I would soon be tasting Goulashes of all price range, from different categories of restaurants and cooked following different family recipes.
I was staying in Václavské Náměstí or the Wenceslas Square (above), one of the main squares in Prague. Tourists flocked this square all the time, relaxing on the wooden park benches that lay here and there, chatting to friends and lovers and clicking ‘Facebook-worthy’ pictures in front of the flower bushes that lined the boulevards. Staying here soon proved to be a blessing. A witness to many historical events, demonstrations, celebrations and public gatherings, this square was a part of the historic center of Prague – a UNESCO World Heritage site. Interestingly, during the Middle Ages, the square was used originally to accommodate horse markets. Wenceslas Square taking the shape of a long rectangle and not a square, resembled the Parisian Boulevards. Drifting into comparisons or drawing up parallels between the various cities I have travelled or lived in, is a favorite pastime of mine. I haven’t spared pulling up or down any city in the world or pitted them against each other. Definitely Prague was not to be spared. These are the most sentimental travel moments of mine.
Flanked by restaurants of various kinds, a few belonging to hotels which were probably very famous once upon a time, this place was a foodie’s perfect paradise. The roadside kiosks lining both sides of the historic boulevard sold almost everything - from souvenirs, snacks, drinks and papers to branded bookstores and retails chains, all very fashionably housed in the surrounding old buildings. The roadside mobile kiosks (at that point in time, highlighted in my food itinerary with a thick fluorescent marker) with the hanging Sausages, lined up the boulevard at 500m intervals from each other. In effect, my dream where I just had to hop from one kiosk to another, munching on different kinds of Sausages – small and big, was about to come true. The largest and most popular markets during Christmas are held in the Old Town Square and the Wenceslas Square. The former was just a 10 minutes walk away from the Square. Staying here meant that I was in effect living inside the Christmas market. Kiosks looking like wooden huts with sloping roofs, lined the Square, selling traditional handmade artifacts and glassware, scented candles, wooden Christmas decorations, beautiful hand-embroidered lacey table cloths and traditional costumes. Aroma of food drifted through the air. The farmers sold fresh juices and country sausages, hams, traditional Czech food throughout the day. In the mornings, they arranged their counters, unpack their goodies and I made a mental note of what I was going to be eating from these kiosks. After the whole day of touring around the city, when I came back at night, I saw them pack up and close their shops. Festivities lent a different magic in the air – strangers would feel close too. There were shopkeepers who had come from far away – I would befriend them, click their photos and try to know about their daily lives. For them, Christmas brought in a lot more hard work and stress, but the magic in the air eased them all.
Since the day I arrived, I had already eyed a particular road stall and the vivacious lady behind the counter soon became my temporary adopted Czech Momma (the lady to the left in the picture above), eager to feed the hungry bystanders with her double XL dose of caramelised onions (above) over the mammoth sausage she handed over. Every time we passed her by, she invited me to join the long queue. Naturally, I did end up in her kiosk more than anywhere else. In return for such hard work, I did get to gorge on her delicious Sausages at various odd hours. Such was her magnetic charm, or was it the caramelized onions (I am yet to figure that out), that I ended up buying bottled mineral water at double the supermarket prices from her. Because, unlike Dubai, the supermarkets are not open 24x7, nor are there small neighborhood grocery guys who’ll come running to deliver small contingency needs from salt to water.
These (in)famous sausage stands do chip in long after the supermarkets and restaurants have closed down, feeding hungry tummies of the night-club-returning crowd. Famous or infamous, I realized that the sausages are the ones that attract the most attention, followed by the caramelized onions. And they hand snootily in their many avatars – dark meat, white meat and red meat; the Bavarian, Italian or Polish sausages – both spicy and non-spicy. Cupped up in between toasted or untoasted Chléb/Chleba or Rye and jutting out of the bread like a banana boat, these giant-sized Sausages with over generous amounts of caramelized onion smothered over these - and behold - a new love saga with foot-long Czech Sausages just about begins.
The beauty of Prague gradually dawns upon the onlooker. Voted to be one of the ten most beautiful cities in Europe, I have to admit that Prague doesn’t seem like that at first glance. The architecture of the buildings reflect the changes that the city and the region’s history has encompassed. Scenic boulevards line the Vltava river and along the main roads and squares within the city as well as the car-free historical town center. There is a decadent charm in the city’s demeanor. Unaffected to a large extent during World War II, Prague had remained sheltered till the fall of the Iron Curtain. History of a region shapes its cuisine as well. For centuries, the Czech cuisine had remained influenced, borrowing its Schnitzels and Strudels from Germany and Goulashes from Hungary. But there is a vast treasure trove of unique Czech dishes that are slowly coming out in the limelight. A slow walk through the city of Prague reveals exactly that. The streets throng with cafes and restaurants, the most unassuming restaurants serving the heartiest traditional Czech meals. Boards outside the restaurants proudly declaring ‘Traditional Czech Meals available’, are abundant.
Prague has a very unique café culture with each Kavárna or café being a little different from each other. Most of them have history written on their walls with noted intellectuals, artists, thinkers and writers having met on their grounds. A café menu is extensive, serving delicious light meals and desserts. And interestingly most reliable if one is vegetarian.
Dumplings, oh heavenly dumplings… whether it’s a small family run restaurant) or at exclusive restaurants like the Romantic in Grand Hotel Evropa, dumplings can be culinary subject of discussion. Knedlíky, as they are called, are either made from wheat or potatoes, the brambory. These are steamed and made into large rolls and sliced into smaller dumplings just before serving. Fluffy, light and spongy, the dumplings soak up the meat sauce of the Goulash that it’s served with, like a thirsty traveller gulping down. For a foodie traveller, the culinary journey just begins here. Often, the dumplings are filled with meat or spinach or sour cabbage, with caramelized onions and cabbage served as a Příloha or a side dish. The braised Czech Cabbage definitely isn’t the German Sauerkraut and is usually boiled in a light sugar sauce. Leaving Prague without tasting Goulash is a criminal offense. As our plates full of dumplings are guzzled down with ladles of thick Goulash stew, we are told that the Czech Goulash is very different from the Hungarian Goulash. While the Czech Goulash is a thick stew usually made from beef, onions, herbs and spices, the latter is served more like a soup.
The Staroměstské Náměstí or the Old Town Square (above) is surrounded with expensive restaurants and cafés that serve fancy sandwiches and Svařák, the local mulled wine, the recipe of which varies from place to place, as does the price. Wherever I might have been during the day, I would make sure that I was there in the Old Town Square by evening time. Prague Christmas markets are considered to be one of the prettiest and the most beautiful in Europe. Indeed it was. Again, there would be a romantic mental musing of various Christmas markets that I had seen in Europe – Frankfurt, Rothenburg, Heidelberg etc. The decorated Christmas tree with the heritage buildings in the background, definitely stood taller than the others. It seemed more mystical as clouds hovered around it and like a slow motion scene in a movie, snowflakes started drifting down. I stood there, as if I was in a dreamy movie set - with a sense of déja vu. Hadn’t I seen this all? In fairy tale books and movies?
The stalls selling traditional Christmas goodies and Czech cake and sweet pastries like Trdelink (the first image above) flooded the square in front of the Orloj or the Astronomical Clock. This is the heart of historical Prague. To feel it throb, please take a seat in one of the restaurants in the huge courtyard of Old Town Square. As I write down my magical Prague experience, I can almost visualize the souvenir shops selling glittery artifacts and swiveling stars made of Bohemian crystal. I can hear the curly, crispy Potato Chips being deep-fried and almost sniff the oily aftermath left behind in the huge wok. I know that the Lamb will soon be slow roasted over open fire (all the above pictures)!
Done with the Old Town Square! A long sigh and I am back to reminiscing other parts of Prague that deserve equal mention – for example, the Nové Město or the New Town. It boasts of quaint restaurants housed in old architectural buildings surrounding the Prague castle, and usually serves traditional Czech food. A walk over the famous Charles Bridge exudes a typical European charm with clinking of glass, bonhomie and loud chatter over a hearty meal, al fresco table settings, and live music wafting faintly through the air. It was here in Hradčany, that I stumbled into Restaurant U Ševce Matouse (above), a restaurant that once housed a cobbler’s shop, had the most sublime Christmas meal, at the most reasonable price. The restaurant was also known as Mathew the Cobbler restaurant, and Mathew, who owns the restaurant, personally looked after each of us, as if we were guests at his home. and realized that this was one of the most popular restaurants in that area, frequented by the likes of Anjelina Jolie and Brad Pitt (as evident in the above picture). I do have proof to show – I have a picture of myself clicked in front of a framed picture of the famous couple!
Look out for freshly cooked traditional Czech food sold by weight, served by the jovial Czech vendors at makeshift food stalls (above pictures) specially set up for Christmas and Easter around the Wenceslas Square. The variations of sausages and traditional Czech food served here are mindboggling – Paprikový tocenec or the Beef sausages, the Vinná klobása where sausages have been coiled up or the Grilovaný syr, the cheese patties and different dishes of potatoes or the Bramborové - boiled, roasted, mashed potatoes french fries and of course the famous Bramborové knedlíky or the potato dumplings. The star dish of all the potato frenzy must be the Czech Halousky - a smaller but insanely tastier version of gnoccis made with flour and mashed potatoes (the last image above). I am guaranteeing that it is here that you are bound to fall in love with a Bramborové or our very own Potato in its many Avatars. Or may be the Czech Halousky!
Over the recent years, Prague has definitely come up the food radar, the proof being the recognitions from the Star that matters - the Michelin star. Allegro, located in the Four Season Hotel in Prague (sigh, but the restaurant is closed at this moment), received the first Michelin star amongst all the ex-Communist countries of Central Europe. As of 2012, Prague is home to two Michelin star restaurants – the Alcron in Radisson Blu Alcron Hotel and La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise, in 18 Haštalská Street, the latter serving food that I would call art on a plate. La Degustation’s menu has contemporary Bohemian cuisine based on 19th century old school Czech cuisine and has been marked by Anthony Bourdain as one of the best culinary experiences in the world. The Czech menu of Le Bohême is an interpretation of the refined culinary school of Marie B. Svobodová from the late 19th century and is inspired by seasonal and regional availability of ingredients that go into the preparation of each dish. For a serious foodie, dismissing an experience here would have been sacrilegious. So I ended up spending my entire shopping budget on one evening of 'seven course' degustation menu tasting, paired with wine. The experience was almost like watching an opera from the VIP circle. If I can see you frown at that, there is also an eleven course degustation menu on offer, which neither my belly space or budget permitted this time.
Michelin or non-Michelin, street food or fine dining, café or a restaurant, Prague was an unexpected culinary revelation. With many cultural influences, rich history, heritage, taste variations and intricacy amalgamating in one cuisine, I won’t be surprised if Prague becomes the next European culinary destination. And if it is Christmas then, it is definitely a magical destination too. I hope I’ll still be able to afford my return air tickets once it comes into the ‘hot travel destination’ list!
Hope you liked my culinary sojourn in Prague as it appeared in this festive issue of BBC GoodFood ME. If you are visiting Prague while the Christmas market is on (12th January 2014), I do hope that you find this article useful. Enjoy the festive season while I mull some wine at home right now, Czech style!
Unblogging it all… Ishita
Disclaimer: This isn’t a sponsored post, nor are there any affiliated links. This is a non-paid collaboration with BBC GoodFood ME. The subject, story, opinions and views stated here are my own and all my bills on this vacation have been self paid. We flew by Austrian Air via Vienna and it cost us approx AED 3,200/person and we split up the Apartment cost us AED 800 for 5 nights – the cost was split between 6 of us. The food bills accounted for maximum AED 1,000/person. In addition to this, I spent CZK 3450 or AED 620 for the 8-course degustation menu at La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise.