Wednesday, March 31, 2010


When I first came to what was then the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, way back when, I was looking forward to quite a few things. One of them was the beer, which I had already performed extensive tests on before leaving England. Even in those days you could get Budvar and Pilsner Urquell there and the results, let me be quite honest, played no small role in my decision to come here. Another was curiosity about the food.

In 1985 I picked up a Czech cookery book published in about 1960 for 50p in a second-hand bookshop in Faversham, and for months after that Czech dumplings were staples of my diet. I was curious as to how authentic the good solid rib-sticking ostrich egg lookalikes I boiled up were, and to this day I’m still not sure whether I was disappointed or delighted to find out they were pretty close to the real thing.

I was also looking forward to the bread, chiefly because of happy memories of what I had had when I was living in Germany, which is surely one of the absolutely very best countries in the whole world when it comes to bakery goods and which, I assumed, would be closely followed by its Central European neighbours. But in this there was no question about delight or disappointment.

In 1989 Britain hadn’t quite scaled the giddy heights of grotesque consumerism that seem to be the norm these days, but in terms of the variety of food on offer it still pissed all over Czechoslovakia from a great height. The main loaf to be found here at the time was one baked with rye that looked like this:

Not only visually but also in terms of edibility, it resembled nothing quite so much as Thunderbird 2:

It was OK when it was fresh, but usually it wasn’t, and it went sour and hard pretty fast. As did I when expected to eat it. Tears welled up in my pampered capitalist eyes when I thought of all those granary loaves just sitting in what until recently had been my local shop, and even good old English sliced bread, of which my dad used to swear one of the main ingredients was also in the recipe for soap flakes, had me slobbering like one of Pavlov’s dogs when I thought of it.

Of course, none of the people I knew had the slightest sympathy for my plight. Even without ever going to England, they just knew we lived on slops and that one of the lowest points of our wretched diet was our bread, and of course now that loads of them have been there their contempt is even greater – just watch them piling off the bus from London and hightailing it home to Mum to sink their famished choppers into the bread they grew up with.

Of course, in the Czech Republic nowadays we too have Tesco and 24/7 shopping-till-you-dropping and instore bakeries and wholegrain multicereal bread rolls and ciabatta baked with stoneground wholegrain flour from a south-facing slope and even something resembling a granary loaf, but the one that is sold in the biggest quantities is still our old friend Thunderbird 2.

But that’s the way it is with bread, isn’t it? Our daily bread. The staff of life. And what we grow up with, however dismal it may be in objective terms, is always going to be the yardstick against which everything else is tried and found wanting. Which is why I will still occasionally indulge myself in an occasional sandwich made with sliced white bread, and preferably containing traditional delicacies of my homeland such as bacon (from Denmark) or corned beef (from Argentina). Unbeatable!

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Take a look at the picture below. Think long and hard. Use the visual information to help you. Now take a deep breath, forget the fact that you may not speak a word of Czech, and see if you can provide a translation into English.

If you’ve come up with ‘NO SMOKING’, well, close but no cigar. Or these days, more probably, no cigarette. I have done some thorough investigative fieldwork on this. I started at the main railway station in Olomouc, where numerous of these signs are prominently displayed on the exterior walls, although at the time of day I pass through there they are frequently obscured by clouds of, you’ve guessed it, cigarette smoke, chiefly generated, as far as I can see, by schoolkids and the homeless, both of whom gather there in large numbers. So I decided to do a backup study outside the teacher training college where I work, just in case. There are similar signs there and a presumably literate bunch of punters hanging round outside. This is what I found just a couple of metres from one of the signs:

So I think I can now say, with some authority, backed up by empirical studies and observation, that ZÁKAZ KOUŘENÍ actually means something like “Please come and stand here with all your friends and enjoy a cigarette together, after which you are welcome to use your imagination and the detritus of said cigarette to decorate the place in whichever way you feel is most appropriate.” Say what you like about Czech; it sure as hell is an economical language – where else would you find two little words so redolent and pregnant with meaning as that?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


For many of the years that I have been in this country I lived in a flatblock, or rather in a series of four different flatblocks, where, curiously enough, I was always on the fourth floor. But a numerological analysis of any significance that this may have will have to wait till the portents are more favourable – today we have other fish to fry. Or rather schnitzels.

Pretty much every Sunday morning in those places I used to hear these rhythmic thumping noises, and I spent the longest time in a mix of ignorance and curiosity about them. DIY enthusiasts? Victorian disciplinarians giving it laldy with a running shoe? The kind of ardent lovemaking that has the bed doing a circuit of the room and to hell with the headboard and the walls? When I finally did find out it was, of course, something infinitely more prosaic – it was actually just chunks of lean pork being whacked with a big hammer to tenderise them.

There are a couple of competitors for the title of the nation’s favourite dish. Roast pork with cabbage and dumplings is one of them, but the schnitzel surely has to be another hot choice, whether as Sunday lunch, a regular on pub and canteen menus, or the discerning train traveller’s snack of choice, usually between a couple of chunks of bread and wrapped up in a paper napkin. Here's one, found at Die Österreichische Küche:

A lot of the Czechs I know, in that rather self-deprecating way a lot of them have, point out with a wry smile the fact that it’s somehow typical that an Austrian import should take such a central role in their eating habits. But actually, they’re not right about it, and nor are the Viennese who insist on putting the name of their city before the word ‘schnitzel’. Like so many other things in this part of the world it’s more complicated than that. This traditional Czech dish with an Austrian name is actually from Italy and was brought to Vienna by…a Czech. And not just any Czech either, but one with one of the best-known pieces of music ever written in Austria named after him.

In the middle of the nineteenth century there was war between the Habsburg monarchy and the Italians, who were fighting to unite their country. (Incidentally, and purely as an aside, the classic pizza margherita, with its red, white, and green celebrating the colours of the Italian flag, has its origins in the same conflict.) When the general who defeated the Italians came to Vienna in triumph after his victories, he brought his favourite dish with him. In its native land it was, and still is, better known as an escalope milanese. The Viennese gave him a hero’s welcome, which involved not only their adopting his favourite dish with enthusiasm, but also the penning of Opus 228 by Johann Strauss. You probably know it as the Radetzky March, named after Joseph Radetzky von Radetz, a native of Bohemia. Here he is, taken from here:

They are fond of saying in Vienna that “every true Viennese has a Czech grandmother”. But there is, as far as I know, only one true Viennese dish that has Italian parents and a dancing Czech general for a midwife.