This is not a food blog. It will never be a food blog. That said, I’ll likely make occasional posts on the subject and today is one of them.**Apologies, I’m not using a Czech keyboard so my use of Czech vocabulary will not be 100% correct. My spelling will be accurate but the accent marks will be missing. Regardless, feel free to Google these things and they’ll be found with relative ease.
Today I had lunch at a nice local place around the corner. This spot has tank beer (tankovna). What is tank beer? For fellow beer drinkers, it’s similar to a keg system but with some marked differences. Tank beer is exactly that: beer stored in a large steel tank and served fresh. Fresh? Yes, it’s absolutely fresh. Some pubs have the tanks on display for patrons. Many think that tank beer is as close to brewery beer as you can get. That is, if you like super fresh & super cold beer. I am a fan of both. The tank system also eliminates the necessity of CO2. Here in the Czech Republic, tank pubs aren’t a rarity; however, the tank system isn’t in every neighborhood pub. If you ask a local, he or she can most likely ramble off a few places for you to try.
This afternoon’s meal was at Lokal. Lokal has two locations (Old Town and Mala Strana). I went to the Old Town location due to my laziness and sheer proximity to my flat. It’s just around the corner so why not? The Old Town location has their tanks on display as I described above. Additionally, many locals say that this location has THE best tank beer in town. I certainly haven’t hit every tankovna in Prague but I can agree with this assessment. Their Pilsner Urquell is cold, fresh, and super tasty. The head on the beer is always thick (that’s just the Czech way) and this Pilsner tank beer is lovely. The head on the beer varies from beer to beer: thick, milky, creamy, bubbly, less bubbly, etc. You get my point. Nevertheless, the head on the Pilsner from Lokal is thick and creamy.
Here is some additional information for anyone interested in tank beer in Prague!
As far as the ‘marking’ and payment system of beer in Prague and the Czech Republic… well, that could be a bit different for many. The old system of keeping track of ordered/consumed beer is via a very simple pen & paper system. That is, the waiter uses hash marks on a paper that is left on the table thus noting your order. Some food orders are calculated in a similar way. It’s considered a big no-no to misplace, write on, or destroy the ‘tab’ the waiter is keeping at the table. Lokal still uses this system (as do many others) but they’ve kind of brought it up a notch by printing their own ‘papers’ with tiny images of half-liters and .33 liters of beer. Thusly, each little picture is marked through.
Go ahead & tally up how many beer icons are on that sheet. I’ll give you a minute. Tick..tick tick… Yes, it’s nearly a hundred. I’ll give you a premature congratulations and slap on the back if you & your friends can fill up one of these pages with hash marks.
*A side note about beer that I read in a guidebook before I moved here 4 years ago…. The books I had were clearly written by someone who hadn’t spent much time here or hadn’t been here at all. Something that stood out in my mind was information saying that when you go to a pub, the waiters just bring you beer continuously without asking and without you ordering it. This is simply not true. Perhaps this was true years ago but I can confirm with absolute certainty that waiters DO NOT keep your mug filled for the duration of the night. Then, the book continued, when you do not want any more beer, you simply put your coaster on the top of the mug indicating to the waiter that you are too blitzed to have another. Service in general, can be quite contrary to this notion of endless mugs of beer and clinking of glasses. When in a pub, you DO have to order beer if you want it and sometimes you are lucky if the waiter even pays attention to you at all. A waiter’s eagerness to keep you happy and drunk is an unlikely scenario.**
The price of beer here is also unbelievable. I say this in a good way. For the most part, beer is cheaper than water in this country. That isn’t a joke. More often than not, a .5L of beer will cost LESS than a .33L of bottled water. The choice is basically made for you.
What’s an average cost? At a tourist trap you can expect to pay perhaps 60-80CZK per .5L mug. At current conversion rates, that’s around 3-4USD. Remember, that’s the ‘expensive’ stuff. On the other end of the spectrum is the more standard price which is on the low end perhaps 25CZK to maybe 40-45CZK. That’s somewhere around the range of $1.25 to about $2.25. The Pilsner Urquell at Lokal is 41CZK.
All in all, the Czech Republic is a great country for beer. They are proud of their brewing history and traditions. They should be proud. It’s damn good stuff. There are easily hundreds of breweries in these lands. Considering a population of about 10.5 million, that’s an impressive feat!
There really isn’t anything in Czech food that would shock or surprise anyone who is familiar with the cuisines of the ‘western’ world. Those possessing a western palate, could most certainly find something edible and worthwhile here.
Generally speaking, Czech cuisine isn’t terribly adventurous nor does it contain any unusual or awkward ingredients or seasonings. Czech food is not spicy and many meat dishes are slow-cooked and often served with some kind of gravy-like sauce. There is, however, one possible exception to the ‘no unusual ingredients’ rule that I’ll expand on a bit later. Overall, there are some basic categories of Czech food. The prevalence of such food is easily noted even by a weekend traveler as there isn’t much variation from one traditional Czech restaurant to the next.
Regarding items found on a typical Czech menu (in a restaurant) one can expect to find: pork, pork, and more pork, potatoes and potatoes, cabbage (sweet), various breads, soups, pickled things, beer, fried items, and a few sweets.
Pork is without a doubt the #1 meat here. Of course other options are available but menus generally have the widest variety of pork options and the locals really do eat quite a lot of it. Pork in all forms is readily available. There are also many varieties of sausages. Regular supermarkets have a wide variety of said sausages so going to a butcher is unnecessary. A fried cutlet (locally called rizek) is usually served with cabbage and dumplings.
There are two savory varieties of dumplings: bread and potato. Both options are shaped into something resembling a loaf shape, the loaf is then cooked, and slices are made from the loaf. Czechs seem to have an affinity for one or the other but also they have strong feelings that depending on the meal itself, one form is more suitable than another.
Czechs love their potatoes. They love all kinds of potatoes. Here’s my ode to Forrest Gump: fried potatoes, mashed potatoes, potato pancakes, potato soup, potato salad, boiled potatoes, and so on… Whole baked potatoes don’t really exist on any restaurant menu. But many restaurants will often have multiple potato options on offer as side items. And by multiple, I’ve seen easily 5 to 8 potato variations as sides with nothing else. It’s either a potato in some form or nothing at all.
Cabbage is often seen in a ‘sauerkraut’ form although the local variety is sweet and available in white and red. I can’t taste any difference between them but I’m sure a Czexpert could do it.
Czechs also really love their breads. Many of them, when asked by yours truly, said that they would probably miss Czech bread the most if they lived abroad. The concept of bread brings up an interesting cultural difference. What an English speaker considers bread and what a Czech considers to be bread are quite different. From what I know, those from English-speaking countries have a bigger umbrella term for bread than what Czechs put under their smaller bread umbrella. To me, almost anything made with flour and sold in the bakery would be bread. Not the case here.
One particular Czech bread is called Sumava (there’s a forest of the same name). This bread is dark brown in color and it has ‘kmin’. Kmin translates to caraway seeds. Kmin is ever-present in Czech cuisine. Seriously, it’s used in: soup, bread, side items, and also on meat. I’m not a huge fan of caraway as it has a unique taste and it can be somewhat overpowering. The local population seem to enjoy it but I think that they’re so used to it being in everything that they don’t realize how MUCH or how OFTEN it is actually used.
Soups and pickled things are on nearly all restaurant menus. Typical soups would be: dill, potato, potato and mushroom, garlic, beef broth with dumplings, and goulash (gulas). A soup is usually on offer with lunch specials and soups are eaten regularly. As far as the pickled things are concerned… Well, the term ‘pickled’ here isn’t exactly familiar to most. Yes, there are traditional pickles (some sour, some sweet) but also a favorite starter is nakladany hermelin. Nakladany means pickled and hermelin means cheese. This particular cheese looks and tastes like a mini brie. The color is the same and it has a white rind. Hermelin is produced and sold in small wheels which are about the circumference of a tin can. One wheel is maybe 3-4 ounces. Nakladany hermelin is made quite easily: into a glass jar there is some combination of onions, peppers, garlic, juniper berries, chili peppers, black pepper, bay leaves, and oil. The oil and onions are necessary but I think there’s flexibility with the other items. So, all/some/a few of those items and a few wheels of the cheese are stored in a sealable glass jar for a few days. The cheese & other goodies from the jar are served with a stack of hearty brown bread and TA DA! Here is what nakladany hermelin looks like!
Who doesn’t love fried things?! I’d say all in all that there is less fried food here than in the U.S. but of course there are still options. One popular choice is smazeny syr or smazeny hermelin. Do you remember hermelin from above? What is it? Yes, it’s that cheese! Smazeny means fried.
Yes folks, this is fried cheese. But don’t think of this like your typical fried mozzarella kind of thing. There are some options as far as this item goes. One variation is on the cheese itself. Hermelin? Something else? No problem. Menus indicate what kind of cheese they use. There is smazeny syr as a sandwich. It’s a disc of deep-fried cheese and it’s slapped on a bun. Trust me, this is a good late-nite food on your way home from the bar. The guys at the sausage stands at the bottom of Vaclavske namesti know this, too. Their night business gets a huge surge around 2-4am.
Another variation is that this can be served as a starter. Or even better yet for the cheese lovers out there, this is also an option as a main course. Yes, fried cheese as a main. In fact, Lokal has it as a main dish. Fried cheese sounds pretty good, right? Well, it is but here’s something that might be strange…. the fried cheese is usually served with tartar sauce. The first time I heard about the combination a few years ago I was rightfully furrowing my brow and thinking, “WTF?” Cheese and tartar sauce does have a strange ring to it but I gladly confirm that it’s delicious. It’s fucking delicious. If you’ve seen the Anthony Bourdain No Reservations episode about Prague, he really goes a bit bonkers over the smazeny syr from the 24-hour sausage vendors.
Sweet stuff and desserts….. Czechs have a sweet tooth. If you could see the SIZE of the chocolate section in the supermarket you would be blown away. Seriously, the chocolate and yogurt sections in the Czech Republic are massive. There aren’t a lot of super chocolatey items here in the way of actual baked/cooked desserts. Yes, there are 4,293 chocolate bars but their desserts are centered more around fruits, nuts, and honey. They love something called kolac. It’s a round baked disc usually topped with either poppy seeds (another favorite in the C.R.), fruit, or tvaroh. I don’t exactly know how to describe tvaroh because there is no American equal. I can say it’s a dairy product somewhat similar in consistency to cream cheese/cottage cheese. This is the best I can do! A favorite Czech dessert is something called medovnik. Med means honey so this is a layered honey cake. I’m not particularly fond of it but if you invite a Czech to your home, they might bring one as a gift!
Ok well, I could go on more about food and beer but those are the basics!!! Happy eating & NA ZDRAVI!