Expedition to Czechia I: 1000 Years of Hearty Tradition

The Czech Republic (formerly part of Czechoslovakia) is, in some ways, a traditional middle-European country. But in others, its culture and cuisine are unique, hearty and colourful. One thing that can confidently be said is, you’ll never go hungry in the Czech Republic!

Svíčková na Smetaně - © halusky.co.ukSvíčková na Smetaně: Roast Beef with Cream Sauce. The Czech national dish!

What is now the Czech Republic was first officially organized as the Duchy of Bohemia in the 9th century, an independent state recognised under the Holy Roman Empire. But its history and culture go back at least another thousand years in tribal roots.

The Czechs and the Slovacks united after the First World War to form Czechoslovakia, which was made up of 27 percent of the population of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. The new nation became a Soviet satellite During the Cold War but returned to Western-style democracy after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Shortly thereafter, in 1993, the country divided peacefully into the culturally distinct Czech Republic (also known as Czechia) and Slovakia.

Your first glance at the menu of a Czech restaurant will tell you a lot of what you need to know about the country’s cuisine. It will be full of roasted meat dishes, thick soups and hearty stews. The nation is landlocked – smack in the middle of the continental mass – and, so, features little in the way of fish dishes. But pork and beef are tremendously popular, as are big, flavourful sauces. And you’ll soon discover that Czechs consider Sauerkraut a staple!

On our menu today

The Czech national cookbook contains a lot of loans and knock-offs of classic dishes from the cuisines of neighbouring Bohemian cultures. Familiar offerings include, Schnitzel, Goulash, Kuřecí Kapsa (stuffed chicken breast), Bramboráky (Czech potato pancakes), and Tatarák (Steak Tartare). But we want to look deeper, at some of the traditional Czech foods that define the country’s collective taste.

Svíčková na Smetaně: Beef with Cream Sauce. The lean beef is larded (has bacon fat strips inserted into longitudinal pockets cut in the roast) to keep it moist and tender. It’s them roasted to your p[reference of doneness. As the roast cooks, a sauce is made from parsley roots, carrots, celeriac, onions, with butter, heavy cream, vinegar and lemon juice, and spices including, Bay Leaf, Allspice, salt and pepper. The sauce is thickened with a roux, puréed, and strained. The beef is sliced thick and served beside the Czech national dumpling, Knedliky (see tomorrow’s bread and baked goods rundown for details), with the sauce on the side. This is one of the most popular dishes in Czechia – served in every home!

Vepřo Knedlo Zelo: Roast Pork with onion and caraway gravy. A boneless pork shoulder is roasted low and slow with lots of garlic, onions, caraway seeds salt and pepper. Meanwhile, Sauerkraut and onions are simmered together with caraway seeds, butter, sugar and salt.

Vepřo knedlo zelo - © nomadparadise.com

Note that some cooks start with shredded fresh cabbage rather than Sauerkraut. The roast drippings are thickened with flour (a slurry is recommended to avoid lumping). This is the national pork dish!

Kulajda: Cream of Potato Soup with Mushrooms. This is a thick, rich cream soup with potatoes and mushrooms. Re-hydrated dried mushrooms are recommended, which will produce an even heartier flavour. The soup base is made by thickening the mushroom liquid, either from rehydrating dried ones or sautéeing fresh ones. The soup is simmered until it thickens and the mushrooms and potatoes are added, simmering until the potatoes are fork tender. Heavy cream is added and stirred in gently just before serving.

Zelňačka: Another fabulous soup, based on Sauerkraut and Smoked Sausages. Potatoes, mushrooms and sour cream are also de rigeur.

Zelňačka - © nomadparadise.com

Flavourings are augmented with onion, caraway seeds and sweet paprika – which also gives the dish a rich red colour. It’s another dish enjoyed all across Czechia.

Pečená Kachna se Zelím: Roast Duck with Cabbage and Knedliky. The duck is slow roasted with caraway seeds. Fresh cabbage is shredded and simmered with sugar, vinegar, duck fat and raisins. A gravy can be made from the duck roasting juices. This is a favourite plate for special occasions, most prominently New Year’s Eve.

Vepřové koleno: Roasted Pork Knee. That’s right. Pork Knee. The pork is marinated in dark beer and roasted low and slow, bone-in.

Czech Pork Knee - © nomadparadise.com

It’s served with Knedliky and a side platter of bread, pickles, horseradish, onions and sometimes spinach. Eaten right off the bone, it’s a real treat for meat lovers!

Real food for real folks!

The foregoing is just a small sampling of the stuff Czechians eat and enjoy every day. Get Googling now to discover lots more! Tomorrow, we’ll look at Czech breads and baked goods…

~ Maggie J.