Thought Czech food was only good for soaking up beer? Think again. A recent culinary revival has put the country firmly on the European foodie trail. Andy Turner volunteers his taste buds to investigate what and where to eat in Prague.
The wind howls down Wenceslas Square as I walk past the giant equestrian statue of Bohemia’s patron saint. I’m on my way to meet food-tourism pioneers Taste of Prague for a crash course in Czech cuisine. My guide, Karolina, soon spots me and the other participants (two Danes and an American) loitering outside a busy McDonald’s. Producing a bottle of home-made slivovice (plum brandy) and half a dozen shot glasses, she quickly breaks the ice and explains that there’s a great deal more to Prague eating than the Golden Arches or mushy dumplings.
Once a favourite with Austro-Hungarian royalty, Prague’s restaurants were considered on a par with Paris and Vienna right up until World War II. Communist rule then heralded a gastronomic deep freeze: official cookbooks stifled creativity, supermarkets shelves grew bare and bizarre television ads encouraged people to eat cabbage and drink milk. Today, almost 25 years since the Velvet Revolution, a new upheaval is taking place: celebrity chefs are promoting Modern Czech cooking, food blogs are multiplying like wild mushrooms and microbreweries, organic restaurants and hip cafés are springing up across the capital.
Stomachs rumbling we head to Čestr steak house. This stylish canteen-style restaurant dishes up a carnigasm of marinated ribs, slow-cooked ox cheek, smoked Přeštice ham and truffle-stuffed chicken accompanied by creamy mash and perfectly poured Pilsner Urquell. A trip to the loos takes me past a row of Čestr carcasses (a special Czech breed of cow) being prepared for the kitchen. Back at our table Karolina is mid anecdote, revealing how she used to share a bath with a live carp at Christmas time (all the better to keep it fresh for the big day). The meal is rounded of with (what else in Prague?) beer ice cream.
Snacks and sugar highs
I start to fret that Čestr has butchered my appetite on the way to Prague’s favourite snack stop Světozor deli. But I’m soon tucking into their chlebicke, or “little breads” layered with hard-boiled eggs, mayonaisse and poppy seeds and served in quaint boxes. My new Danish chums look skeptical but eventually agree that the Czechs have mastered the art of the open sandwich. Between mouthfuls Karolina raises the divisive national issue of potato salad recipes: “If my boyfriend made it the wrong way we could never get married”. I’m starting to like Karolina.
Next stop is patisserie St Tropez. Here we’re welcomed with shots of a medicinal-tasting digestif called Becherovka and platefuls of traditional Czech desserts. Each is a creation of glycaemic genius, blending nougat, caramel and vanilla cream in delicate laurel wreaths of pastry. Perhaps it’s all the sugar and alcohol but I begin to hallucinate. An upside-down horse and rider appear strung up from the ceiling outside; fortunately it’s not my mind playing tricks but a creation by David Cerny, enfant terrible of Czech art.
Beers, wines and hangovers
As darkness falls, we jump on a vintage tram and cross the River Vltava to Malá Strana, Prague’s “Little Quarter”. The chill grips my bones as we pass yet more surreal imaginings of Mr Cerny: this time giant babies crawling along the riverbank (they can also be seen scaling the Žižkov Television Tower like humanoid ants). A stiff drink is needed and we head to Vinograph, a candle-lit bar showcasing Czech wine. Neglected for decades under Communist rule, the country’s vineyards are now knocking out some perfectly decent Riesling and sweet Moravian Muscat, here served with a zesty pickled cheese.
One thing that did survive the Iron Curtain unscathed is Czech beer and I am now getting thirsty for a cold one. Karolina recommends a trip to microbrewery/restaurant Nota Bene. With trendy exposed brick and blackboard menus it’s about as far from a dimly lit beer hall as you can get. The tap list includes a fruity American Pale Ale from craft beer darlings Matuška. There’s more traditional hoppy magnificence on offer at monastic brewery U Tří růží, “At three roses”, in the Old Town, though by now my note taking is becoming patchy and I navigate my way back to the hotel in a series of blurry tram rides.
Next morning I’m sipping a latte at Můj šálek kávy, “My cup of tea”, in Karlín, another Taste of Prague favourite. Grinding the best beans in town, its staff have also nailed the “Shoreditch barista” look of black t-shirt and carefully crafted facial hair. I find myself agreeing with Patrick Leigh Fermor who suggested Prague appeared even more lustrous with a slight hangover. The city looks amazing in the glowing wintry sun and I can’t wait to sample more examples of its culinary revolution.
Need to know
EasyJet fly to Prague from five UK cities: Bristol, Edinburgh, London Gatwick, Stansted and Manchester. Andy Turner stayed at andel’s Hotel Prague as a guest of Vienna International Hotels & Resorts who offer six hotels across the city. Taste of Prague tours last around four hours and cost CZK 2550 (£75) per person inclusive of all food and drink (maximum group size 4). To sample some of capital’s finest food visit during the Prague Food Festival held in May.