Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Carp - Czech Christmas Food

Happy Christmas! I photographed this rather chirpy looking sheep decoration in Ceske Budejovice last Christmas.

I am now in England until just after Christmas and was looking in our local large town Cheltenham for some Czech alcohol yesterday. There are at least four shops in Cheltenham selling Eastern European food and all feature in their windows a prominent notice announcing the arrival of carp for Christmas. The British may not consider the carp a great fish for eating, dismissing it as muddy in flavour, but in Central Europe it is prized. Indeed carp is a central feature of the Christmas celebrations.

Around our Czech home in South Bohemia there are to be found large man-made fishponds, where carp has been farmed for centuries. Back in late autumn we visited the nearest of these - Lake Olsina - to watch the bi-annual carp harvest. The Lake had slowly been drained of water over the preceding days, forcing the fish into a pool at one end. A large net further restrained them and by the time we arrived they were confined to a small area, where they thrashed and gasped for air.

Above on the embankment a crowd of Czechs had gathered, some brought in coaches on trips to see the fish haul, others in the distinctive green outfits of the local fisherman's guild. Sausages were available for purchase, together with beer to wash it down with. The atmosphere was one of great festivity. Down below the fish were caught and thrown large plastic tubs, which were then loaded onto a conveyor and hoisted up to huge fish tanks on one of a fleet of lorries.

The destination of these fish will be the many barrels which appear in the market places of Czech towns at this time of year. When I first saw them I was quite amazed to see live fish for sale in the centre of town. I was amazed to see too the Czechs taking the still live fish home with them. There the poor fish are often kept in the bath until the time comes for the preparation for the Christmas feast and their demise.

Carp has a very important place in Czech affections, so much so that exiles in the UK feel the need to import them specially at this time of year. I have eaten carp once in the Czech Republic and not been able to see the great attraction of the fish. But then Christmas traditions are like that aren't they - turkey isn't the most flavourful meat I've ever eaten, and yet where would a British Christmas be without it?

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Czech Dinner for the Folks

In my last post I told you that I was planning to cook a typical Czech meal for my family. I did and I am pleased to say it was a great success. At the meal were my parents, my sister Anneliese, my sister Jane (pictured above eating another memorable Czech meal) and her husband and teenage daughters and of course my husband and son. Of those around the table only my parents had been unable to visit our Czech home and taste Czech food. Czech food tends to be much maligned - thought of as rich and stodgy, with lots of dumplings and sauerkraut. And whilst it is true that both dumplings and sauerkraut feature prominently in Czech cuisine, they are infinitely superior to those we get in the UK.

But I digress, back to the famous family meal: the menu consisted of a choice of two soups - wild mushroom and potato, a main course of Czech roasted shoulder of pork with red cabbage and potatoes and finished with a choice of tvaroh or apple strudel. With the exception of one niece who is a fussy eater, my guests ate everything put in front of them and then came back for more.

My mother was particularly taken with the Czech approach to cooking the pork and wanted to know how I had achieved meat which almost melted in the mouth. The answer is that having cut the pork into chunks, rubbed them with crushed garlic and caraway seeds, and placed them in a baking tray with roughly chopped onions, you add water to about an inch depth and cover with foil. You are effectively braising the pork, then you remove the foil cover and roast the meat until the water evaporates leaving a caramelised residue, to which further water is added to create the gravy.

I cannot comment on timings or amounts as the Czech cookery book I used gave neither, something you wouldn't get away with in an English book, you can't imagine Nigella or Delia doing that. But then that is exactly how my mum taught to me to cook and indeed it is how I cook now.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Czech Food shopping for Brits

I am now in the UK and will fly back to the Czech Republic just in time for the New Year celebrations. I would love it if my parents were able to visit our Czech home, they helped in its purchase and I know they would love to visit too. However elderly knees will not take the journey and so all they can do is read this blog and look at our photos. I therefore decided to give them a taste of Czech cuisine (albeit cooked by a Brit - me).

It used to be the case, when first we started going to the Czech Republic and indeed even when we bought our Czech home, that you could not get Czech ingredients in the UK. With the influx of Czech and Polish workers into England, following their countries' entry into the EU, came foodstuffs and foodstores geared up to the new arrivals. Suddenly on the Cowley Road in Oxford where I worked, you could buy chleb (Czech bread), klobasa (spicy sausages) and the ubiquitous pickled vegetables. Most of it came from Poland, but the other day I came across the Czechland Food Shop in Gloucester, which offers more Czech groceries than usual, including importantly the different grades of flour. I have even found that crucial ingredient tvaroh - a cream cheese used in strudels and buchty (Czech doughnuts) - in our local Morrisons.

I will have to tell you in my next post how I fared in my attempt at cooking a Czech meal for my parents. Meanwhile I shall just help myself to a Pribinacek (a vanilla cream desert and comfort food) which I bought in Gloucester.

Friday, 12 December 2008

The Ales South Bohemian Gallery – Collection Of Medieval Art

The other day my husband and I decided to play the tourist and go on a trip to the Castle at Hluboka, well not the castle as such but the Gallery which is to be found attached to it. So we joined the hoards of German schoolchildren as they wound their way up from the town below. The zigzag way offered good views across the Vltava and the fish ponds towards the blue hills and mountains of the south. The castle is built in the English Gothic style of Windsor and other Victorian palaces, a white confection of crenellations and faux gargoyles standing in beautiful gardens again of the English style. Unlike the Germans our way took us to the left into a conservatory of flamboyant cast iron and glass, then left again and into the Collection of Medieval Art of the Ales South Bohemian Gallery.

The collection was a revelation and one, which had it been say at the Tate in Liverpool, we would have made an overnight visit to see and thought it worth the money. There were two large galleries filled with medieval statuary (calvaries, saints, Madonnas with and without child, and pietas) and religious paintings from altar screens. The pieces had been gathered from all over South Bohemia, and featured the work of both local craftsmen and others working in nearby Bavaria. What was particularly striking to us was the familiarity of the places from which the art works had been taken, not only were they from large wealthy towns and abbeys such as Ceske Budejovice and Kajov, but from small local villages and churches such as Boletice and Novosedly, a sign of the wealth perhaps of this fertile region at the time. The oldest exhibit is a statue of St Bartholomew from Horni Drkolna from before 1300 – the saint is simply but effectively carved from a lump of limewood with a head out of proportion to the body. The Gallery allows one to move through the development of Czech Gothic art from that simple piece. As time goes by the artistic style evolves, developing more natural proportions, and even movement. The facial features change and vary, some show the influence of Byzantine art, others the become individualised.

Throughout our visit we were alone in the Gallery apart from the two gallery attendants that followed us round. The tourist hoards clearly preferred the excesses of 19th Century English Gothic to the sublime purity of the original medieval Gothic of Central Europe. It is a shame that this is so, this is a collection of international importance.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

And the Monkey

Following on the last post and Hannah's request, here is the fresco of the monkey in the window of my favourite house in Na Louzi Street.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Lady at the Window

Some of my favourite frescos in Cesky Krumlov are those to be found on the facades of 54 La Nouzi Street. This lovely renaissance house was reputed to have been the home of the agent of the Rosenbergs. The frescos I am referring to are those jokingly showing the 16th century inhabitants at their windows, including one of a pet monkey sitting on the window ledge. One is of a woman looking straight at you. It is as if she is watching the world go by without any reason other than being nosey. She has been doing it for nearly four centuries.

On the square where my friend lives there is a block of flats. An old lady lives in one of them and I often see her looking out of her first floor window as I come and go. She can be there for hours, the passing world offers such fascination. I have got into the habit of smiling at her and nodding as I go past and she smiles back. Her face is lined and broad and when she smiles her eyes disappear.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Road Accidents

I was walking the road from Kajov to Chvalsiny, taking advantage of a cold brisk day with a gloriously bright sun, when I took this photo. The road is a not atypical one for these parts, lined on both sides by parades of trees and on an embankment that slopes steeply away into the river or the water meadows. This layout has its perils, the road is too narrow, barely wide enough (if at all) in places for two cars to meet each other and certainly not with a pedestrian in the road too. The road deceives the drivers into going too fast – something most Czechs do anyway – and on occasion into overtaking when one cannot see far enough ahead – again something Czech drivers do regularly. If one is unfortunate to meet such stupidity coming towards you, the closely planted trees and the embankment mean there is nowhere for your car to go to avoid an accident.

In all I counted three wayside memorials to lives lost on the four kilometre stretch I walked and numerous trees where the scarred bark told of other (hopefully less fatal) accidents. The memorials were marked with plaques and flowers. All spoke, as in this one shown here, of young lives cut short. And yet as I walked the cars still went too fast, several times I had to jump on to the verge. I do not doubt that there will be more memorials added to the road's deadly tally over the years. There are some calls for the trees to be cleared from the sides of these roads, but they are not fault, the drivers are. The trees have been there long before the speeding cars. And would removing them actually stop the accidents or might it even encourage more speeding?


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