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?

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