What is the typical Czech dish? Is it schnitzel, goulash, svíčková (marinated sirloin), or buchty (buns)? What are the defining traits of Czech culinary heritage? And can Czech cuisine offer something to world gastronomy? A project underway at the National Museum of Agriculture examines the history of Czech cuisine.
Culinary culture is a part of each nation’s history. Traditional eating habits, ingredients, foods, and drinks along with their taste properties all do their part to form the traditional national cuisine. Today, culinary traditions are being altered and even forced out by modern technology, lack of time to prepare meals, and globalisation. Over at the National Museum of Agriculture, efforts are underway to capture and document Czech culinary heritage. “Czech national cuisine has been determined by the ingredients that were historically available here – potatoes, cabbage, legumes, etc. Those ingredients made up the base of most traditional family meals. More distant influences came from Vienna during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After independence in 1918, inspiration came from our western allies, particularly from France. That gave birth to new recipes, cooking techniques, and food names that began to be used both at home and in restaurants.” Says Jitka Sobotková, curator of the Culinary Heritage of the Czech Lands project. As a part of it, the National Museum of Agriculture organized a nationwide collection of recipes.
“We were taken by surprise at the enormous amount of enthusiasm that people had for the project. The Museum received tens, maybe hundreds of hand-written and printed cookbooks from as far back as the 19th century. All really beautiful and preserved pieces, with the occasional gravy stain, of course.”
The recipes have their origins in households, and they gradually evolved and improved as they were passed down from one generation to the next. According to Sobotková, that process is today hindered by the internet. “As young people increasingly turn to the internet for recipes, inherited cookbooks from older family members are not needed anymore. On the other hand, we have found that the absolute classics of Czech cuisine are rarely written down at all. Hardly anyone has a recipe for bramboračka (potato soup) written down somewhere because they and their families have cooked it so often for so long that they simply remember it. In that way, our traditional cuisine continues to be carried within us unwritten.”
The difference between the diet of an aristocrat and that of the rest of the population was mainly in available ingredients, the number of daily meals, and the amount of food served. “A wealthier family of nobles or lords would have a range of exotic ingredients available to them – fruits, vegetables, and spices – that were not accessible to common folks. Among the poorer classes, meals were made with legumes, mashed potatoes, dumplings, etc.” Says Sobotková. Also common were typical Czech spices such as marjoram and lovage.
There were differences in table manners as well. “The urban bourgeoisie tended to eat more often. There was breakfast, a midmorning meal, lunch, and snacks. Several courses were included in one meal. In contrast, people in rural areas often only ate in the evening when they came back from working in the fields. Since they only ate once a day, the amount of food had to be relatively large.”
According to Sobotková, the fundamentals of traditional Czech cuisine are quality ingredients and adherence to a set cooking procedure. “By quality ingredients, I don’t mean expensive meat or anything like that, more so things like a well-made broth or sauce. Things that have to do with proper cooking techniques which are not that common today, perhaps because they are more time-intensive than modern alternatives. Grandma’s kitchen was characterized by quality preparation.”
Another typical Czech culinary trait is the ability to store food for later. “A Czech cook is often putting up and drying fruit, making sirup, jam or marmalade. In other words, preserving ingredients for a more trying time in the future, so that there are foods reserves for the winter or a year of poor harvest.”
And can Czech cuisine offer something to international gastronomy? “The potential is immense”, according to Sobotková. “From our research and the materials that we have here at the Museum, we have found that Czech cuisine can mainly offer a certain thriftiness, temperance, and the minimal wasting of materials. A Czech cook knows how to put a leftover piece of dumpling to good use – the same goes for old bread or spoiled milk. I think that ability is rather unique in world gastronomy.”
“We say that traditional Czech foods are the most ordinary dishes, such as potato flatbread, for instance. Other than that, sweet foods are often overlooked. In my opinion, anything made from yeast dough (things like Moravian kolache, wedding kolache, and other baked dishes) deserves recognition as a Czech staple.”