Even calibrating for a faulty memory, when I arrived in the former Czechoslovakia in 1990 I remember it being a wasteland for food. Fantastic beer, to be sure, but also stale bread topped with indigestible lumps of grisly meat; dumplings that could have been used as cricket balls; and sauces so uniform that every dish tasted exactly the same. This experience is only topped by my memory of trying to find something edible in the now equally defunct Yugoslavia.
I was eager to discover what the intervening twenty-seven years had done to Czech food. Was it undergoing a renaissance? Could goulash and dumplings be the next big thing on the international culinary scene? Why was every restaurant obsessed with listing the weight of each meal on their menus? Not calories, meal weight. How had Czechs survived without the vitamins and minerals from vegetables? Not forgetting the big question, how many dumplings can one person eat in a week without actually becoming one themselves?
No one comes to the Czech Republic to lose weight. A steady diet of dishes swimming in brown sauces, large pieces of pork and a disconcerting lack of vegetables seemed to be the norm. Even when I made an effort to order vegetables, they came lightly fried with bits of pork mixed in for extra saltiness. The Czechs rival the Spanish for their love of putting pork in every dish. I didn’t eat a single meal that was more than lukewarm. All-in-all, I think this was an improvement on my previous experience.
Much of what I remember from 1990 remains true today, but the food is now of a much higher quality and generally very tasty. My favourite meal came in a traditional self-service restaurant in Prague. You collected a tray and a piece of paper and then did a tour of the food counters, anything you ordered was marked on the paper form. There were tourists, Czech businessmen, school groups and families all enjoying the strange eccentricity of the experience. I stood at a counter to eat like a local.
Prague in particular has a thriving international food scene. It’s possible to slip into an oyster bar for a some slimy mollusks washed down with a glass of champagne; have an authentic(ish) Indian curry; or pretend you’re in Latin America while eating delicious Peruvian ceviche. I even saw a vegan restaurant. There are more pizza restaurants than you can count, and the ‘full English breakfast’ is served in far too many places in my opinion. Times really have changed.
One of the nicest things about this trip though, was the number of food festivals, and street food opportunities there were. Often this was part of a wine or beer festival, which seemed to be a theme as I travelled around. It would be fair to say there wasn’t much diversity beyond pork-related treats, but in Brno I came across a variety of traditional dishes and some artisanal cheeses. I also came across a large mound of Dutch cheese. An exotic import?
Perhaps the biggest change is the multitude of fast food places. Like everywhere else on the planet the international burger and fried chicken chains are legion, and seem to have interbred to produce a range of local hybrids. The smell of old oil frying dodgy chicken products is all too common.
Despite the sense of repetition with every meal I seemed to order, I largely stuck to eating in traditional Czech restaurants. You can’t really go wrong with the local dish of the day washed down with a beer. Although I learned my lesson when, in desperation, I asked for a tomato and onion salad to accompany one meal. The tomatoes and onions arrived in a soup bowl, floating in a sweet liquid. When in the Czech Republic, do as the Czechs do, and don’t order tomato salad.