A Czech Christmas feast
In this special Christmas programme on Radio Prague we are going to be looking at traditional Czech Christmas meals. Later on yours truly will be making his take on the classic Czech-style potato salad. But first, I am joined in the studio by Ladislav Provaan of the Gastronomy Museum, who is an expert in all things culinary.
“Well, it goes back to the 13th century, because surprisingly enough, carp is of an oriental origin. It came from the Far East, and reached the countries of Central Europe in the 13th century introduced by monks. Monasteries were farming carp because it is a freshwater fish. It was farmed in ponds and was easy to get hold of. And, crucially, it wasn’t considered to be meat. Christmas Eve in our country is still part of a religious fasting period. Carp is one of the dishes, which is allowed.”
And with that the fasting comes to an end?
“The morning after.”
Being Christmas, you’d expect people to be eating the most expensive and lavish foods, no?
“Nowadays. It was a much more modest and humble festivity as far as food was concerned. And we still have some of these historical foods being consumed even today. Usually in very small amounts – symbolically, including carp.”
How did the traditional Christmas meal come about in which the carp is breaded and served with potato salad?
“It was a special meal for a fasting day.”
So it was actually about frugality? It was about having something that was “less” than meat?
“Well, it was cheap. Meaning it was available to the poorer parts of society. Because noble folk used to consume poultry and game and so on. Carp was eaten by monks and nuns in monasteries and also by peasants. That was the whole point. As I said, it was introduced to our country in the 13th century. But then somehow it was forgotten till the mid-17th century. Then, when Protestant priests were leaving the country during the exodus, the Catholic church regained its position here and the custom was reintroduced.”
And so the notion of a fillet of carp is somewhat absurd, is it not? I mean you eat the fish with the bones in it and you pick them out as you eat it, right?
“Well, to some extent. Firstly, it is very important to know how to prepare it. And secondly, you have to be knowledgeable about what you are eating. I actually have a not-so-funny story from America, when a Czech ex-pat lady wanted to host her daughter’s classmates for a Christmas party. And those were all five or six-year-olds – first graders. And it was horrible! It ended with an emergency call for a doctor, and two or three kids had big problems because these tiny bones can hurt your throat and they had to be removed by professionals.”
And it is doubly annoying, you might say, because you are eating it with potato salad, so you want to be able to chew away in your mouth, but you can’t because you have to worry about the bones. I have to admit that personally, it is quite a pain for me and I don’t really enjoy it.
“Well, there is a way to actually prepare particular portions of it. There is the chest part of the fish, where you cut right across when butchering in a horseshoe shape. You cut off the belly part, because that is where the tiny bones are, and then the back spine part, where also there are some bones. So you end up with two horseshoe-shaped cuts, which only have long rib bones in them. And you can quite safely consume this.”
So the secret is to know what you are doing. Because I remember from eating it that, yes, there are parts of the fish with big bones – and only big bones...
“That is exactly what I am talking about.”
And come Christmas time in the Czech Republic, you will suddenly see big water tanks appearing in the streets full of live carp. So people come and take the live fish home?
“Or they have it killed for them. And foreigners are often very concerned by this. Every year I read horrifying message from Prague where they say that local people: ‘are standing in line watching these fish being massacred. It’s so horrible, and how can they do that!?’”
“It depends on what people request. And increasingly people are buying a fillets of carp. The people fillet the fish by slicing it along the back of the spine, and then go along those long ribs with a knife. And that will mean a good chance that you have meat which is bone free.”
So you can have a carp which is completely bone free?
“Yes, but it must be done by either a professional or someone very familiar with the fish.”
And if you wanted to try to fillet out the part of the fish that is full of small bones? Is it possible to do that? Would you pull them out with tweezers, or do you just leave those in?
“Yes, and we should also mention carp soup.”
OK, let’s get to that. I confess that that is something I do find very, very tasty. Fried carp is something I’m not sure I personally find to be a great-tasting fish experience. But carp soup, I find quite delicious. So tell us about that.
“For that you can use all the parts that you are cutting off, including the head.”
The main flavour comes from the head.
“Yes. And the tail, which can often be quite large.”
And the offal – the insides, right?
“Yes. We know that at the end of the summer season, fish begin to starve, so their intestines are clean.”
And then you have the other offal – the liver and kidney and so on.
“Oh, yes. That is a tremendous delicacy. Because you know that a carp has either roe or milt, right? And no matter which gender of fish you are consuming, you put that into the soup as well.”
Roe is the eggs and the milt is the sperm...
“Basically you boil it. You put in some onion, and all those pieces of fish we spoke about, to boil in water.”
Do you make a standard soup stock with carrot, celeriac and parsnip?
“Yes, but you don’t have to overdo it with the vegetables because it can kill the taste of the fish. The important part is the head – but you have to prepare it. The head has like the lungs of the fish...”
“Right, gills. You have to take those out because they would turn the soup bitter.”
Let’s say you’ve butchered your fish. You cut out the bits of meat that you are going to breadcrumb and fry for your Christmas dinner. So you are left with a kind of head and tale bit connected by the spine – kind of like the way they look in a Warner Bros. cartoons after being eater by Sylvester the Cat...
“And the offal...”
So you put all that in with some vegetables and boil it?
“Right. And after about 20 minutes or so, you turn the heat off. And you push through a sieve the parts which need to be de-boned. So that creates a kind of a chowder style for the soup.”
You are putting the meat back in again.
“And then the clean parts you cut up and put them back into the soup. The vegetables are also pushed through the sieve, so it is very fine...”
But is in not supposed to be a chunky soup? It’s not a smooth soup...
“Well, because those pieces of meat and milt or whatever you out back in makes it remind me of a New England chowder. Then to finish it off, you put in some nutmeg.”
Does it need to be thickened?
We won’t be talking about potato salad, because later on I’ll be making that, so stay tuned! Let’s look at the question of why the carp is fried in breadcrumbs. That’s known in Czech as a “trojobal” – or triple cover. You dip it in flour, then eggs, then breadcrumbs. And Czechs are big fans of that, right? Because you have fried cheese and schnitzel.
So why is that so popular in Czech cooking?
“Again, because eggs and breadcrumbs are something that was easily available to peasants.”
And do Czechs eat carp much outside of Christmas?
“Not really. It’s true that we sometimes appreciate carp soup off-season – but there is one additional detail that might be of interest to foreigners: carp shouldn’t be skinned. But you do have to remove the scales. One variety of carp has just a few of these which we call ‘špígl’. And then there is the regular Czech carp, which you really have to clean quite well. But leave the skin on.”
For flavour, right?
“Not only for that, but because the meat would fall apart.”
And this particular Czech dinner – does it stretch into neighbouring countries? Do Bavarians have it, or Poles, or Slovaks?
“I think it was more of an Austro-Hungarian Empire dish. So it was consumed within its countries, including Bohemia.”
So they eat carp in Austria?
“I can’t guarantee it. [They used to traditionally] but carp is tricky to consume, so [the Austrian Christmas dinner is changing].”
“The shapes are a major factor. Because we use special moulds – or cookie cutters – for that. And then we also have several types of dough. It’s usually sweet, unlike other kinds of cookies. And for the dough preparations people use all kinds of spices; even gingerbread cookies are popular.”
And ground walnuts play a role.
“Walnuts, almonds – you name it...”
And the very simple “rohlíček”.
“That is the most popular one.”
That’s a small crescent-shaped biscuit dipped in vanilla-flavoured icing sugar. If anyone is reading or listening and wanted to try making one of these, how would they do it?
“Ground walnuts, mixed with sugar, and of course flower and butter. And then they are either rolled out by hand or cut out of rolled-out dough. After they are baked, they are tossed in vanilla-flavoured icing sugar.”
Which for purists, it’s usually a chemically flavoured vanilla sugar.
“It shouldn’t be too difficult to create a natural version if you are concerned about quality. Of course it is usually much better to work with natural ingredients rather than utilising processed products.”
And regarding these Christmas cookies, it’s been my experience that every house you visit has a different assortment of cookies, and ways of making them. Asides from the basic one we mentioned “rohlíčky” and also the standard “linecký” which is two pieces of shortbread sandwiched together by jam, you get endless combinations and toppings. For example an egg white froth mixed together with walnut and cocoa baked on top of shortbread. It is really never-ending.
You increase the mix that way.
“Yeah, and everybody wants to show off. The ladies can boast that a particular cookie is her specialty and everyone congratulates her on how delicious they are.”
How laborious is it? How much time does it take for the average family or household to create their selection of Christmas cookies?
“It depends. But it really is a time-consuming activity. And usually if you have grandparents, then that is considered a good time to ask them to help out. It’s actually a very nice inter-generational activity. Because grandparents are making these cookies with their grandchildren. And for many young Czech kids it is their first experience of cooking.”
I have my own memories of that – that I was allowed to eat the slightly burned or broken ones that would not be going into the official collection. And this baking day was usually a few days before Christmas itself.
Let’s move on to the Czech Christmas Day meal. Which isn’t hugely different from the Western meal in that there is also a large piece of roast poultry eaten. But what exactly do Czechs eat on Christmas Day? Is it duck, or goose, or turkey? And is it in the English roast vegetables and potatoes way, or is it with dumplings and sauerkraut?
“Usually it is turkey. Because turkey was introduced from America and overnight it became very popular.”
When was that?
“It became very popular in the 16th century after America was discovered and was then introduced in Europe.”
So it’s been part of the Christmas Day lunch in the Czech lands for hundreds of years?
A braided or plaited bread. And there are raisins in it, right?
“Yes, it’s a dough which is filled with raisins and almonds. And first you create long strips of dough. And it is quite tricky to plait them together. Because you build it like a pyramid shape. Your start by braiding together four strands. Then you make another layer of four strands. And then you twist in two more strands. And you pile it up. It is tricky. Not every lady or man is able to do it. Sometimes people use toothpicks to help when they put it in the oven to keep it in place. Because it has a tendency to slide away.”
I find vánočka to be drier and less full of things compared to German stollen, which is really packed with marzipan and raisins and so forth.
“Yeah, that is a different story. Again because Christmas customs in our country have evolved to bring the poor into consideration. You mentioned Germany, which is a much richer region of Europe. Here the country-folk were much more humble and modest, including in their food. Even the Christmas cookies which we discussed were originally used to decorate Christmas trees. And then children were permitted to take them off the Christmas tree.”
So it was practical as well as edible. Let’s return to the Christmas Day lunch. Is it Turkey and stuffing – identical to what the English eat at Christmas?
“Basically there are several options. Either we have turkey, which is much leaner. Or goose or duck. Duck in particular we consume with dumplings and sauerkraut. But even cabbage can be eaten.”
Because there are several types of this cabbage, right? The fermented sauerkraut. But also the white or red cooked, chopped cabbage. And the last two aren’t technically sauerkraut.
“I think with this particular dish we can sometimes use cooked cabbage – sweet, nicely prepared, very tasty.”
“Stuffing is used, particularly for goose.”
And what is put in the stuffing?
“That differs. Sometimes chefs or housewives even put apples in instead of stuffing, so it is much lighter. Turkey is usually accompanied by a good quality stuffing. You can use liver and kidneys and so on as ingredients.”
What you’re saying about Christmas Day lunch, I’m getting the impression that it is a lot less rigid in terms of options compared to Christmas Eve, which is really: carp soup, carp and potato salad. Whereas Christmas Day people can make different choices...
“That is correct. And from the point-of-view of children Christmas Eve is the highlight of the whole celebration, because presents are given out. So next morning, the children are up early playing with the toys they received and so on. And everyone is enjoying themselves, relaxing a little, and then preparing Christmas lunch. After which everyone has had enough for the rest of the day [laughs]!”
Ladislav Provaan, director of the Czech Gastronomy Museum, thank you very much for joining us.
I’m beginning with 1kg of potatoes, which I have scrubbed and rinsed, and checked for imperfections. If you have larger potatoes you can cut them in two or four, but if they are small you can leave them whole. The thing is to leave the skins on at this point in order to retain their flavour.
I should mention that the potatoes are what are known here as Grade A potatoes, on the A-C scale, which gets gradually mushier, so Grade C potatoes are ideal for mashed potatoes and grating into potato pancakes. Whereas Grade A stays firm after cooking, which makes it ideal for potato salad.
What I do now is put in about a teaspoon of caraway seed, one bay leaf, and a tablespoon of salt, and water. We allow those to cook now, which once the water comes to a boil takes around 15 minutes. Once they are done, we drain them and let them cool.
Now I am putting around 100g of frozen peas into a smaller cooking pot. And to that I add around 100g of diced carrot – cut, like everything in this salad, around the same size as the peas – and the same amount of diced celery root or celeriac. The reason for the celeriac is that when it is boiled/pickled as I will demonstrate, it adds just a hint of sweetness to the potato salad. Now I’ve diced my carrots and celeriac and am putting that into the pot with the peas. The reason I am going to cook these is that you definitely do not want to put these in raw into the potato salad.
What many Czechs do these days is they buy this mix in a pre-made, pre-pickled jar. But I find that that tends to be a bit mushy. So what I am going to do is half cover it with water, and half with (a not too strong) vinegar. You then add in to this a sprinkle of mustard seeds, dried tarragon and a couple of bay leaves. Also a pinch of salt. You then bring that to a gentle rolling boil, and let it cook for about 5-10 minutes.
Now I am going to turn this off the heat, and I’m just going to leave that mixture to continue to pickle and cool down.
There are two ingredients that go into potato salad raw. And those are – for one kilogramme of potatoes – one regular sized apple and three small onions (or one big one).
Potato salad is actually quite flexible in terms of the amounts of particular ingredients. So it’s not really the end of the world if there’s a little bit too much of one thing or not enough of another, and you can adjust it to your own tastes the more you make it.
I’ve now diced my apples and onions. In this case, the apples are peeled as you don’t want apple skins in this particular dish. The reason for the apple is to complement the celeriac and add in just a hint of sweetness.
Now for the one pre-made item. Of course, if you make your own gherkins, then by all means use them. But I’m using store bought pickled sweet and sour ones in this case. For one kilogramme of potatoes I am going to put in...let me see...four small-medium sized gherkins. Once again, we slice and dice those up.
And then we boil, let's say six or seven small eggs. Hard boil them and then let the eggs cool off in their shells. After that, you peel and dice them.
There are, of course, many different ways to make potato salad. Obviously this is my take on it. But I think it is pretty close to what you’d call a standard Czech potato salad.
I’m just checking my potatoes with a fork to see that they are cooked. I’ve drained them and now I am going to leave them to cool off while still in their skins.
In the meantime, our diced pea, celeriac and carrot mixture has cooled off. We drain out the pickling liquid, and we also then place it in a strainer and give this a rinse to wash off the pieces of mustard seed and tarragon.
With the potatoes cooled, now comes the most tedious part: peeling and dicing the potatoes. I am peeling them with a knife, scraping at the potato gently.
Flash forward and our potatoes are peeled and diced. We’ve put them in a large bowl. Now, after all the preparation, we are finally ready to make potato salad. So into the bowl we now add our pickled pea, celeriac and carrot mix. Then our gherkins, apples and onions, and we also add our diced hard boiled eggs.
Now, we add in a splash of vinegar. I like to put in just a smidgen of paprika. Also a good heaped tablespoon of mustard – any mustard will do. The seedless variety and not too hot. Also we add in a very generous teaspoon or even two of freshly ground pepper. There’s no need to hold back with the pepper as the potatoes absorb the flavour very nicely in this dish. Followed by a good tablespoon, or tablespoon-and-a-half of salt.
Ideally, you don’t eat it right away, but you put it in the fridge overnight to let the flavours all settle and blend together. Happy eating!
I’m Dominik Jun and on behalf of everyone at Radio Prague, thanks for tuning in and here’s wishing you a very Happy Holidays.