Czech Food Classics: Svíčková
Svíčková na smetaně, or simply svíčková, is unquestionably one of the most popular Czech meals. The recipe for the beef sirloin in a thick, creamy vegetable sauce was first mentioned in the famous cookery book by Magdalena Dobromila Rettigová, published in 1826. Two hundred years later, svíčková is still a staple on Czech menus, as you can find out in our new edition of Czech Food Classics.
Omáčky or thick creamy sauces are the touchstones of traditional Czech meals – be it mushroom sauce, tomato sauce or dill sauce. But standing above all of these is svíčková omáčka, literally candle sauce, regarded by many as one of the Czech national treasures.
The name refers to beef tenderloin which in Czech is called svíce or svíčková. Over the years, however, the term started to apply to the creamy sauce itself rather than to the meat, and the sauce in fact became the central part of the dish.
Svíčková is also a festive dish, served at family gatherings and celebrations, and its preparation is definitely time-consuming. The meat is slowly baked with onions and root vegetables, including carrots, parsley and celery, spiced with black pepper, allspice, bay leaf and thyme, and then blended with cream.
It is traditionally served with dumplings made of toast bread and garnished with preserved cranberries and whipped cream.
Marek Janouch, a well-known Prague chef, shares his secret of making the best svíčková:
“The most important thing is to have a good vegetable base and quality meat. You have to roast the vegetables really well and not rush anything, and then just add the meat and keep it simmering until it’s tender.
“My advice is to put the meat aside overnight and finish it the next day, when it has soaked in the flavour of the sauce.
“Every svíčková is slightly different and everyone remembers most fondly the sauce prepared by their mother or grandmother. The best svíčková will always be the one from their childhood.”
As Marek Janouch says, most Czechs would tell you that the best svíčková is made by their mother or grandmother and the secret family recipes are passed on from generation to generation. Despite the trend to eat lighter and healthier meals, he believes that svíčková will always remain one of the most popular national dishes:
“I think svíčková is as popular as ever and it will remain so. People will always like the sauce, which is simultaneously sweet, salty and slightly sour. Similar creamy sauces are of course made all over Europe, particularly in Austria and Germany, but I think our svíčková is definitely the best.”
Based on a thick, creamy sauce, svíčková is definitely not the choice of dieters, but that doesn’t make it any less popular. However, due to its complicated preparation, people often prefer to eat it in pubs and they usually wash it down with a glass of beer.