Czechs rank amongst Europe's biggest fish producers, so why don’t they eat more fish?

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a landlocked country, the Czech Republic has one of the lowest rates of fish consumption in the European Union. Czechs eat around five kilograms of the stuff on average each year. But oddly enough, this country is also one of Europe's largest fish producers – and most of the thousands of tonnes of carp, sander, and other freshwater species farmed here end up being exported elsewhere on the continent. Now though, the government has launched a new campaign to encourage Czechs to eat more of their own home-grown fish.

Agriculture Minister Petr Gandalovič is the man behind the scheme. He has earmarked 150 million crowns (nearly 9 million USD) to encourage Czechs to up their fish intake. He says that one of the project’s biggest aims is to get Czechs eating fish all year round – and not just at Christmas, as is tradition here. The scheme, using EU funding, will last four years. In its first stage, the Agriculture Ministry wants to highlight just how little fish Czechs are currently eating.

Reactions to the scheme have been mixed in Prague, but what about in the regions where the majority of Czech fish is farmed? To find out, I jumped on a train and headed south to Třeboň – a picturesque medieval town housing a large number of the Czech Republic’s ponds, and one of the biggest freshwater fish farms in the whole of Europe, ‘Rybářství Třeboň’. I met the firm’s Pavel Mayer to ask him firstly what he though of the Agriculture Ministry’s idea:

“Every attempt to make Czechs eat more fish and to support the domestic fish-farming industry is good, I think. Of course, we will see which form the campaign takes, and whether it helps or not. But any sort of advertising, whether it comes from the government or the private sector, is good news for us. And of course, fish does have a lot of health benefits, the meat we are producing here is of a good quality, there are these historic ponds here, and the tradition is here.”

‘Rybářství Třeboň’ is in charge of a whopping 539 ponds across Southern Bohemia and spans an area larger than 8,000 football pitches. So why is there such a mammoth fish-producer in the Czech Republic when so few Czechs are interested in consuming fish?

“Even in the past, a lot of our fish were reared for export, even if their final destinations were different in the past. So we were never producing fish just for Czechs. And now in Czech stores the range of groceries is bigger and bigger, customers have more and more choice throughout the whole year. So this could explain why Czechs aren’t eating so much fish.”

Mr Mayer thinks that Czech fish has been overshadowed by other more exotic products in the country’s supermarkets, then. And he has another theory why, in recent years, fish has been pushed out of the Czech diet:

“People are being sold live fish more and more nowadays. And customers have to prepare the fish by themselves. And people are not always so keen nowadays to gut fish and so on by themselves. Of course, we offer filleted fish and so on, but that isn’t so common here. People don’t really buy half a fish here, a few fillets or some ready-prepared portions.”

Mr Mayer gives me a tour of some of the fish-farm’s storage ponds. This is where carp ‘detox’ for a couple of weeks after having been fished from one of the local ponds. Then, the fish is weighed and packed into a lorry containing water and oxygen. The technology all looks very modern, but Pavel Mayer assures me that the tradition of ponds, and carp, and fish-farming in this country goes back a very long way indeed:

“Fish-farming started here in the 13th-14th century, but the real spread of these fishponds all over southern Bohemia took place in the 16th century. It was at that time that landowners started to build ponds here to irrigate swampland and use fields that otherwise weren’t arable. Landowners realized that they could even use this damp wasteland to their advantage by building ponds and rearing fish, especially carp.”

After a morning’s hard slog at the fish-farm, it was time for lunch at the fish restaurant Šupina – one of Třeboň’s other tourist attractions, whose famous ‘carp chips’ are in the process of being patented. Upon my arrival, the restaurant was heaving and the kitchen was sweltering, and extremely busy. Petr Muller is the proprietor:

Photo: Archiv of CRo7
“Šupina offers all sorts of fish specialties from Czech fish. Typical Czech fish includes of course carp, sander, perch and so on.”

And which ways do you prepare this fish? Are there very traditional Czech ways to prepare this fish?

“For us, it is a tradition to make ‘carp frites’ – it is our restaurant’s specialty, and a very famous fish dish coming from our restaurant.”

It seems this Monday lunchtime that there are lots of Czechs sitting here eating fish for lunch. But the Agriculture Ministry has just launched a new campaign to get Czechs to eat more fish. Do you think that Czechs are shy when it comes to cooking fish and eating fish?

“No not at all. Because every summer our restaurant is very popular and we have a lot of visitors and customers. So I don’t think it is true that Czechs don’t eat any fish.”

And where do the majority of your customers come from?

“Ninety-eight percent of them are typical Czech visitors and customers. We don’t have many Germans or English visitors.”

And what sort of report would this be if I didn’t, in the name of research of course, try out some of this celebrated Czech fish? Mr Muller was at hand with a couple of his home-made specialties:

First of all, this looks wonderful, but can you tell us what we have in front of us right now?

“This is our typical fish soup, which was developed in this restaurant – so for us, this is our traditional fish soup.”

And can you tell me what is in it, or is that a secret?

“It’s a secret, it is a top secret recipe, I’m afraid.”

Even this late in the season, trade seems to be very brisk indeed at Šupina – and while government statistics suggest that this is very much the exception to the low-fish-consumption rule here – it does show that there is a market for Czech fish in the Czech Republic. We will see if the Agriculture Ministry’s advertising campaign serves to spread that interest beyond the ponds and across the country.