Hairy dumplings, drowned things and the EU

Every national cuisine has a few dishes that foreigners have trouble sampling. Either because they know what's in them--such as goat's testicles--or because of their names. Czech cuisine has a bit of both and almost all of these "specialties" are to be found in pubs. The kind of pub where one of the regulars will be playing an accordion all night long, while his pals sing along or compete to see who can best loosen their throat muscles and pour a pint down in under 7 seconds. Its the kind of place that reeks of beer and tobacco; where the waiter will not present you with a menu but will reel off the names of the available dishes for you: scrambled brains, pig's knees, brawn, tripe soup, hairy dumplings, the executioner's whiplash, drownees or "drowned things" as they are properly called in Czech.

All of the aforementioned are great favourites. The kind of things that go well with beer and pickled gherkins and, more often than not, the kind of things that need to "ripen". For instance, the executioner's whiplash is a well seasoned goulash that might equally well be called devil's breath, and any pub-goer will tell you that it is best after being left to ripen for a day or two at room temperature. The "drownees", which must have piqued your curiosity, are actually sausages marinated in a special lager. Pub regulars swear by them and five to six enormous glass vats of them are consumed each week. Many a pub prides itself on a local recipe for the lager, which is as well-guarded a secret as the recipe for Olomoucke tvaruzky, another pub favourite, and definitely the most foul-smelling cheese I have ever come across. OK, for the sake of objectivity let's call it "pungent".

You'll have gathered by now that these are not my favourite dishes, but this makes little difference, since millions of Czechs would find it hard to live without them. Even managers who eat at five-star hotels will occasionally join their neighbour at the pub for a drownee and a pint, and feel much better for it.

These pubs have changed little since the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, either in terms of atmosphere or food. People from all walks of life will step in for a pint and give fellow-drinkers a piece of their mind--smaller or bigger, depending on the amount of beer consumed. While in the olden days, people would grumble against the emperor, and later against the communist top brass, today they'll grumble about high taxes, fuel prices and whatever else they hold the present government responsible for.

I'm sure that 100 years from now things would look much the same--a pint, a drownee and a good argument. Except for one thing; the Czech Republic is aspiring to become a member of the EU. And the Union's hygiene inspectors would probably have a blue fit if they walked into one of these pub kitchens to see how these delicacies are being prepared and stored.

There are some who say that the days of Czech pub food as we know it are numbered. Occasionally, a reporter will walk into one of these places to ask the regulars what they think of this possibility.

"I'll be damned if someone in Brussels will tell me what to eat," say the more spirited regulars. Others show a true Good Soldier Schweik spirit: "If the food we like is not on top of the bar, then you can bet it'll be under the counter for us."

No, there was never much respect for those in power in a Czech pub. Still, it should be interesting to see what these pubs look like ten years hence.