‘Mářa’s Cookbook’: Janáček’s cook reveals the Czech composer’s demanding tastes

Mářina kuchařka, photo: archive of TIC Brno

Rosehip jam biscuits, crêpe cakes, and “Jewish doughnuts” – these were among the favourite desserts of the world-famous Czech composer Leoš Janáček. Thanks to a cookbook – and detailed notes – kept by the family housekeeper, visitors to the ongoing Janáček Festival in Brno have a chance to try these old-fashioned delicacies for themselves.

Marie Stejskalová was the Janáček family’s housekeeper for over forty years. Her book of recipes, mainly for desserts and sweet dishes, would be of minor interest had not “Mářa”, as she was known with affection, also kept notes of the composer’s life and work.

In one entry of her Recipes: A Chronicle of Our Life, Mářa writes: ‘Our master insisted on good food. There were no elevenses or snacks, but at midday and in the evening, he ate a lot and with gusto. He knew how to praise the cuisine as well as find fault with it.’

Rosehip cookies recipe  (Leoš Janáček's handwriting),  photo: archive of TIC Brno

Mářa’s original chronicle is under protective glass in the Leoš Janáček Archive of the Moravian Museum. But an annotated version was published ahead of this year’s edition of the music festival, recipes from which cafés and tearooms throughout Brno are now following.

Šárka Zahrádková, a musicologist at Masaryk University in Brno, is co-editor of the annotated cookbook. She says Janáček especially liked Mářa’s vanilla balls, also known as “Jewish doughnuts”.

“He really liked her homemade donuts. That is one of Marie Stejskalová’s memories that we quote in the cookbook. She writes that Janáček always asked her to fry them when special visitors came…

“I’m not much of a cook, but I made them myself according to her recipe. They were quite good. So was the quark strudel, which was very tasty – although mine didn’t look that nice.”

Leoš Janáček,  photo: Public Domain

Janáček, the son of a schoolmaster of limited means, was not one to deny himself gastronomic pleasure in the name of religious piety. In her chronicle, Mářa writes that the Moravian maestro said he had had quite enough of fasting as a ward of the Abbey of St. Thomas in Brno. Šárka Zahrádková again:

“He liked to eat, Marie Stejskalová remembers. He liked to praise the meal when he liked it. He did not like to fast as he had spent his childhood in a monastery. So while Janáček's wife, daughter and her fasted. The master demanded meat, saying that he had already denied himself enough.”

Marie Stejskalová died in 1968, decades after the composer. While her memories were published in the book U Janáčků, her own recipes are now reaching festivalgoers for the first time.

Jewish doughnuts (Vanilla balls)

In a bowl cream 100g fat, 4 egg yolks, lemon rind. Dissolve 30g yeast in ¼ litre of lukewarm milk, 90g blanched sliced almonds, 40g sugar, a pinch of salt and enough flour to make a dough as with ordinary doughnuts. Knead together well and leave to rise. Once they have risen, form them into small pieces (about 15g in weight), leave them to rise again and then fry them. After they have been fried, cover them in vanilla sugar and serve. The individual pieces must weigh 15g, then they turn out nicely.