National Agriculture Museum celebrates the dumpling as culinary & cultural phenomenon

Prague’s National Agriculture Museum in Prague held a special day this week to highlight a culinary phenomenon enjoyed not only by Czechs but also by their neighbours, a day honouring the dumpling. The day, open to schools and members of the public, accompanied an on-going German-Czech exhibition entitled Knedlíkové nebe (Dumpling Heaven) – a three-year project looking at the history of the food as a shared culinary heritage.

Knedlíky – or dumplings – are among the most typical staple of Czech cuisine but they are equally loved by their German neighbours as well as others in central and eastern Europe. There is no shortage of recipes – from roast duck to smoked pork to beef with gravy - which would not suffer or be complete without them. Essentially there are three kinds: two that go with meat dishes and one that is stand-alone. First, bread dumplings (houskové knedlíky) which are light and fluffy, potato dumplings (bramborové knedlíky) which are heavier but very tasty, and ovocné knedlíky – sweet dumplings filled with fruit (plums or strawberries) and sometimes also jam. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single Czech who didn’t grow up with knedlíky, and many will confirm that their mum had the best homemade recipe. On Wednesday, I discussed the dumplings and the on-going exhibition with Lubomír Maršík, the National Agriculture Museum’s head of public relations.

“This exhibition, which was put together by local museums in Deggendorf and Abenberg in Germany and Cheb in the Czech Republic, looks at the dumpling as a culinary phenomenon. One that is enjoyed here, in Germany but also in Austria and elsewhere. It is a typical part of Czech cuisine and visitors to the show can see all kinds of utensils that were used in kitchens in the last century. There are also original drawings, ads, photographs and more. At the show you’ll learn that dumplings’ history goes back all the way to the 16th century, although nobody knows the exact date or place where they were first made.”

Houskové knedlíky
The origin of the dumpling is of course a great mystery! But according to Lubomír Maršík, it may be that the first knedlíky were nothing more than a happy accident.

“It’s just a guess by historians but it’s said tongue-in-cheek that dumplings may have ‘discovered’ by someone who made a mistake while making ordinary bread back in medieval times. But of course we don’t really know. Where and exactly how they originated, is impossible to say.”

That said, there’s no question now, that knedlíky have their place in Czech culture, as well as restaurants and cafeterias. All Czechs know, for example, the expression “four or six” – čtyři nebo šest. Lubomír Maršík explains:

“‘Four or six’ is what some people get asked when they are in line in a cafeteria, being served a meal with dumplings. It is regular to be given four with a dish, but sometimes the person serving you gives you a once-over and estimates that you’re a six-knedlíky man. Someone with the room and appetite for a bigger meal!”

Of course, you want to be careful: Czech dumplings are filling and heavy on calories: eat too many, you may end up being called a “knedlík” yourself.

Ovocné knedlíky
“It’s true it is also a derogatory expression which was used back in school – when somebody was a bit on the heavier side – people would tease them for being a knedlík – a dumpling.”

With that warning in mind, I decided I had to sample at least one kind of Czech dumpling on offer at the National Agriculture Museum’s Dumpling Day. I opted for ovocné knedlíky, as theoretically they should be lighter and not as filling. Radek Horyl is a representative for the Czech Republic’s largest dumpling producer, the Svoboda company with a more than 200 million crown annual turnover. He says that anyone who has visited the Czech Republic sooner or later ends up trying knedlíky as a Czech specialty.

“From what we’ve seen tourists are sometimes wary of dumplings at first but once they try them, they’re sold and they enjoy them. When they return, they then learn that there are all kinds of local varieties. One quite famous recipe belongs to the region of Karlovy Vary, where the dumpling dough does not include yeast, just bits of buns, egg and some spices all mixed together. It is more similar to stuffing you’d put in a chicken and similar to dumplings enjoyed in Bavaria.”

Radek Horyl also told me more about how the interest in pre-prepared dumplings has increased.

“Over the last 20 years our firm has really grown and we have two new production halls and are the biggest producer of dumplings not only in the Czech Republic but in the world. About 95 percent of our products are for the Czech market, with the rest going to Slovakia, Austria, Poland, and Germany. Our exports are small so far, but like our founder Mr Svoboda says: the Italians conquered the world with pizza, Czechs can do the same with dumplings!”

Indeed,why not, I agree, and finally taste the dumplings.

At the exhibition at the National Agriculture Museum in Prague, visitors can learn about all kinds of different approaches to cooking dumplings as well as their place in song and literature. But my favourite entry or mention of dumplings on display, as it happens, is not from the Czech Republic at all, but from Germany, a dumpling incident back in 1967 that made world headlines.

According to the story, reported by the international press, Helmut Winter, a graphic designer in the town of Pasing, a Munich suburb, got so fed up with noisy low-flying German and US fighter jets from a nearby military base, that he designed a giant catapult to pelt objects at the planes.

The ammunition, dutifully provided by his wife, was a choice of round soggy dumplings he shot into the sky.

Helmut Winter takes aim
Of course, the projectiles threatened no one (he had no hits) but the project was jokingly coined the Great Dumpling War. Later, a mock armistice was even signed between the designer and Air Force Major Donald Murphy. The Czech name for the inventor’s contraption? The knedlíkomet: the dumpling anti-aircraft gun or dumpling howitzer, one of the more bizarre expressions and stories about dumplings that you’re likely to come across.