Nettles, onion-dyed eggs and other Czech Easter specialties
This year‘s Easter Monday programme is dedicated to Czech Easter cuisine which is quite different from what you will find on the typical Czech table during the rest of the year. Radio Prague talked to Lucie Kohoutová, a young Prague-based food blogger and sommelier, better known in the foodie circles as Coq au Vin.
Easter is the most important holiday in the Christian calendar but in many respects it is overshadowed by Christmas, including, I believe its culinary aspect. Do you agree with that?
I would definitely say in the commercial aspect, that’s for sure, all the Bohemia Sekt sparkling wine and consumer credit loans are fortunately not part of Easter... yet. As for the culinary... I guess you’re right, too. We all go for the eggs and sweets, but as eating lamb still is not such a thing in the Czech Republic, it definitely can’t be compared to the wave of schnitzels, fried carp and potato-salad heated discussions that the nation is involved in in December... From my milieu, I’d say that Easter is becoming an important matter, too - looking for all those young animals and sprouts to be devoured, but it’s probably not a nationwide folly.
Easter is preceded by forty days of Lent, a period of fasting. Do you fast? Or detox?
I don’t. Not coming from religious family, for me, Easter is about this pagan joy of resurrecting nature and young sprouts and young animals running everywhere. I’m really happy to be able to eat all those pig-slaughtering leftovers even in March.
What does a typical Czech Easter table look like?
There is this stuffing, called nádivka in Czech, you can also find it under the name of hlavička, meaning little head. It’s called stuffing but at Easter it’s not really the case, it’s more like a salty cake. It’s not cooked or baked inside an animal, but rather in a regular baking dish. You put it in the oven and then you cut it like a cake. What is important for this spring and Easter time are fresh herbs and nettles, to get some green colour and something really fresh and vivid in the taste and in the appearance, too. The dough is made from flour, you can also use some stale white rolls or buns that you soak in milk, you add some eggs and spices like salt and pepper and you mix it with herbs. My family also always used some smoked meat.
According to tradition young meat should be cooked and eaten at Easter: lamb, goat or rabbit. How available is that meat now and what was the situation like in the past decades?
As for the rabbits, this used to be and I think still is quite a common animal in the Czech Republic. A lot of people had them at home or had some family in the countryside, so it was the case even for me as a town kid.
As for the lambs and goats, that’s a lot more complex story. I really wanted to look into it. I found a book on Czech Sheep Herding and it gave me a great opportunity to learn not only about sheep herding but also about how sheep thrived during WW2 because they were needed for the wool. Sheep were a kind of strategic commodity.
In the Czech lands, there were always a lot of sheep but lamb is definitely not a meat that we would eat a lot here. It wasn’t the case during the communist period, nor before. Although it’s changing a bit, it’s still not the case today. There were more than 3 million sheep in the 19th century in this country so I was wondering how come we don’t eat it. The thing is it was basically all about the wool. All those herds were bred for the textile industry. So I suppose that’s why we never really ate it here before because it’s a different breed of sheep, so it’s not the right kind of meat. I think maybe that’s the root of the prejudice that sheep stink, both the animal itself and the meat from it.
Nevertheless lamb is a traditional meat served at Easter, so what is the situation now?
Luckily it changed. It’s true that now it’s definitely easier to get. It’s still not something we would eat a lot. The average Czech eats about 80 kg of meat a year and only about 0.4 kg of lamb and goat a year, 100 times less than pork. It is surprisingly little. Since there is not a big demand – there is only a peak around Easter when everybody wants it and it gets even more expensive than usual – outside Easter you can only find it in a few shops. Apparently, there is only one slaughterhouse that specialises in lamb and does it all year long. If you are lucky, you have your farmer, or there are some halal shops and butcheries that do it. Which brings me to another reason why you probably don’t find it a lot in the Czech Republic: we don’t have large minorities like Muslims or Jews that would eat a lot of this meat for religious reasons. But still there are some shops, so that’s a possibility during the year, also the better-supplied supermarkets but it’s usually imported from New Zealand and Britain.
How about goat meat?
I would say it’s even lesser known and sought after. Lamb you can still find in a supermarket and outside Prague, but as for goat meat, I don’t think you would be able to find it apart from Easter.
Not only young meat should be part of the Easter table but also young vegetables – namely nettles, or nettle sprouts – something which is unique to the Easter recipes… Do you pick fresh nettle leaves yourself?
I’m lucky with my farmer who lives in the Vysočina region and brings me fresh vegetable boxes every week: in the spring nettles are part of the box. I find it marvellous.
What do you use the nettles for? We mentioned the stuffing… Anything else?
Apparently they are great as soup. I haven’t tried it personally yet but what’s great is to use them as spinach. For example in risotto, or just cooked in a pan with butter. People also make syrup from nettles.
While supermarkets are trying to sell us as many chocolate eggs and bunnies as they can, there are some authentic, traditional sweet pastries and cakes that people still bake at home.
Apparently the most traditional one is the one we call mazanec. It’s a round loaf of yeasted dough that’s traditionally baked on Saturday in order that you take it to church on Sunday to get it blessed by a priest and eat it on Easter Monday. It’s like brioche dough with a bit more eggs, so it’s supposed to be lighter, and what’s important is raisins, candied citrus peel and almonds or some other nuts on top. So it’s a really very nice and fluffy piece of sweet dough stuffed with lots of raisins and you can cut it and serve with fresh butter or some jam. Moreover, you’re supposed to cut a cross on the top prior to baking, so when it rises in the oven, the cross gets more visible.
Then there are other, newer additions to the sweet collection of Easter. It’s the Easter “lamb” or “ram” which is a sweet cake as well. It’s called lamb because you bake it in a mould that has the shape of a small, baby lamb. It’s a typical kitchen utensil that you only use once a year. So you have this mould and you put in the dough but this time it’s different, it’s like regular cake dough, I guess you would use the same dough for Kugelhopf or other regular cakes. Then you bake it and it’s traditionally coated, mostly with chocolate, although my family used lemon drizzle and raisins for eyes. So it should really resemble a cute little lamb when it’s standing on the table, and we would also put a ribbon around its neck.
There is another Easter pastry called jidáš (Judas) – can you tell us more about that?
It’s also from this yeasted dough. This is something you can eat while waiting for the mazanec on Monday. They are generally smaller, it’s like a small bun, and it is something to make your time shorter while waiting for the big thing.
Good Friday and Easter Sunday are marked by Church services. In the Czech Lands, Easter Monday has a special significance in folk customs which include painted eggs among other things. Some of the eggs are hardboiled, some are blown – what happens to all that egg yolk and white?
I read an article by Roman Paulus, who is a very famous Czech chef, one of the two who got Michelin stars, where he recommended various uses for all those spare eggs and one of them was Scotch egg. It is not traditional, of course, but I like it. It’s a hardboiled egg covered in minced meat and fried or baked. It’s a nice recipe and it is definitely a change from the more traditional ones that usually include egg spreads and salads with a lot of mayonnaise and butter, so all this spring fasting ends with a lot of fat after Easter.
That brings me to the egg colouring. I remember everybody being obsessed with finding eggs with white shells. Usually you get them brown or yellowish. It’s difficult to find them before Easter, everything just disappears. It brings back a memory of how we did it at home. Usually you would find artificially coloured eggs with chemical colours of vivid blue, green and yellow. In our family we used to dye them with onion peels. We would cook them in boiling water and this way you would get either a tawny or even a bit reddish hue, if you used red onions. It looks nice, especially if you put some oil on it to make it very shiny.
What does your Easter look like this year? What have you been cooking?
This year it’s a bit less traditional. With a bunch of friends we decided to cook lamb curry. So we keep at least the lamb. The stuffing with nettles is something I really like to do even though other items are not on the menu. All the herbs and green things remind you of the spring that’s finally coming after the tedious winter. What I did last year was more traditional and it turned out really well, so it’s something I can definitely recommend. It’s a slow-roasted leg of lamb with poached garlic and rosemary, a recipe by Heston Blumenthal. It’s pretty easy, you just need a great piece of meat, then you poach some garlic, put it in the meat with rosemary sprigs and you just basically forget it in the oven at a low temperature for about two to three hours. If you’re patient and lucky, you yield a perfect rosy succulent piece of meat that’s just wonderfully flavoured with the garlic and the herbs and is full of nice juices and it’s very tender under the fork. What’s great with this and is again very springy and green and healthy is barley or some other grain that you just cook, the way you would cook rice, and when it’s cold you mix it with loads of fresh herbs: you can use nettles, parsley, mint, basil – basically anything green you like and can put your hands on. You chop all these herbs, mix them with the barley and some pepper and salt and good olive oil, lemon and also lemon zest to add some tang to it. And it’s a perfect and light side dish to any kind of meat.
How about dessert this year?
We had the yeasted mazanec, let’s be traditional after all.
You are also an expert on wine. Do you have any tips for pairing Czech Easter dishes and Czech wine?
I must say I more often drink wines from other countries, especially France, but it’s true that you can find the same style of wines I would use in the Czech Republic, or Moravia, as well. So for the lamb or goat meat it should definitely be some rather spicy or earthy red. That’s not always easy to find because we are not a southern country with a lot of sun but there is a great producer of Frankovka and Svatovavřinecké (Saint Laurent), typical grapes of the Czech Republic, in Moravia in Dolní Kounice, which is by the way probably the best terroir for the Frankovka or the Blaufränkisch grape. He has a very natural approach to winemaking. He calls it a hands-off approach, which means not interfering with the vine in the vineyard or the wine in the cellar. He produces one of the most interesting red wines I tasted. It’s spicy and rather full so it will go perfectly with a nice roast. Then for the rabbit, this is more of a rich, round white wine business. I would probably choose either Cuvée Quatre – there is a French touch after all. It’s a blend of Burgundian varietals, it’s aged in oak, so it’s rather creamy and aromatic and it’s something which should go with most rabbit dishes I can think of. If you want to make it really local, there is a grape called Pálava. That was crossed here in the Czech Republic and it’s something that “suffered” immense popularity recently, because it’s very sweet with interesting aromas and easy to drink if you like this kind of wine. But if you know where to go and how to choose, there are some great Pálavas, especially the dry ones. So you can enjoy the aromatic potential of the variety without the nagging sugars around it that also make it difficult to pair with food.