An old-fashioned Advent: Not your grandma's carp and potato salad

Fried carp and potato salad is today the 'bread and butter' of any traditional Czech Christmas meal. But this was not always so. Pious Czechs once used to fast at Christmas; they then took to cooking meatless dishes, such as sweet porridge with dried fruits. Slowly, fish - and finally, carp -- became the most common fasting meal. In this week's Panorama, however, we go along to a tasting of Advent and Christmas dishes that predate - by centuries - the carp and potato salad tradition. Some recipes date back to the Middle Ages and are long forgotten; others - like crispy frogs legs -- were all the rage among the chattering classes here just a century ago.

I've come to the regional museum in Melnik, a picturesque central Bohemian town which was built at the confluence of two rivers, the Labe and Vltava. Slavic tribes first settled here in the 5th century. Saint Ludmila, the grandmother of Good 'King' Wenceslas, hailed from Melnik, and very probably at about this time over a millennium ago, would be tucking in to a plate of pea shoots, either salted or with honey.

"This is the fifth year we've hosted this tasting of old-fashioned Advent and Christmas foods. It began with a Christmas exhibition and at that time we also presented some traditional foods, people liked it very much, so we got the idea to have an annual tasting. The recipes go back to the Middle Ages up to the mid-1800s. Each year focused on some class of society - food that common people ate, or the clergy, or noblemen or royalty."

Many recipes come from the Middle Ages
Nada Cerna has been organising this yuletide food tasting at the Melnik regional museum for five years running now. Apart from Advent and Christmastime recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation, she is most interested in once typically Czech dishes that have faded from the people's collective memory. She meticulously researches the origin of historic Czech recipes ahead of each event. Still, Mrs Cerna is not one to don an apron.

"No, I am not a cook -- I am an ethnographer. But I prepare these tastings along with my husband, who teaches students at the School for Cooks and Waiters in the town of Neratovice. We found most of the recipes and the students chose some of their favourites and then prepared the dishes. Each visitor also takes home a little cookbook, so they can try out the recipes they like at home. It is sometimes interesting for us to draft the recipes, because the old cook books only call for a bit of this and a bit of that, so we have to decide on the norms, write how many eggs and how much flour to use and so on."

Student cooks prepare 'pucalka' and plums in beer batter
Student cook: "This is a traditional apple soup - you can find the recipe in the booklet for visitors. You first boil water, of course, then add white bread crumbs, sugar, cinnamon, some lemon peel and white wine."

Another young chef -in-training is making 'pucalka' -- a dish of pea sprouts that Saint Ludmila may have once feasted on.

"These are peas that have started to sprout. You just fry them in sadlo [pig fat] put them on a plate, and then you either salt the peas or eat them with honey. It is simple, yes. It is an old recipe."

Yet another student cook - who kindly offers me a taste -- is preparing plums, wrapped in - wait for it (this being the Czech Republic) -- beer batter pastry.

It was in the year 1826 that Madgalena Dobromila-Rettigova published her legendary recipe book called, "A Household Cookery Book; or A Treatise on Meat and Fasting Dishes for Bohemian and Moravian Lasses". The book became a 19th century bestseller and for a very long time indeed remained the only cookery book written in Czech, and over the years, the Advent and Christmas food tasting has featured many dishes from its dusty pages.

Ethnographer Nad'a Cerna and her husband the chef likes to mix up the menu.

A classic pastry with poppy seeds
"We presented the frogs legs for the first time two years ago. Along with the boar meat, it is a great hit. Last time around, we made the frogs according to Dobromila-Rettigova's recipe. This year we chose a different one. The frogs legs on offer this year have been marinated for a full day in spices and then coated with batter and sprinkled with parsley - something our ancestors were very fond of as a garnish."

"As for this year's offer, we have two advent soups, apple soup, and a traditional soup called 'kyselo' from the Krkonose region (it was cooked all year round but it was always a part of the Christmas dinner-- a sour soup). Then from these 'upper class' dishes we have frog legs done in the French style. Among the most popular with visitors has been this wild boar meat with sipkova omacka (rosehip sauce), or carp with sour cream sauce."

Nada Cerna says the main difference between Czech cuisine today and in centuries past is that meals once tended to be either sweeter or spicier. Ginger, for example, has all but disappeared from modern Czech cooking, along with other aromatic spices, like cloves.

Visitor: "The dishes are all excellent - I'm here for the fifth time, actually. I've tried some recipes at home -- for sweets, mainly -- but I try not to eat them! As I get older, I have to watch my figure. From my own ancestors' recipes, I only make the traditional vanocka - the twisty Christmas breads - because when my grandmother died, unfortunately, her recipes all mysteriously disappeared. So I make her vanocka for all my family."

Another grandmother and her granddaughter both appreciate the difference.

Little girl: "It's really good!"

Her grandma: "Everything is wonderful - some very surprising flavours, very nice. I am a very loyal visitor of this museum and a fan of all events. I know some of the recipes from my grandmothers' cooking, but actually, I mainly use the recipes I learn from here; for example, blackened carp."

An empty plate of frogs legs
And what about the frogs legs?

"I am a biologist, so I am not going to taste the frog legs".

A couple of old-fashioned Czech recipes for Advent and Christmas:

Fried plums in beer batter

"Take some dried plums, take out the pits, and simmer them, but not for too long. To make the beer batter, take a little flour, moisten it thoroughly with beer, add a bit sugar and a spoon of good oil. The dough must be thick enough that it stays on the plum. Coat the cooked plums, then fry until they batter turns golden brown. Then sprinkle with sugar, and put them in the oven to melt the sugar. Serve warm."

Honey cookies (certle) - popular children's sweets from the 19th century

"Take 150 grams of honey, 300 grams of crushed peanuts. Cook the honey in an iron pan until you can smell it in the air. Put aside and add quickly add the crushed peanuts. Then, with a wet spoon, scoop out bits of the thick honey-peanut mixture on a pan. Let cool and thicken."