Svíčková – a Czech classic

Illustrative photo

It is perhaps the best-known Czech dish: svíčková, a beef roast with creamy vegetable sauce, served with dumplings. It can be found on the menu of virtually every Czech pub. This month in Czech Life, we take a look at this traditional dish, what makes it so special and find out if Czechs are still cooking their country’s classic meals at home.

You can find similar versions of most dishes that are considered staples of Czech cuisine elsewhere, too, for example in Bavaria or Austria. The nations that used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire share a very similar cuisine. It’s heavy on rich dishes that Czechs consider their own, such as pork knee or goulash, with dumplings a ubiquitous side dish. Though much of what is considered typically Czech is indeed typically Austrian or Bavarian or Hungarian as well, there are a few meals that can only be found in the Czech Republic.

Pavel Maurer is a self-proclaimed “lover of good food” and general expert on all things culinary. I recently met him at Prague’s Slavia Café in my quest to find out if there is such a thing as a Czech national dish.

“I did ask some 60 chefs from the Czech Republic, about four years ago, by mail, if they could name the one food which they feel is historically typically Czech. I received many answers, but they were very varied. And I had expected really simple answers. We’re in a country that is a crossing between many countries. You can have goulash, which is originally from Hungary, you can eat dumplings, which we say is typically Czech, but in Bavaria, the locals will tell you it’s typically Bavarian. There’s only one food that you cannot find in any other countries, which is svíčková sauce, or in English: cream sauce with beef fillet.”

As with many classic meals, svíčková is surrounded with myths. When I asked about the provenance of the word “svíčková“, I received two very different answers. Eva Brejlová, a home cook and food writer, said it describes a cut of meat.

“Svíce in Czech means candle. The shape of the beef tenderloin that you use for the meal is similar to a candle, so that’s why it’s called svíčková.”

Pavel Maurer had this to say:

“Whenever someone orders svíčková, they are referring to the sauce, not the type of meat.”

Food writer Evan Rail, when asked about the origin of the name, was able to reconcile the two viewpoints:

Evan Rail, photo:
“Well, it’s an interesting thing, because svíčková itself means a cut of meat, tenderloin, but it’s come to mean a kind of sauce. So when you say svíčková, you’re really talking about the sauce, not the meat itself.”

So is svíčková the national Czech dish? Evan Rail again.

“For me it’s definitely one of the touchstones of Czech cuisine. It’s the dish that I introduce foreigners to when I bring them to a Czech pub or restaurant. It’s the dish that I think of as the most Czech. The Czech goulash is another one of those and you could probably argue that Moravský Vrabec or Španělský Ptáček, all those small but well-known dishes, are also very Czech but for me, svíčková na smetaně is probably the greatest Czech dish.”

Eva Brejlová, whose culinary interests focus mostly on her homeland’s traditional cuisine, recently cooked a svíčková for me and a few other guests. Before we got to cooking, I asked her about the actual recipe.

“First of all, you need to have your beef, ideally tenderloin; you need carrot, parsley root, celery, onion, salt, pepper, cream and flour.”

So why is svíčková so popular? Eva had this to say:

“I think it’s because for this, you do not need to use any special ingredients, anything that you’d have to hunt down and buy, like lemongrass. You only use ingredients which are actually from the Czech Republic.”

During the two hours that the beef was in the oven, Eva checked on the meat every 30 minutes. I asked her: Is making the dish a really involved process?

“It is a long process. This isn’t a quick meal. If you make it, say on a Sunday, you need to be aware that you have to get up at 8 in the morning and start preparing it.”

Maybe this is why the best cooks of svíčková are Czech mothers and grandmothers. At the svíčková dinner that I was invited to, another guest, Eva Kopečková, was pretty certain about who makes the best svíčková.

“I have to say that my grandma on my father’s side made the best svíčková, she makes the best svíčková in the world, I can say.”

Eva Kopečková may not have had Evan Rail’s mother-in-law’s version.

“My mother-in-law still makes it at home, and it’s the best version of the meal I’ve ever had. It’s very sweet, very rich, and it tastes more like a custard or pudding than like a cream sauce. It takes like dessert rather than like a main course.”

Eva Brejlová thinks that superlatives abound when it comes to cooks of the dish.

“I think every family has their own recipes because it is such a traditional dish. And every Czech woman is considered to have the best svíčková ever.”

Although most people I asked about the dish started rhapsodizing about their mother’s or grand-mother’s version, few seemed to still be cooking it at home themselves. Is home cooking of Czech traditional dishes, which are often heavy and quite time-consuming to prepare, something that is dying out?

Food guru Pavel Maurer says it’s definitely not a trend right now.

“People don’t want to spend hours in the kitchen cooking these dishes, like they used to. What I’ve been seeing, especially with the younger generation, is that they like to cook at home, which I find very interesting, but they like to try different exotic foods. They like to make home-made sushi, or make Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese food. Italian food is very popular in this country. But the majority of those dishes are really quite simple, so you don’t have to spend a lot of time cooking them. But our food, and also for example French cuisine, is very time-consuming to properly prepare and I don’t think that’s a trend at this time.”

Eva Brejlová believes that Czech cuisine has also gotten a bad reputation during the Communist era, when you would find poorly executed versions of Czech classics everywhere.

“I think that the Czech cuisine has been very much damaged by the history and our recent past. As a child, we had Czech meals, but mostly in school cantinas. It was total rubbish. We have a term for it: Uho, which was a universal brown sauce served with almost everything. And that really damaged the Czech cuisine. People think of Czech food is too fatty, but it’s actually not. I think people would enjoy Czech food if it was served in a good quality.”

Outside of Czech homes, Czech classic cuisine and well-executed versions of svíčková seem to be something that is making a comeback in pubs and restaurants across the country. Food writer Evan Rail says that the regional cuisine is definitely reappearing.

“I think people at home are very interested in cooking traditional Italian recipes, learning how to cook Thai or even Vietnamese food. And that’s wonderful. But you are also starting to see more, even high-end restaurants in Prague, where dishes cost 500 to 700 crowns, serving classic Czech dishes, recipes by Magdalena Rettigová and other great chefs of Czech cuisine and maybe in the future we’ll see more people at home cooking Czech dishes.”

And Eva Kopečková hopes this will happen as well.

“Well, I hope so, because right now everybody is cooking international food, like Mexican, Thai and Indian food, and I think that Czech people should know how to cook their own food instead of being able to cook international cuisine.”

Reviving regional cooking is something that is very dear to executive chef Václav Fríč who teaches at the Prague Culinary Institute.

“Of course people today want to eat healthy food and so on, but I think the entire country is craving one thing: the food that grandma made, comfort food, not some sort of pasta dish or other modern stuff. And all over the world, what I call the adult boys of the cooking scene are turning back to cook their traditional, regional food, be it Brazilians or Italians or us here in the Czech Republic.”

As far as comfort food goes, svíčková definitely occupies a special space in the heart of most Czechs. At least it was the meal that most people named when I asked them the following question:

“So what is your favorite dish, of all Czech dishes? Svíčková!”