Taking Valentine’s Day seriously and drinking fresh milk

In this week’s edition of Panorama: it wasn’t only chocolates and roses for couples in love on Valentine’s Day – some opted for a spiritual celebration of the lovers’ holiday, getting fresh produce from the farm to people’s doorsteps, and using fish to protect the public against a terrorist attack.

The shoulder blade of St Valentine of Terni,  photo: CT24
It was champagne, chocolates and roses for many couples in love on Valentine’s day, but a few dozen opted for a spiritual experience instead of a cozy restaurant: they headed for the Church of SS Peter and Paul on Prague’s famous Vyšehrad hill to attend a mass in St Valentine’s honour and pay their respects to the remains of the martyred bishop, patron of lovers.

A service that takes place once a year – not only dedicated to St Valentine but to the union of a man and woman. The sermon is dedicated to love, fidelity and marriage. Couples in love come not only for spiritual guidance but to view part of the remains of the popular saint – which were unexpectedly discovered in this Prague church in 2002. Marcela Gavulová from the Czech Bishop’s Conference explains:

“In 2002 during renovation work in the Church of St Peter and St Paul renovators came across a depository containing four Baroque monstrance reliquaries. A closer inspection revealed that one of the reliquaries contained part of the remains of St Valentine – specifically the shoulder blade of St Valentine of Terni, and the reliquary contained a certificate of authenticity from church dignitaries.”

Ever since it was discovered the precious relic is displayed at the church on the occasion of Valentine’s day. DNA tests to compare the relic with the saint’s remains in Italy, were never conducted. Czech church dignitaries say that they consider the certificate of authenticity found along with the shoulder blade adequate proof. Like other churches in Europe, which are also said to house holy relics of the saint, they know that for believers who come here it is more a question of faith than proof. Most couples who come to celebrate Valentine’s Day here are engaged, seriously contemplating marriage – or like twenty-year-old Zuzana they are about to take the plunge.

“Our wedding is just around the corner and for me this is a small but important part of the wedding preparations. I think Valentine’s Day is a good occasion to calm down and think about your life.”

The priest who delivers the sermon is always ready to speak to individual couples after the mass and address any concerns they may have. Unlike St Valentine who –legend has it – risked his life to marry couples in the face of the emperor’s strict ban – his life is far easier. Marriage is not exactly a hot priority with most young Czechs and only around two dozen couples attend the ceremony every year. On the other hand, maybe the priest would argue that convincing young Czechs about the importance of fidelity and marriage is as arduous a task as marrying them in secret.

Many Czech consumers will tell you that they primarily look at the price tag when shopping for food, but others are willing to go a long way for fresh, natural and healthy products. This is not always easy when shopping at supermarkets – but now there are other options to be explored. Czech farmers who are hard put competing against cheaper imported vegetables, meat and dairy products are eager to find a direct line to consumers –offering milk “fresh from the cow” and potatoes dug up “just that morning”. Farmers markets have proved a huge success, as have milk vending machines. But one still has to go there to get the goods. In an effort to get an edge over their business rivals some Czech farmers are now going one better – they are bringing their produce right to people’s doorsteps and making themselves heard.

The sound of mooing and cowbells resounds in Prague’s Repy district on the early morning air. The place may be called after the beetroot fields that once spread here but today it is a densely populated housing community with one block of flats next to another. The sound of a cow mooing is sure to bring out anyone who’s home.

“We came because we heard a cow moo –and decided to find out what was going on. We bought a bit of everything they are offering milk, cheese and white yogurt. I hope they come on a regular basis - we wouldn’t mind paying a little more for good, fresh produce.”

Honza Muller, the twenty-year-old driving the van is friendly and cheerful with customers, advising them on what to try and playing the catchy sound of his Your-Milk-is-Here signature tune for delighted children. He says the farm he works for advertises on the internet, on TV and hands out leaflets but the best advertisement is by word of mouth –when people tell each other how good the products are.

“We sell about 500 litres a day. Just plain fresh milk –no preservatives or pasteurization. There’s also plain white yogurt and a variety of home-made cheeses – cottage cheese, Balkan cheese and so on. Lots of people come out of curiosity and try something and find that they really like it.”

The delivery service is proving highly successful –and the vans setting out in the small hours soon drive back empty. In order to accommodate working mums who are not home the vans now make evening rounds as well and are taking special orders.

All water cleaning facilities in the country have a monitoring system to provide early warning of water contamination. But few are as sophisticated as that introduced in the Moravian Waterworks a Sewage Facilities. After 9/11 they introduced a system whereby freshwater fish protect drinking water from terrorist attacks and accidental contamination. The fish – a breed of trout that is particularly sensitive to toxins –are kept in tanks constantly replenished with water from the municipal supply and sensors in each tank register changes in behavior and swimming patterns. The tanks are also monitored by cameras and are viewed on screen by the technician on duty. The head of the monitoring centre Viteslav Hoger says no high-tech device is as reliable as living beings.

Illustrative photo: Pe-Jo,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY 3.0
“Any worsening of the quality of the water can immediately be detected in the behavior of the fish – toxins give them breathing difficulties and they flex their gills, you see them become sluggish or else they start thrashing around in the water.”

Even if there were no human agent present the detectors pick up changes in behavioral patterns and send out a warning signal within a matter of seconds. Experts on the Intelligent Aquatic BioMonitoring System as it is known say there is nothing to rival it because even high-tech electronic protection systems can trace only the toxins they have been programmed to detect. Bio-monitoring combines a powerful and reliable early warning system combined with the benefits of high tech. Such systems are employed by New York City, San Francisco and other big cities in the US – all introduced after 9/11.

Although the Ostrava region is a less likely target for a terrorist attack the trout on duty are doing a good job protecting municipal water supplies from accidental contamination or contamination caused through negligence in a highly industrialized region where pollution of the environment has long been a serious problem.