Why do Czechs only eat carp at Christmas?

Fried carp with potato salad

The Czech Christmas is inseparably associated with carp. This rather dull-tasting fish became the central part of the Christmas dinner in the 19th century. It gradually replaced various types of cereal and dried fruit as the most popular fasting meal on Christmas Eve. That said, Czech breeders producing carp and other freshwater fish today do more business abroad than at home.

Oldřich Pecha is a fishmonger by trade, owner and manager of a fish nursery in the centre of Tábor a town some 90 kilometers or 55 miles south of Prague.

“We are now in a very special place: a pike or jackfish nursery located some 15 meters below the water level of Jordán, which is the oldest dam lake in this part of Europe. It was founded in the late 15th century when the inhabitants of Tábor dammed the local creek to create a supply of water for the fast-growing fortress and surrounding town.”

There is a fishmongers shop right under the dam of Jordán Lake, and it is a kind of shop window for Mr. Pecha’s company:

“It is really something like a special bonus for our neighbours so that they can buy fresh produce from our fishery right in the centre of town. It is not a substantial part of our business since we sell more than 90 percent of our fish wholesale. Our main customers are abroad, mostly in Germany, Poland, Slovakia, and even France and Italy. Local sales represent only a tiny percentage of our turnover.”

This is a bit of paradox: Czechs love eating carp at Christmas time and the overall freshwater fish production in the Czech Republic has grown sevenfold in the past few decades. But fish consumption  in the country has been stagnating. Compared to other nations in Europe, the Czechs eat much less fish. This cannot be explained only by the fact that Czechia is a landlocked country since even the Slovaks and Hungarians who also lack access to the sea eat twice as much fish as the Czechs. It does not make much sense, since we have a very long tradition of building ponds and lakes specifically for fisheries. And we also have a scientific Institute of Aquaculture at the University of Southern Bohemia. To get a broader historical perspective I spoke to one of its leading experts Jan Kašpar:

“First of all, in the 1950s Czech food and agricultural production intensified. This does not mean, that we did not have fisheries before the 1950s, but the system was completely different in the first half of the 20th century. Fish were harvested and consumed mainly locally. With the intensification, the production grew very quickly, but it was mostly for export. The quality of the Czech carp and other freshwater species is well established in Europe. We have ideal natural and climate conditions for fisheries and a tradition that goes back for centuries. We have the expertise and practical experience in this field and simply know how to breed good carp.”

But the Czech tradition of fisheries is not just about consumption and economic figures. Their historical and cultural significance goes far beyond that.

Since medieval times, the local nobility and monasteries used both natural and artificial ponds to breed fish. This trend served a double purpose: in the days when diet was dictated by the Christian faith much more than today, fisheries provided an ample source of fasting food. The second reason for the upsurge in fish breeding in the Czech Lands was to simply diversify sources of food. At the time, the general population relied mainly on cereals and grains as their main source of food. Game and beef were available on a regular basis almost exclusively to the aristocracy and perhaps a few richer merchants and artisans in the towns that were only gradually growing in economic importance and population. There were some other domestic animals and poultry, but they were kept mainly to provide other products such as eggs and milk. Fresh fish thus helped to lessen the prevailing monotony in people’s diet and even to slightly alleviate the constant threat of famine. Gradually a small industry was born.

You can see it very well especially in Southern Bohemia around the small town of Třeboň. It was in this region back in the early 16th century that an elaborate water system called Golden Canal was built. It is some 50 kilometres or 30 miles long and was constructed by Jakub Krčín, a specialist employed by the Rosenbergs, a local aristocratic family. It connected natural streams and rivers and created dozens of fishponds and artificial lakes, some of them very large. Apart from the direct economic significance, there is the indirect added value for tourism. Třeboň and the surrounding flat basin provide ideal terrain for cycling and ecotourism. Richard Lhotský works at the Microbiological Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences based in Třeboň and we met on the dam of Svět, one of the artificial lakes in the region:

“On the one hand, there is the economic impact. The Czech freshwater fisheries are still the biggest of their kind in the European Union. On the other hand, this type of cultural landscape created by human activity is so unique that it was declared as a biosphere reserve and recognized by UNESCO at the end of the 1970s. Among other functions, it plays an important role as a corridor for bird migration. As a biologist that is something I am interested in professionally. But there is also the aesthetic role of the ponds and lakes. This magic landscape has always inspired writers and painters. Just look at all the cyclists and hikers who come here.  I don’t think they would come to Třeboň if we did not have these age-old oaks on the banks of the lake. The history is quite palpable here and what is even more important and interesting, it is LIVING history. It is not a stone castle or chateau, that has historical artefacts that are, in fact, dead. This lake Svět or “The World” in English, still serves as one of the largest fishponds in the Czech Republic. Every second year the lake is emptied, and all the living fish are harvested and sold. So, this landscape and its fisheries has economic as well as climatic and ecological roles. ”

Unfortunately, while the Czechs may appreciate the aesthetic and natural heritage of their fisheries,  when it comes to supporting their survival by eating and buying more local fish, they are not so patriotic. Jan Kašpar from the University of Southern Bohemia:

“At the present time, not many Czechs go to their supermarket or local fishmongers to buy a fish filet or a whole fish to cook.  They prefer cheaper chicken, pork, and even beef which is usually easier to prepare. When it comes to fish products, they tend to buy pre-processed fish salads or canned fish. Also, we live in a globalized world where deep-frozen sea fish products and even shrimps and other fruits of the sea are imported and readily accessible in their supermarket. It is very difficult to compete and when you look at the overall fish consumption in the Czech Republic, local fish represent an absolute minimum. “

That said, you would not come to the same conclusion if you were shopping for fresh carp. At least in my hometown, if I do not want to get it deep-frozen or pre-packaged in vacuum wrapping in a supermarket for a much higher price, I have to reserve it at least a week ahead. Thus, at my local fishmongers, I can get a pre-cut carp together with its head and entrails for the soup on Christmas Eve, quality and freshness guaranteed. Nothing creates the genuine Christmas atmosphere like the smell and sound of frying fish as you listen to Christmas carols.

I should know, since in my family I am the one in charge of preparing the Christmas dinner. I cover the filets in flour, beaten eggs, and breadcrumbs before frying them. And while the fish soup simmers on the stove and I mix the potato salad according to the family recipe, I will have time to ponder on the future of Czech fisheries. I sincerely hope that they will do more of their business at home than abroad in the coming years. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!