A big part of Veronica's desire to see "The Motherland" was to find the origins of her childhood dinners. Generations of her Bohemian ancestors had passed down dishes and now we could experience the originals, almost all of which include dumplings.
Dumplings are the undisputed heavyweight champions of Czech food and we found them answering the bell on almost every plate. Big city or small town, fancy restaurant or local dive, it made no difference, dumplings were our constant companion. Good thing we like them.
On our very first night in Bohemia the special at the tiny tavern that we stumbled upon came with a hearty helping of dumplings. Called Svičková, it is a classic Czech dish of roast meat, pork in this case, with sweet gravy, whipped cream, cranberry sauce and, of course, sliced dumplings.
While it was quite tasty, a couple things struck us as amiss about the Svičková, first, the whipped cream was sweetened, like a dessert topping, in fact the whole dish was pretty darn sweet. Second, the dumplings were not nearly as hard and dense as Veronica's childhood memory version. When her great-grandmother came to America, she began making dumplings with flour - from scratch - rather than left-over bread used in the Old World. Dumplings were no longer a staple made from necessity, but a treat on special occasions.
At one meal we gave in completely to the dumpling's enchantment and made them the centerpiece of our meal. After a little soup we dug into a platter of three different types of dumplings as our main course, potato, bacon and the standard bread variety. The bacon certainly deserved every inch of its position at the center of the table. Dumplings, not just a side dish anymore.
The Czech version of goulash, gulás, has been localized to include more root vegetables but still relies heavily on paprika as its spice of choice and is served with what else, dumplings. Heavy on the meat and onions, this was a dish after my heart. It was love at first bite.
After the very sweet Svičková, we were ready for the more traditional roast pork with dumplings and sauerkraut. All we had to do was figure out what "pečené vepřové s knedlíky a se zelím" meant on the menu. Once we did, we were in heaven. This was the dish of Veronica's childhood, dumplings and sauerkraut were even a staple at her family's Thanksgiving dinner, and I have long been a fan of pork products with pickled cabbage and any kind of bread to mop it up with. No wonder this is considered the most popular Czech dish.
Another highly popular choice is the špíz, what we would call a shish-kebab, of meats and vegetables skewered on a spit, heavy on the meat. In the more touristy restaurants, a huge sword will impale this entree, but at the little hole in the wall that we found in Prague's New Town, a wooden skewer did the job. We were learning fast that Bohemia is no place for vegetarians.
We did find one vegetarian dish that stood out - and Veronica could have lived on it if she had to - bramboráky, good old potato pancakes. These were another of Veronica's childhood favorites that followed her family to America .
All of these mouth watering munchies had to be washed down with something, and in the Czech Republic, that means beer. We quickly discovered that in most establishments beer costs about half as much as water, so... the choice was pretty simple. We weren't alone in that decision either, Czechs drink more beer than any other people on Earth. It's almost like they invented the stuff, well, in a way they did, or at least the version of it that most Americans know best.
They have been brewing suds since at least 1100 AD and the light, golden, refreshing brew that we know and love as pilsner was invented in the city of Pilsen. Pilsner Urquell, is still brewed there and is the country's most popular brew. Even Budweiser originated here. Ok, so it's not the same Bud, it's a lot better, and it was the first. They even won a lawsuit after the American version tried to get them to stop using the name.
Bohemia has become nearly synonymous with beer, so much so that brands as far away as Mexico have used it for their names. Yup, the same company that makes Dos Equis, Carta Blanca and Tecate, makes the fine Czech-si-can, uh, Czechexcan (Czex-Mex?) brew, Bohemia.
In addition to sampling the local swill, we always find that partaking in street food is a great way to get to know a new place. In Prague that meant finding some pražská šunka, traditional Prague ham, roasting over an open fire. It wasn't hard to find, just stopped by the Old Town Square and followed our noses.
In the square we were also treated to Trdelník - again, spinning over some red hot coals. Trdelník is a sweet roll that originated in Slovakia but remained popular in Czech after the two countries split. After the dough is rolled around a metal bar, it is wood-fire baked and rolled in sugar for a sweet, smoky flavor that's tough to beat.
We sampled few sweets on our gastronomical journey because by the end of a meal we were usually way too full to order any desserts. Had we had room, we would have found cookies and cakes to be popular, but the most common closer is a variation of the ever present dumpling. Yup - fruit or frosting turn the side dish staple into an after dinner treat.
As we ate our way across Bohemia, whether it was research into Veronica's roots or just a carnivore's dream come true, both before and after each meal we were more than happy to ask for the "Czech please."David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
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