Letter from Prague Czech eating habits take a turn for the better
What first comes to mind when someone mentions Czech cuisine? The most common answer would be – knedlíky (dumplings), goulash and knedlo-zelo-vepřo (dumplings with sauerkraut and pork). None of it too healthy, nor particularly attractive looking when served up on a plate. I’d say it’s not the food but the country’s famous beer that attracts foreign visitors to our pubs and restaurants.
And it’s not only the high-fat, heavy dishes, but also the low standard of meals served in many Czech restaurants that comes as a slight shock to many visitors. The low quality of food sold in many local groceries and supermarkets also raises eyebrows in a country which re-embraced the principles of democracy and market economy twenty years ago.
Fortunately for our stomachs and taste buds things have slowly started changing for the better. So called gastronomic journalism is a thriving profession with a growing number of magazines devoted to food, cooking and the culture of dining. Also cookbooks are a well-selling and profitable genre, offering a wide range of recipes from all over the world by world-famous or up-and-coming chiefs and food critics. But, let’s face it, cookbooks by popular Czech TV celebs, whose favourite and most frequently used ingredients are ketchup and tartar sauce, still enjoy great popularity, although the only qualification for them to write a cookbook is their own love of food.
But, as I said, food and dining is beginning to matter to the Czechs. If
the poor quality of food products on offer in most Czech supermarkets is on
one end of the scale, then on the other are all those little specialized
shops that seem to flourish these days and “grow like mushrooms after a
rain shower”, as the Czech saying goes. Unlike the mentioned
supermarkets, they offer professional service and products of high quality
ranging from organic food to exclusive wines and French cheese. It seems to
me that local shops selling basic food products such as bread or meat are
also enjoying a kind of renaissance with people rediscovering the
advantages of having their own baker or butcher, whose bread or ham are
„home-made” or at least give one that impression. Shopping in these
small, select shops is of course more expensive but until recently, the
strong Czech currency and fast-growing economy allowed us Czechs to enjoy
the luxury of putting quality over quantity. What the credit crunch, whose
second wave is expected to hit the Czech Republic more severely that the
first, will do to our newly-refined eating habits remains to be seen.