After Christmas, Easter is the biggest holiday celebrated in the Czech Republic. In today's Easter Monday special, find out what some of the traditional Czech Easter customs are, what percentage of Czechs view it as a religious holiday, and how we cook Easter dishes. We will also play some of the most popular Czech Easter music.
Many people around the world celebrate Easter in memory of the resurrection of Christ but with some forty percent of the Czech population atheist, most Czechs celebrate the holiday to say good-bye to Winter and welcome Spring. Most customs and traditions show that Easter has very little to do with Christianity in the Czech Republic. Jirina Langhammerova is an ethnologist at Prague's National Museum:
"A Czech Easter will never be without eggs. The symbol of life is in an egg. The eggs are beautifully painted and decorated with various techniques and are called 'kraslice'. It comes from the old-Slavonic term 'krasny' or red, the symbol of life and fertility. Years ago, kraslice had to be red, like the colour of blood. The eggs also had to be full because an egg carrying the embryo of a little chick represents future life. But with so many types of decorations nowadays, people want to keep some of the most beautiful and so people started blowing out the yolk to decorate just the empty shell. However, most Czechs still stick to the tradition that when it comes to giving an egg to someone as a gift, it is not emptied and is personally coloured - then it doesn't matter whether it's as nice as those you find on the markets."
...and in the hundreds or even thousands of years in which eggs were coloured and decorated, numerous techniques have developed - eggs are decorated with straw, wax, grass pulp, fabric, bobbin lace, covered in crochet work, batik printed, and even dyed in onion skins before scraped off carefully to reveal beautiful patterns. But of course, there also are wooden eggs and eggs made of chocolate.
One prime example of a pagan Czech Easter celebration is the "pomlazka". Farmers used to believe that a strong whipping after the winter period guaranteed health, prosperity, and most importantly a good harvest. This tradition remains to this day, although slightly modified. It is only the women who are given a good spanking with whips made of willow twigs, decorated with colourful ribbons (as if a little bit of decoration would help to ease the pain!). It is mainly younger boys who go from door to door, hoping to thrash a few girls to get some eggs in return, while singing traditional Easter carols.
The whipping or "pomlazka" is to get rid of all the bad things that had accumulated during the winter and bring the vitality back in the ladies, as well as ensure beauty and, of course, fertility. Andrea Fajkusova comes from northern Moravia, where this tradition is still very much alive today:
"I love the Easter holidays in general but I never enjoyed Easter Monday. All the preparations that precede that day were fun - decorating our home, painting eggs, baking the special Easter bun or the Easter lamb... but then came Easter Monday to ruin it all. I always tried to hide but somehow they always found me. Where I'm from, the boys not just run around to whip you and get an egg or if they are older a shot of home-made brandy - as they do in Bohemia - they come and throw you in a stream, or put your head under a water pipe to be sure to give you a good shower... and NOT just once. It's only when you're in a town that you're lucky there's no stream around and the worst they can do is give you a shower in your own bathroom. But as if that weren't enough, they spray you with perfume, too!"
Well, Andrea used the past tense, hoping that she'd be spared this year... but I'm afraid no woman, no matter what age, is safe on Easter Monday. Let's just hope that the spring is really back in full swing in northern Moravia, so poor Andrea won't catch a cold!
The sound of a clapper or children's rattle is one sound you hear a lot during the Easter holidays, although today that's mostly the case in the countryside. The sound of the clapper is to represent the sound of bells that are said to have become silent to fly off to Rome on Maundy Thursday - when Jesus Christ had the Last Supper with his disciples. In some villages, the clappers, or children's rattles, are used instead of church bells until White Saturday.
Martin Melichar from the TNS Factum market research company recently conducted a public opinion poll on Czech Easter traditions on behalf of the company. Do Czechs consider Easter to be a Christian holiday?
"The majority of the population understands Easter as the feast of Spring. It's a chance to meet with their friends and the family, and is a time to relax. But what is also interesting is that in comparison with 1998, in 2004 there was a significant rise, by a quarter, in the number of people seeing Easter as a Christian festivity, people are more aware about the religious meaning of this holiday."
What about Easter traditions?
"The most frequent traditions in the Czech Republic are dyeing and decorating Easter eggs, making willow canes to whip the girls and women, baking hot cross buns and lamb-shaped cakes. The Easter traditions are rather widespread in the country but these traditions are also kept in the towns."
Where will most Czechs spend the Easter holidays?
"About eighty percent of Czechs are going to spend the Easter holidays at home with their families and relatives. Tour packages in the Czech Republic or abroad are not very popular during Easter."
How many people did you ask?
"We asked 1,012 people aged fifteen years and over."
I am now in a beautiful kitchen in a flat in the centre of Prague that belongs to Alena Cermakova. Alena is from Pilsen but has been living in Prague for about five years now. But that doesn't mean that she does not know how to cook and has forgotten all about the traditional Easter dishes. This place smells great, of hot buns. What exactly are we going to be cooking today, Alena?
"We're going to make traditional Czech sweet bread called Mazanec."
What do we need for that? In front of us are quite a number of ingredients. What have we got here?
"We need some eggs, sugar, flour, and some yeast."
How much exactly?
"About six cups of medium flour, a tablespoon of yeast, four tablespoons of sugar, one cup of milk, one hundred grams of butter, an egg yolk, a pinch of salt, vanilla sugar, if you like some lemon peel, and of course some raisins and almonds - a handful of each if you like. As every good Czech cook knows, you have to spread a bit of egg yolk over the bun when you bake it so that it becomes crispy."
What's the most important thing that one should remember?
"Most important is that the milk is neither hot nor cold. It should be at room temperature. Then you add about one tablespoon of sugar, some of the flour to make it of the right consistence, and of course the yeast, or else it wouldn't rise. After that, keep it in a warm place."
Now, you're mixing the rest of the flour, sugar, vanilla sugar, some salt and the lemon rind...I don't see any nutmeg...
"Well, in my mother's recipe, we never had the nutmeg or the grated anise as you suggest on your website, but it's up to you. If you like either of them, you can add them."
Okay, now we have to mix it well.
"We forgot to add the butter."
How does one tell whether the dough is right?
"The dough shouldn't stick to your fingers. So, to make it of the right consistence, it should not stick to your fingers or to the ball either. Just kneed it properly and when it seems right, leave it covered in a warm place to rise a little more."
What about the raisins?
"That's the final step and usually the almonds go on the top and a little bit inside as well."
How long should we leave it to rise?
"My mother says 'the longer the better', so you should leave it for at least a few hours and if you have a bigger amount, then over night. Of course we're not going to do that here because we have some dough ready. So, let's move on."
So, now you're dividing the already prepared dough into two. You have some greased paper, what did you grease it with?"
"I greased it with a bit of butter and I'd like you to help me... would you like to make one of these round little loafs?"
I wouldn't want to ruin the programme...
"It's not necessary to be afraid because Czech baking is very easy! Alright, after making the loafs, we put them on the baking sheet and leave them to finish rising for a bit, and then put them in the oven."
I've noticed you've already put some almonds and a few raisins inside...
"It depends on what you prefer. Some people don't like raisins or almonds, so you can put some almonds inside or only leave them as decoration."
You've almost finished, so what's next? Can we put it in the oven now?
"We should decorate it but before you start doing so, you should spread a bit of the whipped egg yolk over it to make it a little glazed, then you can add more raisins, if you want, but preferably only a few, and some almonds. Then you're ready to bake. Preheat the oven to about 220° Celsius and put it in. During the process, which takes about 45 minutes, you should spread a little more egg yolk over it."
You have used a knife to carve in a cross and also a flower?
"Well, as we are not really religious, it's sort of a flower decoration which matches the Easter mood."
Can't wait until it's ready!
We just had a short break and Alena forced me to have a shot of homemade Slivovice...
"It's plum brandy and it's a spirit".
Okay, we're about to try and cook another traditional dish called Velikonocni Nadivka - Easter stuffing.
"Yes, something like that. It can be a little different from the English style but very easy to make, even for beginning cooks."
What is a little confusing is the fact that you are actually not stuffing anything with it...
"No, it's baked separately in a dish and it is served as a side dish, is accompanied with meat, or any other dish we serve."
So what we have in front of us are little pieces of smoked pork - it does not look like lean meat...
"It shouldn't be lean because it wouldn't taste the right way and it wouldn't make the right texture..."
...it wouldn't be juicy enough.
"Yes. So, it should be about quarter of a kilo of smoked pork and add some 200 grams of boiled pork."
That's right, they are not raw pieces of meat, you've boiled these pieces.
"Yes. You should let it cool a little bit because then we mix it with the other ingredients. After it's cooled, we can cut it into cubes and then mix them with beaten eggs...
How many eggs?
"Eight would do, I think. It's a lot but it's only once a year. The important ingredients are buns, we need about four big ones, which have been softened and cut into big chunks."
Did you soak the buns in anything?
"Yes, we soaked them in milk, as they create a proper mixture with the meat. Then add a pinch of salt, pepper, and herbs. If you have some fresh nettles it would be great, otherwise of course chives and parsley will do the same job."
So, you have it all in a bowl...then what happens?
"Then you need a baking dish, an appropriate size so it won't overflow. You grease it a little bit with butter, put the mixture in it and put a few slices of butter on the top as well. Then it's ready to cook and you cook it at 220 degrees Celsius until it's golden brown."
Well, Alena just poured me another shot of Slivovice and she told me about another meal that her grandmother in Moravia used to make. What was it called again?
"It was called Pucalka and it is a meal eaten during the fast but it can cause a bit of a farting concert..."
...(laughing) what exactly is in Pucalka?
"It's made of peas and it's a bit of a lengthy process to make. It takes three days. You need some dried peas, which you put into a dish and soak in lukewarm water. Let it sit for a day and it puffs up a little bit. Then, drain half the water and let it sit for another day. It starts to germinate, so then you remove it from the dish and fry it on a greased frying pan. For taste just add a bit of salt and pepper. Some people also like it sweet, so instead of salt and pepper, you can add a bit of cinnamon and honey."
That sounds more like a side dish to me.
"Well, as it was a meal during the fast, it was a main dish without any meat in it."
Alena, thank you very much for giving us this wonderful cooking experience...
"It was my pleasure to have you over and I hope you'll have a very happy Easter - Vesele Velikonoce."