A culinary tour to get the best taste of Prague
A church bell chimes in the distance; a flock of pigeons squabble in a cobblestone courtyard. A florist unlocks the door to her shopfront, her arms filled with perfumed peonies. It’s early morning in Prague and I’m on my way to a new food tour of the Bohemian city, but even though I’ve skipped breakfast, my senses are far from starved. Prague is a city that bristles with atmosphere, particularly in the honeycombed lanes of the Old Town.
Among these lanes, tucked though a clandestine archway lined with antique mailboxes, is Gallery Le Court. This quiet cafe, with its shaded courtyard and gallery exhibiting up-and-coming Czech artists might seem unremarkable, but it is the first stop on the Eating Prague tour for one incredibly delicious reason – it serves one of Europe’s most hallowed pastries. The štrúdl might be better known in neighbouring Austria and Germany, but according to our guide Mirka Charlotte Kostelkova, it’s equally famous in the Czech Republic.
Mirka, a pretty young local, spent years working in Uganda, Madagascar and Paris before returning to Prague, where she rediscovered her passion for the city and its food. And she clearly enjoys her history, her eyes lighting up as she rattles off the tale of štrúdl. Did we know strudel was made famous by the Habsburg Empire pastry chefs? Strúdl was their masterpiece, and as Prague was one of the Habsburg capitals, the Czechs have fine-tuned their own version – dusted with powdered sugar and stuffed with slices of apple, poppy seeds or creamy tvaroh cheese since the 17th century.
A quick coffee and lesson in štrúdl complete, we amble at a leisurely pace along Dlouha Street. Translating to “long” in Czech, it is indeed a long road, crammed with a generous portion of Prague’s eateries, trendy pubs such as Lokal, and Naše maso (our meat), a boutique butcher run by the passionate master butcher František Kšána Jr.
Kšána learned the craft at his father’s butchery in the Brevnov district of Prague before opening his artisanal shopfront on Dlouha, with sausage-shaped lamps, shelves stuffed with mustards and relishes, and staff clad in leather-accented aprons.
There’s almost too much to sample on the heavy butcher’s board placed before us. From cured meats as pure as baby’s breath made without water and polyphosphates, to aged fleckveih (beef tartar) and crunchy, aromatic beef sausages imbued with a secret blend of spices and garlic and smoked in beech-wood chippings. Naše maso isn’t simply a butcher – its meatloaf and made-to-order burgers make it an exceptionally popular lunchtime haunt for Prague locals, judging by the queues stretching down the street.
Meatloaf, sausages, goulash, roast duck – there is no escaping meat in Prague. It’s the mainstay of the Czech diet, so much so that in the Prague episode of No Reservations, television food critic Anthony Bourdain even went so far as describing the Czech Republic as “the land that vegetables forgot”. However, Prague’s palate is evolving, assures Mirka. “Czech food used to be all about meat and dumplings,” she says. “But these days you’ll see more vegetables being used, raw, food, fresh juices and farmers markets.”
At the forefront of the veggie revolution is Hana Michopulu, a Czech cookbook author and the former editor-in-chief of Apetit magazine who founded the city’s first farmers’ markets. There are now dozens in Prague, and the Náplavka Farmers’ Market, held each Saturday on the banks of the Vltava River, is a pilgrimage for gourmands – the stalls groaning with the weight of mushrooms plucked from nearby forests, and berry-laden Czech pastries. Carrying a basket down to the river, sipping a freshly-brewed coffee and breaking off bits of bread to toss to the Vltava’s resident swans is perhaps one of Prague’s simplest foodie pleasures.
Along with farmers’ markets, Michopulu is also responsible for modernising one of Prague’s classic lunchtime favourites: chlebícky. These open-faced sandwiches – typically a slice of French baguette topped with cold cuts, potato salad or herring – were created more than 100 years ago in Prague, and today, they are something of a cornerstone in Czech cuisine. “It’s like our kebab or cheeseburger,” says Mirka.
Chlebícky are sold throughout Prague, but the ones we are about to try at Sisters, Michopulu’s hip bistro, located just next door to Naše maso, have turned tradition on its head.
Behind glass counters, row after row of pretty-as-a-picture chlebícky are “almost too beautiful to eat”, according to Mirka; the house-baked sourdough slices topped with tempting, Scandinavian style combinations such as crimson-coloured beetroot, dollops of goats’ cheese, sweet walnut and beetroot leaf, or grated celery root, homemade mayonnaise, chervil, parsley, tarragon and cherry tomatoes.
As we eat, we slurp on the bistro’s domácí limonáda – homemade lemonade infused with lime and elderflower syrup. “Prague people usually pick their own elderflower,” says Mirka. “It grows wildly in parks or they grow their own at home.”
While food is very much the focus of the Eating Prague tour, it’s these little titbits that help to bring the historical backstory of Prague and its people to life. We can scarcely turn a corner without Mirka pointing out a fresco here, a shop window stuffed with cheeses there.
She leads us through Prague’s famous passageways such as the art nouveau Lucerna, past boutique chocolatiers, and an atrium featuring a colossal, upside-down sculpture of King Wenceslas on a dead horse, by David Cerný, the enfant terrible of the Czech Republic’s art world.
Later, as we walk along Husova street, Mirka asks with a playful grin if we can spot another one of Cerný’s controversial works. Baffled, we glance around, only for her to point towards the sky where a statue of Cerný’s Man Hanging Out is suspended above the rooftops.
While a four-hour tour cannot cover all of Prague’s foodie offerings, Mirka makes sure to point out other notable cafes, restaurants and traditional hospodas (pubs) where daily menus feature hearty Bohemian classics such as goulash and svícková, a sirloin beef speciality dear to Czechs. Doused in a creamy carrot sauce and served with dumplings, cranberries and a squeeze of lemon, svícková is ubiquitous on menus throughout Prague, and most locals are quick to nominate their favourite spot, but Cafe Louvre, one of the city’s most-evocative 19th-century coffee houses, is said to serve the city’s finest.
With tuxedoed waiters and moustachioed men playing chess, little has changed in Cafe Louvre since writers such as Franz Kafka and intellectuals such as Albert Einstein crowded these very tables, scribbling down their thoughts. Today, the tradition is continued, with notepaper and pencils placed on tables, should inspiration strike. We are here not to write, however, but to eat – and eat we do once the svícková arrives. With beef as tender as a lover’s embrace and sweet, carrot-imbued sauce, I’m gripped with a childlike desire to lick the plate.
By the time the tour’s end draws near, we have walked the city’s breadth, and it’s just as well, as the finale, a Czech dessert at Choco Café U Cervené židle, is the most indulgent.
Horice – a whipped-cream-stuffed wafer roll dipped into a pot of dark hot chocolate – is so revered, it’s on the European Union’s protected foods list.
The recipe for this calorific treat was passed down to a Czech woman by Napoleon’s personal chef when he arrived to the town of Horice, heavily wounded from a campaign in Russia.
Bidding Mirka and the group goodbye, I waddle down the street to catch a tram, passing once more through Husova Street beneath Cerny’s hanging man.
Glancing up at the sculpture, it seems a fitting end to my food tour; a poignant reminder that many of Prague’s masterpieces – both culinary and artistic – are hidden in the most unlikely places. Discovering them is part of the pleasure.
Updated: July 23, 2015 04:00 AM