One of Prague’s most recent new museums is dedicated to the art of cooking through the ages, with a particular look at the Czech contribution to cuisine. The museum features special themed tours and cooking workshops, which have been a big hit with visitors.
“Mead prepared in a really traditional way, like a thousand years ago with only honey, water, and a little bit of wine yeast added to start the fermentation. Then the process continues about 80 days to conclude. ”
That short tasting session, appreciated by two Russian guests as well as myself, was one of the highlights of a trip round one of Prague’s newest private museums, the Gastronomy Museum.
The museum, just off Náměstí Republiky in the centre of Prague, was created almost two years ago by the couple Ladislav and Nina Provaan. Ladislav explains the concept behind the museum. “We are trying to present the history of cooking in a very chronological way. We call it among ourselves history through the kitchen window. We want to show how society was moving, how technologies were moving and we are saying that we are presenting history with no wars and political turmoil.”
The series of room takes you through man’s early mastery of fire, though not apparently its wide use for cooking purposes; dietary changes with the first settled communities, early stone ovens and the flowering of communal cooking in medieval and renaissance times. Along the way, quite a few myths about cooking are exposed.
Take the widespread myths about medieval cooking and feasting for example. “We can see that movies show when you see these medieval feasts and those knights eating, drinking, and biting meat from the bone. But it wasn’t like that. There were very strict table manners. It was that only the right hand was allowed to be on the table top and only three figures be used to consume meat because everything was carved in a similar way to Chinese restaurants where everything is carved into small pieces so that they can use chopsticks. And they were using just these three fingers to eat because even sweets, everything was prepared this way.”
A servant with a large jug of water was also on hand to douse fingers so that they could depart on the next course or at the end of the meal. It should be said, perhaps, that the fork, however essential it might seem now, had a pretty tough historical battle for acceptanceity on the dinner table.
Quickly onto the first real European cookbooks after the fall of the Roman Empire in the late medieval and renaissance era, such as that of Italian papal palace cook Bartolomeo Scappi, who published his 1,000 recipe tome in 1570. Many of the cook books of the time seemed as much concerned about the medicinal aspects of the dishes as their taste. That was not surprising perhaps in an age where plague was still very real menace. The exhibition continues with the spread of French cooking under royal patronage and then as a much wider phenomenon after the revolution of 1789 and evolution of family cooking with the invention of small coal and gas cookers in the mid 19th century.
Cooking utensils, ovens, a typical Czech grocery store, pub, and wine cellar form part of the around 15 room historical trail. For me, the high point are the exhibits illustrating the flowering of Czech cuisine and gastronomy in the period running up to the First World War and interwar period when grand Prague hotels could rival anything offered in the rest of Europe. That was the era, for example, of the Hotel Paris, described by Bohumil Hrabal in his novel ‘I served the King of England,’ or the Grand Hotel Europa in Wenceslas Square. The Hotel Paris even came up with a recipe for an original cake to mark the hotel’s opening in 1904.
Even in the bleaker era after the Second World War, Czechs could still make an enduring mark by simple but innovative design. The famous Remoska cooker launched in the 1950’s and still selling strongly under a modern makeover is one example.
“Remoska is an about 50 year old Czech patent which actually introduced a very simple way of cooking. It is just a simple pot where there is a heat panel in the lid. It is simple because there is only one switch on and off. You have to watch it but there is one advantage, that is there is never any burning from the bottom. That is usually the problem of all of us who do not know how to cook exactly. So this is an excellent way to simplify your kitchen because can prepare practically anything in there from bread, to pies, or chicken, even soup or sauces, whatever.”
Ladislav Provaan’s concept is for the museum to be much more than a static series of displays. It also features special gastronomic evenings or tours devoted to one particular aspect of cooking, particularly Czech cooking. A fully equipped modern kitchen is on hand for such sessions.
These have proved a big hit with exiled Czechs seeking to reconnect with their roots as well as visitors with no local background. Mr. Provaan and Nina explain. “Typically there was this two generation Australian family. They were of Czech descent. And they wanted to learn about fruit dumplings. So, they did and it was fine, it was very nice. And then we have another main theme and that is presenting Czech drinks, that is mostly alcoholic drinks because there is no interest in other stuff. But again this is quite successful because particularly for foreigners coming from Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and so on, they don’t know Czech drinks and we are presenting them with typical slivovice and hruskovice and Becherovka in very small quantities and we tell them what it’s about and how to distinguish it and how it should taste. The same with absinthe, because they are exposed here to a lot of bad stuff and once they learn how real slivovice tastes, very frequently we can hear ‘so this is something different to what we were drinking last night. So now this starts to be successful because we already have reservations until December.”
The inspiration for the museum stems from both sides of the husband and wife team, though perhaps more from Nina’s immediate parents and relatives. “It comes from both sides. On my wife’s side it was a family where both [parents] were gastronomers. Her mother, Alice Pinková, was the author of many popular cookbooks, They were always very advanced. You can see she was writing how to cook with microwave and so on. And her father was a very famous person in Czech gastronomy, he was the head waiter in the Hotel Alcron and later in the Hotel Jalta for most of his life. And he was always taking part in the world expositions of these representative teams of chefs and waiters.”
“Myself, I am an architect by profession, but again most of my professional life I was designing five star hotels, working for Sheraton, Hyatts and so on. That helped me get familiar with different Japanese cuisines, Indian cuisine and so on. And when I retired, I live now in Prague, I did some work, but somehow, I don’t know why, it did not work out. I don’t know why. But I have designed the Chocolate Museum, here in Celetna, for my family from Belgium. And when it was done my wife’s family, her sister works for the Association of Chefs and Confectioners here in Prague, and us were all sitting together and the idea came up why should you not build this museum. So here we are.”
Launching a new museum at the height of the recession was not perhaps the most fortunate timing. And while foreign visitors have taken to the concept, Czechs are still a bit cautious. Ladislav explains. “Well we are missing a strong partner to be honest. The opportunities are growing. It’s amazing if I show you the map of our visitors, they are coming from all over the world. But we somehow have a problem to communicate in our country. We do have visitors from gastronomy schools from different corners of the Czech Republic but it is not enough for us to take up other opportunities and develop the way we feel we should now. ”
But if the museum can plug into the current Czech craze for all things cooking, then it should have a recipe for success.