Old Town Square in the middle of a typically busy tourist-filled summer’s day. Along one side are several food stalls, which are a relatively new feature for the Old Town. They are selling crepes and hams and sausages and one unmistakable stall is selling what is known as Trdelník. It is a sweet delicacy that is baked on a coal fire; it is tube-shaped, so it rotates around the heat much like a spit roast piece of pork. And it has become quite an unmistakable item, which has been marketed as something which is “Old Bohemian”. I am going now to find out what some tourists that have bought the pastry make of it.
Man 1: “Nothing. It is made of bread and it is very delicious and that is all that I know.”
What do you believe to be the history of the item you have just ordered?
Man 2: “I don’t know the history of it.”
What would you imagine it to be?
“A pastry that is very popular in Prague. I don’t know if there is any actual significance to it.”
Man 3: “Oh, the history? A funky old Czech-style doughnut gone crazy? I don’t know.”
And would you imagine it to be a historical delicacy that Czech have eaten for hundreds of years?
Man 3: “I think that what is bizarre about it is that it is cooked over charcoal.”
Woman 1: “I definitely thought it was traditional. The writing [on the stall sign] and the whole marketing looks really traditional. And when I was researching coming here, I kept coming across information suggesting that this was one of the local foods.”
Might the following perhaps be true?:
National Trdelník Day has been celebrated by Czechs on the first day of the full moon after the autumn harvest ever since the 14th century. It was then, in 1387, that Bohemian King Trd gallantly crossed the mighty river Elník to reach his beloved future bride Princess Brambora. The legend is that he was carrying one bag of coal and another bag of flour. Using a great deal of ingenuity, he took the flour, mixed it with water, made rings from the dough and roasted these over a charcoal fire. He then placed these rings over his arms and used them as floatation devices to cross the river and reach his beloved princess.
Alas, the above tale is a complete invention from your humble reporter’s even more humble imagination. The real story of the Trdelník is of a common method of cooking used across all of Europe and beyond. The Hungarians, Slovaks, and even Turkic peoples of Asia have spun dough on an open flame. According to Trdelnik.com, the sweet treat was brought to Moravia in the 18th century by the Hungarian general József Gvadányi. But as another website, Trdelniky.net notes, there are a great many myths about the origins of this treat.
I spoke with Ladislav Provaan, head of the Gastronomy Museum, Prague to try to find some answers:
“Trdelník is primarily an incredible marketing success. It has appeared overnight. I really cannot remember seeing Trdelník at all when I was young – it didn’t exist. In the last few years, it has really skyrocketed. It is everywhere and tourists love it, but I feel bad about that because people aren’t really getting the full information on what this food is all about.”
Because presumably many are thinking: “Oh, look! An ‘Old Bohemian’ something or other, and maybe that is a traditional thing that Czechs are eating.” The history suggests otherwise. It is perhaps Hungarian, or Slovak, or Turkic?
“No, it goes way beck to Neolithic times. Trdelník ties very directly to the open fire. Prior to bread ovens, and prior to kitchen stoves or hot plates, there was no other way to cook dough other than to twist it on a stick of wood and rotate it over an open fire. In a practical sense, this made it accessible for people who were travelling, or people staying with their herds out in the countryside. So that is the charm of it. As far as it is known in Europe, it starts with ancient Greece and practically every nation from Sweden down to the south, east and west, people knew Trdelník. The only difference is that it had so many local names. The word ‘Trdelník’ is the only thing about this food, which is purely Czech. It is a very ancient word, and it essentially denotes the use of a wooden stick, mallet or spindle – when twisting yarn this word was used. So this is very nice word, which has many meanings in the Czech language. For example ‘trdlo’ is a gentle word for someone who is a little bit confused in a given situation.”
You say it is a marketing success, so who is responsible? There are a number of distinct stalls across central Prague. Is that one company? Is there a Trdelník boss or something like that?
And why do you think it is so popular?
“Firstly, the name, which for foreigners t-r-d-l- is very difficult to say. No vowels. Secondly, I think it has something to do with a very modern approach to gastronomy, which I still think is underestimated by professionals. People love to see things being made.”
Because it has advantage of rolling around on the fire in full view.
“Exactly. They can smell it. They have all four senses engaged.”
Presumably, one would think that it is also extremely profitable [selling for, on average, 60 crowns a piece], because it is just a bit of dough and sugar and butter.
“I would say so. And that’s why I am saying it is such a marketing success. Because it is always the case that when you have the right tools, you can make good money.”
I shifted to Wenceslas Square, another location where you can find Trdelníky on sale to eager tourists. There, Radek, one of the people who work in the stalls selling this pastry, kindly agreed to explain to me what he knows about this highly profitable sweet treat.
“It is a sweet cake, made from pastry, and we cover it with vanilla sugar, almonds and cinnamon. We roll the dough out on a stick, then we put it over the fire. The dough rises and then we put it on hotter flames. The sugar on it bakes and makes caramel and then we roll it again in the sugar mix – and that is how they are made.”
Do you make the dough here too?
“No, we buy that from the baker.”
What can you tell me about the history of Trdelník?
So what you sell has a Czech twist? That is different?
“Yes. You can make coconut flavour, or nut flavour. But we just sell the one flavour – sugar, cinnamon and almonds – which is a kind of classic style.”
How come it has become so popular in such a short space of time – perhaps a year or so?
“A lot of people started to make Trdelníky because the tourists love it.”
And it is profitable, right?
“Yes. Of course. We make it for money.”
Perhaps the greatest irony is how ill-suited genuine Czech fare seems to be to the burgeoning “street food” culture. Tourists in Prague can regularly encounter stalls selling not only Trdelník, but Slovakian Halušky, Hungarian Langoše, and American freshly made potato chips. Meanwhile, the once ubiquitous Czech sausages have been largely banished. Ladislav Provaan again:
“Those Wenceslas Square stands were horrible. The fat was usually burnt, and...let’s not even remember them!”
If you wanted to create a representative street food experience of Czech foods that are ideal to be served as street food, as apposed to going into a restaurant, what would you like to see?
“Fried fish, for example. That used to be very popular in the olden days. Definitely all types of sausages.”
So we are back to sausages again...
“Yes, but they should be of good quality, which is still a big problem. And I think that people would come back to sausages in the case that they smelled nice, and people could see that it was a quality and fresh product taken from the fridge.”
What would you recommend for a tourist coming to the Czech Republic to experience Czech-style street food? What should they look for? What should they do?
Or should they just go to a restaurant?
“I would prefer a restaurant. Because street food is strictly connected with street festivities. Right? So to some extent, we can say yes, during a visit to Prague you are walking the streets and are part of the crowds, and so the food reflects these feelings. In that sense, it is good to have street food. But I wouldn’t overdo it.”