In Focus Anyone for kontrabaš, šumajzl or kosmatice? New cookbook highlights regional specialities from around Czech Republic
Petra Pospěchová’s recently published Regionální Kuchařka, or Regional Cookbook, is full of interesting recipes from around the Czech Republic, from her native Valašsko in the east of the country to the former Sudetenland in the west and all points in between, with each section introducing readers to a dozen or so local specialities. When I met Pospěchová, one of the country’s best-known food writers, I asked her if it had perhaps taken somebody from outside Prague to put together such a book.
“That’s a question. I think Prague also has a lovely cooking tradition, but I would say that people in big cities are maybe not so much attached to their history, to their roots in the sense of everyday life.
“Not only to do with food, but I would say the way they speak; we have a really lovely dialect in my region and we are kind of more connected to the soil, to our ancestors.”
Generally speaking how would you characterise Czech food? To me it seems like a kind of peasant food.
“Well, in many ways it is peasant food. Because most of the Czech Republic is not big settlements. The only really big ones since old times are Prague and Brno, which have really lovely urban or, let’s say, more sophisticated cuisine traditions.
“But the rest is really more or less villages, even if we talk about Ostrava, which has this peasant tradition with a Polish accent.
“At the end of the story, I always say that if I want to bring somebody close to Czech cuisine, to make him like it, I offer him a soup or a sweet. Because they’re not so heavy or not so rustic, maybe. And I would say these two parts of our cuisine are really lovely ones.”
I’ve noticed with Czech families that having soup is just kind of automatic, before a meal.
“Yes, that’s true. We don’t have any entrées, we usually start with soup. But honestly in my household if I make soup it’s the main dish with some bread or something.
“And I believe my parents abandoned this tradition too. I’m not quite sure where it came from…”
Recently I was at somebody’s house and they asked me to set the table for lunch. And when I put out the knives and forks they said, where are the spoons?
“That’s it. It’s an interesting question. I never kind of investigated this tradition. I don’t know any other nations but the Czechs and Slovaks who would do it – even Slovaks use soups more as an independent dish. Hmm. I have to think about it.”
This country has a population of 10 million. Is the cuisine really so diverse around the country?
“Very much, because these 10 million people are divided into completely different regions with different history, with different geography.
“So you have really poor regions, like for example Valašsko, where I come from, is not really rich. In Vysočina or Horácko, some parts, the higher ones, were so poor that the people really only had potatoes, cabbage and maybe apples. Sometimes not even apples because it’s too high to grow them.
“Then there are really rich areas, like Polabí, or maybe the settlements around Brno, which is lowlands. Or Haná, if you compared the menu of people from Valašsko and people from Haná, it’s like different continents.
“Some people had hardly any meat at all and the others had it like three times a week, and quite rich portions. So a big difference.
“Or you see it in bread. Because there were bread regions that were let’s say richer ones that had wheat flour, white flour, and then other ones who ate some kind of purees and soups all the time and had bread maybe once a week. It was a gift from God, something that was rare, something you didn’t eat every day.”
When you say the wealth, do you mean wealth in terms of what grows in those areas? Or wealth meaning money in the pockets of people who live in those areas?
“Both, because it’s connected… The other thing that divides the country gastronomically is influences. The border areas were always kind of touched by their neighbours.
“On the other hand Brno has the Austrian tradition and also the Jewish tradition, because there was a strong Jewish community.
“In the north, if you take Ostrava and all the places around it, it’s just half Polish. If you look at the menu it’s borscht and all this stuff that’s really Polish, like pierogi.”
Tell me, how did you do the research for the book?
“At first I started with the regions I really know well. There I just did some small research in old books and old newspapers, for example.
“When I got to those regions that are further from me, I just started to search for the people who know it. This was ethnographers but for the most part old women, grandmas who remember how their grandmas cooked, so in their heads they have a tradition that is maybe 150 years old, if I was lucky.
“They were so lovely. We sat for long evenings and they told me what they used to make, how they made it and really special things.
“There was one lady, actually she’s from my region, and her great-aunt worked in the kitchen of some nearby town. So she had some lovely recipes from the castle, and also some recipe for potato pancakes or something like that which the great-aunt brought to the castle and the countess really liked it. And it’s in the book, of course.”
I’m sure these old ladies must have been very pleased that somebody was interested in their memories of food and in their family recipes?
“I’m afraid some of them were kind of digging the recipes out of their memories for the first time, because either they don’t have daughters or the daughters are not interested in. So I think they liked it.
“But there was one case, a lady from Slovácko, who made a really lovely book herself just about the cuisine of her village: how they made all the specialities of the region, but especially in this tiny, tiny village called Hluk. Miss Lekešová, she’s really lovely.”
Was it hard to separate regional recipes from family recipes? There must be some recipes that really only exist in some families.
“In every chapter of the book there is let’s say 12, 15 recipes which are a selection of those which I came across repeatedly. In books, in newspapers.
“I really wanted typical ones based on the typical ingredients of the region. I collected lovely family recipes too but those I didn’t use.”
Also the foods have great names. I came across many I had never heard of, like kontrabaš, drkotina, šumajzl, vařonka and kosmatice. These are incredible names.
“It’s like a poem, isn’t it!”
Would some of these foods exist under different names in different places?
“There are a few I kind of hit on in different regions under different names. It’s usually like in one region they call sauerkraut soup couračka and in another one they call it kyselačka or something like that.
“But there aren’t so many of them. It’s weird but the regions really kept very typical things.”
And of the new recipes that you discovered what were your personal favourites?
“That’s difficult to say. But for me the biggest adventure was probably Sudeten cuisine, because I had never researched it and I didn’t know much about it.
“But I was lucky because my boyfriend, in those times just my friend, is from this area, from the very west, and it’s kind of his hobby to research the traditions. He helped me a lot.
“There was very unusual stuff, like homemade biscuits and meat pudding with layers of potato and this kind of stuff. That was really interesting for me.
“And then, the variety of dumplings. I was amazed how many kinds of dumplings we have in this country. It seems you could make a book just about dumplings – 50 or 60, I don’t know. It’s amazing.”
“I’m a patriot and I really like the cuisine of my region. I love the soups of Valašsko. The sauerkraut one is just the best food ever. You have everything – a nice piece of sausage, a piece of bacon, some sour cream, sauerkraut, potatoes.
“It’s just lovely. If you let it stand overnight to let the flavours kind of smooth inside, it’s perfect!”