“I hope you all wore a good pair of walking shoes and stretchable pants,” says Mirka Charlotte Kostelkova of a new tour company in Prague called Eating Prague. From a North American perspective one may envision the food of the Czech Republic as being pork, cabbage and dumplings but our small group of seven foodies were about to be educated in the most delicious way.
Eating Prague is part of a larger family of Eating tour companies that, not surprisingly, started in Italy. Headquartered in Rome, Eating Italy quickly spread to London and this year Eating Amsterdam and Eating Prague are opening doors to the kitchens of their perspective cities to crowds of mouthwatering foodies who lust for new food experiences.
We all sat around a long wooden harvest table under the shade of a grape arbour. There were two girls from Singapore, one from San Francisco, New York City, a gentleman from Bali. Together with Jon and I representing Canada that made seven. Mirka was telling us what to expect on the four-hour tour.
We were in a hidden courtyard of an art gallery called Le Court where we were served squat glasses of water and thick slices of cinnamon spiked apple strudel. Each slice was bulging with tiny chunks of soft warm apples and plump raisins all wrapped up in a crust that was both elastic and flaky, yum. The strudel was served neat, without any of the typical whipped cream or ice cream; it’s the Czech way.
We walked through the courtyard onto old cobblestone streets. To our delight Mirka is passionate about food, not just a tour guide. She begins to talk of a few good restaurants; Local for casual fare, La Degustation, one of the two Michelin-Star restaurants in the city and U Modré Kachnicky (The Blue Duckling). Prague cuisine can easily be divided into two camps. The first is of traditional, country-style hearty dishes, typically consisting of pork, cabbage, dumplings and beer. Czech’s just can’t resist spilling a little or a lot of beer into almost any dish simmering on the stove. The other, a modern, nouvelle version of traditional dishes being reinvented by top chefs.
We arrive at Sisters for the classic chlebíčky (open faced sandwiches). Owned and operated by Hana Michopulu, affectionately known as Prague’s own Alice Waters, Hana was responsible for bringing farmers’ markets to Prague and she only uses locally sourced foods in her modern looking eatery tucked into an ancient building.
Chlebíčky is an ancient food that dates back well over 100 years. It’s the Czech’s most popular finger food but contrary to thick slices of bread piled with over mayonnaised potato salad and slices of meat, these small melba-toast sized slices of deliciousness are eye-candy to the modern palate. The first chlebíčky was a blood red beet topped with a chunk of Czech goat cheese and walnut over slightly tangy sourdough bread. The beets creamed their natural sweetness over your tongue while the tang of the bread and earthiness of the cheese layered with the walnut tannins for an elegant mouthful. The second, and my favourite was a grated celeriac salad with tarragon, chervil and parsley over dark bread spread with soft, sweet butter and topped with a cherry tomato – yum. The third and most interesting was a chlebíčky of wasabi, baby radish, dill and herring for a playful dance of heat, cold and luscious textures. All of these were being washed down with a chilled elderflower drink flavoured with fresh mint leaves and slivers of lime.
As we savoured the chlebíčky in Sisters, we could watch the buzz in the butcher shop next door. People were seated at the window bar eating tartar on small wooden cutting boards, plates of shaved Prague ham and grilled sausages in soft white buns. Mirka announced we didn’t have to go far for our next tasting as we walked into the butcher shop.
Like a restaurant with an open kitchen Nase Maso’s has an open butcher block buzzing with blood stained white jacketed butchers carving, shopping and slicing. It’s all too exciting for our small group and they start chatting about their mutual love of charcuterie.
Out of the back comes a young man with a clean chefs jacket holding a large platter of meat. He offers it up to our group. The first sample was a slice of meatloaf on top of rustic sourdough and spread with spicy mustard. The loaf is rich with a peppery flavour that takes on the challenge of spicy mustard skillfully. It’s a full, robust mouthful. Next were warm, pieces of juicy, smoked Přeštice sausage named after the region it is known for. It filled your palate with powerful robust smoky-rich flavours, a burly character sure to warm in the cold weather.
The next sample was the pride of Prague; Prague Ham. To the naked eye it may look like simple ham but there is nothing simple about this. It’s injected with a secret mixture of salt water and spices, then cured, marinated then smoked. All of this takes several days of skill and patience. The result is a deliciously clean tasting pork with an elegant ham flavour; very sophisticated, irresistibly delicious. The Prague Ham was shaved and sitting on slices of dark bread.
The last sample was another in-house meat by Nase Maso. Mirka called it Beef Ham and it looked remarkably like artisan pastrami. It was rich, juicy and would have done a robust red wine justice! All was amazingly delicious. I started to notice the food samples were being devoured without the bread to make room for our next stop. Our group was beginning to strategize in the face of abundance!
We headed out on what Mirka calls a digestive cultural walk. As she guides us to our next destination she talks of Czech food and beer, of historic buildings and statues and of course, more restaurants. Bellevue Restaurant has the most beautiful views of Charles Bridge and some stunning seasonal dishes with a touch of traditional Czech cuisine. Café Imperial is a must stop because it’s run by Executive Chef Zdenek Pohlreich, claimed by some to be Prague’s Gordon Ramsay.
We had arrived at our next destination, Zvonice. It’s a restaurant on the 8th floor of a 600 year old bell tower. The beautiful room had stonewalls, small windows with glorious views, giant beams and a huge brass bell named Mary in the centre. Here we ate a yummy sauerkraut soup they call Staroceska Zeinice or Old Bohemian Sauerkraut Soup. The thick soup had chunks of robust deer sausage, a quenelle of mashed potatoes, slivers of chanterel mushrooms and uberfine threads of fermented cabbage that acted more like melted, stringy cheese than sauerkraut in the soup. All was drizzled with basil oil and a dollop of sour cream. It’s a super mouth warming, succulent soup with a bottom weight of savoury sausage interjected with frequent spikes of sauerkraut acidity and earthy flavours that linger long on the palate. It’s amazingly delicious and we all ask for the recipe.
Prague is the beer capital of the Czech republic with citizens drinking a whopping 157 litres per capita. Pilsner and Budweiser are both brewed in the Czech Republic, but unlike the cheap watery beer brewed in the U.S., Budweiser is a high quality beer here.
After all this talk of beer, we drop by Pivovarský Dům, a microbrewery and restaurant serving up Czech pub food. Giant copper stills sit in the middle of the restaurant and we wander down to the dark underground tank cellar to sip some good Czech beer.
We leave a little thirst quenched and walk into the sunshine again. We pass a modern looking ice cream shop called Beautiful Me. Mirka says it’s her favourite in town. We pass a stand with rotating poles covered with cinnamon sugared bread. It’s called Trdelnik. The poles rotate the bread and it cooks over hot coals then removed from the poles and sprinkled with more sugar.
Our next stop, Café Louvre is a historic Czech café where we were served a traditional Czech dish of braised beef with pureed vegetables (sauce) and dumplings. The braised beef was interestingly covered with cranberry jam and whipped cream. The beef was fork tender and the sauce was of fresh sweet carrots and celery. The dumplings looked like two slices of bread on the plate, a different kind of dumpling for sure.
Moving on we arrive at Choco Café, a family-owned chocolate café serving traditional Hořice, rolled wafers, stuffed with whipped cream and dipped in shot-glasses filled with thick hot chocolate. The wafers took me back to communion in the Catholic Church. They had the same texture and flavour, but no church wafer was ever stuffed with the seductive textures of whipped cream or dipped in thick sultry chocolate. Hořice are however, heavenly and divine.
Mirka is a foodie and when she wasn’t talking about her love for Prague’s food shops and restaurants, she was gushing with pride over its history and historical beauty. We experienced some of Prague’s hidden treasures, learned the history behind some of its magnificent buildings and best of all, cut through the thick layer of brash tourism that sometimes interferes with a fabulous experience. I give Eating Prague 10 stars!