Tag Archives: goulash

A Tale of Two Canteens

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I know it might seem like I’m obsessed with food, what with the rohlik buying, the Czech Come Dine with Me (Prostřeno!) watching and the long list of provisions received from the grandmas on the trips to the village, but the way to a nation’s heart is through its stomach. 

The picture above is a of a Czech canteen or jídelna. They are something of a dying breed but it’s still possible to find them if you hunt around. This one is on Stčpanská, around a five minute walk from Karlovo Námčstí.

First culture shock: don’t expect a seat.  Do expect to stand elbow to elbow with a beer-bellied man in overalls as you chomp on your meat and dumplings.

There’s no table service here of course, and no English menu either. Czechman tells me (given the prices and his guts of iron he’s something of a regular) that he has heard the staff translating the options for the odd foreigner who has bravely strayed off the tourist trail of nearby Wenceslas Square in search of bargain grub.  In fact, perhaps the only place in Prague where no-one speaks English is the Foreign Police, the government department responsible for processing the visas and residence permits and therefore come into daily contact with and are required to communicate with as part of their job – guess who?  Foreigners.

That rant almost gave me indigestion. Forgive me. Anyway, here’s a taster (if you’ll pardon the pun) of those menu options: 

On my visit I opted for beef, spinach and potato dumplings. I’ll leave the detailed dining reviewing to those with more of a taste for it (and the bad puns just keep coming) but  as the saying goes a picture is worth a thousand words so here’s a visual image I’m sure some of you will never forget.

For those of you not accustomed to Czech food, this is pretty typical fare. Once having been used to mop up the thick gravy, the dumplings sink into your stomach like lead weights. They then sit there for the rest of the afternoon while your digestive system struggles to carry out the complex chemical reactions required to break them down.  Washing them down with a beer or two aids this process. 

They are comforting though, especially in winter. The quality I thought was no worse than you’d find in the average Czech pub although I’d rather pay that extra 20kc for the luxury of sitting down while eating.

This is a canteen (or should that be acanteen?) in Chelmsford, Essex. Like its Czech equivalent, there is a choice of soups on offer every lunchtime. Unlike its Czech counterpart, it also has salads along with a range of locally sourced organic fruit juices. And seats.  In case you find yourself missing the draft Gambrinus or men in overalls you can console yourself with a large mochachinolattinos and a huge piece of cake while leafing through a copy of the Guardian. 

Here’s a picture I took of the interior on my last visit:

The menu options are still written up on a board behind the counter and you still need to queue up but there the similarity with the typical canteen ends.  You see, this is a po-mo, retro dining experience.  Just check out those authentically rustic tables and chairs. That’s why you pay the same price for a coffee here as I did for my meat and dumplings on Stěpanská. 

Both places have their unique charms and before I get verbally assaulted in the comments sections, I certainly wouldn’t dare to suggest that one were ‘better’ than the other.  Just like England and Czechland.

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Hit me with your Easter stick

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I spent Easter at Czechman’s brother-in-law’s weekend house.  The little rabbit you can see in the picture was waiting by the door to greet us.  ‘Weekend house’ implies something modest like a chalet or a caravan so I was surprised by how much space there was.   It used to belong to an old lady before Czechman’s in-laws bought it ten years ago and started doing it up;  apparently half the village is second homes now.

The house is full of quirky old furniture – a battered dresser in the kitchen, a brown and orange stripy three piece suite – and super-kitsch items such as fringed net curtains decorated with a row of yellow chicks chasing each other.

We went walking every day.  The village is in a valley surrounded by forests somewhere near the Polish border.  The forests are full of tall, slim pine trees and huge rock formations like this one.

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I’ve never been in a forest which had rocks in it before.  Apparently they’re made of sandstone which helps to explain why the ground is covered in white sand.  If we had anywhere like this in England, I remember thinking, it would be crawling with tourists and the village would be packed with shops selling naff china figurines and chinzy cafes serving cream teas.  As it was, we barely came across another soul.

I loved the rocks.  I want you to love them too so here’s another picture:

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The Czechs are crazy about walking and the Great Outdoors.  When I first started going out with Czechman, he suggested that we go to Wales to do some ‘walking’.  To me, this meant the odd  meander through some flattish countryside somewhere easily accessible from a town, punctuated by regular tea/coffee breaks.  How wrong I was.  I’ll never forget the dismay in his voice when I asked if we could get a taxi from the train station to the B&B rather than traispe through three miles of Welsh countryside.  Now that we’ve been together for some time, I understand that what he calls ‘walking’ requires sturdy boots and a rucksack rather than a handbag.  In fact, I would even go so far to say that I actually enjoy it.

When we weren’t walking we played petanque and drank pastis (not very Czech I know), cooked questionable meat products on the fire (see my first post for more details on my initial encounters with these) and played an obscure board game with very complicated rules that somehow Czechman and I managed to win.  There was also the communal cooking (and eating) of goulash and dumplings and the eating of a giant sponge cake in the shape of a ram and being beaten on the arse by Czechman with a big stick he had handcrafted himself from willow on Easter Sunday.  I’m not making this last bit up.  The stick business is supposed to be some kind of Czech Easter tradition linked to ancient fertility rites.  There are few sights more disturbing than watching your boyfriend chasing his sister around the house, whacking her on the behind while she screams, with a big grin on his face.

There’s no photographic evidence of the stick incident but I do have a cute picture of an Easter chick here which is a nicer note to end on:

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