Meat me in Prague

Published May 22, 2022, 2:00 PM

by AA Patawaran

And a carnivore’s tour of other magical places in the Czech Republic

To a list of 173 countries that ate the most meat in the world, prepared in 2019 by 107 scientists for the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations (UN), the Czech Republic did not make it.

TABLE COMPANY Photo of a lunch at U Salzmannů (Personal Archive of Markéta Maškovská)

Topped not by a country, but by China SAR Hong Kong (China is 66th), the list included the Philippines on the 105th slot and six European nations on the top 20 slots, Luxembourg at 10th, Austria at 17th, and the Netherlands at 19th included.

Yet, in the Czech Republic, a typical meal is almost never without meat, whether pork, beef, game, or chicken. Borrowing from its neighbors in central Europe, the Czech food culture is heavy on meats, like goulash, schnitzel, and svickova, which you may not easily find at any restaurant because it takes too long to prepare. Beef sirloin slowly roasted with bayleaf, thyme, and black pepper, it’s almost a national dish, served only on special occasions with a dollop of whipped cream, a garnish of cranberries, and lemon wedges on top.

WHERE’S THE MEAT? Surrounded by al fresco cafes, the Old Town Square in Prague is always abuzz with carts and stalls and kiosks of Czech treats, such as klobásy, halušky, trdelník, and even mulled wine

Even to a first-timer, Central European cuisine consists mostly of hefty meats, thick sauces, and heavy soups, although back in the day, before ingredients from across the world, like potato, black pepper, chickpeas, olives, and almond, became readily available through importation, such as under Roman rule from 800 to 1806, pulses, wild fruits and nuts, and cereals comprised the basic diet. There would be a bit more fish in settlements close to rivers and lakes, but elsewhere, such as in the highlands, it would be predominantly meat from four-legged animals and animal products like cheese, butter, and milk.

The Czech Republic is the heartland of Europe. Landlocked, it is bordered by Austria to the south, Germany to the west, Poland to the northeast, and Slovakia to the southeast. It is, if I may say boldly, a carnivore’s paradise. As the Private Prague Guide so unapologetically puts it, “Czech food requires a reprogramming of the culinary mindset: Fat is flavor, grease is good, and cholesterol is your friend. If this sounds liberating, then roll up your sleeves and pull up a chair.”

STREET STYLE Young Czechs selling klobásy at Old Town Square

So I did. That chair on my recent trip, just as the Czech Republic began to relax Covid restrictions to international travelers in early April, was at a table at a restaurant so obliquely named—Pork’s! It was my first meal in the Czech Republic, this roll-out-the-barrel type of restaurant on Mostecká Street in Prague, right at the Old Town end of Charles Bridge.

It cannot be stressed enough that at Pork’s, pork is the main agenda. There are pork cheeks in gravy, served cold, to start with, or potato pancake fried in pork fat. For mains, help yourself to the specialty of the house—pork knuckles with mustard, horseradish, and crispy sauerkraut. But there’s also pulled pork knuckle in butter bread with crispy sweet-and-sour cabbage, fried onion, and mustard mayonnaise. Or choose the pork schnitzel with a light potato salad or the roasted pork ribs with cabbage salad, mayonnaise, and garlic bread. If the starters I suggested earlier aren’t enough, try the warm smoked pork cracklings from Duroc or the roasted pork sausage with mustard and horseradish.

‘Czech food requires a reprogramming of the culinary mindset: Fat is flavor, grease is good, and cholesterol is your friend.’

During my Czech holiday, I started each day with bacon, or smoked ham, or klobásy (grilled sausages) with two eggs sunny side up and two cups of coffee at every hotel stop, whether at the Marriott Prague, the Hotel Imperial in Karlovy Vary, the Hotel Grand in Český Krumlov, the Mozart Prague, the Chateau Mcely in Mcely, or even at the Old Town Square one early morning when the sausage stands were just getting ready to open.

JULIA CHILD WOULD LOVE IT HERE Butter popsicle at Chateau Mcely

At U Salzmannů in Plzeň, about 90 kilometers west of Prague, other than the beer, the pilsner, for which the city has a special place in history, we had the famed beef steak tartare. It was worth the trip, not only because the raw coarse beef was exceptional, but also because of the ritual of eating it, rubbing a whole knob of garlic against the deep-fried toast, which came, along with an egg yolk and traditional spices, with the dish. As appetizer, I was served the kulajda, a creamy potato and mushroom soup with dill and a poached egg. Lest I forget, U Salzmannů, established in 1637 at the very historic center of Plzeň, is the oldest restaurant in the city, with a pension featuring period atmosphere as well as modern comforts.

RAW PLEASURE Beef tartare at U Salzmannů in Plzeň

At the Coda Restaurant at the Aria Hotel Prague in Mala Strana, just a couple of minutes’ walk from the Church of Our Lady of Victories, which houses the Infant Jesus of Prague, between the smoked mozzarella with pepper coulis and basil pesto and the duck leg with steamed red cabbage and traditional dumplings, I still chose the meat. It just went better with the Moravian red wine, the Skale Family Reserve.

In Karlovy Vary, along the Teplá River, about 113 kilometers from Prague, Le Marché was quite a discovery. It happens to be the best in the spa town, according to the independent dining guide of Euro magazine. I took a break from pork and beef here and ordered tuna and gratinated potatoes with olives and saffron sauce for my main, but to start, I had rabbit croquettes on curry with peanut butter and wakame. The croquettes were delightful, though I chose an assortment of strong French cheeses with fig mustard to end the meal in case I had to rid my palate of any gaminess.

In Český Krumlov, I ate a “typical meal for the poor of the Dark Ages” at U Dawau Maryí, the Tavern of the Two Marys. Although there were ample potato and millet, the smoked meat, Czech ham, and chicken were the highlights of the platter. The next day, also in Český Krumlov, lunch was lentil soup and pork schnitzel at the restaurant Švejk, named after the titular character in the dark comedy The Good Soldier Švejk by satirist Jaroslav Hašek.

If I stayed a little longer, I might have eaten my weight in meat or even more. After all, the average Czech man, according to the CZSO, the Czech Statistical Office, consumes 83.2 kilos (183 pounds) of meat per year. That’s plus or minus one kilo of the body weight of an average Czech, which is over 30 kilos more than me.

There’s just so much meat in Czechia, where almost 100 percent of the beef, 63 percent of the chicken, and 43 percent of the pork are produced by the Czechs based on official statistics. “In 2020, 454,846 tonnes of meat were produced in the Czech Republic,” explains the CZSO, “of which 72,518 tonnes were beef, 211,436 tonnes were pork, and 170,725 tonnes were poultry.”

That’s a lot of meat to eat, but maybe that’s why Czechia is such a beautiful country. It’s a country made for walking, lots and lots of walking.