Czech Out Praha
Have you ever heard the old quip that beer is cheaper than water in Prague? Well, it's true.
We visited Eastern Europe last winter and I found Prague to be the most charming and lovely city of all. Other than drinking inordinate amounts of cheap beer, I wasn't sure what to expect from Prague. I learned so much, fell in love, and ate some incredible food along the way.
Prague at Christmastime is cold. A lot of the food and customs are designed to keep you and your belly warm and full, so after this trip I definitely gained a few inches around the waistline. So worth it though! I really enjoyed experiencing the holiday culture of Eastern Europe.
The first morning in Prague, we came upon a Christmas market in Wenceslas Square. Here, I laid eyes for the first time on trdelnik, a regional sweet snack. All the surrounding countries have different recipes and appearances, but Czech trdelnik was my favorite. A lot of the fun was watching the vendors make the trdelnik to order: first, you take a rolled-out thin long strip of dough and wrap it around a cylindrical rod. Then, the rod is rolled in cinnamon and sugar and finely chopped nuts. Next, the rod is inserted into a horizontal rotisserie with a clever system of gears on one side to spin the rods over burning coals. As the dough cooks, the dusting of sugar on the outside caramelizes. The finished product is a steaming chimney cake: a cylinder of steaming sparkling sweet dough that is crisp on the outside from the caramelized sugar and nuts, but amazingly soft and pillow-y on the inside. I had a trdelnik every day in Prague and I was constantly craving them. Some places swipe a dollop of Nutella on the inner walls, or make more conical trdelniks and fill them with whipped cream or ice cream. I found the plain ones to be sheer perfection.
As we walked past Wenceslas Square to Old Town Square and the marvelous Astronomical Clock, we saw the even bigger Christmas market. I can try to describe what it looked like, but words don't do it justice: there's a unique and incredible charm and romance about a jolly wholesome Christmas market in the freezing cold weather. The Christmas market resembled the Union Square Holiday Market, but with more traditional tchotchke and food vendors. Of course, there were plenty of trdelnik stalls. There was also homemade halva, roasted street meat, gingerbread, wood crafts, ornaments, pretzels, hot wine, roasted nuts, and more. The far side of the square had a tall Christmas tree that sparkled at night and played a musical light show to William Tell 1812 Overture every half hour at night. Lastly, the whole square was dominated by the Clock Tower on one end and the soaring Gothic spires of the Church of Our Lady before Tyn on the other. Prague is a relatively small city and during the Christmas holiday when many shops and attractions were closed, we found ourselves visiting the Christmas market almost every day, even multiple times a day.
After Old Town Square, one of the biggest attractions in Prague has to be the Charles Bridge, spanning the Vltava River. About a dozen tall statues of robed saints and other figures are spaced evenly down the bridge. Karlova street goes from Old Town Square to the bridge, but we decided to take a more indirect route through some of the side streets to avoid the busy tourist drag. It was our noses that alerted us first: we caught a whiff of fragrant gingerbread and were mystified to find it emanated from a hole-in-the-wall. This shop sold baskets and baskets of highly decorative gingerbread cookies! In Eastern Europe, these are a big part of Christmas tradition and every family has their own special recipes. As we were yet to be adopted into a Czech family this Christmas, we bought some of the gingerbread at this shop and munched along as we walked. I was never a fan of gingerbread: I always thought it was more of a building material rather than an enjoyable cookie, but boy was I wrong! In fact, the gingerbread cookies highlighted some of the unmistakable flavors of fall and winter: ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg. Another thing we marveled at was the delicate piping work on the cookies. Many featured intricate lace patterns done with what must have been a very tiny piping bag.
That first night in Prague, we unfortunately wound up cold, hangry, and struggling to find a place to eat. I was desperately looking at Yelp, even considering a fancy white-tablecloth kind of place, when Alex pointed at a place across the street and suggested we try there first. I was put off at first, since it was a bar where people freely smoked cigarettes inside. However, they said they could seat us in the cavernous adjacent room, and I was so hungry I had to agree. I am so happy that Alex suggested this, because it turned out to be one of the most memorable meals in Prague.
The place was Lokal. They gave us a punch card for ordering beer, and I noticed there were 120 little icons of frothy beer steins on this small card. We ordered a Kozel unfiltered dark beer and a Pilsner Urquell. We'd heard of the Pilsner Urquell at the Bavarian Beer Garden in Astoria, so it was a safe bet. The Kozel Dark was a risk, but like the whole restaurant, it was a risk that paid off deliciously. The beer resembled a frothy Guinness in a fat glass stein. However, it was sweet like a cream stout. I abandoned the Pilsner and drank Alex's Kozel before ordering another one for myself.
So the beer czeched out. What about the food? Well, I wouldn't recommend Czech food to a health-conscious individual. We had chicken shnitzel, potato salad, mashed potatoes, and...fried cheese. Apparently, it's a Czech specialty. Fried cheese, I tell you! It looked like you glued four mozzarella sticks together into a square patty and deep fried the whole thing. It was awesome. Leave it to the Czechs to invent the perfect drunk food to accompany their 120-beer benders.
For lunch the next day, I had another incredible Czech dish: pork knuckle. Don't worry, pigs don't have fingers. Pork knuckle is actually part of the ham hock. It is a giant, bone-in piece of roasted pork nearly as big as your head. The skin on the outside is blistered and cooked to crackling perfection. The meat inside is basted by the layer of bubbling fat just beneath the skin. The pork falls apart. It's perfect with some mustard on the side. I could not finish the pork knuckle on my own. After a while, it does become an overwhelming amount of meat. But my absolute favorite part was gnawing on the skin. Parts of it were chewy gristly bits of skin with fat underneath, but you also got the crispy skin that shattered under your teeth.
Unbeknownst to us, Prague basically shuts down from Christmas Eve (considered even more important than Christmas Day) through about December 27. It was hard for us to find restaurants that were open. Believe it or not, on Christmas Eve we even tried to go have Chinese food (as one does) but the one Chinese restaurant inside a sketchy mall was closed. Incidentally we did go back to the Chinese restaurant the next day and I was highly disappointed.
Over the next couple of meals, we had some good food and some not so good. Alex had a particularly nasty run in with a beef goulash. We had a delicious red wine poached pear on a gingerbread cake and surrounded by a moat of vanilla cream sauce. The rest of the time in Prague was rounded out by having more goulash, shnitzel, trdelnik, and beer. Luckily, our last night in Prague we managed to find a fun restaurant, a bit more upscale than the beer halls. We sipped our Kozel Dark beers wistfully and I was sad to be leaving Prague the next morning.