A guided tour of Prague transports Alastair Gilmour through flower power to food and beer heaven.
Here in a historic part of one of Europe’s most beautiful cities I’m about to commit a crime. I have an aerosol paint can in my hand and I’m going to “tag” the wall in Grand Priory Square in Prague that belongs to The Sovereign Military Order of Malta. Nervously, I scrawl “Nice Wall” and step back to admire my burst of creativity.
It’s OK, though. We’re at the John Lennon Peace Wall here since his death in 1980, young people have sprayed “love and peace” messages, poems and flowers – at first to the annoyance of the authorities, but which is now a blind-eyed tourist attraction.
We’re on a food tour of Prague (www.eatingpraguetours.com) with hugely entertaining host Jan Macuch who guides us down picturesque streets, steep stairs and “art parks” to discover some of the city’s hidden gems – little-known wine bars, backstreet bistros and tiny, family-run cafés, in a four-hour quest to savour the city’s best food and drink.
Art, history, geography and opera are thrown in – from David Černý’s renowned sculptures to a rendition from Bedřich Smetana’s The Bartered Bride (Jan sang snatches of both tenor and soprano parts with great aplomb) and an impromptu treatise on sugar versus honey as a sweetener.
The trail of authentic Czech food and drink avoids most of the tourist hot-spots, but we’re still surrounded by glorious architecture and the aura created by being in a city at the centre of world events for centuries. The whole idea is to have antipasto in our meeting place, starters in another, wine and cheese in the third, the ultimate goulash in venue number three, then divine desserts and digestifs in a classy restaurant complete with grand piano player.
We gather in the family-run Kafe U Zelených Kamen (Green Stove Café), a handsome, cosily wood-panelled delight, set in the former Italian quarter of the city. Food here is home-produced by the proprietor’s family with his wife responsible for cakes and desserts. It’s difficult not to think of the word “continental” but that describes it well – a front bar area with steps up to small seating gallery. We drink beer from Žatec (Saaz in German, where the legendary hops originate) and pick at a selection of “beer” cheeses with cold cuts, gherkins and pickles. Surely sharing plates of chorizo and clinking beer mugs is the ideal way of getting to know your drinking and dining companions – we are fellow travellers on the journey through Czech cuisine.
Our Žatec Světlý Pilsner (4.6% abv) is the perfect aperitif – hints of grassy hop combine with a sweet maltiness that quickly develops into fruit (banana?), then bread and biscuit. Should we just stay here with the beer and cheese? Tempting but no, there’s more adventure ahead.
Next it’s a short hop to St Martin, a bistro-style establishment appearing rather stark in its white walls and tiles but punctuated by Op-Art upholstery and small artworks, where we’re waited on as if we’re in a friend’s home. Sauerkraut soup is served with a generosity of crème fraîche which one imagines would be perfect for hangovers and ancillary ailments. The owner, via Jan’s translation, even leads another entertaining discussion, this time on mushrooms.
And then we have more beer – Velkopopvický Kozel Premium (5.0% abv), the famous “goat” beer. Apparently, the emblem used to this day was a 19th Century creation by an itinerant French artist who traded brewery hospitality for a painting of the animal. It’s florally hoppy with biscuit malt to the fore and a final bitterness that makes one ache for another.
“It’s important to know your winemaker,” says our guide as we settle into Vinotéka U Mouřenina, a delightful wine bar buzzing with knowledgeable staff who simply gush Czech wine. The best comes from the Moravia region of the Czech Republic but, despite regularly doing very well in international wine competitions, they remain relatively and shamefully undiscovered.
Our Rosé Nad Zahrady 2016 Vino J Stávek is followed by Sauvignon 2015 Hermes Vinařstvi Gala (white), then the red Maharal 2013 Vinarstvi Tanzberg – all as astonishing as any from France or Italy. There is a real joy and an unexpected discovery; the very essence of a food and drink tour.
The wines are paired with a Czech “stringy” Gouda, Czech blue cheese and Czech jam and pickles. It’s recommended to return for the cheese and wine pairings and to buy some beautifully-designed wine glasses from the large selection.
But what of the goulash Jan Macuch has dangled tantalisingly from first meeting him? U Křiže Restaurant is part of a swish hotel of the same name and, according to Jan, it’s Goulash Central. It’s a classic, early 20th Century dining room set in a 16th Century former bakery; intimate in size with an ambience somewhere between divine decadence and private club. The wild boar, dear and doe meat goulash that Jan has hunted out is high on paprika and served with traditional dumplings. Flavours and textures diverge then concentrate making it impossible to locate them all, although there are more than cursory hints of game, tomato, onion, black pepper and red wine.
More conversation, more insights into people’s palates (and astonishing revelations about maternity leave in the Czech Republic – four years – as opposed to the UK’s 12 months and the US where expectant mothers have to take it out of their annual holiday entitlement), then more beer, to the chorus of yet another “na zdravi” (cheers).
The beer here is Zlatý Křiž, delightfully described as ”home-made” but we get the drift. It’s a hefty, stout-like individual with roasted barley notes and, at 9.0% abv in strength, is well into barley wine territory. It’s brewed in-house, is glorious and malty and is a perfect fist-bump for its rich goulash companion.
Jan Macuch’s dual voice roles continue in my head before he mentions that in the second act of the three-act The Bartered Bride, a group of villagers meet and sing a rousing song (“To Beer”). Convention has it that the beer they are quaffing in the production is real – as it is at every rehearsal. Little wonder the parts are highly coveted.
Our final destination is the famous Slavia Café, an Art-Deco style restaurant sitting opposite The National Theatre and specialising in traditional Czech and adventurous international cuisine. For example, stewed leg of fallow deer with a creamy sauce and gingerbread dumplings represent the home team with tuna marinated in soy sauce lightly roasted in sesame and wakame algae with Chinese noodle salad fighting the World corner.
But this is our dessert halt – an amazing array of chocolate confections; fresh fruit, whipped cream, caramel sauce, truffles, cheesecake and marzipan ice-cream offered in every shade and hue of lusciousness. They are presented under the gaze of a mural warning of the horrors of absinthe, “the green fairy”, which we’re encouraged to experience among the choice of digestifs. Naturally, we pass the glasses around the group with those of native slivovice (plum brandy), fernet and becherovka herbal eau-de-vie for ultimate headiness.
The remaining nighthawks are guided to a nearby bar by Jan Macuch, who also joins us for another round of beers – Pilsner Urquell (4.4% abv), the world’s first pilsner beer, with its tight, white head and classic spice-like and fruit flavours set off by sweet malt and a surprisingly bitter finish. Conversation rarely ventures far from beer, wine and goulash. Perhaps another slivovice, though…
Interestingly, the amount of food that Czechs discard is among the lowest percentage in the EU. This practice has evolved through centuries of invasion, persecution and subjugation and it’s now simple and basic instinct to be careful with everything, particularly what’s on plates.
Armed with that knowledge we didn’t dare leave a drop or morsel anywhere – and considering the astonishing food and drink and companionship and culture that we have been introduced to – nor would we want to.
And hopefully, there’s a nice wall somewhere being showered in love and peace.
With thanks to Czech Tourism UK for their generous hospitality.