From gourmet sandwiches to EU-protected wafers, a new tour is something to savor
Prague still has a bit of a bad reputation when it comes to food. Cold War images of people in long lines for bread still sit in the back of many tourists’ minds.
But food and especially Czech cuisine has had a bit of Renaissance since the fall of the Iron Curtain and even more so since the country joined the European Union a decade ago.
Eating Tours in Prague
Before the communist era, Czechoslovak food was diverse and excellent. Many restaurants and shops have been slowly returning to that level of quality by reviving old recipes and techniques.
Eating tours takes people through the downtown area for several stops to get samples of traditional Czech food made to a high standard. The tours are in English. It offers a good way to see some highlights of the city and get a flavor of the recent revival of Czech cuisine.
There are seven stops for food, with some important buildings and monuments pointed out along the route.
The first stop is for coffee and apple strudel at the somewhat hidden Gallery Le Court. The guide gave some background on the history of the Austrian influence in Bohemian food, as well as specifics about the types of apples and dough used. The strudel uses chopped apples rather than an apple sauce, for example, and doesn’t rely on added sugar for sweetness. The gallery itself is a bit hidden, but charming in appearance with an inviting patio and lots of flowers.
After a short walk, the next two stops are side-by-side. One shop sells chlebičky and the other is a butcher shop that has quickly gained fame for its ham and sausages.
Chlebičky, or open-faced sandwiches, are everywhere but good ones are hard to find — usually they have standard coldcuts with a huge amount of commercial mayonnaise on white bread. The venue on the tour, Sisters, promises good food fast as opposed to fast food. Toppings include herring with a thin smear of wasabi mayonnaise, and beet puree with goat cheese on different types of homemade bread. Note that this one stop is closed on Saturdays.
Across the way, butcher shop Naše Maso (Our Meat) shows what pork used to be like decades ago. The shop works with specific farmers who raise black-and-white Přeštice pigs, which were once typical for the area. You can see all the preparations through windows. They make similar arrangements for other types of meat as well. The owner is often there and sometimes greets the people on the tour.
After these small snacks, it is time for a soup — but not before a walk past Obecní dům and some other points of interest that the guide stopped to explain.
The cabbage soup is served at the top of a bell tower at Restaurant Zvonice. Thick and filling soups used to be the center point of Bohemian cuisine. This soup has wild mushrooms, sour cream and fried mashed potatoes. It is based on tradition, but modernized a bit. The restaurant is also a treat, with a view to a giant bell that is one level below in the tower, and other historical details.
The Czech Republic is known as the country with the highest beer consumption per capita. Much of it is mass produced, and while those brands are quite good, a number of smaller microbreweries and brewpubs have been emerging.
The beer on the tour is from Novoměstský pivovar, which began brewing small batches long before it became a fad. It one of the oldest brewpubs in the city. The tour includes a small sample of light or dark beer, 0.2 liters, and an explanation from the brewmaster about how the beer is made. There is a chance to taste raw hops (for the brave) and roasted grain. The tour goes down to the lower levels to see more of the brewing operation.
Like chlebičky, the main meal of svíčková is everywhere but seldom done properly. The tour takes us to Café Louvre, famous as a hangout for both writer Franz Kafka and scientist Albert Einstein. Svíčková is a sirloin beef dish with a cream sauce, dumplings and some cranberries on a lemon slice. The Louvre version has a sauce that is much more orange in color than is usual. This comes from carrots that are strained out, according to the guide. The sauce has a sharper flavor than usual bland cream. The meat is also a much higher grade than the flabby pieces you can get in a local pub.
The portion is a bit smaller than the regular one you would get from the menu, but that is probably welcome as there is still dessert to come.
At Choco Café U Červené židle (Chocolate Café at the Red Chair) there are Hořice wafers and hot chocolate to dip them in. The guide will explain in more detail, but the wafers trace their roots back the Napoleonic Wars. Since 2007, the wafers have been under EU protection. The same rule that applies to Champagne having to come from a specific place in France also applies in this case. The wafers have to be at least partly made in the town of Hořice or they can’t be called by that name.
The tour takes about four hours, and people who take it get to see a bit of the city while avoiding the most crowded streets. Several places such as Charles Bridge and the Castle aren’t on the route. The tour isn’t meant to be comprehensive.
Tours are similar to ones in Rome, London and Amsterdam. All of them were started by Kenneth Dunn, an American who now lives in Rome. He says that he finds food one of the more interesting aspects of traveling and sees it as the best way to get to know a culture.
He has worked professionally with food and food security. His wife is involved in the UN food and agriculture program.
While in Rome, he noticed that some the best food was hard for tourists to find. This inspired him to start tours where he put Italian food into a cultural and historical context. He became fascinated with Czech food in Prague back in 1998, sampling chlebičky and other traditional items at old-fashioned diners.