Czech Food
Lunch. Ah. Perhaps this is the place to say a word about Czech cuisine; a word, and then on to more appetizing topics. My Czech friends, whom I value dearly and would not wish to offend, should skip smartly the next two paragraphs --- you have been warned. I have eaten badly in many parts of the world. There is a certain plate of macaroni studded with gobbets of cow's kidney that was served to me by a resentful cook --- her name was Miss Grub, honestly, it was --- at a friend's house in London many years ago which I shall never forget. At a hostelry in a pleasant little town not far from Budapest I have been confronted by a steaming platter of sliced goose, mashed potato, and sauerkraut, three shades of glistening grey. And what about the inoffensive-looking green salad which I ate without a second thought in a little lunch place off the tourist trail one glorious autumn afternoon in Oaxaca, which infiltrated into my digestive system a bacillus, busy as a Mexican jumping bean, which was to cling to the inner lining of my intestines for three long, queasy, and intermittently galvanized months?

I do not say that my culinary adventures in Prague were as awful as these. Indeed, I have had some fine meals there over the years. In general, however, it must be said, and I must say it, that the Czech cuisine is, well, no better than that of Bavaria, which statement is, as anyone who knows Bavaria well will confirm, a ringing denunciation.

Both the Czechs and the Bavarians, close neighbors that they are, have in common an inexplicable but almost universal enthusiasm for ... dumplings. These delicacies can be anything from the size of a stout marble --- what in my childhood we called a knuckler --- to that of a worn-out, soggy tennis ball, with which they share something of the same texture, and possibly of their taste. The Czech species comes in a broad variety of strains, from the very common houskové knedliky or bread dumplings, through the bramborové knedliky, potato dumplings, often temptingly served alongside a smoking midden of white sauerkraut, to the relatively rare --- rare in my experience, anyway --- ovocné knedliky, or fruit dumplings.

Perhaps the dumpling's most striking characteristic is its extreme viscosity. It sits there on the plate, pale, tumorous, and hot, daring you to take your knife to it, and when you do, clinging to the steel with a kind of gummy amorousness, the wound making a sucking, smacking sound and closing on itself as soon as the blade has passed through. Dumplings can be served as an accompaniment to anything, whether the lowly párky, or hot dogs, or the mighty slab of svíckova, boiled fillet of beef.

That day at the Golden Tiger, if that is where it was, we stuck to simple fare: plates of only slightly worrying klóbasy --- grilled sausages --- and dark bread, heavy but good, washed down with bubbling beakers of glorious Czech beer, which tastes of hayfields baking in summer heat. But there would be other mealtimes, oh, there would, from which memory averts its gaze.

--- FromPrague Pictures
John Banville
©2003 Bloomsbury
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