Our “guide” introduced himself as a young British guy who found himself in the Czech Republic when his money ran out during his travels around Europe. He discovered that he liked the country, the people, and the beer. He explained that the Czech people drink more beer per capita than any other people in the world, even more than in Germany. When averaged over every child and adult in the country, each person consumes 142 liters per year. Since not many children drink beer, and in some parts of the country wine or spirits are preferred, this means that in Bohemia (where Prague is), it is not uncommon for adults to drink five or six liters of beer each day.
He asked who had been to a wine tasting. We raised our hands. He said this was certainly not like that. No refined discussion of notes of raspberry, leather and citrus. And certainly no spitting out of beer after the tasting. For Czech people, beer is much too valuable to be spat out; beer is for drinking, and drinking a lot.
He selected seven Czech beers for us to try.
He told us is about the differences between lagers and ales (ales ferment at room temperature, lagers ferment at cold temperatures around 5 degrees Celsius with a different type of yeast).
He told the story of the first golden colored lager which German master brewer Josef Groll developed in the Czech town of Plzen in 1842. Before that time, the hops in beer making was always roasted, giving beer a dark color. Today’s Czech beer Pilsner Urquell (meaning Primary Source Pilsner) is the direct descendent of the beer that changed the beer world from dark to light.
One of the beers he offered was dark in color, light in body and full of coffee flavor. He asked us for a show of hands for those who liked this beer. Most of our group (6 men and 2 women) raised our hands. He chuckled and said that Czech people consider this a woman’s beer; if he ordered it in a pub, he’d be ribbed and heckled mercilessly. He admitted that he liked it too, but drank it only during these beer tastings with foreigners.
The guide for our Cheeky Food Tour of Prague was a charming 35-year-old Czech man named Karel. After years of living abroad, he and his wife decided to offer a food tour of the city. They looked around and saw competition that focused on expensive high-end Michelin-starred food. They wanted to offer a peek into the food of everyday Czech people.
We started at 11am at a popular traditional Czech food restaurant called Lokal, where just by chance we had eaten the night before. Karel admitted later in the time we were together that when we told him that we had eaten there the night before, he was sweating that he would bore us with what he had planned. He didn’t need to have worried. He ordered plates of sausages, pickled cheese, and beef tongue. Here is a short video in which he introduces us to some Czech food:
And of course there was beer: two glasses, at 11am. One was about 80% froth; it is known as milk. Here he explains the usefulness of all that froth:
We noticed the cryptic graphic piece of paper that the server left on the table after Karel had ordered the food and wine. You can see that there are lines of beer mugs, with a 1-meter dimension line on top. If you line up this number of glasses, it takes about a meter of table space. Since Czech people enjoy their beer so much, they consume it by the meter. We newbies couldn’t even much past 50cm.
So far, so good. Pretty much as expected with meat, sauerkraut, potatoes and beer. Next stop wasn’t quite so expected. We walked a few blocks away and stopped beneath a 1970s building at a series of wooden food stalls. At the first, he ordered Vietnamese spring rolls. At the second, he ordered plastic cups of local white wines. He said that these cheap fresh wines go really well with Vietnamese food, which they did!
Why Vietnamese food on a Czech food tour?
Here is Karel’s explanation of how it is that Vietnamese food has a place in Czech culture today. He noted that during and after the Vietnam war, many refugees and immigrants from South Vietnam came to the US. They created their own communities and found their way into the US culture. At that time, since Czechoslovakia was communist, people from North Vietnam, and ultimately communist unified Vietnam, came to the country. The legacy of this period and transfer of people is Vietnamese restaurants and food booths in Prague and the rest of the country.
Later in our time in Prague, we learned an alternative explanation. Our driver to and from the airport was very well-spoken and knowledgeable about Czech history, art and architecture. He looked a bit like the comedic actor Chris Elliott, tall and slim, droopy shoulders and eyes, stringy hair and a prominent nose. First impression is of a tired shady man, but once he started talking, he was full of life and interesting facts. He revised our understanding of the arrival and integration of Vietnamese in the Czech Republic. According to him, during the Communist era, people from a North Vietnam came to Czechoslovakia to be trained in factory work and management. After training, they returned to Vietnam. Then, in the early 1990s, just after the fall of the Communists, some Vietnamese immigrated to the Czech Republic; they had some knowledge of the country and the language from those who had been trained during the 1970s. At first they sold inexpensive textiles from China and elsewhere, initially from market stalls, and then from shops. Little by little, the Czech people noticed that they were buying houses and joining Czech society. It has been only in the last 10 years or so that Vietnamese restaurants have appeared, including in small neighborhoods.
Next stop was a shop with deli cases full of open-face sandwiches, cakes and alcohol. Karel said that the shop has been in operation at this location for a very long time, including during the communist era. In Czech culture, for major life events like weddings, funerals, and baptisms, families gather but they don’t typically prepare the food themselves; they buy these kinds of open-face sandwiches for all the guests. The hosts carefully select the types of sandwiches to satisfy the specific tastes of each guest. The more aligned the hosts are in their choices with their guests, the more successful the event. Karel selected a huge array for us, from simple tomato and cheese, to ham, garlic spread, sardines paste, pickled herring, and even a version completely encased in aspic.
Desserts: The final stop was a long-lived famous (to Czech people) cake and coffee shop. While the interiors have been renovated many times over the decades (hence the current retro-sixties modern atmosphere), the tradition of local and German and Austrian cakes lives on. We were five men on our food tour, and we were surrounded by many many ladies who were taking a coffee or tea and a cake, and were obviously enjoying a mid-afternoon outing. Karel again made the choices, through which we had to suffer: apple strudel, a honey layered cake (apparently starts out dry, but when left in the fridge acquires the right amount of moistness), cream-filled pastry, pavlova (meringue coated with whipped cream and strawberries), and, specifically for Mike, a dark chocolate cake.
We found ourself talking about tipping. The four of us had experienced in most restaurants, admittedly deep in the tourist district, the servers’ being very clear that tips had not yet been included in the bill and were emphatically expected. We had read online that 10% – 15% was appropriate. Karel, on the other hand, shook his head and stated firmly that Czech people don’t tip and Czeck servers don’t expect to be tipped; they are adequately paid for their work already. As is the case in many other tourist centers around the world, however, the servers and the restaurateurs recognize the opportunities to open the door to tipping by foreign visitors. Karel said that the people working in the cake shop where we were would not expect a tip, and probably would refuse any. He said that in the rest of the Czech Republic, away from the tourist spots, tipless food service was the norm.
Restaurace Bellevue: some fine dining
On our first evening in Prague, we sought out a tasting-menu restaurant in the hopes of discovering creative cuisine and Czech wines.
[Non-foodies can stop here. But for you who love food, we want to share this because we were surprised and delighted about just how good this meal was.]
This is the review we posted on Tripadvisor:
Inventive, delicious fine dining with beautiful view of Prague Castle
We were looking for a delicious tasting-menu meal in a beautiful setting, and we succeeded. In fact, the meal and experience were among the best we’ve enjoyed, and we live in France. While not all the tables offer the direct view of the castle, we were fortunate that ours did. We selected the five-course Dégustation menu with its wine pairing. The composition of tastes in each dish matched the gorgeous visual presentation. The mi-cuit foie gras was the most flavorful and buttery foie that we’ve ever enjoyed. Most of the wines were Czech, which we appreciated. At first sniff and taste, we noticed their distinctiveness; but each one opened up and complemented the food really well. We had expected a nice dinner in a nice setting, but we enjoyed a first-class dining experience — in a beautiful setting. Highly recommended.
A few images for your visual taste buds: