Tuesday, 17 September 2019

In Search of Prague

By Ileana Lobkowicz | Prague Daily Monitor |
22 August 2019

Debunking Prague’s Most Popular Pastry

It’s easier to eat than it is to pronounce. Passersby are captivated by its cinnamon-sugar aroma. It’s neither a churro, nor a doughnut, but something in between. It’s crispy. It’s fluffy. It’s heavenly. It’s trdelník.

The dough is rolled into long rings, wrapped around a spindle, and roasted over an open charcoal flame. It’s served hot and steaming, coated in a harmonious blend of cinnamon, vanilla sugar, and crushed nuts. (The fact that it isn’t fried somehow relieves the consumer of a guilty food conscience, too.)

This ubiquitous pastry, which first debuted in Christmas markets next to mulled wine and roasted chestnuts, has garnered international attention and Instagram fame. #Trdelnik has now reached over 78k posts—an impressive feat for a single pastry. It was even ranked in Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Eatlist as one of the top 500 food experiences in the world. Its rising popularity is largely due to demand from tourists, not locals, evidenced by the fact that the pastry is most often sold in the city center. With a combination of smart marketing and its near-hypnotic smell, they sell like hot cakes, literally. It’s no wonder, then, that Prague is teeming with tourists carrying handfuls of the beloved confection, attempting to unspiral its long sugary coils straight into their mouths.

The original flavor and hollow center of this cylindrical delight has served as a canvas for new varieties: lined with nutella, filled with ice cream, or stuffed with ham and cheese for a savory twist. Even more elaborate flavored fillings exist today—try apple strudel, tiramisu and, yes, even aperol spritz. This increasing variety comes with a greater cost. The days when trdelník was once 50 CZK a piece are long gone, with current prices ranging from 60-150 CZK (the more expensive of which equates to a full-sized meal).

The plethora of trdelník stands and shops advertise their product as a “traditional Czech pastry” or an “old Bohemian specialty.”

But how traditional is it?

Much to the dismay of tourists who think they are paying cultural homage with every bite, the so-called Czech pastry isn’t uniquely Czech (besides its name). Many other countries stake their own claims to this spit cake. Though it supposedly originates from Transylvania, another legend suggests that a Hungarian general first brought the recipe to present-day Moravia in the 18th century.

In spite of its disputed origins, renditions of trdelník are found across central Europe. Hungarians call it kürtőskalács, Germans call it baumstriezel, and Romanians call it colac secuiesc. But to most people, its lineage is less intriguing than its irresistible taste.

So if trdelník isn’t the king of all authentic Czech pastries, as many people falsely believe, what is?

When it comes to traditional cuisine, grandmothers are typically the best consultants (in this case, a Czech babička).

“My grandmother never made trdelník,” said one local woman. “She baked babovka or buhtle,” referring to a bundt cake or jam-filled sweet rolls. If you ask other Czechs, you will likely get a similar response.

Trdleník doesn’t represent the culinary ethos of Czech food culture the way that beer or
svíčková does. While it’s provenance is still a convoluted mystery, one thing remains undeniably clear: people keep coming back for more.

Ileana Lobkowicz is a graduate of Boston College. She was Managing Editor of The Gavel, Boston College's online student publication, and volunteered at The Pilgrim, a quarterly literary magazine of self-chronicled stories and poetry by the homeless community of Boston.