In search of the perfect meal, Radek led our family, as well as my aunt and uncle, through the crowds gathered to enjoy wine harvest festivities. As we trouped up and down the cobblestone streets of Mělník, the aroma of fried grease wafted temptingly in the breeze. Feeling a few pangs of hunger, I suggested that perhaps we break for a glass of burčak (sweet, young wine) and a sausage while we waited for the village’s crowded restaurants to empty out. It was my aunt and uncle’s first trip to Prague, and I could tell, even as I made the offer, that I wasn’t going to be able to easily convince my gourmand husband to serve our guests fair food, even if he might have settled for it himself.
We continued to traipse around the village until Radek finally hit upon a Czech pizzeria with an open-air courtyard. Even though it looked as if it might take ages for our food to arrive, he seemed at least pleased we’d shown our guests to a sit-down restaurant. Easy-going travelers, my aunt and uncle humored us, asking questions about the festival while they waited for the eventual, relatively mediocre meal. Later on during their visit, at another harvest festival in Český Krumlov, even Radek agreed we needed to try the local grilled specialties from the street vendors. This time, he declared, we needed to taste Slavic specialties from the source.
It’s been several years since their late autumn trip, but a similar scene has replayed itself numerous times over the course of my ten-year relationship with Radek. Whether trying to show the region’s best to visiting family or friends, or just trying to satisfy his own relatively high food standards, my husband thinks nothing of making a quest out of looking for his next meal.
A few weekends ago in an Austrian ski-village, he wound his way through the sleepy streets stopping to check potential restaurants for our evening meal. While Anna and I defrosted in the car after a day of skiing at sub-zero temperatures, Radek hunted for a dinner venue. After perusing a few street-side menus, he went inside to make a reservation at a cheerful vintage-style café, as much for its cozy décor as for its traditional Austrian menu offerings.
Radek’s exacting food standards have become well-known to our US family. When we’re gathering for a family meal, my mom elicits Radek’s help to make the salad because she loves what she calls the “European-style” presentation of the finished product. Vegetables, eggs, nuts and cheese neatly arranged in a circular pattern a top of a bed of lettuce. Radek’s salads are deemed too pretty to be carelessly tossed into bowls, so she leaves them on the table to be admired before they’re passed around and served. An appreciation for good food and a desire to make food presentation attractive are two traits I’ve gradually absorbed from my husband over the years.
When it came time to decorate the cupcakes I’d made from scratch this past weekend for our neighbors’ winter-time barbeque, Radek couldn’t help but give advice. “Are you planning to just spread the icing on with a knife?” he inquired casually. “Don’t you think it’ll look nicer when you use the icing tube?” Knowing that my finished product would be on display for the neighbors, I opted to take his advice and use the decorating tube. In the end, he offered to take over the icing job entirely, squeezing rows of ribbed sugar in perfect circles on the cupcakes, while I placed the sugary heart decorations on top. I had to admit the finished product looked like it came from a bakery. Probably, not a Czech one, as the cupcakes and icing were far too sweet to be a Czech-styled dessert.
As part of his weekend in the kitchen, Radek went on to make bryndzové halušky, a traditional Slovakian potato dumpling dish, for our lunch. Although he used a store-bought mix to make the dumplings, the process of shaping the dumplings and boiling them in hot water for just the right length of time was an art; I watched with interest. Topping the halušky with škvarky, crumbled bits of fried bacon, and bryndza, a soft, pungent sheep’s cheese, Radek brought the plates to the table and instructed us to eat immediately while the halušky were still hot. Despite initially balking at the curious appearance of the lumpy dumplings and the strange cheesy sauce, the children noted the bacon and dug in heartily, eating until they declared the meal tasty, but too rich to finish. A true perfectionist, Radek declared that the halušky should have been smaller and more uniformly-shaped, but I was delighted for the chance to try a favorite Slovakian meal at home, and not to have needed to prepare it myself. When he later told our Slovak neighbor about his lunch preparations, she said her mother still did the dumplings from scratch every time.
Although our family usually opts for Thai, Mexican or Italian-style food at home, perfecting a few hearty, traditional East European recipes has become a weekend hobby. While I’ve tried my hand this winter at producing cibulačka (onion soup), česnečka (garlic soup) and bramboračka (potato soup), our children’s favorite Czech broth-based soups, Radek has continued to tackle the yeasty, doughy-type specialties he remembers enjoying as a child.
Buchtičky se šodó (small, sweet yeasty buns topped with vanilla sauce), is one of Anna’s all-time favorite meals while buchty se makem (sweet yeasty buns filled with poppy-seed) is the boys’ hands-down best Czech sweet. Although the buchtičky and buchty aren’t as sweet as desserts like my chocolate chip cookies or birthday cake, the children enjoy the fresh, sweet buns just as much. Anna loves the novelty of eating a sweet meal for her main course. On weekends at babička‘s, the buchty are usually set out on a low coffee table, where the boys can easily indulge without having to ask permission.
While Radek was preparing the dough for the buchty, a neighbor stopped in for coffee. She recalled the process her grandmother used to go through to make the dough for buns. First, the yeast dough was prepared then left to rise to its proper form. Afterward, it was shaped into small buns and stuffed with fillings such as cream cheese, jam or nuts. Making buchty was an all-morning Saturday procedure that needed to be then quickly appreciated and consumed before the fresh dough hardened and got stale.
In these busy days when food preparation is often hurried, a pre-made choice seems more feasible than the homemade route. I’m thankful that the Czech tradition of preparing soups and baking sweets from scratch has begun to rub off on our family. I’m learning that taking the recipe back to its roots and going step-by-step through a traditional process often brings the best combination: a tasty result and new cultural exposure.