With the onset of spring, farmers have again been setting up shop on city squares throughout Prague, boasting another season of fresh, local produce. This move toward fresh and local seems to mark a new trend in Czech food culture. While the “eating local” may be old news in places farther west, Czechs have only come to seek local food products en mass in the past few years. The farmers’ markets, which began as bi-monthly events, in some key locations have turned into highly popular weekly or even twice-a-week affairs. The markets have brought lower prices and a subsequent jump in consumer demand.
While Czechs love gardening and gathering mushrooms or berries from the forests, buying local hasn’t really been an option until recently. Local farmers, due to a combination of bureaucratic hand tying and lack of marketing, historically haven’t done much to promote their produce, apart from staking a few hand-lettered signs on highways announcing seasonal fruit, eggs or honey in the hopes that neighbors might spread the word. Now, under the thriving farmer’s markets, farmers benefit from the collective promotion and are also able to have closer contact with their consumers.
When I first arrived in Prague in January of 2002, the Country Life cafe and health food shop near Old Town Square had the monopoly on vegetarian food and organic products. Since fresh produce and a variety of greens weren’t as easy to find in the supermarkets, I reasoned that occasionally splurging a bit on Country Life products and meals balanced out the fried cheese, pizzas and pastas that I lived on the rest of the time.
During my first winter, I remember receiving an email from an acquaintance of my grandmother’s who’d lived in Prague years ago. She asked me if I’d discovered “the fresh market” not far from Old Town Square, which she went on to describe as “quite the blessing,” having found cauliflower and lettuce there her first spring. Although I walked past the Havelská ulička market regularly, I’d only shopped there once. I had paid an outrageous 130 CKZ for a tiny tub of strawberries and later learned that the market had a reputation for overcharging, particularly foreigners. Not only was I annoyed that I’d been swindled, I was also disappointed to discover that a place that held fond memories for my grandmother’s friend had become something of a tourist trap in the intervening years. Instead, I did most of my food shopping at smaller grocery stores closer to my flat. I wasn’t particularly into cooking and my shopping list was pretty basic.
Like many of my friends, it wasn’t until after I had children that I began to seriously pay attention to what type of food I bought and where it came from. Although it drove Radek crazy, I insisted on buying the organic milk and organic HIPP brand baby food for Anna Lee. He didn’t see what was wrong with the regular Czech milk and the Czech baby food brands. Since I couldn’t read the Czech ingredient label, I didn’t know the difference either, but I knew that buying organic for our child made me feel better. When Anna was a toddler and began to eat regular foods however, for some reason I no longer sought out the organic produce. It was too much of a hike into downtown to visit the Country Life shop for organic carrots, potatoes or apples that were often soft from sitting on the shelf, as their prices were so high no one regularly bought them. Instead, I picked the freshest looking vegetables I could find in the neighborhood supermarket or the green grocer’s.
When Oliver came along, I began to realize that eating fresh, local food could be just as beneficial, if not more so, than buying organic food that had traveled 1,000s of miles before it reached my kitchen. I really became a proponent of the idea of eating locally harvested food after reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: A Year of Food Life. Yet even when the farmer’s market was held on alternating Saturdays in Dejvice, I had a hard time getting my family ready to go in time to do our shopping there. Most of my shopping ventures still led to the nearest Billa or Tesco, which by that time already carried organic produce that was neither overtly expensive nor obviously aged, but still, wasn’t local.
This past week I finally visited the weekly farmer’s market in Suchdol. The market was small, just two lines of booths, less intimidating than the sprawl of stands I’d seen in Dejvice. The day I was in Suchdol I had only the baby Sammy with me; we strolled leisurely past flowers, two different butcher’s stands, honey and medicinal products, breads, cheeses and vegetables before stopping in front of some hand woven baskets. I watched an older man braid the traditional Easter pomlázka. Unlike the sellers I’ve seen at the Easter and Christmas markets downtown, he didn’t try to push his goods. Instead, he smiled and waited. I picked up two seemingly identical baskets and told him I’d take them. He carefully checked the prices on both and offered me the lower price. The exchange was pleasant and simple. In the background, I heard other customers chatting and joking with sellers, and the atmosphere was like a village market scene I’ve seen on our trips to through the Czech countryside.
I’m excited at the prospect of purchasing more of my groceries from the market, and now in my own neighborhood too no less. The personal shopping experience surpassed many I’d had in the Czech Republic. If the rise in farmers’ markets throughout Prague is any indication of the Czech population’s interest in buying local, I hope, in time, the sellers at Havelská ulička and other tourist markets might also reintroduce locally grown produce at competitive prices. I know my grandmother’s friend would smile to see that.