Sunday, 28 December 2008

Christmas at Forest House

Wishing you all good fortune in the New Year - Pushkin

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Czech Christmas traditions - Christmas Eve

While the main event of the day is the festive dinner and the gifts under the tree, many families here still take pleasure in the few rituals that have to do with looking into the future, because Christmas - or more precisely the Winter solstice with its promise of new light - used to be seen as the start of the new year. The roots of these customs go back to pagan times.
Here are a few:
Lead melting : take a lump of lead (used to be a lead coin, now a fishing weight) and melt it in a strong pan. Pour a small amount of the molten lead into a pan with tepid water. The resulting shape of the solidified lead signifies your future.
Walnut boats : each person puts a small candle in a half-shell. These 'boats' then float in a large basin. Whose boat sails towards the middle will leave home, boats that stay near the rim signify those who stay at home, and if two boats keep sailing next to one another, these two people will be very close.
Shoe throwing : this is a custom for single women. Stand at the furtherest part of the room, with your back facing the door. Throw a shoe over your head towards the door: if it lands with its tip towards the door, you will marry. If it faces back into the room, you will stay single.
Apple cutting : (this only for the brave!) Cut an apple in half, cross-wise. If the seed-chamber is in the shape of a star, you will have a good, healthy year. If it is misshapen or rotten, you will be ill. If it is in the shape of a cross, you will die.
Spring-gazing : At midnight, girls go to the nearest spring or pond - if it is frozen, they make a hole in the ice. Water at midnight is magical, as it does not reflect your face but instead acts as a window into your future.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Cesky Krumlov Nativity

This evening Pushkin and I, plus my visiting parents, went to the Town square where the residents perform their yearly Nativity. It's always a fantastic event, as it is completely un-official, un-sponsored, devised by our friends from the Mill but enjoyed by all, old and young alike.

People joyfully dress up as angels, shepherds, farm-folk, etc, and those who don't take part all come to watch in a big crowd. It starts with a procession of musicians playing carols, then angels dancing and prancing - the most delicious are the little children of course, but the odd beer-bellied dad is also something to behold! There follows a more solemn procession with Mary and Joseph with a (proper live) baby, and more carols and dancing. Last in are the Three Kings on horses - provided by our friends of the Pohoda stable. The shepherds settle by a roaring campfire, the carols are cheerfully joined in by the whole audience. The last, most solemn, carol - a Czech 'Onto us the Christ is born' is sung in all seriousness by everyone on the square upon which the little angels all go round with plates and baskets of biscuits (baked at the Mill) and little jars with candles, handing them to the audience as presents.

The whole thing is absolutely lovely and genuine. Always brings tears to my eyes, I am not ashamed to admit. My parents loved it, and Pushkin took these photos for you to share. We were just sorry there was no snow this year - plenty on the hills but here in the town it's just got too warm lately. But even so, I wouldn't have missed it for the world :-)

folk traditions - Christmas in Bohemia

I'm no expert on the subject, but find it fascinating to compare traditions so here are some for those who might also be interested:

For the Czechs, like the most of the mid-Europeans, the most important part of the Christmas celebrations is Christmas eve. The tree doesn't get dressed until then, and both the main dinner and the present-giving take place that same evening. The presents under the tree are from Baby Jesus, not Santa (though the marketing people work hard to globalise the Czech Christmas, and in many cases are succeeding - for one thing, jolly Santa is easier to turn into blow-up or cuddly toys. However, a huge petition online 'keep our Baby Jesus' is a sure sign of some resistance :-) and after all, the Czechs still have their Saint Nicholas going strong)

Although carp is now the main item on the Christmas eve table, is was not always thus. For centuries carp was a fish kept by the aristocracy in own ponds so folk had crayfish, snails etc. But most had soup or gruel just like every day, except made a bit more special by adding as many ingredients as they were able to (Štědrovka= Plentiful soup, as the Christmas eve is in Czech the 'Eve of Plenty'). And then something sweet, mostly using dried fruit and honey. The idea for the Christmas dinner table was to use everything that the homestead gave: a bit of grain, a bit of fruit, root vegetables, legumes. And everything had some significance: red apple as symbol of life and health, peas or beans as symbol of plenty because they expand when cooking, nuts as symbols of wealth, grain as symbol of eternal cycle. And there would be a plate set for any member of family who died in the previous year. The head of the family would then go and give of the dinner to all their animals (peas to the hens, garlic to the rooster, herbs to cows, etc... and even leftover bones to the fruit trees) as thanks for having provided for the family.

As Christmas is a festival of nascent Light, it carries many customs associated with the mystery of Time - most with roots stretching far back into pagan times. These I shall tell you about in my next post.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Czech Christmas Mass

We've just returned from a lovely concert at the Zlata Koruna monastery church - respecting the tradition so beloved of such a vast number of Czechs that it is almost unthinkable for them not to attend this yearly church event - even if they never otherwise go to church, and irrespectful of denomination, or even whether they are believers - every Christmas time. What is it they so need to be part of year after year? Their 'own' Christmas Mass, sung and played by professionals and amateurs from the smallest village churches to impressive cathedrals all over the country: it's a mass by Jan Jakub Ryba, composed in 1786 on folk motifs, and with words so delightfully pastoral and naive that the sheer simplicity and joy of it takes you along.
I searched for a suitable clip and found the best and the most 'authentic' performance on this Youtube series - though the camera work leaves a lot to be desired :-) it has the right tempo and spirit. But to see quite how popular the Mass is, do take a look at this street singalong in Prague : it nicely illustrates how most people here know their Mass off by heart and how beloved it is by all generations.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Mad Czechs and Christmas Carps (and other weird things) in baths

Czechs are well known for their resourcefulness, borne of centuries of relative hardship. So they turn to anything that is useful in any circumstances. And a bath happens to be a very useful receptacle for anything that needs to be confined for a few days. Such as a carp that needs to be kept live till Christmas Eve, which is the day that it is traditionally on the menu.

So if you were to go out today or any day until Wednesday next week, you will find at every other corner jolly people in rubber aprons busily fishing huge carps out of large wooden tubs to the delight of queues of eager customers. They come with their string-bags as most of them take their purchase home live, and pop it into the bath. There it stays while the family goes without a wash - but then at least they get the entertainment of getting to know and befriending the unfortunate creature, even giving it a name. And so Fred, or Peter, is a beloved family member until the morning of its demise-day, when in thousands of Czech families the same tragicomedy ritual gets performed - dad chasing the slippery carp with a mallet all over the kitchen table, floor, chairs, wherever the poor thing happens to land in desperation to save its life.

But eventually it ends up on the festive table in the form of breaded fillets with potato salad, or, more elaborately, cooked in dark beer with prunes and raisins, sieved root vegetables and cream.

Nowadays the more trendy families are against this mass slaughter of carp, nevertheless they can't resist the 'carp-in-bath' ritual. So they go with their string bag and buy a carp, have it in the bath f0r a few days, and then stuff it into the string bag again and go with their children to a riverside, where they virtuously 'set it free'.
Whereupon the exhausted carp dies anyway.

A very elderly Jewish lady told me once how her childhood years were punctuated by having geese in the family bath, force-fed with potato dumpling pellets until they were so obese they hurt. But the resulting geese fat and liver were a delicacy prized beyond anything else.

And so, should you get a live chicken from some good soul in the countryside, why not bring it to your high-rise flat and keep it in the bath? Or a rabbit or two? After all, where there's a bath, there's a way :-)

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Traditional Christmas pastry decorations; biscuits

I've pinched these two images off Google because, alas, I just don't have the patience to make any of these - but I thought they should go on the blog because these 'Vizovice' figures are very typical of Moravian, folksy, tree-decorations, and unusual in that they are made from dough.
You can read about the process (in English) and see many more photos of this decorative pastry
by clicking the link, but in short, all you need is ordinary flour, mixed with water, and a tiny bit of yeast (a pea-size bit for a kilo of flour). You work this well into a smooth dough, firm enough to hold shape when modelled.
Modelling the various figures and animals is done by hand, with the aid of scissors (e.g. for feathers or for hedgehog spines) or a small knife, and often a motif of platting is used too. Use linseeds for eyes and buttons, etc.

Leave your figures to rise slightly once on the baking tray, brush them over with egg-white, and bake slowly in a dry oven - about 3 hrs at 120C.

You can make people or animals - in the traditional lore each animal symbolises some wish, such as a frog stands for clear water, dove for peace, cockerell for fertility, squirrel for plenty in the larder. The pastries are then used for decorating the Christmas tree, sometimes people make figures for more or less elaborate Nativity scenes that are placed under the tree.
A lovely way to involve children when making home-made decorations, if a bit messy :-)

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Christmas biscuits

By popular request I've added a few more recipes to the post below:
see 'Christmas biscuits - Recipes 3'
Bon apetit!

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Czech St Nicholas - more on Angels and Devils

Following on from my post below:
If you are a Czech child, and indeed a Czech adult too, this is one of the highlights of the year - for some, an event far more eagerly anticipated than Christmas. Although materialism tries hard to seduce the Czechs with a Christmas present buying mania, St Nicholas' has miraculously remained a fest of fun and imagination where getting presents is not at all the point: the point here is a meeting between mundane life and magic, a letting go in a carnival atmosphere (last night at 3am an inebriated St Nicholas was seen right on top of the big Christmas tree in the square, shouting: 'taxi!', watched by amused town police), but also a serious moment of reflection.
The family rituals go something like this: a half-eager, half-terrified child is thinking of nothing else all day, and when evening falls, there's a bell and in comes the figure of the Saint with his retinue of angel(s) and devil(s). 'Have you been a good girl (boy)????', asks the Saint, while the devil rattles his chains threateningly with all sorts of grunts and much impatience. The angel meanwhile looks on the child beningly. This opposition of course represents us all, with St Nicholas being the figure of understanding and forgiveness that balances the opposites. He keeps the devil in check, and when the child has admitted to some small trespasses and told proudly of his achievements, when he has sung a song or recited a poem the three leave a small present - perhaps a bar of chocolate and a tangerine, but always also a piece of coal from the devil - and leave, promising to come back next year.

The Czechs (like I said in previous posts) are supposed to be the least religious nation in Europe. But perhaps they are the most truly willing to enter into the imaginary realms of fairy-tales and feel totally at home there. Perhaps because they have experienced the angels and devils 'in the flesh' as children, the adults watch with equal pleasure as their offspring the fest of fairytale films that fill the TV schedules up till Christmas. And the most beloved ones tend to feature lots of devils - as untamed, unwashed, rather stupid characters of pure instinct that we can feel superior to (the hero always outwits them of course), but whom we love to watch because they are funny, and because they - after all - are the part of us that likes to be naughty and uncivilised.

I've often wondered why here people look on their devils in this way, while in Britain and elsewhere the very word is laden with pure loathing. Is it that perhaps in the past centuries the Catholicism prevalent here has furnished the images of heaven and hell wherever you go and encouraged the imagination to go there, while the protestant ethic has pushed such imagination into more of an abstract opposition of 'good and evil' ? Or is it simply that the Czechs are a childish nation that refuses to grow up? I am neither a catholic nor a protestant, so I don't know. But I love the freedom with which everyone here enters into the spirit of it - and long may it resist the plastic Barbies and Coca-Cola coloured Santas in the new globalised palaces of commerce that are popping up everywhere: there will never be a 'regime' change in this country while its devils and angels roam the streets.

St Nicholas eve in Cesky krumlov

Tonight was the St Nicholas eve celebration - eat your heart out Halloween, the Czechs have their own tradition which features the coming of St Nicholas with his devil and his angel. A night much looked forward to by the children here: though for the little ones it is a night of trepidation and excitement mixed, as St Nicholas comes bearing presents if you were good during the past year, but then there's also the devil to threaten you if you weren't! Lucky the angel's there to keep the devil from getting too dangerous!
And so, while the little ones are kept as long as it is at all possible in believing this Czech version of Santa, the festival is a great night of fun for all the bigger kids, and actually probably mostly for the grown-ups who love to dress up and roam the streets. You should see some of the angels with beards and beer-bellies in their white nighties - quite a sight :-)
So Krumlov town, like all the other places in Czecho, comes alive with markets, mulled wine, sausages, and a show for the kids at the Square, followed by a free for all. St Nicholases of all description wonder about with their weird retinue, devils chase giggling women, children shriek with delight, and in the end most people end up in the town's pubs - a surreal sight seeing 'civilians' mingle by the bar with the heavenly characters.
Well, we ended up in the Gypsy tavern - a great place to celebrate, with much music and noise and the beer flowing freely. So here are a few pics to share with you - though there's nothing like being there in flesh, I promise.
(no, this is not us :-)

Friday, 5 December 2008

Christmas biscuits - Recipes 3

Mini Nut cakes
100g flour, 150g icing sugar, 250g unsalted butter, 150g very finely ground nuts (works equally well with walnuts or hazelnuts)
Redcurrant jam
Icing: melt 3 bars of cooking chocolate, and mix with 200g butter, 150g icing sugar and hot water as necessary.

1/Mix all ingredients and work into a pastry. Don't overwork it.
2/ leave in fridge for 1/2 hr
3/roll out to 4mm thickness and cut out small (approx 3-4cm diameter) round shapes.
4/bake on baking sheet till golden pink
5/When cooled, stick together a pair of biscuits each with redcurrant or cranberry jam
6/ pour on the icing and leave in a cool place to set.

200g flour, 120g butter (unsalted, 100g icing sugar, 2 eggs,lemon peel, walnuts (whole)

1/Mix flour, sugar, I whole egg + 1 egg white and add the grated lemon skin.
2/ Leave for 30 minutes in a cool place.
3/ Roll out to 5mm thick, cut out shapes, add walnuts as decoration, then leave again for 15 mins.
Bake in hot oven.

(this is easy-to make, no fuss, but absolutely scrumptious)
100g cooking chocolate. 1 whole egg, 180g icing sugar, 180g nuts (half ground fine, half in rough bits), candied fruit

1/ Mix melted chocolate (not too hot) with egg, add the sugar and the rest of the ingredients.
2/ Make a salami shape, (using icing sugar on hands), and wrap it in aluminium foil, again first putting sugar on the foil so it doesn’t stick.
3/ Leave in fridge – do not bake!!
4/ Before serving, unwrap and cut into thin 'salami' slices

As before, but adding crushed biscuits

40g butter, 120gg sugar, 30g cocoa, 50g ground coconut, 1 egg white
(you can add rum or brandy)
Mix all together, make small balls and leave in the fridge. DO NOT BAKE!

ALMOND biscuits
140g icing sugar, 140g almonds with skins – ground (can be made with any other unpeeled nuts), lemon rind from ½ lemon, ground vanilla – pinch, 3 egg whites

Mix all together, let it rest, then roll out to 1/4cm thick.
Leave on the board to dry out a bit.

Then make icing:
100g icing sugar, 1 egg white, ½ teaspoon lemon juice

Spread icing on the pastry, cut out shapes, then bake.

120g butter, 120g icing sugar, 120g cooking chocolate, 3 eggs, 120g flour

icing: 300g icing sugar, 4 spoons rum, water

1/Beat butter, sugar and melted chocolate to a foamy consistency.
Add eggs (gradually)
Flour should be folded in last.
2/Pour onto baking tin finger deep.
3/Bake in moderate oven.

4/when baked and cool, pour icing over it.
5/When icing hardens, cut out half-moon shapes

Christmas biscuits Recipe 2

Spicy honey biscuits
1 cup milk, 3 desert spoons honey, 100g sugar, 100g melted butter, 1 egg
300g flour, 1 sachet baking powder, 150g mixed nuts - crushed, 100g mixed peel with raisins, 1 desert spoon cocoa powder, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon powder, 1/2 teaspoon crushed cloves, lemon zest, pinch star anise.
1/ Stir the honey, butter and sugar into the warm milk, mix well, then whisk in the egg.
2/ mix together all the dry ingredients and use the milk mixture to make a soft pastry - but if it is too soft to handle, add more flour.
3/ Work the pastry well, then wrap in clingfilm and leave in the fridge for half a day.
4/ roll the pastry out to about 1/2cm thickness and cut out shapes according to your fancy.
5/ Bake on baking sheet or non-stick tray, in a slow oven.
6/ Decorate the biscuits with a thin coating of runny icing - you can vary the icing flavours from lemon to rum or cocoa, or cinnamon, according to taste. Crown the biscuits with half a walnut or a single almond.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Another Czech obsession :-) biscuit baking

If you go to any supermarket in Czecho now, you will notice shoppers, especially women of all ages, shapes, class and persuasion, pushing trolleys piled high with flour, butter, cocoa, nuts, and lots of sugar. Why? Because it's time for baking. No matter how modern, stressed, low or high-flying, and no matter that every year they vow never to do it again, Czech women simply have to spend hours and days baking Christmas biscuits. It's a highly competitive sport: they compete how many different kinds of biscuits they'll make, and how delicious they are. Family recipes are kept secret, and exchanging them is a mark of the closest friendship and trust.
The biscuits have to be made this far in advance, because a/ they do take an inordinate amount of time, and b/ because they need to 'ripen' for at least a couple of weeks before they are eaten. They are stored in containers where they get a moist quality - quite different to the crispy kind of biscuit we like to crunch in Britain.
When it gets to Christmas and people visit their friends and relations, it is always with a container in hand - a ritual of tasting then ensues, comparing the hostess' biscuits with the visitor's, and counting the many varieties on offer, with much oo-ing and aaaah-ing. By the end of the holiday everyone gets to the point of not wanting to see another biscuit ever again - until next Christmas, when it all starts again.
The greatest faux-pas is to come visiting with a bought collection of biscuits. And so even single men often get down to baking - some of the best biscuits I've tasted come year after year from my 60 year old brickie :-)

I've decided to break the taboo and give you a few recipes - starting with my favourite, Vanilla sticks. Very easy to make, and simply delicious:

Vanilla sticks - Christmas recipe 1
200g ground almonds
200g butter (unsalted)
200g flour
200g icing sugar
1 sachet vanilla sugar
2-3 egg whites
lemon peel, finely grated

Mix it all together, do not work the pastry too hard or the result won't melt in the mouth quite so perfectly :-) let it rest for 15-30 minutes, then gently roll finger-thick long 'snakes', and cut them into 3-4 cm pieces. You can leave these pieces as sticks or shape them to 1/2 moon-shapes. You can even gently roll the pastry out to about 4mm thick and cut out biscuits shapes. But whatever shape you make them, they taste simply heavenly!
Sprinkle on a little bit of icing sugar for coating once baked, and while still hot.
Put the biscuits in an airtight box for at least a week before serving.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Krumlov's first snow

This is what we've woken up to this morning: Krumlov is dusted in snow and from the open bedroom window one can hear excited children's voices. There is clearly something magical about first snow, every time. I am sure we all feel it, and carry that childlike excitement well into adulthood - I certainly do. Is it the way the air feels - so clean and fragrant, or the whole landscape - white and still and innocent.. I don't know, some kind of promise of everything being OK, gentle, and sweet. And while one can get snow in Britain too, there it often comes together with grey skies and with wind blowing in from the coasts. What is special about here is that we are far away from the sea, a little country protected by mountains, so there is hardly a breeze and the sun tends to come up straight after the snowfall. And indeed, the sun is coming through as I write and I am looking forward to leaving all work be and getting out, into the fresh air, to walk on the new white carpet and to breathe in that lovely stillness and beauty. Wow. Forgive the eulogy, but it comes straight from the heart, can't help it :-)
ps (added this afternoon) went to Olsina Lake House: seems Winter has set in here too, but the septic tank hasn't yet arrived so it looks like we'll have to wait till the Spring before it gets put into the ground. Unless there is a thaw! But hey, the snow makes everything so pretty, and it was lovely to have a walk around the white shores of the lake, so who cares.

Friday, 14 November 2008

forest house update - windows

Just a quick update - the upstairs windows have been fitted! The carpenter did a good job. Obviously the brickies and the roofers will need to come back to finish the work off, but not much left now before the house can be tucked in for the Winter.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

tree-lined country roads

As I drove to the Lake house the other day I was reminded, by seeing the last apples clinging onto a roadside tree, that I keep meaning to blog about this typical feature of the countryside. While the British roads have their lovely thick old hedges, almost all the minor, and many of the major, roads here are lined by - mostly old - trees. Now roadside trees are not something you wouldn't see in other European countries, but what is so special here is the frequency of them, and the variety. You get the giant lime trees or oaks along the routes that once were linking the important market towns, you get acers and ashes along others. Elsewhere you get liquid gold tunnels of beeches, especially colourful now in their Autumn glory. You see willows holding the road-banks in damp places, or tall poplars shielding the more exposed roads from the wind. But the most touching of all are the avenues of fruit trees that decorate the smaller roads, village to village everywhere: plums, apples, cherries, pears.
It is said that all these trees have a double function: 1/ to strenghten the road edges, and b/ to serve the travellers. Of course, in the days before cars, people used to travel more slowly, in their wagons and coaches, and so many just on foot. To markets, to work, to see the world. And the trees were there to shade their path from the sun, to shelter them from rain, and to provide them with sustenance. To this day, these trees bear their fruit for the travellers, but who needs shelter in rain-proof, air-conditioned cars, and who would eat the fruit polluted by so many passing exhausts? So the trees come to blossom and fruit, mostly to drop piles of rotting, unwanted produce - quite poignant, really. And there are many drivers who would have all these trees cut down. They curse and swear at them, because they slow them down, keeping the road span narrow, having never been intended for such speed. Indeed you see far too many little sad remembrance wreaths on the old tree-giants' trunks along the major roads, where two speeding cars coming in opposite directions had no room to move over and swerved head-on into the tree's arms.
But I do hope that the trees stay. And it seems that some local authorities here, including ours, favour the trees over the 'freedom to drive' too. I was very unhappy to see some giants felled on the road to the Mill but then, just a mile or so, I saw a brand new avenue planted, leading to the village where our friendly carpenter lives. So the tradition is surviving, and long may it live.

... and one more photo for those who may be interested how the Lake house is doing: currently it is a total mess of pipes, but it's progress : soon I hope to be able to report that the bathroom, hall and pantry are at the stage of rough finish. Watch this space :-)

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Forest house yields another treasure

You might find this very interesting, in the sense that I've never seen a picture in the churches here or any museum etc, of this kind of 'icon'. I'd love to know where the original is (does anyone know?) because this must be quite a rare print which was found in the Forest house barn when I was clearing out its attic store, which is full of old beekeeping equipment.
As you may know from my previous posts, Forest house has an abundance of bees, very friendly ones. The previous owner didn't bother about beekeeping (or anything else for that matter) but the owner(s) before him, who left or died in 1973, must have been very keen beekeeper(s) judging by the amount of now frail and rotting hives and stuff in the barn attic, as well as the now rickety empty hive-shed in the far corner of the garden. As you may also already know I have been very keen to make sure the bees are happy in my new garden and made them their big water container to drink from, and generally I came to appreciate them, especially with the news that bees are declining in the world.
That's why I was extremely pleased to have found this picture. It has now been cleaned, restored and framed for me by one of my closest local friends - she is a bookbinder and restorer by profession.
She said that the patron of bee-keepers is St Ambrose, but after researching the web, I don't believe this is Ambrose as he seems more like Christ to me - any opinions on this? I would welcome feedback as I really have never seen this combination of symbols or attributes before.

Forest House news

As you've seen from the last photographs of the insulation installed, the latest is that the roof has been covered with a weatherproof cover as the building-site is now shut down for the Winter, apart from the new upstairs windows that will be fitted tomorrow.
The roof tiles will have to wait till the Spring.
I am now much happier about the end result, as it wasn't easy, especially where the new roofers had to make good over, or joining onto, the timbers that were done by the guys before them. But they did manage pretty well (see this picture):

There are still a few small problems to do with with the aesthetics of the finish (pic)
Other than that, I shall be looking forward to restarting the site again in April. In fact I'd like to get the barn roof done together with finishing the house roof at the same time, just to avoid any further potential problems! The plan is to get the future, bigger, barn roof fit snugly onto the new gable end, which is now at least 4 ft higher and much wider (as you can see from the photo on the top)
Meanwhile I should be coming back here to ski and to enjoy the Winter snow and sun, I hope.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Food - Italy v Bohemia

One of the greastest compliments I ever received was that my 'melanzane Parmegiano' would make an Italian mother in law jealous - this in Italy from an Italian who wasn't trying to chat me up. So speaking as an Italophile who spends time in the Czech Republic I have to admit to having a bit of an attitude problem to Czech food. It's the absense of fresh veg in the restaurants which suprises me because the countryside bulges with fresh produce. Every back garden has fruit trees, soft fruit and a vegetable patch; the small side roads are lined with apple trees dropping their crop into the verges; the forests are full of people foraging for fresh, free food. However, order a salad in a restaurant and more often than not it will be the ubiquitous combination of iceberg lettuce, watery tomatoes and bland cucumber. (We asked a restaurant friend why he never had any of the wild funghi on his menu in autumn. He shrugged and said well, he wouldn't be able to get them all year - try that excuse in Italy! Perhaps it's the menu printing costs, perhaps there are laws regulating what can be offered in restaurants. Does anyone know?)

There are certain dishes which give a glimpse of the potential of this fertile land. There's a garlic soup on the menu of many of the local restaurants, best served in a bowl made from an excavated loaf of sourdough bread. It's a thin broth, probably chicken stock with grated raw garlic added and then immediately taken off the boil, put into the bowl with a generous amount of stringy mozzarella type cheese and a sprinkle of parsley. This is a desert island dish or a last meal for the condemmed, so satisfying you feel you'll never need to eat again - until you get hungry of course.

If you are lucky you'll get with your fire-grilled meat a freshly grated heap of horseradish root and this will satisfy a full weeks worth of fresh veg cravings, and thoroughly clear any sinus problems. There's nothing subtle about this combination, it's a challenge to vindaloo fanatics, and the only solution to the burning sensation from eating too much in one mouthful is to breath deeply through a slice of the sourdough bread (mad but it works and you won't care if anyone is watching). The horseradish cuts through any fatty richness in the meat and seems to aid its digestion. This type of dish usually comes with a small garnish of undressed salad and on this plate it works, no oily dressing to add to the meat fats, just clean, fresh and crisp salad to clear the palate. I've had this more than once at U Baby in Cesky Krumlov, a pile of fire grilled smoked pork ribs, a heap of fresh horseradish (dug up that day from the cemetary according to the waitress, was she smiling?) and bit of plain mixed salad all washed down with a glass of beer. It was one of the most nourishing and balanced meals I've ever had from a restaurant.

I suppose there are many variables at play here, one of them being my own expectations of what constitutes a good, balanced meal and another being the ability to override ones expectations. One person's meat and two veg is another persons zapecene vepřova žebirka

Saturday, 1 November 2008

St Hubert's Hunt

For the Brits, this kind of 'hunt' is nothing like you might imagine. Here it's another of those typically laid-back Czech occasions for a fun afternoon out.
In the stunning setting of the Cerveny Dvur parkland, on a lovely Autumn day, today's programme consisted of an easy but entertaining parcour in front of our audience,
followed by a 'hunt' where we raced off, following the 'fox' through the hectares and hectares of the park, weaving fast through the magical landscape of majestic, ancient trees. Meanwhile the audience, not able to watch the horses, entertained itself by campfires and songs to guitars.
Lastly, and again for the audience's benefit, we did a relay race, and then a final blast of a mad gallop to capture the prize of a fox tail pinned high up in the finishing arch.
The prize fox tail did go to our stable, but that was the part of the event that perhaps received the least notice. Because the Czechs just love any excuse for being outdoors, really. Competition? Ambition? Forget it. Who cares who 'wins', the main thing is the sun's shining, families and friends get to meet up, and everyone's having a good time.

As I was riding, I couldn't take any photos, so I begged a few from the onlookers. I might get some more - meanwhile this as a taster.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Fox-hunting, Czech style

This Saturday I'll be taking part in a fox-hunt. Except here the fox is a rider in mask, as you can see. All round the countryside the local stables are organising these fun hunts, and riders come to most of them, if the dates don't clash. Which they strictly speaking should, as the hunts are in celebration of St Hubert, the patron saint of hunters. But then, if all the stables did their hunts on the Saint's name-day, we'd all lose out, so, in an appropriately Bohemian way, we just stagger the events and do it as we please.
So on Saturday it's our lovely stable Pohoda's turn. The hunt will happen in the vast, beautiful parkland grounds of Cerveny Dvur, an ex-Rozmberk hunting chateau near Cesky Krumlov which has for many years been serving as a drugs and alcohol dependency clinic. So the only rule for the riders and the onlookers is 'do not bring alcohol'. But (how else?) there'll be sausages and bonfire and hot tea, so who cares.

We've been going there on and off to practise the jumps in the past couple of weeks, so fingers crossed our stable wins!
Hope I shall get some photos from friends - if I do, I shall post them here and tell you how we did.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Fire!!! (and more on the Carp harvest)

Sharing my excitement of the recent Carp harvest experience (see the 22.10 blog below), I was told by an old local that 'these modern harvests are nothing on the old times'. But of course:-) So I was curious, and this is what he said:
From the very beginning, the harvests were considered one of the calendar's highlights. Everyone came - even from miles away; ranging from the aristocrats, coming in coaches all dressed up and hogging the best view, down to the poorest labourers huddling among the reeds. Bands would be playing ('not like those four measly amateurs', growls my local), a whole market would spring up on the banks, selling pots and lace and gingerbread and such, and (should I believe my storyteller?) even such attractions as a 'medvedar' - a wandering performer with a dancing bear might come to entertain the crowd. But the best bit (- and this went on even during the Commie times, says my old friend) was left to the end:
Once most of the fish were taken out, weighed and sorted, the Pondmaster would shout: FIRE!!! This was the signal for the poor people to rush into the mud and take the remaining carp, for free. A kind of mud-wrestling show for the amused aristocracy, no doubt, but actually a generous gesture to let those who couldn't afford to buy (or were too afraid to poach) just take as much as they could carry and a have a proper fish feast for once.
'What's the world coming to? In these money-grabbing times', says my local, 'they even got rid of this harmless tradition'... he waves his hand dismissively at the imagined 'they' and returns to his beer.
But I am remembering the old grannies with carp in their plastic bags and think, well, at a few pence a carp, they seemed happy enough - saves getting all muddy, doesn't it.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Forest house progress

I was asked by Pushkin, who is in Britain at the moment, to go and check whether his builders are on schedule - today was the day when the insulation was to be finished.
Well, it was very nearly finished when I got there this morning, so, with a bit of luck, by the end of the day they would have done it!
The builders were singing as I drove in, the sun was shining, and the house looked pretty happy in its new coat.
But of course it'll be up to Pushkin himself to judge the quality of the work. He'll get here by next Friday so fingers crossed.