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.