Christmas has thankfully been put to rest for another year, and it’s time to reflect on what we’ve achieved in the kitchen over the festive period. It was my intention to provide an in-depth visually driven report on Czech Christmas and compare its culinary traditions to those of the Anglo-Saxon world. Well, I got off to a good start when I left my camera battery charger in Liverpool and subsequently during my aimless ramble on Burbage Moor my DSLR fell victim to my obsession with my ever expanding collection of photos of rocks and heather. It then transpired that to my dismay I can no longer use a compact camera to take sharp snaps. Shaky hands? Early onset Parkinsons?
Then I thought why on Earth should I do that? Why should I let strangers all over the world be part of our family Christmas dinner and practically gaze into our plates only to titter at the selection of oddities we put in our mouths over the festive period – and, worst case scenario, look away in disgust. But I trust my readers to be enlightened individuals, rising above the urge to judge different cultures. On the other hand, at least in our house Christmas isn’t a 5 day booze fest, a fact I feel ever so smug about. So here goes.
23rd December – The Prep
These, my dear friends, are carps, sold and killed by one of the numerous street vendors who set up shop in squares, car parks or on street corners. Traditionally they will be sold live a couple of days before Christmas Eve to await the inevitable in the bathtub for the amusement of small children before being dispatched from this world by the man of the house – the least favourite task of men all over the country. However my dad can no longer find it in himself to kill the poor beasts and my brother and I, both in our twenties, are no longer excited by the prospect of live fish in the house, so our job is mercifully reduced to skinning, gutting and filleting. At a combined weight of 5kg they will feed 6 people at the main event plus leftover over the days to come. We do not like to waste so the heads, roe, milt and certain edible organs go towards making the stock for our traditional fish soup. What we cannot use is then disposed of by our moggies.
A large amount of boiled potatoes is needed to make a large amount of potato salad. Now this isn’t potato salad like most of you know it. To us Czechs this is THE potato salads. To our Polish and German neighbours this is Russian potato salad and Larousse Gastronomique seems to more or less agree. Whatever. It is made up of boiled and diced potatoes, carrots, parsnips, celeriac and diced onions, gherkins and apples, tinned peas (NOT frozen, this is a pet obsession of mine) and smothered in (dressed with) large amounts of mayonnaise, yogurt, a smidge of mustard and a splash of the gherkin liquour. It really wouldn’t be Christmas without it, and it usually goes on canapes at any social get together.
24rd December – The Main Event
Technically you’re meant to fast on the 24th until supper time so that you’ll see the coveted golden pig, which will bring you wealth in the upcoming year. Yeah right. For lunch we usually have a sausage wheel with tartare sauce, or a traditional barley and mushroom bake (called Kuba = Jacob), which, in the olden days, used to be served at supper time.
Fish soup two ways. Top: my creation, creamy Icelandic soup made with Vermouth (definitely white wine next time), seafood, white fish and cream. Grandad’s cousin point blank refused to eat this, otherwise it was met with approval. Bottom: the real deal, carp stock with roe, milt, meat, root veg and croutons.
Horseshoe is the traditional shape of carp fillets. Carp has a large amount of bones and anecdotally Christmas dinner results in the need for extra staffing at A&E. It does make me wonder how many people have choked to death on Christmas Eve. Wish on a wishbone?
And, finally, a selection of Christmas cookies – everybody’s favourite tradition (except maybe the women who spend days baking in the run up to Christmas). Cookery magazines churn out hundreds of new recipes, or variations on the old classics every year, but every family tends to stick with their tried and tested favourites. Here we have vanilla rolls, florentines, Paris rolls (my fave, minced nut base with a cocoa cream covered in chocolate), tartlets, coconut macaroons, cinnamon birds, Linzers with gooseberry jelly (my mum’s proudest moment), orange biscuits, coconut and cocoa ‘salami’, fig salami, nut and candied fruit flowers and biscotti. We are generally inundated with Christmas cookies and it isn’t until well into February that we eat the last pieces. So, that way, the Christmas spirit stays with us a bit longer.
I do enjoy Christmas in my parents’ house, even if the 23rd is exhausting, my feet hurt from standing up in the kitchen and my hands go all soggy from peeling and dicing silly amounts of vegetable. It’s always good to touch base with my folks, escape from the misery of working life and just relax. Till the next time.