Prague is rediscovering the taste of long-forgotten Czech delicacies thanks to traditional cafes and sweet shops, closed during the communist era, that have reopened in the heart of capital.
We are witness to a resurrection of Czech gastronomy, said Pavel Maurer, perhaps the country s most influential foodie and the man behind the much-touted Pavel Maurer’s Grand Restaurant Guide .
The trend is a shift for the picturesque capital known more for pleasing the eye – with its cobblestone streets, ancient clock tower and historic bridge – than the palette.
One revived shop, Mysak, established in 1904 and nationalized in 1950, once again boasts an old-world mosaic floor, ceiling paintings and marble staircase following a painstaking restoration that finished in November.
The shop, which had been shut for years, is particularly proud of its karamelovy pohar – a caramel ice cream that was a favorite of the first president and founder of Czechoslovakia Tomas Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937) who would stop by to indulge his weakness.
When asked his secret, master confectioner Pavel Juraska spins off with precision its mix of quality vanilla ice-cream with caramel sauce, which is 35-percent cream mixed with caramelized sugar, topped up with ground grilled almonds and decorated with whipped cream.
But the secret of karamelovy pohar , he says, is not so much the recipe but the honest preparation and above all respect for traditional procedures that date back to the First Republic – the period of democracy during Masaryk s presidency from 1918 to 1935 that, in modern-day Czech, is shorthand for quality of craft and values that were often abandoned during the communist era (1948-1989).
Another shop, the Jan Paukert, founded in 1916 and known as a paradise for lovers of hams, sausages, cheese and pates, also went through a bad patch following its nationalization in 1952.
Hana Paukertova, the wife of the founder s grandson, said the shop was nicer than ever since it reopened in October after a complete revamp.
In gastronomic folklore, Jan Paukert was the inventor of a Czech specialty known as oblozeny chlebicek, a slice of white bread garnished in a thousand and one ways.
For food crusader Maurer, oblozeny chlebicek is a rarity, something one cannot buy anywhere else in the world.
In other places, they sell hamburgers or toasts. But the classic-style oblozeny chlebicek with ham, potato salad, an egg and mayonnaise, that s an original Czech product, he said.
For me, the tradition of the First Republic means above all that there is an owner who takes care of his company in an honest manner and wants to imprint a typical product on it, said Zdenek Pohlreich, owner and chef of the Cafe Imperial, an eatery in a hotel of the same name.
Cafe Imperial reflects the country s recent history: it was a luxury establishment in the period between the two World Wars, whose upper crust clientele was replaced by Nazi soldiers during occupation from 1939-1945. After World War II, it was nationalized and transformed into a recreation centre for the communist unions, later neglected, abandoned, then restored after the collapse of communism and reopened in August 2007.
It is not always so easy, the competition in Prague is strong, Pohlreich said under the gilded, art-nouveau wainscoting typical of many of the capital s grand cafes like the Slavia, the Obecni Dum and the Evropa.
We opted for Czech cuisine and now we can see it was not a bad choice, he added, noting the great success of the cafe s kulajda soup, a specialty from southern Bohemia with white mushroom and potatoes.
Maurer said it was logical that it took a bit of time after the fall of communism for Czechs to rediscover their own culinary specialties.
Since the Velvet Revolution, we have become familiar with the whole spectrum of exotic tastes, he said. But our stomachs have always stayed at home.