Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Year of Czech...Snacks

I wish I could remember where I read it, I thought it might be Vinepair, but I can't find the article there. Apparently 2023 is to be the "year of Czech beer" in the context of the writer discussing Schilling's very respectable polotmavý ležák, Augustin.

That phrase "year of Czech beer" had me conflicted however. On the one hand, yes I would love to see more traditional Bohemian style beers, whether světlé, polotmavé, or tmavé, at whatever strength category is in order, lehké (8° or less), výčepní (8°-10°), ležák (11°-12°), speciální (13°+), or porter if it's dark and over 18°. On the other hand, I dread the market being swamped with second rate brews, trading on the popularity/trendiness of Czech beer, a pale lager hopped with Saaz does not a Bohemian pilsner make, neither yet does adding a slug of Carafa to your "pilsner" recipe make a tmavé.

Inevitably, along with screeds about how Czech beer is the IT beer of 2023 will come the "hanger-on" content around what foods pair with what beers, how the Lukr tap is "traditional" (retro-revival is far more accurate), and the mythological dumping of beer by the good citizens of Pilsen that is claimed to be the catalyst for the advent of Pilsner Urquell.

What I would love to see though in all the inevitable content, is an appreciation of broader Czech pub culture and the kind of things you are likely to see or get in a Czech boozer - preferably one outside of Prague 1, 2, and the posh bits of 3. In particular it would thrill my heart to walk into a brewpub that is showcasing a triple decoction světlý ležák, hopped to the nines with Saaz, open fermented, extensive horizontal lagering, and be able to order an "utopenec" or "drowned man". 

Utopenci (plural here, hence change in spelling) are pickled sausages, served with a slice or two of rye bread, some of the onions from the pickling liquor, and a good dollop of mustard. They were one of my absolute favourite bar snacks when I lived in Czechia, usually fished out of a great jar behind the bar, and served with little ceremony. In my unhumble opinion you need to get out of Prague altogether to find truly great utopenci, from memory the ones I had in Velké Hamry were superb. In a fit of ostalgia (not a typo) last year I decided to make my own...

The method itself is pure simplicity, split some spicy sausages, in this case Hungarian style smoked paprika sausages from Wegmans, slice a couple of onions and Hungarian wax peppers, layering them in a clean container with an airtight lid. For the brine I made a mixture of white vinegar, salt, a tiny bit of sugar, along with a bay leaf, a few allspice berries, and some black peppercorns, boiled it for a few minutes then let it cool to blood temperature. Once the brine had cooled, pour it over the sausages, onions, and peppers, and seal up your container, then put it in the fridge for a couple of weeks to mature. Some recipes include thinly sliced chili peppers, but I didn't have any, so I didn't use them. The great thing about peasant snacks is recipes are wonderfully flexible depending on what is in your cupboard.

Another gastronomic treasure to be found in many a Czech pub is nakládaný hermelín, which really means "marinated heremlín", "hermelín" is a soft cheese in the mold of brie. Evan Rail best described it in his article for Vinepair as "a type of gooey, marinated soft cheese that serves as a popular beer snack in the atmospheric beer halls of Prague". Again, this is something that Mrs V and I make fairly often, even though, as the article notes, here in central Virginia we have to replace the hermelín with brie.

As you can see from the picture, the brie is split in half, and a paste of garlic and paprika, add a little cayenne if you like a touch of heat, is smeared on the revealed cheese. The halves are then put back together and stacked in a sterile glass jar with onions and wax peppers, lots of onions - I think we used 4 large ones in this batch. Added to jar are a couple of bay leaves, some allspice berries, and black peppercorns - are you seeing a flavour theme here yet? The jar is then filled with oil, the blandest, most neutral oil you can find, and left to sit in the fridge for 10 days to 2 weeks. What comes out of the jar is an unctuous, pungent cheese that spreads easily on a slab of rye bread, best enjoyed with a half litre of whatever style of Bohemian beer is your fancy that day.

Bread...the staff of life, and Czech bread, chleb, in particular is something I loved. The standard loaf in Czechia is a dense, brown rye bread, that sticks to your ribs, and goes with absolutely everything. I never understood expats who didn't like it, and I even knew one who had his friends from the UK bring British bread over when they came to visit. Anyway, Czech bread looks kind of like this version I baked last year:

Another of my favourite pub snacks in Czechia is half a loaf of this kind of bread, sliced most of the way through, served warm, and with a pot of škvarková pomazánka, basically an egg, gherkin, and mustard spread that includes "škvarký" - the cooked, unrenderable bits left over from making lard from belly pork. This video shows the process far better than I can explain it, suffice to say it is fecking delicious, spread on the warm bread...I need to make more lard soon...

As I said earlier, if I were to walk into a taproom showcasing Czech beers and any of these snack were also available, I'd be in heaven. The best foods to pair with Czech beer are Czech foods, they go hand in hand so perfectly.

1 comment:

  1. I am pursuing this at Cohesion for sure. I'd also love to have utopenec here and we do actually have someone who lives locally and makes it! Just navigating the food laws has proven difficult. Not to mention I'm very curious how the American drinker would react to pickled sausage... Luckily it keeps well.


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