The Czech Republic’s Food Problem / U stolu in Vinohrady

Posted: February 16, 2014 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I took a brief look over this long-neglected blog sometime yesterday after getting a pingback or whatever it’s called from an interview with Lizz Lunney, who I met up with last summer for a great Comics Exhibition at DOX having been introduced through @ClaraCharlotte of Twitter fame. I tend to be profoundly ambivalent about blogs, having too little time and concentration for more substantial forms of writing, and tending to agree with William Gibson who once wrote that trying to write while keeping a blog is like boiling a kettle with the lid off. Interestingly, Gibson says the opposite about Twitter, which he says keeps him sane when he’s writing and is unable to commit to reading novels and works of fiction which prevent his being immersed in his own fictional world. I have taken time out from Twitter for the last couple of months. There are only so many ‘inputs’ I can take without being prone to be thrown off in a series of tangents like a particle in Brownian motion. I have, I think, found that I can better focus on those things I am working on. The downside perhaps is that I feel totally disconnected from the creative people, communities and conversations I need to feel like what I am doing is worthwhile and, on a more basic level, to stave off the crushing boredom I can be subject to when I’m not surrounded people with similar interests and drives or who at least understand what I do with my time.

Anyway, getting up this morning following a night where a few slivovices and a vodka got me uncomfortably drunk as only slivovice can, and sent me back to look over Twitter, and from there to watching a video entitled Society of Control: The Neoliberal Civilisation, and getting over to the garage down the way sure in the knowledge that only a cigar or two could straighten my head out, even though I have known for years that I never sleep after smoking, I got to thinking about food in the Czech Republic and figured I could revive my blog and warm up my writing day by putting down a couple of lines about it.

Like many things in the Czech Republic, the state of food here is determined by the worst features of the logic of communism and the worst features of capitalism. For socialism, food was utilitarian, serving the purpose of feeding the population, keeping them satisfied enough that their being dissatisfied does not become a substantive problem, and giving them sufficient energy, as opposed to nutrition, that they do the work that is required of them, including raising the next generation. Indeed, given the fact that intellectuals are anathema to the communist system, providing a level of nutrition adequate to that requisite for maintaining brain function is to be avoided – just as Tolstoy noted in What Then Must We Do? that committing oneself to practical work gives one a taste for simple, peasant food, the reverse is also true. For capitalism, the type of food is less fundamental than our relationship to it. It is important that we must want it, want to consume it – here in the sense of purchase, since our actual physiological consumption of it is irrelevant or even perhaps not wholly desirable; significant amounts of waste is inevitable. Food must look the way we want it to look. It must taste the way we want it to taste. It should be noted that our desires will inevitably be reshaped from those our great grandparents would have recognised as being natural and it is rarely important that a tomato should taste like a tomato as a nineteenth century Neopolitan would have recognised it. Nutrition, again, is secondary at best. If an apple looks spotless and has a sheen which may literally be the result of having been waxed and polished, this is infinitely more important than that it possessing any of the qualities of nutrition that would have been possessed by an eighteeth century apple. If an apple bears little relation visually to those our great grandparents knew, still less does it bear any relation to those of its distant forebears when it comes to take into account its relationship to our bodies and its being utilised by our bodies. Bread, once again, is several times removed, and ought not, if we are to be strictly logical, be referred to by the same name as that used by our great grandparents since all of its constituent elements have fundamentally changed, and the process used to create it, has also warped beyond measure. Wheat is a case in point, even before the recent innovations in genetic modification: “Fourteen-chromosome wild grass has been transformed into the forty-two-chromosome, nitrate-fertilized, top-heavy, ultra-high-yield variety that now enables us to buy bagels by the dozen, pancakes by the stack, and pretzels by the ‘family size’ bag.” We might be tempted to conclude that capitalism, whose drive as relates to desire, may equally be founded upon an educated consumer’s desire for quality food as readily as upon the capitalist consumer’s fondness for foods tailored to instant fixes of highly refined carbs, sugars, stimulants such as caffeine, as well as artificial flavourings and sweeteners. To a certain extent this is true, though the logic of capitalism and all extant forms of capitalist democracy tend towards a stable condition whereby quality foods, meaning those likely to satisfy the requisites of maintaining body and brain function, are available to a minority of elites, with a substantial population being undernourished, many of them to a degree that positively inhibits brain function. Studies of nutrition and behaviour in prisons raise some important questions about social exclusion and the ability of foods distributed in capitalist systems to sustain the range of skills necessary to survive in them. Even if this were not the case, it may certainly be argued that a variation of the mechanism hypothesized above in which food and food culture’s effect upon intelligence and mental function is as natural under capitalist society as it is under communism. Communism, in those systems as resemble the Czechoslovakian model, may be relatively egalitarian in being furthered, or certainly not impeded, by a relationship to food across all strata of society, in which foods which fall short of the ideal in terms of providing sustenance for the brain, are privileged. Gustáv Husák’s job could perhaps have been performed with admirable efficiency by one with faltering concentration, poor judgement, and an IQ in the region of the mid sixties. So too could many of the jobs which sustained the Czechoslovakian economy in those dismal years, have been delivered by those eating the chemically-derived and nutritionally-poor vegetable-free fodder available to them in the period, even if these lacked any of the “brain-boosting” qualities now claimed in our contemporary capitalist economies for everything from macadamia nuts to gobi berries and which rather reside in conventionally-grown (by which I do not mean chemically-treated industrial farming of the last fifty years as the word has come to mean in our contemporary Newspeak) locally-produced foods grown, cooked and produced using the time-consuming processes which would have been recognised by our great grandparents. This level of brain function might not, George Bush Jnr aside, be quite enough to meet the exigencies of the demands upon our contemporary democratic leaders even if they do not use their brains as we might wish, and would certainly not meet the demands of many of those working behind the scenes. Still, if these elites may have the need for, and access to, foods which nourish them, capitalism certainly flourishes in a situation in which the majority of consumers are needful of another fix of carbs, and where a lack of real nutrition, or the abundance of anti-nutrients in the shape of nutrient-absorption-impeding preservatives, colours, un-fermented grains, antibiotics, refined carbohydrates, sugars and medicines which upset the balance of gut flora and diets based on dairy products and modern strains of gluten-containing grains milled to remove those nutrients which remain. If I were to strike a French philosopher pose about it, I’d put on my rollneck and faded jeans, roll me a cigarette and say that the consumer under capitalism bears the same relation to the capitalist system as does the bacteria absorbed into the mitochondria of multi-celled organisms in the endosymbiosis theory of the origin of mitochondria, but it’s safe to say I have wanked on about this enough and we ought to agree that food in the Czech Republic is shite as a result of the residual effects of food culture under communism and food giants taking advantage of this fact to supply sub-standard produce to the Czech Republic and its neighbours with a similar history.

The result of this is that somebody like myself, who suffers from what appears to be a multifariously deficient ability to absorb nutrients from food, and, in particular, from those foodstuffs most abundant and most affordable in modern capitalist societies, coupled perhaps to a similarly deficient ability to rid the body of toxins (a problem which likely has its origins in nature and has been systematically exacerbated by my environment), and who has a lot of problems relating to concentration, mood, impulsivity and the like when I eat the kind of foods my body deals with least effectively, can find it very depressing to go shopping, visit restaurants, or try to cook from the materials available here. Given that I have increasingly committed myself to life in the Czech Republic, this is the most significant difficulty I face day to day, and I regularly think it sufficient a reason to consider moving away.

I do what I can, and yesterday was a case in point. In the morning I visited my favourite butcher, the Real Meat Society by Jiráskovo Nábřeží by the Dancing House. I was happy to find this place a few months back, and ate their sausages every morning before leaving for school for much of November, and felt the better for it. My normally gargantuan appetite reduced somewhat by the effects of a stricter-than-usual candida-style diet over the last month or so and supplementation with probiotics, I managed to hold out until a late lunch of an indifferent bolognaise sauce thrown together with some nasty supermarket-bought minced beef a handful of what passes for kitchen staples here, before going out to meet a couple of friends in Vinohrady, which probably rates as my favourite area of Prague, and the one I would most like to live in if I ever get out of this sidlíště out in the sticks.

Now it wouldn’t be fair to say that drink is poor in Prague. You can get whatever you want, for the most part, and if the storage and preparation of food were taken as seriously as the storage and preparation of beer or tea, or even wine and cocktails, and if food culture were as significant as beer or tea culture, the former celebrated in internationally renowned Czechoslovakian film and literature such as Bohumil Hrabal, and the closing scenes of Jiří Menzel’s version of his I Served the King of England which I watched yesterday, we would be doing pretty well. Still, with my intolerance to yeast or whatever it is in beer and wine that makes me lose myself to my thoughts and makes it near impossible to listen to any conversations going on around me even with an uncomfortable strain to attend to them, drinking can be difficult. Brits in particular can be intent on dismissing you as churlish and curmudgeonly if you stick to orange juice or water, I get fed up of explaining my symptoms only to be treated to others’ third-hand wisdom, and even those whiskies which are almost as full of chemicals as the Czech Republic’s very own caramel syrupy Tuzemský rum cost as much as a downmarket lunch. My friend’s favourite pub is dedicated to bespoke bottled beer and sausages, stocks only Whyte and Mackays which it serves in shot glasses, may or may not serve water or orange juice, and I was not much looking forward to going there. In the event I drank three shots of slivovice, which tasted fine, and had little effect until it got me uncomfortably drunk in some hockey stick curve that went from nowhere to near paralytic upon approaching my door in the outskirts several hours after having touched the stuff.

Any case, my one friend having recently come out of hospital following an operation and, to his great disappointment, being off beer – something he discovered with even greater regret than the fact he was off cake, which cost him even more money and had an even more lamentable impact upon his physique – and my other friend having been greeted with the choice of red wine or red wine, which was doing little to improve the discomfort of what was clearly a bad case of the cramps, we paid up, chose to walk her slowly back to Jiřího z Poděbrad and find somewhere smoke free we could both eat.

Meeting up a couple of weeks back, the day I heard he had been sacked, essentially for being ill, we had walked around from Jiřího z poděbrad looking for somewhere relatively smoke-free and capable of serving portions that might satisfy my lunatic metabolism, and had stumbled upon U Stolu on Lucemberská. Finding a half decent restaurant that I can eat at has been something of a motif of our meet-ups after work, to go for a drink or two, or to take in a hockey game at the Tipsport Arena in Hološovice. I can last about half an hour without food after leaving work, and most people who get to know me come to know that food here means quantities many people don’t consume in two days. Since my funds are often limited, and with the many and various food intolerances I have, I might often damn a couple of places with faint praise before finding somewhere that will put me at ease and fill my stomach.

The place looked good. It was empty, which would normally worry me, but the waitress was immediately attentive and friendly, and coped with banter in Czech and English well. The decor was new and classy, and it was wallpapered with mocked up newspaper articles about T. G. Masaryk, even a portrait of him on the wall. This could have come across as tacky, in the manner of pubs dedicated to Švejk or Kafka, but it seemed genuinely felt and, combined with the decor and arrangement of the place, and the menu when I came to look over it, it seemed to be one of many manifestations of good taste.

I chose the grilled duck breast served with courgette potato cakes, chestnut and cognac sauce. My friend went for the Wild Boar and Rosehip Goulash with potato gnocchi.

The waitress brought out lard spread and asked me in Czech how to say škvarky, which translates as crackling, though is essentially lard. There followed some chat about where I was from and how she hadn’t noticed from my accent that I was foreign, which, if it was calculated flattery aiming to make the most tips out of a slow night, the kind of stuff you learn in the first few weeks of any job front of house, would have been effective when combined with a smile and a willingness to chat, even if it weren’t as rare as it is in the Czech Republic where waiting staff can be outright hostile, as they were at the next place we went. Either way it put us in a good mood and the škvarky, however you want to translate it, was first rate.

The mains came out next. Promptly. By this time the waitress had brought over some whisky and entertained us with questions about drinking it with water – something she had never heard of before – and the differences between bourbon and scotch. Any kind of attention from the waiting staff can be rare enough in Prague, though I am lucky in a restaurant near where I work, but to be positively chatty is almost unheard of barring the kind of relationships that develop in what friends used to call the category 4 pubs between bartenders and the štamgasts or locals who would bring out the banter in these otherwise surly crotch scratchers who need to be summoned with a perseverance they make a show of resenting to pull themselves away from these locals’ tables or swearing at the sport or news on the television.

The duck was cooked to perfection, red in the middle, nicely seared outside. The sauce, which was made not from cognac this time but, as the waitress had come to tell me, some kind of wine which sounded expensive to my untrained ear, was light but had body and clung to the duck, potato cake and the plate as it had been attractively dressed, a fine dice of chestnut going through it. The two potato cakes were well cooked and nicely arranged. With that put in front of me, and with every forkful being a pleasure to the eye and palette as good restaurant food should be, there must have been a pause of a couple of minutes before I noticed my friend or his plate, or indeed anything else around me, but when I finally came to and asked after his own selection, he said it was good, as indeed it looked, with another, darker but apparently equally nuanced sauce, a good plateful of meat, and a decent scattering of evidently well-cooked gnocchi.

A friend came to meet us and we found that the menu has one oversight, having not a single vegetarian dish. We went on to some pub by the square, to be encouraged in by a guy in a Ramones t-shirt. There, the waitress greeted us brusquely, snapped at my friend’s explanations that he would like half dark and half light beer – which is common enough here to have a shorthand known by all but unpronouncable to foreigners – telling him she understood, which was precisely the opposite of how she greeted my Czech, which can have one of two effects on these old-hand service staff, and evidently brought out the sociopath in this one, before bringing out half litre of dark beer and the rest of our drinks order. My other friend’s veggie burger, which was, we were staggered to see, at the top of the list of burgers on the menu, took the best part of an hour, and then materialised as a bag standard burger bap cursorily filled with a little lettuce and a slice of aubergine and tomato that had briefly been in contact with a frying surface.

Either way, last night U Stolu was nearly as empty as it was that first night and the last time we were there a week or so ago. One group sat around drinking beer and watching the arse end of the last third of the Czech hockey teams defeat at the hands of Switzerland on their aging star, Jágr’s 42nd birthday, on an iPod. We both ordered the same as we had the last two times we were there, minus the wonderful beef bouillon soup I had last time. And the results were just as good. All told, we may have been there no more than half an hour, but the service, food, and atmosphere were as good as those other times.

The food scene being what it is in the Czech Republic, you get a particular attachment to those places you find that are atmospheric and have good food at affordable prices even those times this is all at the cost of being accompanied by the abysmal service that is often part of the bargain. When you find somewhere like U Stolu that has exceptional service and has not yet been adopted or corrupted by the crowds, let alone one that is not choked up by smoke, you feel particularly solicitous, even anxious for it. I will always remember Alexei Sayle on Desert Island disks or some such radio programme, talking about how he likes to look through old copies of Time Out to find old restaurants that no longer exist. Catering is a hard game that often brings only bankruptcy, and a place like U Stolu which has all of the ingredients which make a good restaurant might go down the tubes for any one of a number of reasons, perhaps even because it does not serve the food that most local people want or expect. It might be that it is pitched just that little bit wrong. It is not expensive or exclusive, and though it is more expensive than many a restaurant, it would be affordable by most people if they prioritised food a little more than they do now, perhaps spent a little less on beer, had a couple of half litres fewer. But then, so far in the Czech Republic, most people I know don’t do that, and continue to see food much as they were encouraged to do pre 1989.

I hope it does survive, indeed thrive, in much the same form as it does today. And I hope that there will be more like it, scattered around the various quarters of Prague, allowing ordinary working people to enjoy good food once in a while, in a way I never felt able to do while I was in Britain when eating out at a restaurant with the kind of food U Stolu is serving was well out of my price bracket. So far, progress for my first days in Prague back in 2004 has been painfully slow. On coming back last year, I expected to see a very different situation in the supermarkets from the one that greeted me. Much as television formats often spread out from Britain to Europe, I have seen the Cook with Polreich billboards advertising the Czech version of our Live Cook with Gordon Ramsey specials, and caught a few episodes of his Czech kitchen Nightmares show before that, but just as celebrity chefs in Britain are offered up as little more than entertainment, this will be a longer term shift demanding a deep shift in attitudes that is going to take years yet. Eating healthily and eating well here is going to take some work for some time yet. But then, perhaps it always has and always will. As with most other things that are worth doing well, so long as it repays the effort, it’s worth it.

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