Sunday, 13 October 2013

Czech Republic – A big beefy burgerfest

October 12

Hello everyone!

WARNING: This blog talks about delicious food. I accept no responsibility if reading this results in you starting to salivate and breaking your computer due to the saliva dripping over your keyboard whilst you are in a dazed state.

 The Czech Republic has its own authentic, Bohemian cuisine which is sampled by tens of millions of locals and tourists every year. From its own take on goulash to slow-roasted pork, via a cinnamon roll and the obligatory dumpling or three, the local food that can be sampled in Prague is particularly hearty. However, eating meat, potatoes and dumplings every day is a one-way ticket to an increased waistline, and the lack of vegetables on your typical Czech plate is also a health concern. It is thus a relief to live somewhere which also possesses a cosmopolitan and international foodie vibe, so that one can take a break from the stereotypical Czech restaurants.

Whatever cuisine you enjoy, the chances are that it will be within a short tram ride in the centre of Prague. Even in the suburbs, the choice is impressive. Within the suburb of Prague that I currently live in there are Thai, Italian and Vietnamese options, amongst others yet to be sampled. The Thai option, called Yam Yams, has a section on its menu delightfully called ‘Hell’. Each of the three choices had a whopping seven chillies next to its name, suggesting it wasn’t for the faint-hearted. I tried the tom yum soup from ‘hell’, and can’t say that I enjoyed it. Others around the table struggled to even take one mouthful or lick from their fork.

American cuisine seems particularly popular in Prague; a fact showcased superbly by the second annual BurgerFest that we visited over the weekend. Joined by hundreds of other meat lovers in the pouring rain, which seemed to keep topping up our plastic beer cups, we patiently waited for an hour in a line for one of the fifteen or so souped-up burger vans representing the biggest and best American restaurant chains in the Czech capital.

The weekend festival was taking place in the Prague 2 district, under the imposing Church of St. Ludmila. Though it looked a bit amateurish on the outside, perhaps resembling a colourful Roma settlement, it soon became evident from the aromas invading our eager noses that the cooking taking place inside the camper vans and tents was of a very professional level. Stalls of various sizes and budgets were displaying mini or full versions of their chain’s best, most inventive creations to happen within the confines of a bun. All accompanied by a band playing good old-fashioned American music. Oh, and the Proclaimers, of course.

After 60 minutes in a slow-moving line, during which time my stomach seemed to be playing the entirety of Beethoven’s Fifth, we arrived at the front of the queue for Bohemia Bagel. After the initial devastation accompanied with the fact that the cheeseburger soup was not currently available, I plumped for a King burger which simply blows anything concocted by Burger King out of the griddle. It may have been my hunger for any sustenance having not eating all day, but this was probably the quickest I have ever devoured an entire burger, only occasionally coming up to breathe in the delectable waft of melted American cheese.

The next line was thankfully shorter, possibly due to the van’s proximity to the deafening singing of the band’s lead singer. The choices offered here were slightly smaller than a regular sized restaurant burger, but had intriguing options on their menu. I went for the wine, cheese and shallot-smeared meat, and was not disappointed. The patty seemed to melt in my mouth without the need for any effort from chewing. Gorgeous, and needed to be much, much bigger. If you ever visit Prague, the restaurant is called Dish, and is supposed to serve top quality nosh. Based on this sample, I would have to agree.

Of course, some would argue that having two burgers is also a sure-fire way to expand your waistline, so at this juncture we stopped and wandered around parts of the Vinohrady area. Other teachers who have been here for longer than us say that this area is simply the best when it comes to restaurants in Prague. Unfortunately there was no room left in the stomach to try one this time round.We could have gone back the following day for the finale of the competition (my application to be a judge is in the post) but would have had to roll to work on the Monday.

The BurgerFest finishes at eight in the evening. Arriving late on hoping to avoid lines, as we did to get a third burger of the day, is not such a wonderful plan, it transpires. As most customers have disappeared, so have the fires that cook the meat, resulting in cold burgers. Nonetheless, the two burgers we had during the day, even in the rain, still warmed our insides with pleasure.

Czech cuisine will become more important as the temperature drops, but until that moment arrives I will be more than content to eat around the world whilst in Prague. If only there was a custard festival…

Love you all


Monday, 7 October 2013

Czech Republic – Falling leaves and famous faces

October 6

Hello everyone!

The last place I lived didn’t really have what we define as ‘seasons’. Kazakhstan possessed a short hot period, a much longer and harsher winter, and not much inbetween. It has thus been a joy to witness something as simple as leaves changing colour and dew lightly dripping down blades of grass. Autumn.

Prague is bursting with picturesque neighbourhoods and suburbs which are enhanced by flame-licked leaves, but arguably the best place to enjoy this season of change is also the highest in the city. Petrin Hill, a large, sloping park, proudly sits above the city on its western side. The park is relatively close to our current apartment, so is an easy bus ride.

Before entering the serenity and beauty of the park we seemed to take a trip back through the Iron Curtain. A block of dilapidated apartments strewn amongst graffiti and Skoda’s from the time when they were most unfashionable. The Czech Republic has grown economically and in stature since the fall of communism, but it was a stark reminder of the wealth gap that exists here and in many major cities.

A brisk walk along some meandering paths uncovered fantastic foliage as trees turn from summery green to fiery autumnal oranges, reds and yellows. It was quite early in the morning, but the area was eerily quiet, which added to the peaceful ambiance.

Following a short descent we found ourselves in the new town. Walking down one of the innumerable back alleys that are dotted around this city we came across a rather unique wall. A wall covered top to bottom in graffiti.

Like the graffiti up near Petrin, this bohemian art dates back to communist times. However, this ‘John Lennon’ wall is much more famous – even infamous. It was a place of protest and resistance. The Red regime would paint over the graffiti, but each time the people of Prague would respond with more art of their own.

The long walk ended at Prague’s most popular tourist destination – Charles Bridge. Quite why the bridge is so famous that it is swarming with globetrotters was unknown to me, so I did some research. It’s still fairly innocuous, but the bridge was the only means of crossing the Vltava River without a boat until 1841, by which time the bridge was close to 400 years old. There are many other reasons for its fame, but I will have plenty more time to introduce them to you.

I have mentioned that it’s quite busy on the bridge. Added to the throngs of tourists are stall sellers and artists of varying quality. It was the latter that Hannah and I were interested in, having decided to get a caricature drawn at the beginning and end of our time in Prague.

The man with the pencil took approximately four minutes to draw each of us, and was fascinating to talk to in the meantime. Originally from Bulgaria, he has been drawing for almost 40 years, half of which has been on the Charles Bridge each summer. In what could prove to be epic foreshadowing, he warned us that he doesn’t stick around for the winter, instead upping easels and flying to Malta.

You can decide upon the quality of the picture yourself. Even though the drawing is grayscale, whenever I look at it I will remember the vibrant colours of Prague. From the flaming leaves to the multi-coloured wall of free expression, this city has a colourful heartbeat to it, and one that I am thoroughly enjoying.

Love you all,