culinaria eugenius in karlovy vary: taking the waters

My only small excursion away from Prague in the Czech Republic was a delightful visit to the old town once known throughout Europe as Karlsbad.  Karlovy Vary, still a spa town in Western Bohemia, as it has been for hundreds of years, is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been.  Bright pastel facades, many of them fronting hotels, line a small canal of spring water bisecting the old town.  The town rises steeply from the canal, with similar buildings piled up into the foothills.  Massive resorts hulk over the town further up, and a funicular railway allows tourists a vantage point with which to see the whole area.  Well-groomed trails in the woods above the town, also there for centuries, provide leisurely hikes.

Photo by Mia McIver

A friend and I took the 2-hour bus trip to this lovely place.  Since my camera battery was dying, she took most of the photos, and I am grateful: her photography is excellent.  It was so nice to travel with someone who likes taking pictures of food as much as I do.

Photo by Mia McIver

Once landed in Karlovy Vary, we partook in the centuries-old pleasant task of strolling and taking the waters.  There are several colonnades in town, very long covered porches, if you like, where little spring fountains continually emit water for drinking.  I’m not sure I’ve ever had a post on Culinaria Eugenius about drinking water, so here it is.

The first photo shows a colonnade built in the late 19th c., and the second shows a Soviet-era indoor colonnade, the only one in town, with a fancy modernized spring.

Photo by Mia McIver

The gazebo pictured below holds another spring.  Each spring has a different temperature and mineral content.  Even more healing, in my view, is the local tipple: Becherovka herbal liqueur.  Here, one can partake in a drink of hot spring water, then wash it down with a bottle purchased at the Becherovka kiosk.  Commercial production began in Karlovy Vary in 1807, invented by a collaboration between an Englishman and KV chemist Jan Becher.  Like Hungarian Zwack or German Jagermeister, this sweet, bitter brew serves as an apéritif or digestif.  It’s marvelous for quelling nausea and soothing a cough, as well (I speak through personal experience).

Although the town has a long history of drinking the spring water, the whole idea of bathing in the water didn’t really catch on until wealthy Russians started moving in to the place.  While what they brought to the town in the 70s (including a monstrous concrete modern hotel squatting in the middle of town like a toad) and in the 90s (serious investments that refurbished the old facades) provided capital improvement and foreign money infusing the local economy, the Russian presence created a resort town full of useless high-end jewelry stores, china shops, and boutiques with garish, overpriced fashions.

This was fine, I suppose, during boom times, but now, with the economy in decline, the diamond-buying crowds have thinned, and regular travelers like me don’t have a single bakery at which to buy some bread or an inexpensive cafe at which we can pick up a sandwich.   All the shops in town are geared toward the tourist industry, and the restaurants are extremely expensive and unappealing.

There are a few state-run (I think) spas, with numbers like Lazne 3 and Lazne 5 (aka Elizabeth Spa), but they’re kind of baffling to understand.  If I had known what features either of these places had I would have most likely taken advantage of them, but because the only spa that had a transparent menu and description in English was right next to my hotel, I took the waters bodily at a new spa, Zamecke Lasne (Chateau Spa).

Pictured to the right, the spa is relatively expensive, and you have to buy packages of 2-, 3-, or 4-hour treatments.  I chose a massage, an underwater massage (done in a bathtub by a nurse holding a powerful showerhead under the water), gum irrigation (a ceramic Y-shaped attachment was fitted to a hose and a sink, and you sit over the sink for the longest 15 minutes of your life with the thing in your mouth, water gushing out down your face), and “Dr. Kniepp’s hydrotherapy,” alternating hot and cold baths in which you immerse your feet and calves, marching in place, for 30 minutes.  With the “treatments” comes a nice fluffy robe, unlimited use of a springwater massage pool (like an oversized hot tub, but lukewarm), a Japanese rock bath in which you walk on rocks to stimulate your feet, a tiny sauna, and all the tea/water you’d like to drink.

The real kicker was the “Spirit of the Springs,” a laser light show that happens in the spa main room from time to time.  The old spring in a grotto alcove of the main room, non-operational when we visited, is one of the main Karlovy Vary springs, but privatization has made it inaccessible to the public.  This could be a good thing, given that the spring is inhabited by an oft-angry Spirit.  The Spirit appears in the main room when he is angry, darkening the entire room, causing the pool to turn red, bubble up, froth, and emit a water jet from one side as thunder peals and lightening jags across the starry sky above.  The Spirit himself appears, illumined in red, in the alcove, looking for all the world like Zeus on a spa holiday.  Picture 4 in the link above shows The Spirit.  And I couldn’t say it any better.

After this brush with the deities and being the picture of good health, we were ready for some healthy spa cuisine.  The manager of the hotel had no idea what we meant.  Salad, perhaps?  A cool vegetable soup?  Ah, fish.

Photo by Mia McIver

OK, so it wasn’t exactly the fish dish we think of as spa cuisine, but the trout was fried perfectly, and it had a nice cabbage salad and those delicious, creamy Czech potatoes.

I had the spicy minced beef in a potato pancake, which turned out to be a pork ragout with canned corn.  The one meal I didn’t like my entire trip!  But that’s ok, since one can’t go wrong with a potato pancake.  For dessert, we opted for the locally famous spa wafer cookie, the oplatky, washed down with swigs of Becherovka.  On my way back to the bus station, I saw the tiny shop in which they are made, complete with a very Industrial Revolution conveyor belt oplatky pressing machine.

Photo by Mia McIver

I also managed to drink at least a cup full of the aforementioned hot spring water in my special Karlovy Vary cup.

Photo by Mia McIver

Here I am at one of the colonnades, taking the water in my special tourist art nouveau-style Karlovy Vary cup with the list of springs imprinted on it.  (Note the mannerist angle: no, my health did not cause my arm to grow extra long, but that would have been a much better story.)  The handle of the cup is hollow, and one uses it as a straw to drink the hot, slightly smelly, healing mineral water within.  I soon realized that the way the water healed you was to cause diarrhea.  Ah well.

This concludes my Prague trip.  If you’re interested in the other posts in the series, check out Preserved Prague, Prague Street Food, and Czech gravy. Next up, Montana!  Will Culinaria Eugenius prevail in a state that doesn’t even have an official state food?  Stay tuned…

culinaria eugenius in prague: culinaria praha

Well, even though I entertained thoughts of not coming back and becoming “Culinaria Praha,” a dour expatriate food critic who writes about gravy from the heart of the Czech Republic, I was graciously escorted out of town.  Traveling home was not fun, and I’m pretty thrashed with jet lag and a head cold.  Somehow, I managed to bring back several bottles of hooch and other supplies in my small suitcase.  Like my body, it was a miracle the stuff made it:

So here’s what I brought back, mostly. I also brought souvenirs that I don’t want to reveal, since some of my readers are also souvenir recipients.  But this is the stash I bought for myself:

Yes, that’s four kinds of paprika.  A girl has got to get her paprika where she can.  Also on view: apricot brandy, an herbal honey liqueur, Czech bitter Becherovka, a sample of low sugar apricot jam, a jar of plum paste (lekvar), oplatky wafers from Marienska Lasne, the aforementioned paprika, and Turkisk Peber, a salty licorice candy that is not even vaguely Czech but they had it in Duty Free and it’s one of my favorite things in the world.  I also bought two small bottles of eau-de-vie: quince and apple.  Proof:

I’m still grumpy about the snafu at Duty Free — I had erroneously thought one could buy alcohol to take on the plane, just as people have done since time immemorial.  I had planned to carry my slivovitz in hand, and possibly another bottle of Becherovka liqueur, and possibly some Pilsner Urquell or Budvar for Retrogrouch.  But the clerk assured me that they would take it away at U.S. Customs because of the ridiculous 3-oz.-liquid-in-carry-ons regulation.

This, folks, is not entirely true.  They did clamp down on international Duty Free after all this terrorism crap because some countries don’t monitor their Duty Free shops and enable people to tamper with the liquids before boarding the plane.  And yes, they can/will take away your Duty Free hootch in U.S. customs if it’s over 3 oz., but if you are transferring and you can pack it in your suitcase after you retrieve your checked luggage at your first point of entry, then recheck your luggage, it’s ok.  That is, unless you arrive in a dry state as your first point of entry in the U.S. (e.g., Salt Lake City, UT).  Then they can take away all your liquor, since you are suddenly subject to state law, just as you are to federal law.  A travesty, no?

No one will take away your Turkisk Peber, though.  Yes, my pretty, yes…

I’ve got one more blog post to make, this one about the spa town Karlovy Vary, taking the famous Karlsbad waters, and its discontents.  More trips are coming, so I’ll be posting with haste, posthaste!  I hope you’re enjoying these travel posts.  My blog is going to be a travel food blog for a while.  Nice for a change!

culinaria eugenius in prague: good gravy!

The real star of Czech cuisine, if you haven’t guessed already, is the meat.  Every carnivore dish has been absolutely delicious, and I haven’t even been eating at upscale places, so that’s really saying something.  And even though there are many specialties of roasted meat, such as the roast “pork knee” that is basically a giant hunk (the biggest I saw was 6 inches) of roast pork leg on the joint or the roast pheasant with red stewed sauerkraut below, the meat is best when served in copious amounts of gravy.

And by gravy, I mean Exhibit A, Czech goulash, here served with regular bread dumplings (knedlik) and ones with bacon.

The goulash surprised me, as I had been expecting a paprika-tinged goulash with caraway seed.  I had heard the latter was a popular addition in CZ.  But it’s really just a nice beef stew.  Or this roasted pork shoulder with plain bread dumplings and white sauerkraut.

Tired of gravy?  You could soak your meat in a bowl of garlic soup.  Imagine a French onion soup, but with ham in addition to the croutons and cheese.  Better to ward off vampires, too.

It’s not that Czechs don’t eat vegetables, but other than the ubiquitous cabbage, there aren’t many served in the meat-and-potatoes (I’m speaking figuratively, and I guess literally) places around town.  I did, for you doubters, document some vegetables sold in the market.  I didn’t see these beautiful cauliflower served anywhere. We have the conical cabbages in Eugene, but I don’t know how they are different from regular cabbage.  The importance of sauerkraut can’t be overstated — without it, I firmly believe the whole country would have scurvy.  One really needs to partake in cabbage, in all its forms, if one is to get any vegetably vitamins in Prague.

Or of course, one could just eat fruit.  Let them eat garnishes, cried Marienska Antonova.  Or the slivovitz-macerated dried plums hidden in these bacon rolls.  YUM.

And then you’d be heathly enough to partake in this platter of delights, the Bohemian Wedding Feast at U Medviku, a brewery restaurant established in the 15th century.  I see this as the salad bar of Czech cuisine.  Duck, roast port, ham, and sausages are surrounded by red and white sauerkraut and several kinds of dumplings.

Yes, believe it or not, we did it.  She made such a lovely, delicious bride.  Speaking of couples, I was happy to have trekked out to the Frank Gehry building that caused a stir a decade or so ago.  Like so many things in Prague, the “Dancing” or “Fred and Ginger” building is a study in complements.  Like gravy and dumplings, meat and sauerkraut…

Tanks and bulldozers in the Mobius strip of the 20th century…

A fuzzy plush bear with a machine gun, a museum of communism…

Prague is all about juxtaposition.

I’m stuck at JFK for a few more hours.  Missed the connection to Seattle, so I’m flying home today.  Can’t even tell you how tired I am.  I think it’s time to detox with some good Oregon berries!

culinaria eugenius in prague: street food

With Europe enthralled by the World Cup soccer matches, non-sportsfans like me need not fear.  Y’all can sit on cobblestones and listen to the deafening buzzing hum of horns punctuated by the crowd’s roars.*  I’ll be peripatetic and peripheral, scoping out the street food set up to feed the masses.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Prague lacks street vendors in general.  I’m not sure I’ve even seen a mobile ice cream cart.  So we lucked out with the conference date.  They served Czech fast food — instead of hamburgers and hot dogs, a delicious grilled sausage (above) and chicken kebabs in a bun; and instead of elephant ears:

trdelnik, a cinnamon-sugar-coasted pastry baked in coals.  The dough stays soft in the middle, and you can wear it as a bracelet, thanks to the way in which it is rolled on a metal tube. But the most delicious treat of all is the stand with the spits of whole hams roasting.  Good god.

The ham man turns the wheel and slices off what you want.  N.b., he is wearing an old-school butcher’s apron.  I want one of those.  Will seek out in London later this summer.

But when the meat and bread products get old, you might choose a fruit cup, Prague style.  I saw these pints of berries at the open-air market, and had to try one.  No competition with Oregon, but it was nice to eat fresh fruit, and in season!

*It’s 1 a.m. and yet another parade just came stomping down the main drag near my hotel, singing “Olé Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé!” so I am going to be quite grumpy.

culinaria eugenius in prague: preserved prague

Well, my fears about Czech food have been unfounded.  I have plenty of pictures of deliciousness.  Let’s start with preserved foods, shall we?

Czechs love smoked meat.  I did not know what to expect when I ordered “pork neck.”  It turned out to be a particularly delicious ham.  And the sauerkraut is excellent.  Wrap the two up in a giant potato pancake, and you’re good to go.

And here is preserved meat at a sumptuous conference buffet, in a handful of different guises: ham rolls, sliced ham, salami, etc., as well as smoked salmon and pickled vegetables.  The interior of this building is an art nouveau orgy, with tile, woodwork, and metalwork fashioned by local boy Mucha and others.

Pickled bratwurst anyone?  Not the best picture in the world, but let’s face it: sausage isn’t exactly Marilyn Monroe.  This version is a humble pub opener, served with pimiento inside the slit and pickled onions.

And I wouldn’t be me without a picture of the local pickles.  They’re a little bit sweet, and these were spicy.  I brought some pickled tiny yellow pattypan squash to a party last night, and they were delicious.  Good thing I’m growing pattypans.

Stinky cheese.  It has to stand alone, because of the smell.  Another childhood riddle solved.

Beer. What can I say about beer?  It flows in the streets, especially at 5 in the morning when the college students stagger back to their (my) hostel.  But until then, it’s a happy experience.  The usual serving is a third of a liter, and they bring it out in giant mugs.  I haven’t tried the dark beer one of my colleagues had here at one of the many Italian restaurants yet, but I will.  It’s been hard to break away from the standard Pilsner Urquell, a beer that tastes completely different here.

Next up…street food!


For those of you who missed it this week, check out my latest Eugene Weekly Chow! article on Oregon strawberries.  I’m still in Prague, but my husband instant-messaged me from Eugene the other day telling me that he had to make a strawberry fruit salad for a party.  So he went out and bought a flat of strawberries.  Now, any canning enthuiast knows that a flat makes a double batch of jam, or a big bag full of frozen berries, or a good few cups of dried ones.  But he doesn’t know how to do any of these things, so I encouraged him to clean and hull the berries, slice them in half, pour a bit of sugar on them, and let them sit for a couple of hours in the refrigerator.  Just before serving, toss in a bit of Grand Marnier and chopped mint.   Serve with whipped cream.

And MORE rain?  What’s up with that?

culinaria eugenius in transit

Somewhat miraculously, I made it.  I can’t even begin to describe the clusterf@#$ flying internationally this year has turned out to be.  But I made it.  I’m in Prague.  My bag wisely decided to remain in Seattle, though.

Some good moments:

The flight from PDX to SEA was on the really cool new Q400 “greener” planes.  I guess the propeller makes them conserve fuel.  I had a smack dab in the middle view of it, and the whirring was mesmerizing.  Plus, I could get great shots of Seattle.

And by the way, green Horizon, thanks for being the only exemplary leg of the journey.  Props to you not only for the plane but for a free goddamn glass of wine from a local winery and those pretzels-studded-with-ranch-rice-crackers that I like.

And thanks to you, too, Amsterdam.  Your airport does not suck, even with the tiff we had and the long run from one end to the other, dodging obstacles and customs officials.  I couldn’t have been happier when you rerouted me electronically (even on a different airline)! And you gave me a 50-euro voucher for another KLM flight, plus 10 free euros worth of lox roll, goldfish crackers, and a nice glass of chablis at Bubbles Seafood and Wine Bar.  Plus, I really had fun browsing the seeds in your tulip shop.  And…

O hai delicious gouda cheese crackers and salty, spicy, black-as-used-up coal licorice bricks called Old Timers Salmiak Klinkers. I agree that having a big delicatessen in the middle of the airport, complete with a giant wall of cheese and sausage and softly smoked and cured fish, is a great idea.  Wish I could have bought more.  The salmiak klinkers DELIVERED.

I’m not nearly as fond of the Your Luggage is Sleepless in Seattle toiletries pack provided by Czech Airlines.  Only in Europe would you find such a thing without shampoo or soap.  And the little bottle with a navy cap is tiny roll on deodorant, made in China as a product of France.  No offense, but two countries not exactly known for their deodorant.  I will be able to take off my makeup (silver pack) and shave (razor and cream) to my heart’s content, though.

Today: shopping!  More adventures to come.  Wish me luck.