How CZ cuisine has taught me to appreciate game meat
During Sunday lunch at a Czech family friend’s house a couple of weeks ago, we were served králičí svíčková (rabbit with dumplings in a creamy, vegetable sauce), a twist on the traditional Czech svíčková which uses beef tenderloin instead of rabbit. Years ago if someone had told me that I’d be eating rabbit with a smile on my face, I wouldn’t have believed him.
But I’ve lived in the Czech Republic long enough to know that wild meat and game are common on Czech dinner tables, particularly in autumn and winter. In addition to chicken and beef, Czech meat-dishes include pork, goose, duck, rabbit and lamb as well as wild game like boar, venison, pheasant and hare. Much of the zvěřina (game meat) is acquired locally from farmers’ markets or from a friend or family member who hunts or raises animals for meat.
The rabbit meat at our lunch was on a platter separate from the sauce, so that guests could choose the pieces they preferred. While my husband went for the livers, kidneys and head meat, which our friends had prepared especially for him, I picked a lean piece that looked a bit like chicken.
Once he glimpsed the rabbit skull on Radek’s plate, Oliver begged to touch it. Fascinated by the bony skeleton, he began to tug on the rabbit’s front teeth, trying to pull them out. The host father brought pliers, and Oliver pulled the teeth out one by one. Much to his wife’s dismay, our host then brought alcohol to soak the teeth, followed by twine and wire to make a tooth necklace for Oliver. I’m not sure how much rabbit meat Oliver consumed; it looked like he ate only the sauce and dumplings. But by his proclamation, it was the best lunch he’d ever had.
Growing up, I thought that meat came in two varieties – chicken and beef. Chicken was pink-colored breast meat sold in oblong, Saran-wrapped packages at the local supermarket. Beef was reddish-white, wormy squiggles wrapped in plastic and sold in the meat department. Around 4 o’clock most weekday afternoons, my mother started dinner preparations. She’d boil the chicken breasts or fry the ground beef. After she’d rendered the meat to its cooked state, she’d add it to spaghetti sauces and casseroles. Sometimes we’d have pork chops, boneless and breaded, but since the pork meat was white, I thought it was just different-tasting chicken. There was nothing about the meat that we ate as a child that ever brought images of the live animal to my mind.
When it was time for me to cook for myself, I stuck to student fare like pasta, canned tuna fish and frozen pizza. Before I had much of a cooking repertoire, I moved to the Czech Republic.
Finding stray hairs on supermarket-bought chicken legs, bones in breast meat labeled “boneless” and discovering that a whole chicken was sold with the neck meat included, were discoveries that nearly turned me into a vegetarian. For the first five years I lived in the Czech Republic, I didn’t go to the butcher’s shop; I bought all my meat from the supermarket, plastic-wrap intact. I remember overhearing another American commenting that she preferred not to know where her meat had come from, or at least not to see the traces of its former animal life. I agreed.
Little by little, however, the Czech tradition of serving meat-based dishes from sources beyond prepackaged pieces of chicken or beef began to influence the way I ate. At weekend lunches with friends, I tried králičí stehna na česneku se špenátem (rabbit’s leg with garlic and spinach). The rabbit meat was leaner than chicken and the garlicky spinach complemented the meat. My mother-in-law’s pečená kachna s červeným zelím (roasted duck with red cabbage) became my winter favorite, although, much to her dismay, I always passed the outer layer of duck skin to my husband who didn’t mind its fatty texture. I sampled roasted goose during St. Martin’s Day Feast on November 11, an ancient festival that signified the changing of seasons and coming of winter.
After a day of outdoor exercise in the brisk autumn air, the hearty Czech meat dishes were filling and tasty, especially paired with a glass of harvest wine or a freshly drafted Czech beer. It was easier to encourage my children to sample different meats if they saw me trying them as well. I also learned to appreciate the communal aspects of food preparation I saw in Czech villages and neighborhoods.
At my first zabíjačka (pig slaughter) many autumns ago I saw Czech meat culture and village life at its height. Although the pig slaughter tradition is scarcer nowadays, due to more strict EU regulations and the changing way of modern life, back in the early 2000s it was still a ritual in villages and on collective farms. Our friend’s father worked in a dairy collective. During harvest season, he and his neighbors would gather in the communal garden behind his apartment building for the annual event.
After the pig was slaughtered at the dairy, boiling water was poured over the carcass to remove the hair. Then the carcass was hung vertically on a pole in the garden where it was gutted. For the men, the meat preparation involved cutting and portioning off all the usable meat, skin and innards. Neighborhood women worked together in the apartment house’s communal basement making jitrnice (sausage made from pig livers) and tlačenka (head cheese). They prepared soup and škvarky (pork cracklings) and set aside cutlets to be made into řízky (schnitzel). Although I ventured into the basement to offer my help, once I encountered the blood and the smell, I decided to go for a walk instead. The work lasted all day, but each person who helped came away from the slaughter with enough food for a family feast.
Now that we live in a village next door to Czechs who cook game meat, our neighbors invite us for weekend meals of kančí guláš (wild boar goulash) and srnčí řízky (venison schnitzel). The meat comes from our neighbor’s home village where his parents still farm and raise animals. Both dishes are delicacies I’ve yet to taste in a Czech restaurant – the goulash is spicy with flavorful chunks of lean boar meat and the venison schnitzel is stuffed with onions and tangy mustard for a tart, sophisticated version of a standard schnitzel.
When it’s our turn to host the neighbors, I serve a spicy hot spinach-artichoke appetizer or a cold broccoli, bacon and raisin salad. I make guacamole and hummus dips with chocolate chip cookies for dessert. I can’t compete with Czech meat dishes, but I try to give our neighbors a taste of something that’s new for them too.
A couple of days after Oliver made his rabbit’s tooth necklace, I met the host father in front of the children’s school. He pulled a plastic bag from his jacket pocket. Inside was one-half of a wild boar’s jaw bone that his father-in-law had given him. He told me to take it home, boil it and give it to Oliver to explore. Although there was a part of me that didn’t want to touch it, I’m glad that my children are learning where the meat that’s on their plates comes from. What they decide to cook, someday, will be entirely up to them.
If you’re eager to sample wild game (and you don’t have a mother-in-law or a neighbor who is willing to prepare it for you), the restaurant U Modré kachničky “At the Blue Duckling” is a top choice in Prague for duck and other game meat prepared the traditional Czech way. They have two downtown locations and offer a tasting menu.
During the months of October and November, look out for special seasonal menus at local pubs and castle restaurants featuring game specialties and St. Martin’s wine in honor of St. Martin’s Day on November 11.