Hooray! We are on “us travels” as the beloved likes to say when he is trying to return to his northern roots. The house and garden have been submitted to the tender loving care of my little brother and his family for their holidays (I suspect my adorable nieces will be heartily sick of the words “don’t touch” by the time they go home), and we have headed off to Mittel Europa (Central Europe) – the world of Kaffee und Kuchen, Schlagsahne, fabulous bread and hearty meals liable to glue your arteries together in less than 2 sittings.
The journey starts in Prague, then heads to Dresden, up to Berlin and finally Rügen (an island north of Stralsund) on the Baltic coast for a few days downtime and a break from the sightseeing and gallery visiting that forms a major part of “us travels”. What will also form part of the journey is as many ventures into the local baking produce that the waistline can bear. This being Mittel Europa I had high hopes when we booked the holiday of much baking inspiration.
So Prague first. I visited Prague back in 1993 for a job interview (I didn’t get the job – being late for the interview due to a failed alarm call, can’t have helped my cause much) and thought it was enchanting then – albeit a bit run down. The city came through World War II without the bomb or artillery damage inflicted on so many other cities in the area, and the lack of money and interest on the part of the communists meant that the ghastly redevelopment mistakes made over most of the developed world in the 60’s and 70’s in the so called name of progress (something the Germans marvellously call a “Bausünde” – a “Construction Sin”) , never took place. I swore to come back, but for some reason it never happened.
When I visited in 1993 I had little time but to wander the streets and cross the iconic Charles Bridge, all done with very few people around. The Charles Bridge, was virtually deserted. Not now. It is a major tourist destination (and at weekends also a stag party one for large groups of British and German men making strange bellowing noises to each other indulging in strange all male heterosexual bonding rituals which will forever remain a mystery to me). The streets are full of tourists (but no cars!), restaurants, bars, coffee shops and the inevitable tourist orientated knick knack shops.
The crowds were not that oppressive, and any regret about not going back sooner was firmly cancelled out by the loving restoration of the city that has happened in the intervening years. The iconic Unesco view of Prague Castle was the most symbolic difference. When I was there in ‘93 it was covered in dull grey plaster and was obviously in need of a bit of attention. Now it shines in pastel colours, and trompe l’oueil decoration, and it is all restored to its former glory. The city in our opinion rivals Rome in its beauty and the buildings are a joy just to stare up at. Every one seems to have some adornment ranging from 18th Century Baroque flourishes to Art Nouveau (this is the home of Alphons Mucha after all) figures clambering up the walls or supporting door ways and balconies. We will be going back – hopefully not leaving a 23 year gap this time.
And what of the baked produce? Well we are firmly in Mittel Europa territory here with crusty rye and caraway loaves, lovely fresh breakfast rolls, streusel topped slices, creamy sponge confections and baked cheesecakes in pastry cases. We had breakfast on our last morning in the beautifully restored Café Savoy and you can see from their cake vitrine the Central European gorgeousness of it all.
I also got terribly excited by the gingerbread shop on the way up to the castle from the Charles Bridge who had this little wonder displayed in their window which I shall definitely be trying my hand at for Christmas.
It is all very much the sort of thing you will find all over Austria and Germany as well and while it is wonderful, it is not uniquely Czech. What certainly is uniquely Czech (well Czech and Slovak with slightly different versions in Hungary and Germany – this is the melting pot of Mittel Europa after all) is the Trdlnik (pronounce Trrrrd’lnik – how can a 7 letter word have only 1 vowel???). These are made and sold from small stalls all over the town and obviously hugely popular with queues of people lining up at the more popular venues even late at night.
At their simplest they are served with the inside smeared with nutella, melted chocolate or jam. But you can also have them filled with ice cream and/or (usually and) whipped cream. I stuck with the nutella and it was absolutely delicious.
So what are they? Well – you take a piece of enriched dough, roll it into a long ribbon, wrap it around a wooden stick called Trdlo, roll it in ground walnuts and sugar, and then spit roast it over a coal fire until a deep golden brown. All very simple really – and because most of us don’t tend to have a way to spit roast over a coal fire, virtually impossible to make at home. I found one recipe on the internet which suggested using a barbecue but it did not say where you can find a fireproof cylinder from especially if using it on a barbecue, nor the means to turn it continuously for 20 minutes. So if you want one I am afraid you will just have to go to Prague yourself to get one. I can certainly promise that you will love every moment of your trip.
We are off to Dresden next – a city that certainly didn’t get through the war unscathed or avoid the excess of communist neglect and development. Watch this space for Chapter 2 of “us travels”.