Posted Saturday, September 10, 2016 at 8:30am by Darren Baker
Autumn in the Czech Republic -Mushrooms, young wine and hog’s ass soup
Autumn in the Czech Republic - Mushrooms, young wine and hog’s ass soup
The Czech word for autumn is podzim, literally “under winter” as in before it. Like most places, it’s a time of colorful outbursts as the leaves begin to change and children despair of going back to school. There is no Labor Day in this country to mark the beginning of it. That falls on May 1st, the day generally recognized around the world for the celebration of Work. Here around the start of autumn, you will find dožínky, a celebration of the harvest. People gather to drink, listen to music, see and be seen, do pretty much everything except hauling in the hay.
A really nice place to go when autumn is upon you is South Moravia. That’s the winegrowing region of the country and September is the time to try what is called burčák. It’s the young wine, that initial stage of fermentation that gives it a nice, fruity flavor but looks a hell of a lot like dishwater. You can drink it in the cellars or outdoors, usually in groups with a guitar and several dodgy voices, people smoking and chattering away if they don’t know the words, then nodding off to sleep wherever they happen to be. If it’s a Friday, they get up for a walk among the castle ruins that dot the landscape before repeating the previous night all over again.
The heartier souls might move on to another gathering in autumn known as zabijačka, which comes from the word zabit, or to kill. It’s actually a local butchering of the hog that has a job for everyone who wants fresh pork chops and sausages. One of the attractions is drinking slivovice, or plum brandy, throughout the occasion. It keeps you warm and fortifies those with an aversion to blood. You can bet they will not be among those eating the blood soup for lunch that day called prdelanka. That’s a tough one to translate, but “hog’s ass soup” might work. Check out the movie Postřižiny (1980) to get a feel for the atmosphere of it. Don’t worry you won’t understand the dialogue. What there is of it comes from a crazy uncle shouting nonsense, anyway.
One celebration that is becoming more popular this season is Halloween. It hasn’t reached the point of kids going door-to-door asking for treats, just costume parties in schools and wherever teenagers hang out. At first this custom was derided as another American import, but nothing is more sacred to childhood than the chance to get all dressed up and scare the hell out of somebody.
The problem with Halloween is it falls too closely to Statehood Day, October 28th, when Czechoslovakia was carved out of the ruins of World War I in 1918. It’s tough to teach these kids a little patriotic fervor when all they can think about is vampires, ghouls and zombies. On the other hand, it fits right in because the Czechs go to the cemetery the next day, November 1st, for their version of Memorial Day. They light candles for their beloved departed, an incredible sight at night, and gather for a family reunion if the occasion permits. But All Saints Day, as it is known, ain’t no holiday.
The same might soon go for Statehood Day, because it’s about a country that no longer exists. After the Czechs and Slovaks peacefully parted company in 1993, a move got underway to find a distinctly Czech national holiday. The result is St. Václav Day on September 28th. He is known in English by the Latin rendition of his name, Wenceslas, hence the name of that familiar boulevard in Prague with the statue of the guy on the horse in front of the National Museum. That’s him, a bold image that belies his demise in 935 AD, when a group of nobles led by his brother hacked him to death as he attempted to flee into a church. He was trying to reach sanctuary there, but the priest shut the door on him. The murder made a martyr out of him, apparently a popular one too, because he’s the very Good King Wenceslas from the Christmas carol, one incidentally unknown in this country.
The thing about holidays in this country is they count only on the day they occur. There are no guarantees of a three-day weekend, but looking at the calendar for this year of 2016, Statehood Day falls on a Friday. Even better news is that St. Václav falls on a Thursday. Take one of your own vacation days from work that Friday and you’ve got yourself a four-day weekend.
That is indeed good news because the forecast says the beautiful sunny weather will last at least until the end of September. Looks like we’re going to have an Indian summer, or what the Czechs call “granny summer” (babí leto). Supposedly it got its name from the gray hair of little old ladies resembling cobwebs. I don’t get the connection, and nobody I know here does, either. Maybe they got it backwards and are confusing Indian summer for spring cleaning.
In any case granny summer is really popular in these parts because it means an extension of the harvest season. I’m not talking about hay or music festivals or young wine, but mushrooms. However you might want to explain it, the collection and consumption of wild fungi is an absolute passion here. People get up early in the morning, go to their favorite spot in the woods, and start scouring the camouflage in search of them. Don’t ask me why, but some of them even wear camouflage, as if they’re afraid some big wild mushroom is going to ambush them. But be warned. If you happen to be on their favorite spot, you could get ambushed, too.
This is a pleasure if you are thirsty and a great one if you are very thirsty! ‘Czech for Beer’
We visit 6 breweries, enjoy Czech specialties and more.
A humorous serial on Czech the Children by Darren Baker, on raising kids in a bilingual family, you can read them here.
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