In Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, discover the top brews that make the perfect food pairing
When it comes to food, we typically look to wine for the perfect pair. But, in the capital of the Czech Republic, I’ve discovered that Pilsner brews make the best companion.
There are some things that, as a traveller, you must accept. Some things, no matter how mainstream you may think, must be done. That’s why I’m standing among the throngs on the Charles Bridge. The expanse straddles the Vltava River, joining the old town to the new, but separating it just enough so the grande dame maintains an air of mystery. And mysterious she is. Before I unravel her, I must cross the river, the bridge. But this is not a bridge you sprint. It is for meandering, for observing, for absorbing. Locals, travellers and, yes, tourists all do the same.
Sculptures line the bridge, each inviting inspection, each of the more than 50 religious figures standing guard over the old town, all since the 14th century. Carved in stone, chiseled faces are yet animated. Eyes intense, returning my gaze, daring me to move on. Muscles flexed, vestments draped in a way that the wind may have swept them just so. Baroque architects took its building seriously: 16 arches curve below my feet, balancing the river’s flow with the tide of people that cross it above daily. When Charles IV commissioned it, the intention was for knightly pursuits, jousting competitions, games of war, on a clear, stone playing field. But, when Catholicism ruled the day, some 200 years later, artists were employed to forever immortalise the pious in stone.
But I must move on. A hunger for history has given way to an appetite piqued. The towers that herald my arrival at the old town are as awesome as the bridge itself, and only hint at the architectural jewel yet to be revealed. The narrow, cobbled streets curve, macaron-pastels soft wash the buildings, so well preserved I feel I could be lost in a time warp. And that’s okay. My appetite is looking for a different taste now, one that’s been synonymous with Central Europe, and particularly the Czech Republic.
In Prague, and most of the rest of this country, the pious embarked on entrepreneurial endeavours. But it was not the grape that enticed them. Their brothers to the south may have done very well for themselves teasing the vine of its fruit and its subsequent juice, but here, the fields were, and still are, hops and wheat and barley. Grains were the currency, and malt and brew the art. Here beer, which some consider the oldest alcoholic drink, is measured at a level of fine wines.
Old it may be, but in Prague, mastering the art of brewing Pilsner is a rather youthful pursuit. First brewed in the Czech town of Pilsen in the 1800s, this lager is the product of citizens and brewers forming their own brewer’s guild. Its characteristics remain the same today: a clear liquid of a light golden colour, with a grassy, hoppy, crisp taste on the palette. Not to be outdone, the monks of Prague had their own ideas, and had been brewing their own, well, brew, since the 1400s at their home, the Strahov Monastery. Fast-forward to the new millennium, and it’s now the Monastic Brewery, run by brewmasters, but housed in the same buildings. There’s a restaurant, too, and here we begin our lesson in beer pairings.
Beer pairing #1: Where’s the Beef?
In Prague, everywhere. And if it’s not beef, it’s most likely pork. A real meat-and-potatoes palette, the Czech taste for sauces, creams and mayonnaises helps escape the run-of-the-mill. Dumplings, or knedliky, are as ubiquitous as potatoes, and are very useful in sopping up the sauce from the meats. Cold cuts and dips are also common beer hall pairings – the Strahov Monastic Brewery will set an assortment out while tasting the amber lager. There’s a dark beer, too, and this is the place to try it.
Beer pairing #2: Goulash
Yes it’s from Hungary but the Czechs don’t discriminate if there’s a stew, particularly their own brand of Goulash soup, which they sometimes serve in a bread bowl, or just with hunks of rich, brown bread. Again, the vessel with which the sauce is sopped up is as key as the main dish itself. If Goulash is too rich for your tastes, choose a classic Czech soup, or polevka, made with onions or, if you’re stocked up on breath mints, try the garlic soup.
Beer pairing #3: Cheese and Pickles
Not to be confused with the Greek saganaki, this fried soft cheese is usually paired with baked potatoes and a tartar-like sauce. No need to shout Opa! when it arrives at the table. Just order another Pilsner, which cuts the saltiness of the cheese perfectly.
Can’t decide? Fortunately, the brains behind many traditional restaurants around the city also take out a bit of the pairing legwork. Look on the menu for “Proti velké Rizeni,” loosely translated as “against great thirst and hunger,” for the establishment’s house-made pickled cheeses and pickled sausages.
Want even more history? Head to U Fleků, Prague’s oldest beer hall. You may even be regaled by roving entertainers, who sing their way through the castle-sized hall, which is actually made up of a series of cavernous rooms all set with great-room-length wooden tables. Convivial and communal, the atmosphere is beer-soaked local charm.
A final word. Don’t be fooled by the word “salad” on a menu. This is not the leafy, green fare that you and I may favour. In Prague, if you order salad, it will be doused in mayonnaise, or some other creamy sauce.
And why not? It’s just the thing to fuel you up for another stroll across the Charles Bridge.