Czech food in the spotlight, again


A friend of my wife’s once said the good thing about the Czech Republic is that wherever you go from here, the food is always better. That’s probably no longer true, if it ever was, but Czechs have certainly had a tough time adapting the often appalling communist-era fare into a modern cuisine. But in some ways, such as in the quality of groceries, Czechs are still stuck in the past.

Photo: archive of Radio PraguePhoto: archive of Radio Prague I would never have thought I would once turn into a patriotic shopper. I carefully read the labels when shopping for groceries and often go for Czech products rather than those imported from another part of the world. My concern here is more environmental than patriotic but I also sometimes buy Czech out of nostalgia. The soft drink Kofola, for example, or the flavoured cottage cheese called termix and pribináček, the various kinds of salami and other foodstuffs popular during the communist era have seen a massive comeback.

During my teens, everything that came from the West was automatically considered better than anything made here or in other Soviet-bloc countries, from cars and electronics to clothes and food. In the late 1980s, when the communist authorities opened a chain of stores called Eso that sold Western food there were always long lines of people eager to get a taste of something superior.

In recent years, the Czech Republic has seen a renewed focus on food and its quality. There has been a boom in farmers’ markets selling local produce. People watch TV cooking shows and read restaurant reviews while many cities have developed interesting culinary scenes. People behind the Prague Food Festival now organize gourmet trips to other parts of the country to enjoy the variety and innovation offered in local eateries.

But it appears that the good food revolution has only taken place in Prague and other big cities, and only affected the restaurant industry rather than grocery stores. The on-ongoing dispute over the quality of Polish food imports to the Czech Republic has shown that for most Czechs, quality is far less important than price. The weekly Respekt quoted a spokeswoman for a leading Czech supermarket chain who said that cheap, low-quality sausages sell about ten times as much as similar products with a higher, 40 percent content of meat.

I do most of my grocery shopping in supermarkets in downtown Prague. With one notable exception, their fruit and vegetables, meat and diary products as well as bread and other items are inferior compared to those sold in an outlet of a British supermarket chain on Wenceslas Square.

It will be interesting to see when the food revolution also improves the quality of the groceries. But that will probably only come with time, when people are able to afford higher quality, and start putting quality over quantity. As sociologist Stanislav Biler recently noted, most Czechs are not concerned about how to make an espresso correctly but how to pay their bills without facing foreclosure.