The late Václav Havel is famous around the world as a statesman and symbol of human rights and democracy. Rather less well-known is that Havel was also a very enthusiastic cook. This year many of the dissident-turned-president’s recipes were gathered in a rather delightful cookbook entitled Kančí na daňčím (Wild Boar on Venison).
Alongside the title dish, it contains recipes for such fare as Intensive Soup, another soup named Lukashenko’s Wrath, further amusing concoctions and Havel’s own twist on several old school Czech classics.
The cookbook has been put together by Michael Žantovský and collective. Žantovský served as President Havel’s spokesman, was Czech ambassador to the US, Israel and the UK and is now director of the Václav Havel Library. At the institution’s offices in downtown Prague, he explained how the unusual publication came about.
“I had known Václav Havel quite closely when he was alive, and not only in our working together but as a friend, for a long time.
“I knew about his keen interest in matters culinary and on occasion I even cooked with him for friends and various events.
“And in our archives [at the Václav Havel Library] we also have a number of his handwritten recipes and the memories of other people who saw him cook or shared meals with him.
“So it occurred to me that it might make a nice little brochure.
“It eventually developed into a cookbook and it’s been very successful – it’s in its second printing now and we’re quite pleased about it.”
How good was Václav Havel as a cook?
“As with all chefs, opinions differed.
“Sometimes there was criticism that he was too creative. Especially in the last 10 minutes of cooking a meal – and then it was best to keep him away from the stove.”
“He was an enthusiastic cook. He was an inspired and creative cook.
“Sometimes there was criticism that I know existed: He was too creative.
“Especially in the last 10 minutes of cooking a meal – and then it was best to keep him away from the stove.”
Did he add too many spices or whatever?
“Yes. He had ideas. That was his creative instinct
“And sometimes too many ideas are too much of a good thing.”
Looking through the book, one thing that struck me was that he must have had to improvise a lot, as did probably everybody in those days, because there were so fewer ingredients available. In a sense it seemed to me like a kind of “Communist cookbook”, because I presume he stopped cooking in 1990?
“Yes. We actually wanted to bring back to our readers, especially to the younger readers, the atmosphere of making a meal during the Communist era, where there were quite few ingredients on the market and one never which would be available the next day.
“So there was a lot of improvisation, a lot of substitution.
“But even then, and I experienced it myself, people were able to make memorable dinners.”
Was he really interested in food? Or was he more interested in the social aspect and dining with larger groups?
“He was a very modest eater himself and when he was alone made do with very simple meals.
“But he loved cooking for friends and he could be very elaborate about preparing social dinners.
“He always wrote and sometimes illustrated his own menus to go with the dinners, and he thought of various symbolic elements to make a dinner a comprehensive event.
“So, yes, he gave it quite a lot of thinking and time – and that’s why he was quite popular as a cook.”
Even before reading this cookbook I had heard that he was famous for his goulash, that he used to make large pots of goulash when he had many visitors at [country residence] Hrádeček. What was it about his version that stood out from the standard goulash?
“You’re right. His most famous oeuvre as a chef was what he called a Burgundy goulash.
“As the name implies, it differs from the usual Czech goulash in having red wine as the essential ingredient.
“There were also a number of other ingredients: red currant, marmalade or jam, a larger number of spices than we usually use, and finally – and most controversially – a portion of whipped cream added to the product at the end, which I’m in two minds about myself.
“Also sausages and other spicing additions. It was a very elaborate goulash.
“In most restaurants and families goulash is rather a simple meal – this was a goulash on steroids.”
“He always wrote and sometimes illustrated his own menus to go with the dinners, and he thought of various symbolic elements to make a dinner a comprehensive event.”
But this goulash on steroids, this Burgundy goulash, is different from the “federal goulash” referred to in the book?
“Yes, the federal goulash was one of the meals we cooked together, actually, and it was a part of his deep-felt but eventually unsuccessful efforts to keep the Czechoslovak Federation together.
“One of the occasions of bringing together the leading representatives of the Czech and Slovak political parties and institutions, at his country place in Hrádeček, he had the idea that we would cook a goulash for them to adorn the table and to bring them to a good negotiating mood, along with a bottle of slivovitz that he kept aside for exactly this purpose.
“And because we did not have time enough to do a very elaborate goulash, we did a simpler version of his favourite recipe.
“Actually I labelled it ‘federal goulash’. I don’t think it originally had a name, but that’s what it was.”
What was “Hradčany duck”, also featured in the book?
“Duck is a Czech cuisine staple.
“We all like it and we all make it, usually on more festive occasions.
“During his time as president, Václav Havel hosted a number of foreign statesmen, such as Chancellor Kohl of Germany, and he treated him to duck.
“He treated Boris Yeltsin to duck, although it was in a restaurant.
“It was served at Hradčany, at the Castle, when he was president, quite often.
“But this name in the cookbook again comes from me, because we had this idea of cooking the duck in the house that Havel was born in, which is on the bank of the river, and then we photographed it with the background of the Hradčany Castle in the picture.
The title of the book Kančí na daňčím translates as “wild boar on venison”, so it’s one kind of meat on another?
“Yes. It’s one kind of wild game on another kind of wild game.
“This name comes directly from Havel. He used it repeatedly.
“For him it embodied the idea of an aristocratic, high cuisine meal.
“So whenever there was a visit planned by a foreign statesperson or a king or someone, Havel usually said, Well, we will have to do something special, we will have to do kančí na daňčím for them.
“We loved the phrase – it’s a beautiful phrase – but no-one ever cooked it, no-one ever made it.
“But since the name already existed, we thought we might just as well make it a reality.
“We did and I recommend it. It’s actually very nice.”
Was Václav Havel at all concerned about eating healthily? At the back of the book there are some notes including diary entries where he says that he’s going on a diet, and there are several of these entries. But if you look at the book, most of the food in it isn’t conducive to weight loss.
“You’re absolutely right.
“But in those days very few people thought in terms of healthy diets.
“There was so little choice that one was happy to have any diet at all.
“Classical Czech foods, as with most foods that are based on originally peasant cuisine, consisted of quite heavy ingredients, not really recommended usually by dieticians.
“He always asked for a bouillon or a type of clear soup, because during his five years in prison he was treated too often to a diet of those thick soups containing all kinds of unidentifiable ingredients, and he hated it.”
“He was so used to it that even after the changes in 1989 and after he became president, and could have his choice of foods and meals, he still stuck to this kind of food.
“Even his attempts at dieting were only half-successful.
“We cite a little story where he dieted for a day or two and ended up by foraging in the fridge late at night and eating head cheese or whatever it was.”
We’ve all been there!
“Yes, we have [laughs].”
I understand that he liked to eat for lunch to eat soup, but only soup, whereas a lot of Czechs have soup before a main course at lunch?
“Well, it was not just a soup that he liked to have, it was a clear soup.
“The clarity of the soup was quite important to him, so he always asked for a bouillon or a type of clear soup, because during his five years in prison he was treated too often to a diet of those thick soups containing all kinds of unidentifiable ingredients, and he hated it.
“So that’s why he asked for clear soup.
“And he was not a big eater, at least in the second half of his life. So for him, the soup was enough.
“For some of his colleagues, because the soups were often served at the Castle during staff meetings, to save time… there were some colleagues who could have had a little more food for lunch.
“But that was not to be.”
For me the best dish title in the book is Lukašenkův hněv, which means Lukashenko’s Wrath or Lukashenko’s Rage. What is that?
“I didn’t know for a long time that it existed, but when we made it known on our Facebook or somewhere that we were in the process of preparing the cookbook, a gentleman from Brno came up with a handwritten Havel recipe for Lukashenko’s Rage, or Wrath.
“I couldn’t believe in the beginning that he was serious, because the soup contains large quantities and large pieces of everything from cabbage through beef and sausage and beet and all kinds of things. And smoked meat too.
“So I doubted it could be done.
“But we thought, Why not try it?
“It’s heavy but it’s also spicy. So you can get it down and if you have it once every six months, it’s a recommendable part of your diet.”
And why Lukashenko?
“I think he was one of Havel’s favourite politicians to hate. So that’s why.”
The strangest dish in the book is Ledinky na cibulce, Ice Cubes on Onions, though I hadn’t known that word, ledinky, for ice cubes before.
“I have to apologise here, because it’s based on a pun which, unfortunately, is not translatable.
“‘Ledvinky na cibulce’, which means kidneys on fried onions, is again one of the staple Czech meals that we’ve all been fed as children and in school cafeterias and so on.
“During the time that Havel was in prison and his wife Olga organised a group of friends called the Tomb [Hrobka] group, who specialised in all in kinds of pranks, one of the members wrote a recipe for the group’s monthly newsletter for ‘Ledinky na cibulce’, which originated from dropping one consonant from the word for kidneys.
“All of a sudden it meant ice pieces or ice cubes on friend onions.
“He apparently became the victim of a rather complex intrigue on the part of the villagers and the pub owner, all designed to drive the price of the pig up.”
“So we also made that [for the book].
“It’s a very simple meal. It’s not very fattening. And it’s not very demanding on ingredients, if you have a fridge.”
There’s also a section on zabijačka, or pig killing. Was Václav Havel an enthusiast for pig killings?
“He definitely was not. But he got involved in a zabijačka on his wife’s 54th birthday.
“He decided to present her with a whole pig and the killing of the pig for her birthday.
“But he had trouble finding and buying the pig near the country house where the celebration was to take place.
“And in the end he apparently became the victim of a rather complex intrigue on the part of the villagers and the pub owner in the village, all designed to drive the price of the pig up.
“But eventually he succeeded.
“He brought in friends from the Tomb group and other dissidents to help with preparing the pig products, which is a very elaborate affair that I’d rather not go into.
“But his role then was limited to writing a rather sweet piece which is The Hunt for a Pig.”
That’s a one-act play?
“It’s in the form of a fictional interview with a reporter from a Western news agency who doesn’t know a thing about zabijačkas or pigs or anything like that and he spends 15 or 20 minutes asking about the whole event, which Havel very patiently describes, only to ask about Mikhail Gorbachev in the end, to which Havel replies quite impolitely.
“We love the piece. We produced it a couple of times at the Library for our audiences and in the cookbook we have photographs from that weekend with the whole crew holding a white pudding some 25 metres long.
“It’s a very bizarre picture.”
The book is into its second print run already. Have people do you think been using it as an actual cookbook? Or are they more just reading it for fun?
“Well, it’s not designed to be your guide for everyday cooking, but you can cook from it and people have and they’re telling us that they tried this or that and that they were quite happy with it.
“We are now on the verge of a new adventure, because a Polish publisher wants to publish a Polish edition of the cookbook.
“So eventually I think it might be not just The Power of the Powerless but also Havel’s cooking that will conquer the world.”
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