Czech It Off the Bucketlist

              Ahhh the Czech Republic, add it to the list of my most favorite places and ones where I believe I could live for the rest of my life.  Cool weather (finally!), meat and potatoes dinners, beer (lots of cheap, good beer) and a landscape that reminds me of North Idaho.  Add to that the country is incredibly inexpensive and the amount of history overflowing everywhere you look, I was swoon.  My poor classmates must have heard me mention about 4,000 times how much I loved that country.  In my book, our study trip to South Moravia, in the south east Czech Republic, was my favorite.

              I have been to the Czech Republic once before, a weekend trip to Prague and Cesky Krumlov while studying abroad in Torino in the spring of 2014.  It was my initial infatuation with the gorgeous country.  But when they told us in April that we would be spending a week exploring the gastronomy of the Moravian countryside, I was elated.  After one of the hottest summers on record in Italy (and the trip to Calabria) this girl needed a week of low 70s, high 60s.  Scarves and jeans packed, I was ready for a country filled with comfort foods and beer.

 One of the best parts of the trip, however, happened in Italy.  The reunion of friends meeting at the bus.  This study trip was our first day “back to school”.  We had just spent the last month in all corners of the world, spread across Europe and as far around the world as India, Korea, and the US.  It was amazing, the group of adults that severely needed a break from one another at the end of July were joyous to finally hug each other once again.  It was a beautiful sight to be back together starting our last four months at UNISG

              After the reunion, we were off!  A bus to Milan, a flight to Bratislava, Slovakia, and then another bus into Mikulov, Czech Republic.  After a full day of traveling, we arrived in one of my new favorite places in the world.  After sorting into rooms, filling a sweet bed-and-breakfast type house to the brim, a group of us were off to the pub before dinner.  The evening was spent discovering steins of pilsner for 1,60 Euro, perfecting our cheers Boomerang for Instagram and tons of laughter, before heading off to our first (of many dinners) of patae, meat and potatoes, and wine.

              The week was lovely, five nights in Mikulov, a small but beautiful town of about 8,000 people, and Brno for the last two nights, a larger city of closer to 370,000.  No matter where we traveled, the countryside was filled with sights of home, from the deeply wooded foothills to the rolling farmhills that reminded me of the Palouse, and filled with the crisp air of fall.

              One of the best parts of having one of our study trips in the Czech Republic was the ability to see history’s impact on the local food system and their current growth phase.  Producers told stories of what their farms were like before the revolution, under communist rule, how the change affect their work and where they now stand as a republic.  The revolution was only about 40 years ago, so the affects are still palpable.  It gave a new lense to look at producers through, and the opportunity to see a food system at its infancy.

              The week was busy, but in my opinion very well balanced.  The first day in Mikulov, after breakfast we were on the bus and off to our first farm.  Down a road too small for the bus to traverse, we walked a sweet country road about 300 meters, through rolling hills of vineyards to a small cheese and wine producer.  Here we were able to view their cheese production, and (my favorite part, no surprise) the cheese staging room.  A whole room of aging cheese, it was heaven.

              This was the first of many wine tastings.  South Moravia (unannounced to us) has a huge history of wine-making, and believe it or not we were able to taste A LOT of it.  For most of us, it wasn’t our favorite as many were much more acidic than we were used to drinking.  Whether that was simply the terroir creating the acidic nature in the grapes or the evidence of vivivulture in its infancy, we couldn’t quite figure out.

After the morning farm, we were off to lunch.  All it said in the program was a “pork lunch” so we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.  The first course came out, plates of weird parts of pork.  Now, I will eat basically anything, but this was even hard for me to swallow.  After they mentioned tongue, heart and liver, I kindly asked to not know any more until I was done eating.  I worked through the plate and was rather proud by the end.  Then the next course came.  The rest of the meal was yummy soup, and more meat and potatoes before another apple strudel..  Whether I was actually full or simply exhausted from being a trooper in the first course, I couldn’t get much of the rest of the dinner down.

After lunch we were off to a vineyard for a wine tasting, and then done for the day.  An hour or two free for a rest and we were off to dinner.  The night was a dinner of duck, so more pate before an entire wing of duck and saurkrauet.  Not sure I have ever had duck before that meal, but I loved it afterwards. 

The next day was all about Gran Moravia, the Czech produced version of Grana Padano.  Owned by an Italian family and made according to the Grana Padano receipe, the name was different due to being produced outside the area defined by the government protections.  This gives them a bit more freedom to make changes as they see fit, so a bit more fat allowance in the cheese or extended seasoning times.  We spent the morning touring the factory as they made the daily cheese, and the afternoon at one of the dairy farms.  A lesson in taking a company’s marketing about the sustainability practices or animal welfare with a grain of salt until you know.  We had one idea in the morning, but were met with modern dairy farm practices in the end.  A good lesson in life outside the Pollenzo bubble.

Day three was a day of wine, starting at the National Wine Center and tasting about eight wines.  We then had a brief reprieve with a visit to a sunflower, rapeseed, and pumpkin seed oil producer and lunch.  Then to the Mikulov castle for an exhibit of Wine through the Ages, before walking through a rain storm to a small “wild” brewery.

 

Brewery here is a loose term.  A recently moved into small building that will one day be a wonderful brewery for this amazing beer, now is two small rooms with equipment.  It was a 20 minute walk to the original cellar for tastings of craft brewed.  Mamut beer started when our guide’s husband wanted to brew traditional lager style Czech beer and she agreed as long as she could make the spontaneously fermented lambic beer.  To put it simply, they excel at both.  Our host was so kind, bringing out beer jams and compotes she had created, and letting us taste about five different beers.  We left happy, tipsy, and with the left over beer forced into our hands.

Dinner was at a local pub and then home to sleep for the night. The next morning was our last full day in Mikulov and we were off early to one of the oldest industrial producers of wine in Moravia.  An interesting comparison to see with the small artisanal winemakers we had already visited.  It was also interesting to hear the history of the factory surviving pre and post communism and revolution.  When the factory is bottling it processes about 60,000 bottles a day.  A staggering number compared to the small producers, some of whom only make 7000 bottles a year.

Leaving the factory we were off to an organic, biodynamic farm, but first a stop at Plze an UNESCO World Heritage Site of historical wine cellars.  It looked like a tipsy, little Hobbit village and as we were having a walk through, we stumbled on a producer.  He was working with his wines, pulling samples with an old school syphon.  He said you know when the syphon is full if you are already drinking. With a taste and a story we were off again on the bus to the farm.

The farm was an amazing.  On the other side of small roads, construction and corners that I have no idea how the bus driver made in one turn, we had a small walk to reach it.  But when we arrived, we were greeted with warm broccoli soup, pork and sauerkraut, and traditional poppy seed sweets.  After lunch, the farmer showed us her place.  Owned by her grandparents before the communist rule, when it was taken over all they could do was sit and watch it be used to produce as much as possible with no regard for the land or sustainability.  Post revolution, her parents were given back part of the original farm.  Since she took it over, she has made the entire operation organic and is slowly buying back and renovating the farm plot by plot.  An amazing operation with livestock, farming of grains and cereals, and a closed circular model in all they do.

Walking back to the bus, we visited the cutest little distiller and one of the only in the Czech Republic still using wood heat.  After learning about his 200+ year old distillery, we tried everything from plum brandy to apple brandy and then he brought out the unadjusted alcohol content distillate.  After 68% alcohol tasting for the brave, we again left tipsy and happy (a bit of a theme for this study trip) for dinner.

The next morning, we left Mikulov and headed up to Brno about an hour away.  We arrived at the Kuliner Institute late morning for one of my favorite parts of the entire study trip, a cooking demonstration.  This institute was created to teach young people how to cook traditional Czech food, and cook we did.  In teams of three, we created each course under direction of the head chef before heading upstairs to the dining room to enjoy.  After eating we were back in the kitchen to make the next course.  Chicken pate, a potatoe based soup with a poached egg, perch (never thought I would miss fresh water fish so much) with a veggie base and mustard potato salad, and a dessert of apple strudel.  We spent probably four or five hours there, but I loved it!

The afternoon was exploring an urban garden project in the city of Brno before a couple hours of free time to explore the city center.  We reconvened for dinner and then back to the hotel for the night.  The following morning was a visit to the city farmers market, over 1000 years old, and the new market building.  With a few free minutes to explore the market, I found a donut!!! I ADORE DONUTS!!! I was so happy I could have cried.  Fluffy sweet dough, topped with a fresh raspberry tart frosting and freeze dried raspberries.  I was probably the happiest person in the world.

We spent the next few hours touring the Starobrno Brewery, an industrial brewery known throughout the region and country.  We had lunch after our tour and then were let loose for the rest of the day and evening.  I took my free time to explore the city on my own.  I love the study trips, but there is nothing like solo exploring for me.  I just feel alive.  I took off, and my first stop was actually Starbucks.  Ok I know, not the most sustainable choice.  But we don’t have any here, and sometimes you just want a big iced, white chocolate Americano.  So I bought my coffee and set out.

I spent a glorious few hours exploring and getting lost in Brno.  Stumbling on a gorgeous wedding in the cathedral.  I found a tower to climb for a breathtaking view of the city and landscape, and of course facetimed my mum from the top.  I originally intended to do a bit of shopping as well, but apparently all stores in Brno close at 1pm on Saturdays.  No one could really tell me why, but all the cute boutiques I wanted to see were closed.  So I headed back to the hotel to rest for an hour.  Then about ten of us were off to spend our free dinner eating Thai food.  It was again, glorious.

The next morning we were off on a long day of traveling back home.  It was a busy, fast, but wonderful week in Moravia.  There was so much knowledge to soak up about the impact of regime changes on the food industry, the differences between industrial and artisanal production in an evolving food system and the food traditions of the Czech Republic just in general.  I loved and was sad to leave the Czech Republic behind us.  I can’t wait until the next adventure back to the land of comfort food, steins of pilsner, and sweater weather.

On deck a post that is a bit of a change of pace, a bit more about residency, being an immigrant and American abroad. Enjoy your week.

-The Very Hungry Traveler

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