A few weeks ago I encountered culture shock. It hasn’t really cooled down in Barcelona too much, but I was craving fall flavors just the same. I decided to make a butternut squash and sage risotto for me and some friends for a small dinner party, but was overwhelmed with the project of grocery shopping. I went to the Santa Caterina market in my neighborhood which is famous for its fresh produce and I found that it had closed early and would not reopen in the afternoon. I then decided that I could find most of the ingredients at one of the large supermarkets, but found that it too was closed for the siesta. More frustrated, I went to another store and they did not have the Arborio rice I needed, butternut squash, nor sage. I settled on rosemary, pumpkin, and I used the Spanish rice that I already had at home. By the time I got home, I was so frustrated with the market schedule, the custom of having a siesta, not being able to find ingredients that I know are in season, and just speaking Spanish in general. I was upset for a few days, and only spoke English to my friends. I missed home, I missed Whole Foods, and I missed the ease of communicating in English.
It was not until I got to Prague that I was seriously homesick. The plane landed on a runway in a large field outside of the city that was lined with trees with the same New England fall foliage. When I got off the plane and was waiting for the bus I was forced to bundle up from the cold, and it hit me that I was not home for my favorite season in Maine. I craved more than ever the fall comfort food that I usually enjoyed at home.
My friend warned me that neither Prague nor the rest of the Czech Republic was well known for its food, and I expected mediocre meals for my few days there. What I encountered was an entire food culture based on the foods and flavors that I consider to be fall and winter comfort foods back home. I had beef stew (or goulash) served in a rye bread bowl, fried pork (pork schnitzel) with creamy mashed potatoes, and cream soups. Most of my meals were some kind of rich, slow cooked meat served with gravy, bread, and potatoes. For dessert there was Old Fashioned Bohemian Honey Cake which tasted like a large, soft graham cracker with cream. I had a latte that was flavored with cinnamon and nutmeg. At one restaurant, even the water was flavored by placing a cinnamon stick in the pitcher. It was so comforting to walk through the cold city with the smell of wet, fallen leaves, cinnamon, and pastries or bread being baked. Prague brought me home for a few days.
As much as it reminded me of home, the city was very different from any other city I have been to. When you stand in Old Town Square you can simultaneously gaze at a towering Gothic cathedral, a baroque/rococo building, a baroque statue, Neo-classical buildings, and a clock tower from the 15th century. Unlike most cities, there is no city grid, and to get from place to place it is necessary to ride one of the red and cream colored trams that wind through the middle of most of the city streets that are home to famed cafés and pub-breweries.
I went to a few cafés every day and sipped coffee in a traditional art nouveau “Dum” or palace, an antique café hidden from the main streets, a traditional French bake-shop, a modern photography exhibit and café, and the famous Café Louvre where I tried venison for the first time. It was served in gravy with fresh figs and a bread dumpling. I tried 11 different beers in one day (don’t worry, I shared an 8 beer sampler) ranging from coffee, to banana, sour cherry, blueberry, to the weirdest (and surprisingly amazing considering it was green) nettle beer. I tried traditional Pilsner, dark beers, amber beers, and my favorite which was an unfiltered wheat lager brewed by Staropramen. I was in café and pub-fare heaven.
I loved my time in Prague, and while it somewhat cured my homesickness, by the time I woke up on my last day there, it had caused me real sickness. Staying out in the cold for 3 days from morning until late at night caught me, and forced me to think about what I had to look forward to back in Barcelona despite the much needed break. I smartly gave myself a full day back in Barcelona before classes started again, and I slept and rested all day knowing that here, although I didn’t have my favorite season, it was still 70 degrees out and mostly sunny.