Brief Guide to Czech deli food: Part 1

Food issues in Prague are quite delicate – foreigners who want to taste the local cuisine undergo a serious risk. A typical death caused by a Czech dish is being choked with a dumpling, or death due to a lethal bladder collapse. This means, exploring Czech cuisine is a kind of extreme sport or a high adrenalin adventure for people who long for a near -death experience. Well, I am extraroggating a bit, on the other hand, we should agree on the fact that Czech cooked meals are kind of weird. The thing is… not only the cooked meals are strange. Have you ever heard about a deli food specialty – chlebíčky?

Birth of the sandwich

Sandwich, illustrative photo: archive of prague.tips

Sandwich, photo: bkm / prague.tips

In enlightened England of 18th century, Earl Sandwich gives birth to one of the greatest invention on the field of deli food  – the sandwich. Everybody knows what I am talking about. This evolutionary discovery creates the path of non-­cooked dinner. Earl of Sandwich’s path to fame was not easy and without disappointment, though. Woody Allen describes the story of Earl Sandwich’s life and work in his book Getting even. I have chosen three key moments in life of the culinary genius:

1741: (…)he works day and night, often skimping on meals to save money for food. His first completed work—a slice of bread, a slice of bread on top of that, and a slice of turkey on top of both—fails miserably. Bitterly disappointed, he returns to his studio and begins again.

1750: In the spring, he exhibits and demonstrates three consecutive slices of ham stacked on one another; this arouses some interest, mostly in intellectual circles, but the general public remains unmoved.(…)

1758: He works day and night, tearing up hundreds of blueprints, but finally (…) he creates a work consisting of several strips of ham enclosed, top and bottom, by two slices of rye bread. In a burst of inspiration, he garnishes the work with mustard. It is an immediate sensation(…)

Bohemia and Moravia in delo food isolation

Deli shop, photo: archive of prague.tips

Deli shop, photo: Martin Hrbek, / prague.tips

So this is how the sandwich was created. However, Czech, or Austria­-Hungarian environment was not in contact with Anglo­Saxon dining world. That means, the people in Bohemia and Moravia had to explore their genuine ways of deli food. The chlebíčky slightly resemble to Earl of Sandwich’s attempt from 1750. That means, it is a slice of bread with something on top. They are sometimes called “open sandwiches“ and there are serious arguments about the origin of this. One group claims it is because of the fact they are not enclosed with bread from top and bottom, the other one says the reason is there is no copyright and everybody can eventually adjust the recipe according to one’s specific taste. Typically, they consist of a slice of veka – something like French baguette, but a bit bigger; and something on it. This something may be a layer of potato salad and a slice of ham, or some paprika sausage and a gherkin, or just lobster salad and a slice of lemon. There are many variations of chlebíčky and also people in Austria or Denmark make their local variations of open sandwiches.

The legend of Jan Paukert

Jan Paukert, photo: archive of prague.tips

Jan Paukert shop, photo: bkm / prague.tips

According to a legend open face sandwiches were invented by a pioneer of Czech deli food Jan Paukert in  1916.  The legend says, there was a painter, Jan Skramlík working on a huge canvas. As he was always busy, he hardly stepped down from his ladder and wanted a snack which would fit into his hand, so that he could work and eat at a time.  So Mr. Paukert presented a slice of white bread with Swiss cheese and Hungarian salami together with mayonnaise. The success, which followed, allowed Mr. Paukert to open first lahůdky shop in Prague. You can find it in Národní Třída near the National theater.

Chlebíčky everywhere

Nowadays, chlebíčky have an important ritual function for the Czechs and are present at each important event – marriages, proms, elderly people birthday parties and many more. The visitors of such events compete among themselves who can eat more and end up, surfeited to death, in hospitals. Chlebíčky also can be found at special eating places called lahůdky. It is something between a fast food facility and a deli shop. In Prague, there is a lahůdky literally on every corner, so chlebíčky are available nearly everywhere. But Paukert’s deli shop is one of the kind that should not be missed out.

Author: Martin Hrbek

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