Carp is undoubtedly an important symbol of Christmas in the Czech Republic. Its scaly form appears in seasonal advertising or as inspiration for festive gingerbread, and some people put a scale in their wallets to bring them good fortune over the following year. The media often runs articles on the year’s expected price for carp, which incidentally, it’s expected to be low. However, favorable opinions on the taste of the fish are far from universal.
When asking around about people’s attitudes to carp, one will usually get three answers. First, there are the aficionados who will proclaim it a delicacy. They are mostly an older generation and more often than not men. Next, are those who confess to eating it more out of seasonal duty, rarely touching it during the course of the year. These people range in age from young to old. The last group avoids the fish completely, preferring other kinds of fish or some other meal instead.
A survey conducted by GE Money Bank two years ago suggests that this last group is the dominant one in Bohemia. Fifty-five percent of Czechs eat schnitzels instead of carp at Christmas. Moravians in contrast are proportionally larger consumers of carp. Seventy-eight percent of respondents said they partake of the fish as the main meal.
Sales figures from two fisheries certainly support the view that carp is mostly eaten because of tradition. For the fishery of the town Vodňany, Christmas demand for carp accounts for about two thirds of their sales. A spokesman for Hodnonín Fishery said sales at this time of year account for a little less than 60 percent of annual carp sales.
Regarding overall trends, the two fisheries offer a different picture. The spokesman for Vodňany said demand is stable and they expect an increase this year. At Hodnonín growth is also expected but demand is stagnating.
Rise of the carp
How did this fish become so synonymous with Christmas in the Czech Republic? Eating carp has a long history in this region. The development of ponds for fisheries is proof enough. The fish’s ability to survive in a varying water quality (it is the quintessential bottom feeder) made it then as now easy to raise.
Its religious significance most likely stems from the fact that fish was permitted food during periods of fasting. In the early church advent used to be such a period. It was even called “little Lent.” Trout and pike would be served, too, but carp was the most affordable. It could be raised in large numbers in ponds and one fish could feed a family.
By the nineteenth century, the fish had become the main Christmas meal, though it was now more associated with feasting rather than fasting. Frying, a mainstay of Czech cuisine, was only one of the many ways Christmas carp has been prepared through the ages.
Consulting any number of Christmas cookbooks will uncover many recipes for carp that don't rely on breadcrumbs and oil. Carp with wine, carp with garlic, carp with beer are all alternatives.
Regional possibilities include carp á la Třeboň, which requires the fish to be fried in lard with garlic and cumin. From North Moravia there is a version with cream and horse radish. Perhaps the most interesting variant is “black carp” (kapr načerno). This recipe calls for the carp to be served with a sauce made from dried plums, raisins and nuts. Other versions use plum jam and even dark beer.
Other fish in the sea (pond)
The very reason carp became popular could be why people are turning away from it. They no longer have to resort to eating a fish just because it is affordable and feeds a lot of people. Growing incomes and exposure to other possibilities allows people to explore other tastes.
Radek Novák, a spokesperson from Seefood, said that pre-Christmas demand for other fish is enormous. The most popular fish is salmon, the sales of which are six times greater before the holidays. However people are also buying tuna, cod and halibut. “The advantage [over carp] is the absence of bones in many of these fish and that they are relatively easy to prepare,” he said in regard to this growing trend.
As noted earlier, some Czechs eschew all aquatic foods and stick with the popular schnitzels. Another alternative is vinná klobása. These light pork sausages, which contain white wine, are usually sold as a spiral. This shape may explain its significance at Christmas. It apparently symbolizes the sun for the winter solstice.
Side dish takes center stage
While some people find the idea of carp as the main Christmas meal as difficult to swallow as the fish itself, Czech potato salad enjoys almost universal acclaim. According to an article in the weekly Týden, the Czech version can even be found on cruise ships. This is clearly a case of the support act upstaging the main star.
Though popular, there isn’t one strict traditional recipe for the potato salad. Pavel Martin, author of Česká vánoční kuchařka (A Czech Christmas Cookbook) put it well when he wrote, “[What] belongs in [the salad] apart from potato and mayonnaise is a nationwide discussion.”
The earliest mention of the dish in Czech is in Magdaléna Dobromila Rettigová’s famous 18th century cookbook, Domácí kuchařka (A Household Cookbook). Her recipe required potato, eggs, onion and salted fish, which seems austere compared to today’s creations.
Nowadays people add ham, salami, hard-boiled eggs, mustard, mayonnaise, onion, gherkins, pickled vegetables and even grated apple. Some even replace the mayonnaise with yoghurt.
Maybe this is what a tradition is all about. It’s not rigidly following some cultural norms. Instead, it’s a few shared features adapted and changed to suit the times or just personal preference.
— Ryan Scott is a Prague-based freelance journalist