Why do Czechs only eat carp at Christmas?
Oldřich Pecha is a fishmonger by profession, owner and manager of a nursery in the center of Tábor, a town 90 kilometers south of Prague.
“We are now in a very special place: a pike or trevally nursery located about 15 meters below the water level of the Jordán, which is the oldest dam lake in this part of Europe. It was founded in the late 15th century when the people of Tábor dammed the local creek to create a water supply for the rapidly growing fortress and the surrounding town.
There is a fishmonger just under the Lake Jordán dam, and it’s kind of a showcase for Mr. Pecha’s business:
“It’s really something like a special bonus for our neighbors so that they can buy fresh produce from our fishery right in the city center. It is not a substantial part of our business as we wholesale over 90 percent of our fish. Our main clients are abroad, mainly in Germany, Poland, Slovakia, even in France and Italy. Local sales represent only a tiny percentage of our turnover.
It’s a bit of a paradox: Czechs love to eat carp at Christmas, and the overall production of freshwater fish in the Czech Republic has increased sevenfold in recent decades. But the consumption of fish in the country is stagnating. Compared to other nations in Europe, the Czechs eat much less fish. This cannot be explained solely by the fact that the Czech Republic is a landlocked country since even Slovaks and Hungarians who also do not have access to the sea eat twice as much fish as the Czechs. It doesn’t make much sense, since we have a very long tradition of building ponds and lakes specifically for fishing. And we also have a scientific institute of aquaculture at the University of South Bohemia. To get a broader historical perspective, I spoke to one of its main experts, Jan Kašpar:
“First, in the 1950s, Czech food and agricultural production intensified. That’s not to say we didn’t have fisheries before the 1950s, but the system was completely different in the first half of the 20th century. The fish were caught and eaten mainly locally. With intensification, production grew very quickly, but it was mostly for export. The quality of Czech carp and other freshwater species is well established in Europe. We have ideal natural and climatic conditions for fishing and a tradition that goes back centuries. We have the expertise and practical experience in this area and just know how to breed good carp.
But the Czech fishing tradition is not just about consumption and economic figures. Their historical and cultural importance goes far beyond.
Since medieval times, local nobility and monasteries have used natural and man-made ponds for raising fish. This trend served a dual purpose: in times when food was dictated by the Christian faith much more than today, fishing provided an ample source of food for the fast. The second reason for the resurgence of fish farming in Czech lands was simply to diversify the sources of food. At the time, the general population depended mainly on grains and grains as their main source of food. Game and beef were available on a regular basis almost exclusively to the aristocracy and perhaps a few wealthier merchants and artisans in towns which only gradually increased in economic importance and population. There were a few other pets and poultry, but they were mainly raised to provide other products such as eggs and milk. Fresh fish thus contributed to alleviating the monotony which reigned in the diet of the populations and even slightly alleviating the constant threat of famine. Little by little, a small industry was born.
You can see it very well especially in South Bohemia around the small town of Třeboň. It was in this region at the beginning of the 16th century that an elaborate water system called the Golden Canal was built. It is about 50 kilometers or 30 miles long and was built by Jakub Krčín, a specialist employed by the Rosenbergs, a local aristocratic family. He connected natural streams and rivers and created dozens of fish ponds and man-made lakes, some very large. Besides the direct economic importance, there is the indirect added value for tourism. Třeboň and the surrounding flat basin provide ideal terrain for cycling and ecotourism. Richard Lhotský works at the Institute of Microbiology of the Czech Academy of Sciences based in Třeboň and we met at the Svět Dam, one of the artificial lakes in the region:
“On the one hand, there is the economic impact. Czech freshwater fisheries are still the largest of their kind in the European Union. On the other hand, this type of cultural landscape created by human activity is so unique that it was declared a biosphere reserve and recognized by UNESCO in the late 1970s. Among other functions, it plays an important role as a migratory corridor for birds. As a biologist, this is something that interests me professionally. But there is also the aesthetic role of ponds and lakes. This magical landscape has always inspired writers and painters. Just look at all the cyclists and hikers that come here. I don’t think they would come to Třeboň if we didn’t have those centuries-old oaks on the shores of the lake. The story is quite palpable here and what’s even more important and interesting is the LIVING story. It is not a castle or a stone castle, which has historical objects that are, in fact, dead. This Svět lake, or “Le Monde” in English, is still one of the largest fish ponds in the Czech Republic. Every two years, the lake is emptied and all live fish are harvested and sold. Thus, this landscape and its fisheries have economic but also climatic and ecological roles. “
Unfortunately, while Czechs may appreciate the aesthetic and natural heritage of their fisheries, when it comes to sustaining their survival by eating and buying more local fish, they are not so patriotic. Jan Kašpar from the University of South Bohemia:
“Right now, few Czechs go to their supermarket or local fishmongers to buy a fillet of fish or a whole fish to cook. They prefer cheaper chicken, pork, and even beef, which are generally easier to prepare. When it comes to fish products, they tend to buy pre-processed fish salads or canned fish. In addition, we live in a globalized world where frozen seafood and even shrimp and other seafood are imported and easily accessible in their supermarket. It is very difficult to compete and when you look at the overall consumption of fish in the Czech Republic, local fish is an absolute minimum. “
Having said that, you wouldn’t come to the same conclusion if you bought fresh carp. At least in my hometown, if I don’t want to have it frozen or vacuum packed in a supermarket for a much higher price, I have to reserve it at least a week in advance. So, at my local fishmongers, I can get a pre-cut carp with its head and entrails for New Year’s Eve soup, quality and freshness guaranteed. Nothing creates the authentic Christmas atmosphere like the smell and sound of fried fish while you listen to Christmas carols.
I should know, since in my family, I am in charge of preparing Christmas dinner. I cover the fillets with flour, beaten eggs and breadcrumbs before frying them. And while the fish soup is simmering on the fire and I mix the potato salad according to the family recipe, I will have time to think about the future of Czech fishing. I sincerely hope that they will do more business at home than abroad in the years to come. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!