Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Czech Specialities 1: Smažený sýr

Veggie's delight: Smažený sýr

In a country enamoured with pork, smažený sýr (literally, fried cheese) is a rare and radical departure. Even the most fiercely carnivorous of eateries (and in the Cezch Rep they come fierce enough to make you worry for your own hide) boast, in their bezmasova jídla (food sans meat) sections, a smažený sýr special for vegetarians to glut themselves on. Bear in mind, however, that the bezmasova jídla section usually contains just two to three entries, and that even its name suggests a pitiable lack of completion, a food stuff defined solely by the absence of meat rather than any positive characteristics of its own.

It would be fair to say that smažený sýr is a dish that lacks independently enticing features. In a way, the rough Czech categorisation (lumping it in with gnocchi and omelettes) has a ring of truth: it is a peculiarly anonymous food. Its appearance on a menu is less a surprise than a relief - at least, the meat marauded veggie sighs (ever plaintive, of course), there's this. Amid the deathly hacking noises that float out of the average Czech kitchen, such obviously lifeless, artificial bulk is weirdly comforting. Two yellow-brown (I hesitate to say golden) slabs are plunked unceremoniously before the ambitious herbivore. On closer inspection said slabs reveal themselves as two family-sized bricks of Czech Eidam (note, please, the misspelling: here is something even blander than actual Edam, a mere impersonation of that more familiar disappointment), coated in breadcrumb emulsion and thrown at a deep fat fryer. Crack its brittle shell and a pale plastic ooze bubbles forth. This molten treacle, a sort of culinary ectoplasm (the residue of something that might once have been food), springs from its cocoon with surprising vigour. Here is the secret (I hypothesise) of its success: the ooze and its cracked shell provide the only hint of contrast to proceedings.

My favourite smažený sýr is served (lucky me) just downstairs at the local pub. So local is the pub, in fact, that I can smell it from my window on a warm day (decades of frying oil lifted on the spring breeze!). Despite bearing the excellent, 'ideologically correct' moniker Restaurace Pokrok (Restaurant Progress), this dimly illuminated little shack is perhaps consciously unremarkable. You might be given to wonder what, precisely, progress meant to mid-70s Czechoslovakian publicans, and thanks to the unaltered decor of Pokrok, you can now find out. Progress was apparently commensurate with foliage, or more specifically with a dense collection of indoor plants. This chimes with so many attempts to turn Prague's suburbs into overgrown garden cities. Even the innards of the local watering hole are swollen with dark green leaves, actual vinery winding its way around glossily varnished woodwork. Outside the walls are an innocuous peach. A strange vessel for the hopes of socialist future, but not without a certain cosy charm.

Promotional photo of Pokrok

Siobhan and I arrive one Saturday afternoon, me still locked in combat with a titanic hangover. On entering we're struck - if that's the word for turning to one another, noses wrinkled - by the heavy, sultry air. Entering Pokrok is a bit like sinking into a tepid, oily bath, ringlets of pollution slopping about on the water's surface. It leaves a film of grease on your skin long after you've left. One advantage to all that plant life, however, is that privacy comes easy. The quiet motion of cigarettes being lifted to mouths and pulled on; the distant murmur of drinkers; the brittle clinking of glass; all of this is easily concealed. One thing Pokrok has perfected - ironically, given its name - is utter predictability. Socialist progress always meant, after all, that things should remain indefinitely the same. The daily menu only changes when something runs out. They always sell the same two watery soups. A third of the bar menu is taken up with cigarettes. Another with chocolate bars.

Pokrok interior, foliage visible at rear

Our waiter is a harried looking man of indeterminate age. Two weeks ago he was naively fresh on the job. Sometime before today's visit, however, a profound evolutionary leap has been made. In adapting to the exhausting working conditions - he's the only person on the job throughout our entire visit - his face has assumed the expressive composure of sheet metal. As he takes our orders he refuses even to make eye contact, although - rather sweetly, I think - he finishes our sentences for us. With grim predictability (not disliked here, of course) I order the cheese slabs with chips and...

'Tartarka?' he says, assuming (accurately) that I want a separate accompaniment of Tartar sauce.

Siobhan opts for smažený řízek (that is, a pork schnitzel). Both our meals amount to the kind of thing we might feel either a little queasy or slightly embarrassed about ordering were we in Britain, which itself is hardly a gastronomic bastion. What must Italians think when they come to Prague, which they do in considerable numbers? Do they gaze in wonder at the very fact that people's hearts aren't everywhere giving out at the dinner table?

I should admit here that I'm no longer a proper vegetarian (Poland beat that affectation out of me). Today I'm just an unnecessarily fussy eater. I'll eat sausages, but never pork. Minced beef, but never steak. I realise this is not only irrational but quite annoying, especially if you have to eat with me a lot. My only justification is the life-long vegetarian's dread of gristle, and of toughness and chewiness more generally. Siobhan's schnitzel arrives like a malformed boulder, all jagged protrusions and and rocky outcrops. Scorched a light brown and utterly parched, it vaguely resembles Australia from space. The only sign of vegetation on either landmass is a wilted sprinkling of some anonymous leaf. Somehow the melted rubber of my fried cheese has fewer reminders of its disturbing animal progeny. Its texture resembles nothing natural. Chewing this glutinous, cud-like morsel I am infinitely reassured. My rebellious, booze-addled stomach revolts at the sight of the schnitzel. I'll stick with the plastic.

By the time we've finished my hangover is cured. The trade-off is a severe bout of indigestion. As we stand up I feel my diaphragm coil like a spring. As a keen observer of my own digestive activity, I can sometimes appear a bit of a hypochondriac. But this time - 200g of melted cheese gently solidifying inside of me - I have reason to complain. I walk the hundred metres home with my arm on Siobhan's shoulders, hunched over and huffing heavily.

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