Hunting down a jack-o-lantern

Pumpkins at large in the Czech Republic’s autumn scene

Finding a carving pumpkin in the Czech Republic used to take a bit of legwork, at least if you didn't own a chata (summer cottage) where you grew your own. Fifteen years ago, pumpkins weren’t considered the autumn symbol that they are nowadays. While the Czech Republic celebrated All Saints' Day on November 1 with flowers, candles and visits to the cemetery, carving pumpkins and Halloween were rituals reserved for foreigners. Although you could track down a pumpkin at the main Tesco at Národní třída or buy tins of canned pumpkin at the upscale Culinaria food shop, pumpkin selection beyond the home-grown variety was minimal.

Traditionally, autumn in the Czech Republic meant burčák (a young, partially fermented wine), vinobraní (wine harvest festivals) and neighborhood lampiónový průvody (parades with candle-lit paper lanterns). Taking a pumpkin and slicing gashes for eyes, a hole for a nose and a zigzag pattern for a mouth wasn’t a Czech tradition. Nor was pumpkin soup a common sight on local menus.

But times have changed. For pumpkin lovers in the Czech Republic, now it is no longer a question of where to find a carving pumpkin, but where to get the best one.

Radek and I spent our first Halloween night as a married couple watching the famous NYC Halloween night parade and pageant. Radek went as Freddy Krueger, and I went without a costume, unless being pregnant counted. After experiencing the height of Halloween in a city, we wanted to bring a piece of the tradition back in Prague to share with our children.

In October of 2008, an English-speaking friend recommended a visit to the pumpkin farm in Bykoš, a village about 35 km from Prague in the direction of Beroun. On the way there, we got lost on the winding village roads. I was surprised (looking back I'm not sure why) to hear mostly English spoken among visitors to the farm. The owner Jan Brotanek and his family have been raising pumpkins for 20 years and welcoming visitors to their pumpkin patch for many seasons. At that time, paying a visit to a pumpkin farm seemed like a weekend activity attractive mainly to foreigners like myself or Czechs who'd experienced the tradition of Halloween in another country.

In terms of authentic autumn atmosphere, the Bykoš farm reveled any pumpkin patch I’ve visited. There were farm animals to pet, space for my children to run around and a barn filled with more pumpkins than I'd ever seen. On the weekend we visited, Jan's family grilled meat and served pumpkin soup and a tasty pumpkin koláč (pastry). When I asked Jan's mother which of the farm’s 15-some edible varieties she had used in her soup, she said that the best pumpkin soup has a little bit of every pumpkin. I don't know if that was the truth, or just a clever way to keep her recipe a secret.

When we left the farm a few hours later with 300 CZK worth of edible and decorative pumpkins in the trunk of our station wagon, I wondered for a moment if I'd gone overboard. Back home, I carved, cooked and decorated our small flat until no one could argue that the tradition of Halloween didn't exist in the Czech Republic. After our initial trip to Bykoš, we returned several autumns in a row, each time coming home with different types of pumpkins to sample.

In recent years, the Bykoš farm has grown in acclaim as pumpkins have appeared in larger quantities and wider varieties across the Czech Republic. In addition to his farm activities, Jan provides pumpkins to restaurants and supermarket chains in Prague.

As the pumpkin has grown more popular, however, other autumn events featuring the orange delicacy can be found in Prague and around the Czech Republic. Nowadays, the Moravian wine region hosts an autumn dýňobraní (pumpkin harvest festival) in addition to their traditional burčák and wine harvest festivals. This year's celebration included pumpkin carving, a pumpkin food fair, a pageant for “Miss Dýňobraní,” a contest for the best pumpkin soup in the Czech Republic and a display of lit-up jack-o-lanterns and fireworks at night.

These days Czech supermarkets regularly sell Hokkaido pumpkins (a vibrant orange pumpkin with skin that can be eaten), butternut squash, acorn squash, spaghetti squash and a middle-size, light brown pumpkin that is my family's favorite. In the autumn, we make spicy, pumpkin soup and pumpkin muffins, and I usually freeze roasted pumpkin to be used throughout the winter. Garden shops carry decorative pumpkins, gourds and squashes among their autumn wares, and my children's favorite part of the autumn is selecting and decorating their own pumpkins.

Despite an unusually hot summer, pumpkins are already on the market in Prague. Last week, I bought three, medium-sized carving pumpkins in the supermarket for 40 CZK each. They weren't the biggest or the most beautiful pumpkins, I've ever seen, but the price was just right for letting my children experiment with decorating and carving them. They plan to carve them into jack-o-lanterns this weekend. It's too early to expect the pumpkins to last till Halloween, but now that I know I've got plenty of choices of where to find more, I expect they won't be the last.


TO DO IN OCTOBER:

• Take your family to the Bykoš pumpkin patch to select your own jack-o-lantern from the patch, pet farm animals (goats, chickens and rabbits) and taste pumpkin delicacies. Call ahead for reservations if you want to visit during the week. The owner speaks English. – October 2015

• Visit the 10th annual outdoor exhibition in Prague’s Botanical Gardens in Troja (near the Prague zoo) to see exotic pumpkins and gourds called the “kings of autumn” on display. The walking exhibition includes various stops with songs, poem and stories for children. – 26.September – 25.October 2015

• Take a trip to the Chladek garden center in Prague 6 for their annual “Pumpkin Celebration” with pumpkin carving, food specialties made from pumpkins, face-painting for children and a variety of decorative and edible pumpkins on display and for sale. Have lunch at their on-site restaurant. – 3-4. October 2015

• Walk through the garden center TREES in the village of Cerny Vul, Praha (near the airport) to see an elaborate autumn display with pumpkins, gourds, Indian corn and autumn. Have a coffee or homemade local dessert at their newly opened weekend café. – October 2015

• Further afield: Visit Pumpkin World at the Pipka Family Farm in the village of Nová Ves u Leštiny in the Vysočina region. Over 50 different types of pumpkins are grown on the 5 hectare farm. Walk through their Pumpkin World exhibition where hundreds of pumpkins are arranged into pyramids and displays. Children can see farm animals, climb on a playground made from hay bales and explore a corn maze. Sample the family’s honey and purchase grains. – 26.September – October 2015

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