Hunting down game meat in Czech cuisine

Duck, goose and wild boar sausages on autumn menus

With autumn on the way, it's the traditional season for zvěřina (game meat) in Czech cuisine. Game meat, which includes goose, duck and rabbit as well as boar, venison, pheasant and hare, is often bought from farmers' markets or received from friends or family members who hunt or raise game animals. If you aren't lucky enough to have a Czech neighbor to dish up a serving of homemade kančí klobásy, there are a variety of restaurants in Prague and the nearby vicinity that will satisfy a hunter's urge.

During Sunday lunch at a Czech family friend's house a couple of weeks ago, I was served králičí svíčková (rabbit with dumplings in a creamy, vegetable sauce), a twist on the traditional Czech svíčková which uses beef tenderloin instead of rabbit. Years ago if someone had told me that I'd be eating rabbit with a smile on my face, I wouldn't have believed him.

Growing up, I thought that meat came in two varieties – chicken and beef. There was nothing about the meat that I ate as a child that ever brought images of the live animal to my mind. Then, I moved to the Czech Republic.

Finding stray hairs on supermarket-bought chicken legs, bones in breast meat labeled “boneless” and discovering that a whole chicken was sold with the neck meat included, were discoveries that nearly turned me into a vegetarian. For the first five years I lived in the Czech Republic, I didn't go to the butcher's shop; I bought all my meat from the supermarket, plastic-wrap intact. I remember overhearing another American commenting that she preferred not to know where her meat had come from, or at least not to see the traces of its former animal life. I agreed.

Little by little, however, the Czech tradition of serving meat-based dishes from sources beyond prepackaged pieces of chicken or beef began to influence the way I ate. At weekend lunches with friends, I tried králičí stehna na česneku se špenátem (rabbit's leg with garlic and spinach). The rabbit meat was leaner than chicken and the garlicky spinach complemented the meat. My mother-in-law's pečená kachna s červeným zelím (roasted duck with red cabbage) became a winter favorite. Although to her dismay, I always passed the outer layer of duck skin to my husband because I didn't like the fatty texture. I sampled roasted goose during St. Martin's Day Feast on November 11, an ancient festival that signified the changing of seasons and coming of winter.

At my first zabíjačka (pig slaughter) many autumns ago I saw Czech meat culture and village communal food preparation at its height. Although the pig slaughter tradition is scarcer nowadays, due to more strict EU regulations and the changing way of modern life, back in the early 2000s it was still a ritual in villages and on collective farms. Our friend's father worked in a dairy collective. During harvest season, he and his neighbors would gather in the communal garden behind his apartment building for the annual slaughter.

After the pig was killed at the dairy, boiling water was poured over the carcass to remove the hair. Then the carcass was hung vertically on a pole in the garden where it was gutted. For the men, the meat preparation involved cutting and portioning off all the usable meat, skin and innards. Neighborhood women worked together in the apartment house's communal basement making jitrnice (sausage made from pig livers) and tlačenka (head cheese). They prepared soup and škvarky (pork cracklings) and set aside cutlets to be made into řízky (schnitzel).

Although I ventured into the basement to offer my help, once I encountered the blood and the smell, I decided to go for a walk instead. The work lasted all day, but each person who helped came away from the slaughter with enough food for a family feast.

Now that we live in a village next door to Czechs who cook game meat, our neighbors invite us for weekend meals of kančí guláš (wild boar goulash) and srnčí řízky (venison schnitzel). The meat comes from our neighbor's home village where his parents still farm and raise animals. Both dishes are delicacies I've yet to taste in a Czech restaurant – the goulash is spicy with flavorful chunks of lean boar meat and the venison schnitzel is stuffed with onions and tangy mustard for a tart, sophisticated version of a standard schnitzel.

I can't say I'd want to eat game meat all the time, but after a day outside in the brisk autumn air, Czech game dishes are filling and tasty, especially paired with a glass of harvest wine or a freshly drafted Czech beer.

If you'd like to try game meat in the Czech Republic, head to the long-time favored Diana u Kucharu in Prague 9 district, which is a family-run hotel restaurant popular with Czech locals. They specialize in local and farm-raised products, including duck breasts from Bordeaux and leg of lamb. Formal dress code is respected. The restaurant is closed on Sundays. 

The restaurant u Modre Kachnicky “At the Blue Duckling” is a top-rated choice in Prague for duck and other game meat prepared the traditional Czech way. They have two downtown locations and offer a tasting menu.

A casual, moderate-priced option for a medieval (aka Gothic) dining experience is U Sadlu (Prague 1). When we still lived in the city, Radek and I used to take all our visiting relatives here for a taste of hearty Czech game dishes eaten in a dungeon-like chamber. My favorite was the bramboráčky (potato pancakes).

If you aren't into medieval, try Suteren (Praha 1) where Czech traditional game meats are prepared with a modern twist. For a more pub-like experience, head to Hlučna Samota v Praze where you can order a starter of duck livers cooked in their own fat.

Outside the city limits, near the Václav Havel Airport, visit either Auberge de Provence in the village of Tuchoměřice or V Polích in the neighboring village of Velký Čičovice. Both restaurants have seasonal menus featuring game meat. V Polich has a casual, country-side atmosphere and its hand-written menu changes daily. Be sure to book reservations for a weekend meal since seating is limited.

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