From slapping some sausages on a grill to long hours spent carefully smoking large cuts of meat, grilling means different things to different people. Regardless of the way a person (or a nation for that matter) barbecues, a more important question is what they barbecue. At Czech cookouts I've eaten a range of grilovaný delights from the traditional pork steaks to grilled blue cheese. To get a better idea of local barbecuing tastes I spoke with Petr Straka, the head chef at Čestr.
Steaks: A meaty conversation
“Czechs definitely grill chicken and pork a lot. Now they are starting to grill beef. Definitely also sausages and vegetables,” Straka said when we met for a chat at his restaurant.
He stressed the importance of selecting good quality meat for barbecuing. This seems like an obvious point. Quality is quality. But a sauce can hide an inferior cut of meat. On the grill, the meat has to perform alone. The cuts of beef which Straka recommends are the sirloin (nízká roštěná), brisket or rib steak (plec), or flank steak (veverka). He claims that they are much juicier than tenderloin (svičková).
“Steaks should be roughly two centimetres high. I wouldn’t use a tenderizing hammer, but if you must only lightly,” Straka added.
When it comes to grilling the steaks, Straka said has one essential requirement.
“Meat should be grilled intensely and then gradually finished. Ideally, the grill should be heated where one section is very hot and the other part less hot. Correct grilling requires intensely cooking. The steak is cooked through to ensure the flavor, then we must grill gradually. Then it’s important not to serve the steaks immediately. You leave it somewhere warm to let the juices penetrate to the middle.”
This advice highlights one way in which Czechs and expats differ at the grill: degree of doneness, with Czechs prefering meat closer to the well-done side of the spectrum. But regardless of whether it’s well-done or rare, a good cut of beef, seared on the outside with the inside moist, is delectable.
Chicken and pork require some more preparation to make them come alive on the grill. Straka's prep tips for these two popular meats?
“I recommend marinading chicken with some spices, salt, pepper, dry mustard, and herbs such as thyme and rosemary. Refrigerate for half a day then grill,”
Sausage: A national treasure
In a discussion of Czech grilling we can’t overlook sausages, which are especially popular on witch-burning night and camping trips. Špekáčky are often done on an open fire, using long roasting forks. Typically these short thick sausages have a cross cut into either end and are scored with a hash marking along the outside. The trick is not to hold them too close to the flame. Otherwise the outside burns and the inside remains undercooked. When they’re done, the cross incision allows the ends to fold out, kind of like a meaty flower. Another Czech sausage which is great on open fire is ostravská klobása which is made from large pieces of pork and has a distinctly smoky flavor.
Veg and cheese: No longer on the sidelines
There are some local vegetarian options—and no I don’t mean barbecuing ham. Grilled hermelín is one popular alternative. Coat an individual portion of hermelín with oil and spices then wrap in aluminum foil, sealing well. Grill on a hot plate on both sides for a few minutes. The cheese will form a tasty gooey delight to fork out of the foil and spread on bread.
Another variation on the grilled cheese idea I’ve had here was grilled blue cheese. Unfortunately, the man who prepared it for us was reluctant to share his trade secret. Try as I might haven’t been able to recreate the gold and crispy slices. My attempts turned predictably into a white bubbling puddle on the grill, so if anyone has any advice, feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.
As is the case with most traditional Czech cuisine, vegetables at barbecues are relegated to the side lines. Often just cut up and served raw or assembled into a salad. But over the years I’ve seen more people combine them on meat with skewers or simply grill strips of them. One acquaintance grilled peppers stuffed with cheese.
Grill source: Wood wins out
Most of the Czech barbecues I’ve been to have involved cooking on a grill or hot plate directly over a wood fire. Personally I prefer this approach over charcoals or gas simply because it makes the fire part of the event. Charcoal grills lend the meat that characteristic charred flavor and hooded gas grills are much more energy efficient, but neither can be a center piece like a fire which has to be constantly tended and fed.
The preference for wood here makes sense. It’s abundant and quite cheap and it’s often the preferred fuel at weekend cottages where quite a lot of grilling takes place. Wood fire barbecues or grilling directly on campfires also has links to other outdoor pastimes with strong roots here such as scouting, tramping, weekend cottages, and fishing.
Hard woods such as oak (dub) and beech (buk) are in ready supply. You can also get cherry trees (třešeň) or apple trees (jabloň) to give your meat a sweeter flavor. Some other wood types you might want to try are hickory (bílý ořechy or ořechovec), maple (javor), and alder (olše).
This is not to suggest the charcoal and gas aren’t used and charcoal kettle barbecues have certainly become increasingly more popular, especially with influence from abroad. You can find charcoal and barbecues and grills of various types at bigger supermarkets and gardening centers such as Obi and specialty grill shops. (Recently spotted at the Prague Food Festival: the Big Green Egg, a ceramic grill based on an ancient clay cooking device!)
Grilling is an essential part of the summer in the Czech Republic. Please let us know your experiences with cooking out, Czech style…and if anyone has a tip on how to grill blue cheese, that would be appreciated too.