I had just hopped off the metro and was standing at the bottom of Prague’s Wenceslas Square, the late morning sun glistening off the dome of the National Museum. Before walking across the Charles Bridge; before taking my first sip of a crisp, Czech-made beer; before even checking into my hotel – there was something I had to do. I had to eat a sausage.
There are rumours that Prague officials are going to close the legendary sausage stands that dot the long Parisian-like boulevard they call a “square”. As the mayor of the district of Prague said, they give off a bad impression, are a “nuisance” and are antithetical to the square being “more attractive for tourists”. Never has the sausage been so under attack.
But the real reason I came here straight from the airport was something more personal. Prague is like a second home to me. I lived here for three years in the ‘90s, and I’ve come back every two or three years since to see old friends. As a resident, I largely eschewed things like sausages for the budding ethnic food scene. During return visits, I usually eat at newer establishments in an attempt to follow the evolution of modern Czech cuisine.
However, a Czech friend who grew up outside of Prague told me it was something of a “must” to eat a sausage from one of the Wenceslas Square stands when you came to the capital – sort of like how Americans have become conditioned to think that the de rigueur meal in New York City is a dirty water dog from a corner cart.
And so there I was eating a sausage in Prague. Its grilled kielbasa (klobása in Czech) skin had a decent snap, and the pork inside was speckled with tiny morsels of fat, aiding to its juicy and unctuous qualities.
It’s no surprise that sausage became a staple in Central Europe; preserved food was necessary for the long winters. I once went to a pig killing in Mikulov, a castle-topped hill on the Czech-Austrian border, and my friend’s family sent me back to Prague with bags of sausage, presumably to keep me fat for the winter.
While Germans are the stereotypical sausage eaters of Europe, the Czechs certainly have their varieties and sub varieties. The parek is similar to a hot dog, and the utopenec, or “drowned man”, is like a parek but is pickled in vinegar, oil, red pepper and onion. The kielbasa, which originated in Poland, is the most common – it’s long and thick, and is usually grilled like the kind I’d eaten at Wenceslas Square.
The following day, I met up with two acquaintances, Zuzi Danková and Jan Valenta, who run the food walking tour company Taste of Prague. When I mentioned that I had planned to explore the sausage side of the city, Danková had a warning for me.
“Just don’t eat any sausages on Wenceslas Square,” she said.
I cocked my head sideways in curiosity, thinking about the sausage I’d eaten the day before. “If you eat one during the day, you kind of feel ashamed,” Danková continued. “The only time it’s appropriate is when it’s 1 am and you’re drunk.”
Then she added: “You haven’t eaten there during the day, have you?”
I paused. “Um, no... I would never.”
When I pressed Danková and Valenta on where they prefer to eat sausages, they mentioned Naše Maso, a relatively new butcher shop in Old Town owned by the same restaurant group that runs Michelin-starred Le Degustation and steakhouse Cestr. In fact, most of my friends in Prague pointed me to Naše Maso once I uttered the word “sausage”.
I stopped in a few days later and met head butcher František Kšána. “We opened this butcher shop because people kept asking at our other restaurants if they could buy our meat,” he said.
I glanced around at the diminutive space. It looked like a normal butcher shop with a large glass case in the back of the room displaying steaks, chops and, yes, sausages. A few tables up front encouraged you to stay a while, and there was a beer tap within arm’s reach of the tables, so you had easy access to something to wash down your meat.
Kšána put in front of me two types of kielbasas: one filled with beef and one with pork, each paired with mustard. The beef version had a nice taut snap to it and offered a deep rich taste, highlighted by a layer of chili pepper that lingered on the palate long after I’d swallowed. The pork variety had an equally tight snap, and the taste had accents of cumin and garlic. There was also a delicious smokiness to the sausages that Kšána said was the result of smoking them with beech wood chippings.
“The difference between these sausages and the kind you’d eat at, say, Wenceslas Square is quality. You can taste the subtly,” he said.
Kšána then offered me a parek, where the meat is gently minced, stuffed into the casing and steamed. The common Czech sausage may look like an average one-dimensional, American hot dog – but it has a meatier flavour.
“After you eat a parek sausage, there’s a very pleasant feeling one gets about 15 minutes later,” Kšána said.
I laugh and wave him off.
“No really,” he said. “I promise you. It’s because of the aging process of the meat. It not only makes it more pleasant on the palate but it’s much easier to digest.”
Naše Maso has an exhaustive program of sourcing its meat, forging relations with farmers and even setting demands on how it would prefer the cows and pigs to be bred. And it’s not the only place in Prague doing this. The Real Meat Society, a butcher shop on the other side of Old Town, has a similar philosophy of using organic grass-fed, free-range animal products.
But with only a few places putting such thought into their meat, the city has a long way to go. “It has gotten a lot worse before it has gotten better,” Kšána said. “In the 1970s and ‘80s, meat was rationed and so eating it every day wasn’t a normal part of our lives. After the ‘89 revolution, though, meat was in abundance and people here got used to it. They also got used to the low quality that we were being fed.”
“Our goal,” Kšána added, “is to re-educate Czechs on what high-quality meat, including sausages, really means. And it’s working.”
The country has, in fact, come a long way. To put Czech cuisine into a historical context, we have to go back to 1948, when the communists staged a successful coup and took over the country. A couple of years later, the government issued a book called Recipes for Warm Meals, which dictated what you could serve at restaurants. Anything that popped up on a menu that wasn’t in the book was grounds for serious punishment. This severely limited the scope of Czech cuisine. Add to that the fact that food, particularly meat, was rationed and also distributed all over the Communist bloc, and you’ve got a recipe for a lifetime – or in this case, a few generations’ worth – of dreadful, boring fare.
Kšána is one of the people who are trying to make up for lost time. And based on the quality of the sausages he’s making and the steady stream of customers flowing into the shop, he’s doing something right.
Toward the end of my weeklong stay in Prague, I found myself again heading for the subway at Wenceslas Square. Only this time it was about 1 am and I’d had a few beers. Within minutes, I was eating a fatty stick of tubular meat, standing in the same place I had been a week earlier. Only now – having finally learned the appropriate time and conditions to eat a Wenceslas Square sausage – I was eating it like a local.