Who’d be a vegetarian? Or more precisely, who’d be a vegetarian in the Czech Republic? Please don’t for a moment think this is a tirade against vegetarians. Not one bit. After all, vegetarians are customers as well.
No, this stems from the first time my wife and I went to Prague and discovered that the Czech idea of a vegetarian dish was their normal staple fayre of meat and dumplings but with extra dumplings. Because, you see, before the reformation, my wife was a vegetarian. In Prague we found it a little like it can be in rural France: “Your salad monsieur. Certainly it’s vegetarian and to make sure, we’ve chopped the jambon tres petit” – usually accompanied by a pitying look.
To be fair to the Czechs, this was around 20 years ago, long before the arrival of stag parties, pizza parlours and other generic international influences. But we were there for a week and, after just a few days, the weight was beginning to fall off my wife. If I didn’t find her something to eat soon I’d be forced to sell the return half of her ticket or lose out.
In desperation, I booked into the most expensive restaurant I could find. I don’t remember how much it was but I do recall sweating and thinking I might definitely be forced to sell the return half of her ticket anyway just to pay the bill.
It was a very posh restaurant, in a vaulted basement with lots of obsequious waiters, dramatic lighting and a grand piano being played in an Eastern European way. They didn’t expect tourists in such an expensive place so, of course, there were definitely no translated menus which did present us with a problem. And, of course, none of the staff spoke English either. But – and I’m rather proud of myself here – with a lot of what I considered to be East European arm waving, the use of a pencil and paper and not a little very slow shouting, I somehow managed to find out that they could do us a cauliflower cheese. So, triumphantly I ordered one.
They weren’t particularly busy but after 45 minutes nothing had arrived. We’d started to make jokes about them scouring the countryside in vain for a cauliflower when we heard an explosion like a gunshot come from the kitchen. All the waiting staff ran to the kitchen door and peered inside only to then relax and saunter back to their posts.
But we were intrigued. Had the head chef committed suicide because he couldn’t find a cauliflower and thus not fulfil our order? Or was it because he couldn’t bring himself to cook such a dish? We never did actually find out what the noise was but speculated that it might have been how the Czech chef who, never having had to cook such an unusual product before, was ensuring that the cauliflower was actually dead before he boiled it. In any event, the dish was a success, if nothing like any cauliflower cheese we’d had, and my wife thoroughly enjoyed the accompanying obligatory dumplings.
As a result she regained weight, survived the week and, because I eventually had to sell her ticket to pay for the meal, made her way back to the UK by hitchhiking. Of course I may have made that last bit up but I can’t help thinking that, thanks to the Czechs, the whole experience contributed to her starting to eat meat and fish again.
So what’s the excuse of the many people I’ve met over the years who, when coming to the restaurant for the first time, initially introduce themselves as vegetarian – or coeliac or dairy intolerant or allergic to various things – then later return as a complete omnivore? Surely they can’t all holiday in the Czech Republic?
As a place to holiday, I can really recommend the whole of the former Czechoslovakia. Just don’t expect to come back a changed person; even if my wife did.
Previously published in The Northern Echo