Our culinary exploration takes us deeper into the Czech jungle for it’s final destination. It’s been a delicious, and at times emotional adventure. Our segway’s are starting to run out of juice, pleading to be plugged in and left alone- having surely felt a weight increase over the course of our expedition. Soon our two wheeled friend, soon. Today we are on the hunt for the mythical ‘utoponec’. Contrary to popular belief this is not the feared and reviled three-headed, seven-legged, lion toothed creature of ancient Greek mythology that it sounds like. It is a food of sorts. To hunt down this mythical breed we must venture through the swinging canopies of Prague’s watering-holes, to find a REAL Czech pub. And alas, we believe Prague-On-Segway has stumbled upon the perfect destination. Dimly lit- tick. A Chinese-city-smog (cigarette smoke) – tick. Wooden walls, wooden chairs, wooden floor, wooden ceiling, wooden bar, why….wooden everything- tick. A cahoot (not sure what the collective term for a group of seasoned Czech men are called….) of older rugged looking Czech men lining the bar- tick. We pull up a pew.
“Today we are on the hunt for the mythical ‘utoponec’. Contrary to popular belief this is not the feared and reviled three-headed, seven-legged, lion toothed creature of ancient Greek mythology that it sounds like.”
Now we are not here tonight for the criminally low beer prices, nor the light political banter afoot amongst the pub regulars- although we will be oiling ourselves with a pint or two of the local brew. No, we are here to unmask the mysteries of the Czech ‘utopenec’. It translates rather appetisingly as ”’floater”, a word Czechs use to describe the corpse of a person who has drowned- the kind you see detectives prodding and pulling out the water at industrial ports in CSI. Mmmmmmmm. Czech’s are not renown for their subtlety, but they are revered for their black humour.
If that hasn’t got you salivating, I’m not certain the contents of this famous beer accompaniment snack will either. We translated the Wikipedia page from Czech, as the word has been perfectly preserved (much like the contents of the dish) in its language, hidden from the knowledge of the English speaking world. We’ll use some of words as interpreted by google, for comic effect, rather than for their semantic accuracy. ‘Drowned man’ is a popular old Czech side dish often served in pubs with beer. ‘Peeled’ sausages, sliced cucumbers, onions and cabbage are ‘crammed’ into a 5 litre jam jar with brine. This ‘brew’ consists of water, vinegar, salt, sugar and allspice. The sausage can be ‘substituted’ with other ‘sausage imitations’ (let you imaginations run wild). ‘Served with bread’. I can hear you licking your lips already. They say the world is divided into two types of people- those who liked pickled things, and those who don’t. Prague-On-Segway, despite our rather rugged description of the dish, loves a plate of utopenec. Admittedly, it tastes better if you are ignorant of the translation- something which I’m afraid you can’t un-know now. But having been force-fed pickled onions by eager grandparents as children, we embrace this dish with a sensory, if a little traumatic, nostalgia.
Rumours have it that around the time when the Czech Republic joined the EU in 2004, the EU health & safety commission raised questions about the Czech’s beloved pub snack- amid concerns over the length of time open jars were still being distributed to hungry beer drinkers. They wanted to ban it, much to the disgruntlement of the chaps sitting next to me I imagine. ”Health & Safety gone mad”. But the snack has defiantly clung on to it’s crown as the king of late night pub snacks. Bravo. The method of utopenec storage stirs certain Gothic horror imagery in our minds. Whilst we’ve never dared venture to the depths of a Czech pub kitchen, Prague-On-Segway pictures something like that of a Victorian doctor’s office- jars of pickled bits and bobs lining the shelves. Think Viktor Frankenstein’s workshop.
But enough of our slander! This dish is an opportunity to submerge (excuse the pun) yourself in Czech tradition, and after a few local lagers, muster the courage to expand your culinary horizons to a Bohemian classic. Think of it as a carefully crafted meat roll glossed with wild bohemian vinegar and kosher salt, partnered with a garnish of sweet onions and lightly preserved gherkins, served with a slice of wholegrain baker’s bread. That’s more like. it. Mmmmmm. Enjoy!