I love when people pick an ordinary thing and make a habit of doing it in every new place they go. Iona buys a bra. Her dad gets a local shave. I was thinking my thing could be ‘eat something baked and delicious’. In the name of exploration, of course.
My baked good of choice for Prague was the Trdelnik. A delicious chimney of sweet dough covered in cinnamon sugar and filled with any number of delicious, creamy fillings. This is the kind of cultural engagement that I can get on board with.
I had this vision of writing a well-researched, lofty piece about the moving, humble history of the Trdelnik. I imagined noting its journey from the kitchens of Czech grandmothers to the bustling streets of Prague. Guys, this was going to be journalistic.
But when I sat down to read up on this delicious dessert, my ambitions were quickly squashed. The Trdelnik is not, as I’d hoped, the product of years of careful baking, the recipe passed down through generations to ensure that the cinnamon-y goodness survived.
This is a tourist dessert. Someone figured out that tourists like to eat over-the-top dough-based sweets, so started to make them in the centre of Prague and market them as authentic Czech treats. Since the dawn of time, people have enjoyed rationalising the ingestion of copious amounts of sugar under the guise of cultural exchange and someone saw koruna signs.
Well. Put up your hand if you feel personally victimised by the inventors of Trdelnik. (Raises hand.)
Though if this victimisation involves eating delicious whipped-cream filled pastry, I might be able to make my peace with it.
It’s not all doom and marketing ploys, though. According to Ladislav Provaan, head of Prague’s Gastronomy museum, Trdelnik goes way back to Neolithic times. (He also started by saying it “is primarily an incredible marketing success”. Feels like I’m being duped all over again.) Trdelnik is rotated over an open fire so was able to be made pre-ovens, though I’m sure at that point it resembled a plain tubular pancake rather than the sugary monstrosity it is now. Across various websites, I have seen its origins linked to Hungary, Slovakia, Greece, Turkey and Sweden.
Clearly, no one really knows, as tends to be the case with easy doughy foods. Everyone figured out that the wheat tasted better ground up and baked and covered in sugar. Making food more palatable with sweetness is a universal human experience.
I tried four Trdelniks across the weekend, shared with Iona and Jake. Once the dough has been set into its chimney shape and suitably encrusted with cinnamon sugar goodness, it has some delicious spreadable substance smeared across the inside. Then, if you can spare the extra Euro (spare the extra Euro), you can have it filled with whipped cream, ice cream or, um, activated carbon frozen yoghurt. We’ll get to that.
The first combinations we tried were Nutella-coated filled with whipped cream and white chocolate-coated filled with vanilla ice cream. Both were excellent. Non-existent old Czech baker/some food marketing dude, I salute your ingenuity. It was that experience of eating one and deciding definitively, “this one’s my favourite,” before trying the other and deciding, “okay, this one’s my favourite.” Repeat until both are finished and you are sad.
Any retelling of the Trdelnik eating experience would be incomplete without addressing an unfortunate truth about my personality. I’m a really messy eater. Most people were able to grow out of this phase, but, as with wanting to eat ice cream for breakfast and be cuddled all the time, it has stuck with me. Equal parts excitement and aggression, I overenthusiastically went for the dough shell and I’m pretty sure whipped cream made its way into my brain. Honestly, that would explain a few things.
The following day, we’d messed up our activity and food timings so ended up having Trdelniks for a late lunch. I was, naturally, thrilled with this development. Now, during our Tredelnik debut the afternoon prior, I saw a sign for ‘the Devil’, a pure black Trdelnik made from activated carbon-infused dough and activated carbon ice cream, complete with little red marzipan horns. I know. I hate myself, too.
But I wanted it. I wanted the tourist gimmick version of Prague’s most successful tourist gimmick. I promise, I ate goulash and strawberry dumplings and fried cheese the night before. (As an aside, you have to respect people who took a hunk of cheese, deep-fried it and served it with fried potato and turned it into a national delicacy. Inspirational).
Iona got a Trdelnik named ‘the King’, filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with brownie and salted caramel and other delectable toppings. This proved to be excellent light relief when I needed a break from activated carbon.
It was… not bad. It tasted like natural yoghurt fro-yo, but gritty. That doesn’t sound very appealing but I promise it was better than it sounds. However, there was a lot of it. These desserts are not for show and it’s probably equivalent to four scoops of ice cream. That’s a lot of gritty frozen yoghurt. The desiccated coconut-covered carbon pastry shell provided a brief respite but it didn’t change the vast quantity of black ice cream you had to plough through. In an effort to speed up the process, I took an enormous bite. This was a mistake. As the brain freeze set in and my teeth started to complain, Iona and Jake were laughing at me so much that I started to laugh. This was also a mistake. I ended up spluttering and spitting activated-carbon flecks at Iona (sorry), and then dropping some of the remaining ice cream off the edge of the bridge.
This local was not impressed.
In essence, I ate an activated carbon Trdelnik so you don’t have to. It looks cool. You feel bold and a little bit obnoxious. It’s not worth it. Get the whipped cream and Nutella. You can thank me later.
(But seriously, get one of these if you’re in Prague. You’re playing straight into the hands of whoever orchestrated this delicious dough-based commercial experiment but it tastes so good. Faking cultural significance for profit has never been as sweet).