Real Fishermen–Carpe Diem

Neil’s post about goulash reminded me of another controversial Czech specialty – fried carp. Don’t make that disgusted face! Carp can actually taste good, if prepared properly.

Europe has a fascinating history of fish farming, or aquaculture, dating back to the Middle Ages. Historically, monasteries were the centers of the nascent fishing “industry,” and many ponds were created to feed members of the Church.

This tradition dates back to the 11th century, and spread throughout Europe. My home country, the Czech Republic, was one of the biggest fishing centers, sporting as many as 25,000 fish ponds by the 15th century.

The primary meal fish is, and has been, carp, but eel, pike, perch, and trout are also common–and tasty–fish “crops.”

The tradition continues to this day, but you’ll have to travel a little out of the way to see it in action. You’re not going to see these events on a tour bus or just sitting around in the city. No, you’re going to have to get out to the country, to a local fish farmer.

The most common, most efficient, method is to drain the lake to one end, and just scoop up net-fulls of thrashing fish. In Czech, we call it a “vylov” (pronounced “VEE-lof”). The modern method usually goes like this: men from the village are invited to come at 4am, warmly dressed, ready to get drunk, and get wet. Waders or tall waterproof boots are required. Big, burly men catch, separate, and weigh the fish, which are quickly put into holding tanks on big trucks–essentially aquariums on wheels. Water, fish, and body-warming slivovice (90+ proof clear plum brandy–preferably homemade) are sloshed around in a frenzy until the lake is emptied. The pace slows somewhat, as the slivovice kicks in, but it’s still a blur of activity. The day is capped off by a big feast for the participants, with, of course, delicious dishes made of fish: fish soup, smoked fish, and fried fish.

Once a tanker truck is full, it’s bound for markets all over Europe, or, at Christmas time, particularly in Germany and the former Eastern block, the fish end up in big barrels for purchase by families who can’t wait to put their carp in the bathtub, where they swim briefly before being prepared in the Christmas Eve dinner.

Unfortunately, the European Union’s ridiculous, burdensome regulations are killing local agriculture and aquaculture. Better get there soon, or it will all be gone.