Hooked on Carp, Czechs Keep Yuletide Custom Alive ; on a Fish Farm in South Bohemia, a Family Renews Its Tradition of Raising the Stars of the Christmas Table

Article excerpt

Men in mud-splattered rubber trousers stand in small flat boats drawn into a tight circle. They give a joyous shout, and their long poles rise and fall, slapping the icy black water in a rhythm that is a thousand years old.

This is how the Christmas season begins in the Czech Republic - with boisterous fishermen's jokes, Thermoses of hot tea, and the carp harvest.

On a rock overlooking the pond, Jan Hofbauer, one of the last proud carp barons of South Bohemia, directs the fishing operation by hand signals. His life's work, like that of his forefathers, has been to bring Christmas dinner to thousands of Czech families.

While in other parts of the world carp is considered an unclean pest or, at best, a poor-man's fish with a foul-smelling, low- quality meat, here it is the center of the Christmas feast.

"Czechs have eaten carp at Christmas for as long as history remembers," Hofbauer says, "and the way we do carp, it is delicious."

The fish is usually fried, often breaded, and the classic Christmas recipe, called carp black, is dressed up with a dark plum sauce.

Time-tested techniques

Hofbauer and his crew of village men use the same techniques their ancestors have used for centuries.

First, the pond is slowly drained. Then, the men use nets and poles to round up the fish in shallow water and scoop them into baskets, where they are carefully sorted into those that can be sold this year and those that must spend another winter under the ice.

Czech scientists say that carp can survive very harsh conditions but only reach their full potential in size and flavor when given special care. While species of carp have taken over tepid waters in North America only to produce undersized and unsavory offspring, Czech carp often weigh as much as 10 pounds and have a fine, buttery taste.

The difference lies primarily in the labor-intensive methods of farmers like Hofbauer and the complex system of ponds where the fish are raised - a process that takes three to four years.

Of 23,000 man-made ponds in the Czech Republic, 95 percent of them are used to farm carp. A local fish-farming system consists of dozens of ponds interconnected by gates and channels that bring in fresh water in the spring, drain and clean the ponds in the fall, and keep fish sorted and sheltered through the winter.

"Carp have to be raised in these pond systems and fed natural cereals," says Martin Flajshans, a scientist at the Research Institute of Fish Culture and Hydrobiology in South Bohemia. "Carp raised any other way have jelly-like meat, smelling of mud and algae."

The carp's tale

The first written record of this kind of carp farming in the Czech lands dates from the 11th century, when Roman Catholic monasteries began cultivating fish for food during Lent. It quickly developed into a closely guarded Czech trade.

Today, induction into the fisherman's guild still requires a frigid initiation, which includes an oath to serve the patron saints of fishing, a dunking in ice-cold water, and a swift spanking with an ornate wooden paddle. …

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