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