I’m sitting in a crowded pub in Prague. It’s warmly lit, cozy and a little smoky. My band has just completed its first European tour, and we’re celebrating with our Czech driver and tour manager, David. We’re drinking generous mugs of Pilsner, and David is translating the menu as I stumble phonetically through the brand-new-to-me words such as sun-ka (ham) and tla-cen-ka (head cheese; also, colloquially, traffic jam). Before long, the words turn into dishes, which appear on the table, entirely fresh and exciting, and yet, to my Ashkenazi palate, not entirely unfamiliar. The best kind of night.
Though recently I’ve woken up in a panic from similar nightmares chock-full of wonderful memories (crowded pub, sharing food, touring – yikes!); this was more of a daydream fueled by bites of nakladany hermelin (nak-LAH-dan-ee her-meh-leen), a popular Czech bar snack and one of the stars of the spread that night in Prague.
Often served with rye bread, and sometimes translated as “pickled cheese,” the dish features a local variant of Camembert marinated in spiced, paprika-tinged oil, padded with raw onion and crowned with hot peppers. It’s creamy, spicy, salty and bright, but also a little brooding. And while I can’t enjoy it in its natural habitat for the time being, nakladany hermelin has proved to be an easy, rewarding and emotional pandemic cooking project.
Unexpectedly, Czech culture has loomed large over my music career. When indie bands such as mine tour Europe, we often work with a local company that rents a van, equipment and a driver/tour manager. A few budget-conscious “back line” rental companies are based in Prague, and that’s how we ended up enjoying Czech bar food with David back in 2016. Last year, he became our sound engineer, and his friend Lukas joined us behind the wheel, quickly becoming our friend, too. Together, we have logged thousands of miles across Europe – and sat through hours of tlacenkas.
It’s hard to overstate just how special the band-crew relationship can be, especially when that crew is just one or two other people. It’s a family. And I’ve been thinking a lot about our Czech family lately, as the pandemic stretches on and on, and tours remain grounded. The live music ecosystem goes well beyond artists, and as a coping mechanism, I’ve turned to making nakladany hermelin as a way of paying tribute not just to David and Lukas, but to the whole community of hard-working, behind-the-scenes professionals so devastated by this crisis.
When I reached out to the restaurant from my daydream – Lokal – for its recipe and some cultural context, I was directed to Darina Sieglova, a staff writer at the Czech food magazine Apetit. I confirmed that the basic marinade consists of neutral oil, onions, peppercorns and paprika. Pickled or fresh chiles and other aromatics such as bay leaves are common garnishes or additions. “That’s what the pubs do,” said Sieglova, “but at home, feel free to play with it!” She pointed to sun-dried tomatoes, pesto and nuts as possible variations. “It’s really about what you like to eat,” she added.
Another question was how long to marinate – the cheese gets tangier and more full-bodied with age, and can be either refrigerated or left to mature in the cellar. In a pub setting, Sieglova told me, some connoisseurs know to ask their favorite bartenders for specific vintages – a three-week hermelin vs. a one-week, for example. And discerning bartenders have been known to dissuade their regulars from ordering fresher batches.
But alas, for most of us, there are no friendly Czech bartenders to consult, and with pubs, trips to Prague, and touring with David and Lukas off the menu for the time being, nakladany hermelin at home with a couple beers is the best I can do. The taste is evocative enough to bring me back to that night in 2016, and to keep my link to that world – my pre-COVID-19 career and self – alive. I try to be optimistic that one day soon we will be filling venues with music, traveling, sharing cultures, laughing in pubs, discovering new foods, seeing our friends and working in our chosen careers – again.
Until then, I am left to recapture and confront some of those feelings through food – the reassuring creaminess of the cheese buffered by the jolt of reality from the chiles and raw onion; the thick oil punctuated by punchy peppercorns and floral bay leaves.
There is a rhythm and harmony to cooking and eating this dish; it is comforting and complex, familiar and funky. It’s not quite like playing and sharing music with my friends, but it’ll do for now.
Nakladany Hermelin (Czech-Style Marinated Camembert)
Time: 10 minutes (plus 3 days’ marinating time)
Originally produced in the mid-20th century by Czechoslovak cheesemakers looking to re-create Camembert for the domestic market, hermelin is now a staple of Czech cuisine. The origins of its oil-marinated form are a little murkier, but the dish’s status as a pub favorite gives us a few clues. Darina Sieglová, a staff writer at the Czech food magazine Apetit, explains: “We believe – I don’t know if it’s scientifically based – that you need (to eat) something oily not to get drunk too easily, or too fast.” Fair enough.Many Czechs wait as much as a couple of weeks before eating, but you can eat it after just three to five days. Serve with rye, sourdough or your favorite bread and a cold pint of beer.Cheese wheels come in different widths. When selecting a container for marinating, choose a glass container in which the cheese and onions can be fully immersed in the oil. Or, if you don’t have one, the cheese can be cut into wedges and marinated in the seasoned oil along with free-floating onions and peppers.
Make Ahead: The marinated cheese needs to be made at least 3 days and up to 2 weeks before serving.
Storage Notes: Once cut, the cheese can be refrigerated, submerged in oil, for up to 1 week.
INGREDIENTS1-1/4 cups canola or vegetable oil1 tablespoon sweet paprika (see NOTE)1 teaspoon kosher salt1/4 teaspoon allspice berries (4 to 5 berries)1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns2 bay leaves2 cloves garlic, peeled and left wholeOne (8-ounce) wheel Camembert cheese2 ounces yellow onion (about 1/2 small), sliced into 1/8-inch rounds, with rings intact2 Fresno chiles, seeded and sliced into 1/4-inch strips (may substitute red jalapeños or long red hot chiles)Method:
Have a roughly 20-ounce (2½ cup), wide-mouthed glass container with an airtight seal at hand.
In a glass measuring cup, add the oil and paprika and stir; the oil should turn a rich red hue. Add the salt, allspice, peppercorns, bay leaves and garlic, and stir to combine.
Slice the Camembert in half across the equator. Arrange the intact onion rounds on one of the exposed halves, and sandwich with the other. Press down gently.
Pour half of the oil into the bowl. Place the Camembert in, then arrange the chili slices on top, and pour in the rest of the oil, making sure the cheese is submerged.
Seal tightly and leave in the refrigerator for at least 3 days and up to 2 weeks before serving.
When ready to serve, use a thin metal spatula to remove the cheese from the bowl, draining off some of the oil, and then arrange it with the pepper slices and garlic on a plate. Some onion may slip onto the plate, as well.
NOTE: This recipe produces far more flavorful results if your paprika is fresh, i.e. less than a year old. Otherwise, consider investing in a new jar from a spice retailer such as Curio Spice Co. (www.curiospice.com) or Burlap and Barrel (www.burlapandbarrel.com); a fresh tin of Hungarian paprika from the grocery story is a great option, as well.
Source: From food writer Luke Pyenson.