You might say that I had placed the Prague Gastronomy Museum at the top of the second string of Prague attractions. After we had seen a lot of the things that make Prague famous, like the Astronomical Clock and the Prague Castle, gone on a culinary walking tour of the city with Eating Prague, and gone on a day trip to amazing Cesky Krumlov, we were ready to ask the question, “what else is there to do in Prague?” And the Gastronomy Museum, which had been at the top of my pre-trip list anyway, was the first place that made the cut.
After visiting this gem of a museum, I regret not putting it right at the top of the top list. For a museum of diminutive size – it seems to be a converted townhouse, with two floors and maybe a dozen rooms containing its permanent exhibit – it had a considerable impact on us. There are a number of quite thought-provoking elements. For example, we were instructed at the outset that we could photograph photos and materials in the exhibits, but please not to photograph the descriptive placards accompanying them. I shrugged at this and figured ok, they don’t want us stealing their ideas. But then, as I passed through the exhibit and read, for example, a point-by-point history of the fork and knife and spoon, I understood. The information is astounding – entertaining, enlightening and often unexpected.
I was surprised also to see that not only did they start at the beginning, with a description of what prehistoric mankind ate, but that they broke it down into a number of periods, with different available diet and method of food preparation at different times and places (of course, most of the food was eaten raw). I was intrigued to learn, for example, that early man had the flora to be able to eat rotten meat and not get sick from it.
As we approached one of the museum’s highlights, the exhibit and description of the medieval smoke kitchen, we were unexpectedly joined by the museum’s co-founder and owner, Ladislav Provaan, who gave us an in-depth description of the smoke kitchen and its advantages and disadvantages. Its name comes from the fact that the cooking and heating came from the fire, but since there was no chimney, the smoke from the fire stayed in the house with the inhabitants. Sounds pretty ghastly, right? But apparently it was a great way to keep food preserved for a long time without refrigeration (I’m sure like me, you just said “oh, right, they didn’t have any refrigerators then!”).
The next room dealt with the incredible advances that took place during the Renaissance period. Of course, most of what we saw there was based on what went on in the wealthiest households; nevertheless, I enjoyed seeing how sophisticated the kitchens became for providing food for a large group of people. Mr. Provaan was still with us for a few more minutes and we enjoyed hearing his commentary on the large copies of 17th century prints that are displayed at that point.
At that point, we were on our own to explore the next room, which was full of representative kitchens from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. My favorite was a nineteenth century stove and accessories, with an early pressure cooker sitting on the stovetop.
I also loved one kitchen set-up that had an early portable radio on a shelf above the stove.
This reminded me of when I was very young, when my mother had a clock radio on top of the refrigerator to listen to news and music while she was cooking. This museum kitchen set was obviously much old than what I grew up with, but the presence of the radio in it gave an extra feeling of authenticity for me.
The rooms which concluded the first floor took as their subject drink, namely beer and spirits. As I was contemplating a large wreath made out of hops and reading about beer production in the Czech Republic, Mr. Provaan re-appeared to add commentary. Believe me, I really appreciated him giving us a special museum visit – I just felt a little funny about it, since we had not paid extra for a guided tour.
As with many of our museum visits, as I spent time reading every bit of information, just enthralled with the museum, Therese and Eileen moved on ahead of me. They had already seen much of the second floor when I arrived there. I did not take too many photos there, since the displays there were mainly of text and materials mixed together (it was hard not to take pictures of text, so I just gave up and read and enjoyed). The second floor had rooms devoted to the history of cookbooks, and utensils, and modern culinary history, with a focus on Czech culinary luminaries.
Mr. Provaan had pointed out that many of the earliest cookbooks were written by scientists. Nutrition was much more of a consideration than taste. Of course, I had heard of Brillat-Savarin and his identifying of the different categories of taste. But there were many other culinary pioneers featured in that room.
My favorite room on that floor described the history of utensils. I guess from my days attending Renaissance faires, I was familiar with the idea that the knife was used to do everything from cutting up food to shoveling it into the diner’s mouth. But the story of how long it took for forks to be widely used and accepted is fascinating.
Once again I became aware that I was way behind Therese and Eileen, as I could hear them speaking with Mr. Provaan in a large well-lit room at the front of the building. I entered to see a large room obviously set up for doing cooking demonstrations (they do lessons on cooking Czech cuisine every Wednesday, and I’m sure they do other culinary events from time to time).
On the counter was a bottle filled halfway with a dark liquid. Before I could wonder what that was all about, Mr. Provaan told us it was a special mead, made with numerous spices by a local maker. He offered us small glasses to taste it. Wow! Again, from Renaissance faires, I am used to mead being honey wine, something drunk in large gulps. This was more a liqueur, much stronger than any mead I’ve ever had, to be lightly sipped and savored.
After quaffing that heady brew, the rest of the museum was a blur. We did walk through the galleries with information about contemporary Czech culinary luminaries which concluded the exhibit. And on our way out, we took a long look at their gift shop, which at present is pretty small – just a couple of counters next to the entrance, and some tee shirts hanging on the wall. There was one tee that had a very official look to it, and it happened to be in my size, so Therese bought it for me (thanks, Therese!).
We didn’t want to leave the museum. We felt like we had made a new friend in Mr. Provaan. We wish him and his remarkable museum great success. This was my first gastronomy museum, and I don’t know how many others exist around the world (New York City doesn’t really have one) – but whatever others I may encounter, they will have a hard time impressing me as much as this Gastronomy Museum in Prague did!