Anyone who’s spent a little time in Prague has probably seen these rolls of sugar-dusted pastry slowly turning over a coal fire or grill, filling the air with the irresistible smell of cinnamon.
Trdelníky (also known as Staročeské Trdlo) are a big part of the city’s famous Christmas markets; they’re cheap, tasty, and unsurprisingly very popular among visitors. They’re always described as being ‘Old Bohemian’ and very traditional indeed.
But I’d noticed that my Czech friends didn’t seem particularly interested in them. In fact, I’d even heard some whispers that trdelník isn’t really traditional at all, and is actually “just something made up to sell to tourists”.
Could it be true? To be honest, I wouldn’t find it very surprising, but I wanted to know for sure. And if they’re not Czech, then where do they really come from?
One culinary tour guide on the Eating Prague food tour told me that trdelníky are definitely not Czech, and actually come from Transylvania. Meanwhile, a restaurant owner told me the snack was probably imported, or just dreamt up, by the owners of Prague’s Christmas markets as a way to make a quick profit, since the ingredients are so inexpensive.
The pastry’s very own Wikipedia page describes it as a Hungarian sweet pastry, originally called Kürtőskalács, from Székely Land, Transylvania, home of the Székely Hungarians. According to Trdelnik.com, it was brought to Moravia in the 18th century by the Hungarian general József Gvadányi.
The head of Prague’s Gastronomy Museum, Ladislav Provaan, told Radio Prague in an interview that trdelnik, or at least the method of cooking pastry over an open fire by wrapping it around a wooden stick, goes all the way back to Neolithic times and has been seen in some form or other in most parts of Europe.
“The word ‘Trdelník’ is the only thing about this food which is purely Czech,” he said in an interview with Radio Prague. “It is a very ancient word, and it essentially denotes the use of a wooden stick, mallet or spindle. So this is a very nice word, which has many meanings in the Czech language. For example ‘trdlo’ is a gentle word for someone who is a little bit confused in a given situation.”
One thing’s for sure: until the last decade or so, trdelník was almost unknown in the Czech Republic. It seems there really is nothing particularly “Old Bohemian” about it after all.
Still, authentically “old Bohemian” or not, trdelník is pretty good, especially on a freezing cold winter’s day. Warm, sugary, chewy on the inside, crunchy on the outside… They must be tried at least once, but now at least you’ll know what you’re eating ;)
You’ll find trdelnik stands at any Christmas or Easter market in the city, with stallholders making the pastries fresh before your eyes. Watching the process is part of the experience and definitely worth the wait: the fresher the trdelnik, the better.
They’re most commonly sold sprinkled with sugar and almonds, but you can find more exotic variations – with coconut, caramel or nutella, for example – at some stalls.
If you’re not visiting during the Christmas or Easter market seasons, don’t worry. You can try a trdelník at any time of year, though not all the places selling them around the Old Town are exactly brilliant – check out this guide which I completely agree with (by the CEA study abroad blog) to the different all-year trdelnik places.
And as a side note, if you’re looking for *real* traditional Czech Christmas sweets, there are lots to try. For example, vánočka is a type of sweet, fruity, buttery, brioche-style Christmas bread, or there are vánoční cukrovi, Christmas cookies. Lots of Czech households have a Christmas-cookie-baking marathon over a day or weekend (or apparently several weekends) making huge amounts of them to give out to family and friends, but you can buy small boxes in good bakeries (like Sweet Life, for example) too.