Trdelník – The Czech Treat that Isn’t

A trdelník stand at the Brno Christmas Market.
A trdelník stand at the Brno Christmas Market.

A Culinary Curiosity

Any visitor to the Czech Republic will, no doubt, become quickly familiar with the trdelník; a sweet, fire cooked, cylindrical cake of an addictive nature which is widely available from street vendors in tourist areas year round and seasonally in less touristy regions.

They are a staple at Christmas markets, and any large public event with food stalls will invariably have at least one trdelník stand in the mix.

With as ubiquitous as this treat is, one could easily be forgiven for thinking they were biting into an authentic national delicacy of clear, age old, pedigree. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Winding the dough onto the trdlo before cooking.
Winding the dough onto the trdlo before cooking.

The Czech Trdelník

The Czech variation of this treat is relatively simple compared to its counterparts in some other lands. Dough is rolled into thin strips, wound around a spindle called a “trdlo”, glazed with sugar and grilled over open coals until the dough is cooked brown and the sugar caramelized. After the cooking is complete, they are rolled in trays containing a mix of sugar, cinnamon and chopped nuts before being served.

The stories and myths of how this confection reached the Czech lands are many. One story has it brought to Moravia, via Slovakia, in the 18th century by a Hungarian army general. The story goes that the roots of the Trdelník and its relatives are to be found in the Transylvania district of Romania and moved outward to the rest of Europe from there.

The truth and history of the Czech variation is rather ambiguous; however, the average Czech older than 30 will likely tell you that they did not know the trdelník at all in their childhood. Whether this means the trdelník is a very recent addition to Czech gastronomy or a very old recipe recently revived is, and likely will remain, a point of great conjecture.

Some might tell you the trdelník has roots going back much further than all of that.

Cooking over open coals in full view.
Cooking over open coals in full view.

A Prehistoric Pastry?

While it would be a stretch to connect today’s sweet trdelník and its kin to cavemen; if we look strictly at the cooking method, there is a direct link to the stone age.

The making of bread goes back to the Neolithic period. While the people who lived at the time lacked sugar or baking ovens; they had learned to refine grain into flour-like consistency, make dough, wind the mix around a stick and cook it over a fire.

Should you find yourself watching trdelníky slowly turning on their trdlos over hot coals somewhere in the Czech lands; that you’re watching one of the oldest cooking methods in action is certainly something to keep in mind while you’re taking in the sweet smells and possibly listening to someone spin a tale of how the trdelník came to the Czechs.

Coating in sugar, cinnamon and nuts.
Coating in sugar, cinnamon and nuts.

The Czechs Make it Their Own

All history and myths aside, the trdelník has most certainly found its place in Czech cuisine and is, by all appearances, set to stay. However long the Czechs have been turning out these treats for tourists and locals alike, they’ve certainly put a spin on them that is all their own.

While I can’t imagine indulging in a trdelník in warm, sunny weather; I also can’t imagine Christmas market atmospheres being complete without the smell and sight of them.

A fresh, warm trdelník in your hands on a chilly December evening is a treat well worth savoring. Even if you know little of its history; you’ll enjoy turning one, or several, into history.

The completed treat, ready to be enjoyed.
The completed treat, ready to be enjoyed.

Further Reading

If you wish to know more about the trdelník, this article and interview on the Radio Praha website is quite insightful and informative:

http://www.radio.cz/en/section/czech-life/the-old-bohemian-trdelnik

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