Bramboráky – At Home and on the Street

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Bramboráky sizzling away at a festival market stall.

Widespread and Wonderful

Potato pancakes are a well known and savoured dish throughout Europe and further points around the world. The presence of the potato pancake in eastern European cuisine likely dates back to the early 19th century, once the potato had become an established crop in the eastern reaches of the continent after being brought to Europe from South America in the 16th century.

With as common a crop as the potato is, it’s no surprise that a myriad of potato pancake variations, based on national or personal tastes, have come into being over the centuries.

The Czech variation, the bramborák, reflects Czech culinary traditions by incorporating a high degree of garlic into the mix. Other standard ingredients of the Czech bramborák include marjoram and caraway.

Some regional variations of the bramborák incorporate saurkraut or smoked meat into the recipe.

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A bramborák ready to be savoured.

Enjoying the Czech Bramborák

The Czech spin on the potato pancake is a simple affair designed to be served up hot, straight from cooking with no further embelishment. This fact makes it a very good example of street food in the Czech lands as every festival that features food stands will have at least one stall selling bramboráky with an abundance of the snacks in various stages of frying or draining.

Potato pancakes in the Czech style are also something you can do at home without a great deal of fuss.

These two links will take you to two Czech style recipes to try yourself:

http://czechmatediary.com/2007/11/07/another-classic-czech-recipe-bramboraks-potato-pancakes-bramboraky/

http://czechgastronomy.com/potato-pancakes/

For something a bit different, this link will take you to a recipe for Slovak style potato pancakes:

http://www.slovakcooking.com/2009/recipes/potato-pancakes/

 

Villa Stiassni – Mismatched Mansion

The House that Disagreement Built 

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Vila Stiassni seen from the front gardens.

Designed and constructed between 1927 and 1929, Villa Stiassni is one of Brno’s many and varied architectural attractions.

Tucked away in the affluent surroundings of the city’s Masaryk Quarter, Villa Stiassni is hidden from view by the many trees which fill its extensive grounds and is only accessible by a single gate on Hroznová street which runs past it.

Once inside the grounds, visitors are greeted by the massive villa, with all the straight edges and purist lines that denote the Functionalist stylings of the interwar period. However, encased in that Modernist shell is an interior more akin to a late 19th century aristocratic manor with all the trappings and status symbols of socially elite ownership.

How could such oppulent interiors find themselves wrapped in an exterior of minimalist sensibilities when they flew directly in the face of the basic tennets of Modernism?

Let’s spend some time with Villa Stiassni and find out:

An Architect and his Customers 

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The villa reception hall with rich woodwork featured on the staircase and ceiling.

The primary architect for Villa Stiassni was Slovak born Ernst Wiesner (1890-1971). Wiesner was one of the most important and influential architects in Brno’s burgeoning Modernism trend of the time. Several buildings in Brno are creditable in whole or in part to him.

The Stiassnis, Alfred (1883-1961) and Hermine (1889-1962), owned several properties in Brno with this villa being their primary residence where they lived along with their only child, Susanne (1923-2005).

Alfred was a wealthy industrialist building his fortune in Brno’s thriving textile industry of the period.

Hermine had been born to wealth, her father a prominent figure in the coal industry. She had grown up surrounded by the highly visible status symbols of her class and was determined to hold onto and flaunt them in the home she and Alfred called their own.

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Alfred Stiassni’s study

It was in Hermine’s determination to keep and display her and Alfred’s wealth that the stylistic dischord between the villa’s exteriors and interiors had its origins.

With Wiesner pushing for Modernism inside and out while Hermine outright refused to be without the comforts of her wealthy upbringing, a compromise was in order.

While Wiesner tended to the design of the villa exteriors and the interiors of the villa’s service wing, design of the Stiassnis’ living quarters was tended to by Franz Wilfert of Vienna.

The affluence of the living quarters satisfied Hermine while the spartan minimalism of the service wing kept touch with Wiesner’s own vision for the villa.

Beyond the villa itself, Wiesner laid out the basic concepts for the surrounding gardens. True to Modernist style philosophies, the gardens were spacious and designed to work in harmony with the villa structure.

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Looking into the lower garden.

The lower, southern part of the garden was designed to afford a great deal of privacy and was planted with many trees and shrubs to accomplish the task. It is almost impossible to see into the villa property from the south. By contrast, the northern section of the garden offers some fantastic panoramic views of the areas surrounding the villa.

The Stiassnis were a very active family not only socially but also physically. The family was very involved in sports pursuits year round and evidence of their passion for fitness can be found in the tennis court and swimming pool that are included in the gardens as well as a variety of exercise equipment built into some rooms inside the villa.

Departure and Decline 

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Portraits of Alfred and Hermine Stiassni on display.

Though the villa bears their name, the Stiassnis only lived there for nine years. Their Jewish faith forced them to leave both the villa and the country in the face of impending German occupation. Initially, they escaped to Great Britain though later spent time in Brazil before ultimately settling in America. Descendants of the family still live in California today.

Ernst Wiesner fled the country in Spring of 1939 and spent the war years in Great Britain. Though he briefly returned to Brno after the war, he left again in 1948. He lived out the remainder of his life in Great Britain, mostly in Liverpool, where he died in 1971.

As with many of the properties owned by wealthy Czechs in the interwar period, Villa Stiassni was siezed and used by the Germans during the Second World War and subsequently taken into state control after the war.

From the post war nationalization until the 1990s, most residents of Brno knew the structure as the “Government Villa” as it was used by the government for ceremonial purposes and to accomodate VIP guests when they visited.

During this period, particularly through the 1970s and 1980s, the interiors of the villa were subject to a great deal of change and remodeling. Much of the remodeling rendered the villa interiors unrecognizable.

During the 1990s, the villa was privatized and used for business purposes as well as rented out for weddings and other social functions.

Since 2009, the villa has been under the jurisdiction and management of the National Monument Institute. Under this organization’s watch, the villa has been largely restored to the appearance it held while the Stiassnis called it home.

Restoration and Revival

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The staircase in the service wing of the villa, faithful to Wiesner’s vision.

In 2010, funding was received to begin restoration of the villa. Restorations lasted until 2014, when the villa was opened to the public, and included the removal of much of the remodeling that had been done through the 1970s and 80s.

Fortunately for those restoring the Villa, Hermine Stiassni had been a passionate and prolific painter and many of her paintings of the villa survived and gave researchers and workers much needed insights into some of the finer details and nuances of the living quarters that she knew so well.

The gardens were renovated at the same time as the villa, though some guesswork was required in the renovation as original plans did not survive to the present. In fact, the precise identity of the architect Wiesner hired to do the in-depth design work on the garden is a matter of speculation at present.

Also during restoration, new buildings were added on the north part of the property to serve as educational and research facilities dedicated to the restoration of modern architecture.

The villa is registered as a national cultural monument.

Paying a Visit and Learning More 

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Another angle on the villa exteriors.

Owing to its educational and research purposes, Villa Stiassni has more restricted public access than other attractions.

Typically the interiors are open for guided tours Friday through Sunday, a reservation is recomended for those tours. If you do not understand Czech, there are texts available in English and a few other languages to help you follow along.

The villa gardens can be visited without a guide.

The following link is the villa’s official page, where you can find out more about tour times and reservations:

https://www.vila-stiassni.cz/en

These two links will give you more information about the Villa’s early history and the life and work of Ernst Wiesner:

http://www.bam.brno.cz/en/object/c045-stiassny-villa?filter=code

http://www.bam.brno.cz/en/architect/32-ernst-wiesner?filter=code

Koláč – A Complex Confection

A Transatlantic Treat

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The typical appearance of koláč as you’d see them in a Czech bakery.

The koláč is, without doubt, a very well known example of the sweeter side of Czech cuisine. In fact, many who have visited or been raised in the areas of America with a high degree of Czech ancestry in the local population will most certainly be familiar with a variation of the treat.

Czech immigrants to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought the koláč with them and their descendants have proudly kept the tradition alive to the present and added a few touches to it that make it their own.

Having spoken to a number of Czechs who have tried koláč types in America and Americans who have tried traditional variants of the treat in the Czech lands, opinions are quite variable on how close present American types are to traditional Czech ones.

Most Czechs I’ve met who have tried American koláčes tend to say the pastry part of it isn’t quite right. This is a perfectly understandable reaction if the maker of the koláč used the ubiquitous “all-purpose” flour available in North American supermarkets. Anyone who has found themselves navigating the flour minefield that exists in Czech supermarkets, knows that “all-purpose” is just not a flour type that exists here and one must choose between three or four different grades of flour depending on what they are planning to make.

The koláč is part of a very large category of round cakes, very often connected to wedding celebrations, that can be found throughout the Slavonic influenced areas of Europe. Their forms are as various as the countries they come from.

Czech Koláč Varieties 

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The wedding Koláč, these being of Moravian variety.

Generally speaking, the Czech koláč exists in three main types. All feature a semi-sweet pastry base with farmer’s cheese, known as tvaroh in Czech, as a filling or a bed for sweet fillings like fruit or poppy seed or walnut paste.

The wedding koláč (svatební koláče) is the smallest of the Czech varieties and, as the name suggests, is closely associated with weddings and often used as part of a wedding invitation.

They are finger food sized and usually made in large numbers to satisfy large groups of people. A Czech wedding really isn’t complete without a steady flow of these. However, one does not need to attend a wedding to indulge in this type of koláč as they are also often made for other family events where a large number of people are expected.

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The standard Czech koláč, this one with blueberry filling.

The standard koláč (koláč) is the most common member of the Czech group and is available in all bakeries across the country.

These are about the size of the palm of your hand and good for snacking or desert.

Care should be taken when shopping for this type of koláč as their quality is as variable as that of the bakeries you can buy them from.

Smaller independent bakeries are your best bet for finding a good quality koláč as most chain bakeries use off-site mass production methods.

The third major type of Czech koláč is the Wallachian frgál (Valašské frgále) and it’s the giant of the family coming in at the size of a small pizza. Originating in the Moravian Wallachia region in the far east of the country, the frgál is not as frequently seen as other Czech koláč varieties.

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Wallachian frgál on sale at a market stall as wholes and halves.

It’s not unusual to see stands selling frgál at festive markets in the east of the country.

Owing to their size, they are typically sold as whole pieces, halves and sometimes even quarters. Usually, they are wrapped in plastic film not only to keep them fresh but also because, unless you’re buying a quarter, they are usually the sort of thing you take home to eat later. A whole or half frgál, in my experience, is rather too rich and heavy to eat on the spot as a snack.

Make Your Own Koláč

If you’re not in the Czech lands or in the vicinity of a bakery with Czech specialties on sale, the following links will take you to some recipes that will get you quite close to a traditional Czech koláč experience:

http://www.slovakcooking.com/2011/recipes/kolache/

http://czechgastronomy.com/frgaly/

http://czechgastronomy.com/wedding-cakes/

Villa Tugendhat – Mastery of Modernism

Brno’s Modernist Crown Jewel 

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The villa, as seen from the gardens.

One does not need to be in Brno for very long or to have a particularly deep interest in architecture in order to take note of the city’s varied array of building styles. Everything from medieval Gothic to examples of contemporary Deconstructivism and Eco-architectural styles can be found within the city limits.

Particularly notable in Brno’s architectural landscape are the numerous examples of early 20th century Modernism that have survived to the present. From family homes to offices and the city’s sprawling exhibition centre, Modernist structures dot the city. Such prominence of that specific movement is quite fitting as Brno played a major role in the development of it; many practitioners of Modernist design spent some time working in Brno in the early 20th century.

The best known Modernist structure in Brno is the UNESCO listed Villa Tugendhat in the city’s Černá Pole district. Designed by the legendary Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), it is considered to be an outstanding example of the priciples of Modernist style at the international level.

The Minds Behind the Monument 

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The villa’s living room, featuring the famous onyx wall and furniture designed specifically for the building.

While the villa’s commission and start of construction took place in 1928, the seed for it was planted in the early 1920s.

Greta Tugendhat (1903-1970) was still married to her first husband in the early 1920s and spend much of that time living in Germany. It was during her time in Germany that she became particularly taken with the works of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Modernist style in general. It was Greta’s wish to have a modern, uncluttered house to call her home.

After her first marriage fell apart, she married Fritz Tugendhat (1895-1958) and they settled in Brno. The Tugendhats were prominent members of Brno’s Jewish community and Greta’s family, who had been in Moravia since the 17th century, had built a fortune over generations in the textile and sugar industries. The land on which Villa Tugendhat stands was a gift to Greta from her father upon her marriage to Fritz.

With land to build on, Greta was able to make contact with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe through mutual acquaintences and invite him to Brno and commission him to design the modern home she had dreamed of.

Mies was impressed with the plot of land to build on as well as the quality of workmanship in Brno’s existing buildings and had no qualms in hiring a local construction company, Mořic and Artur Eisler, to carry out the construction.

With wide freedom of design given to him by Greta and her father financing the construction, Mies was set to create a structure that would at once embody Greta’s dream home and his own “Less is more” design philosophy to the fullest.

From Vision to Reality 

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Another angle on the living room. This view shows the large main window partially lowered.

The basic philosophy of Modernism is that the aesthetic and appeal of a building should come from the structures and materials used in making it rather than any extra decoration. Additionally, spaces should flow into each other and work seamlessly with the human activity inside as well as the natural world outside.

Staying faithful to such ideals, Mies and his partners in the project exercised a great deal of care in both structural design and selection of materials when creating the villa, associated fixtures and furniture to ensure that everything worked together perfectly including how the villa was designed to work harmoniously with the slope of the land it was built upon. The construction of the villa lasted from 1928 to 1930.

Part of the villa’s uniqueness lies in the use of a structural steel framework, it was the first detached residential building in the world to be built as such. Sections of the steel framework are on full view throughout the villa and those sections which run through living areas are covered in chromed cladding.

Another notable aspect of the villa interior includes a translucent onyx wall which separates the livng room from the study and gives a warm glow to the rooms when the sun is low in the sky.

The living room, which overlooks the villa garden, includes a large window which can be completely lowered into the floor by electric motors to create an uninterupted flow of exterior and interior space and give a panoramic view towards the city centre.

Changing Fortunes and Decline 

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Looking into the study.

The Tugendhats moved into the completed villa in December of 1930 and stayed there until the impending German occupation forced the family to leave the country for Switzerland in May of 1938. By early 1941, they had relocated to Caracas, Venezuela.

1938 also saw the villa’s architect leave Europe for America. He settled in Chicago, worked as a university professor, set up his own architecural firm and eventually achieved American citizenship over the years.

Under German occupation, the villa was used by the Gestapo as well as an aircraft engine manufacturer among others. It was in this period that much of the furniture was removed and extensive rebuilding of the interiors was carried out. During the period of German occupation, the onyx wall was bricked in and concealed, an action which most certainly led to it’s survival.

Spring of 1945 saw the arrival of the Soviet army to “liberate” the city. The villa suffered particularly under Soviet use. They used the living areas as stables for their horses and used much of the wood that remained in the structure for fuel.

For a period of five years, starting in August of 1945, the villa was used as a dancing school. The state took possession of the villa in October of 1950 and it was used by the city’s nearby children’s hospital as a rehabilitation facility until the late 1960s.

The late 1960s and the 1970s were a true low for the villa. Toward the end of the 1960s, local Brno architect, František Kalivoda, contacted Greta Tugendhat and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to discuss the possible restoration of the villa; both Greta and Mies were quite supportive of the idea. However, fortune would not be on their side.

1969 marked the begining of “Normalization” in the former Czechoslovakia; it was a very oppressive backlash by the Socialist government in the wake of the quashed Prague Spring demonstrations of 1968. Under this movement, any attempts at reconstruction of the villa were blockaded by the state.

Greta Tugendhat, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and František Kalivoda all died between 1969 and 1971. Their deaths marked the end of any sort of work on the villa for approximately a decade.

Reconstructions and Restoration 

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The villa’s conservatory.

The ownership of the villa shifted from the state to the city of Brno in 1980.

Between 1981 and 1985, the villa received and extensive renovation and a basic restoration of functional equipment. While this did ensure that the building  was kept structurally sound and accumulated structural damage was repaired, no regard was given to historical accuracy. The city saw it as a place to host important guests and political functions; they made little allowance for the research required to return the villa to it’s former glory.

In 1994, the villa came under the jurisdiction of Brno’s city museum and remains so today. In 2001, the villa was inscribed on the UNESCO list as a World Heritage Site and research to restore it to historical accuracy began in earnest in the same time period.

While most of the research for restoration was carried out in the early 2000s, several delays pushed back the start of the work until 2010.

The villa reopened to the public in 2012, after two years of restorations, and is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.

Visiting Villa Tugendhat and Learning More 

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The view to the villa garden from the living room.

Villa Tugendhat is not difficult to access by Brno public transport and a small bit of walking.

As it is a very popular attraction and the number of visitors is limited, booking well ahead is required if you wish to see the interiors. Availability of tours, tour languages and admission prices can be found on the villa website. Tour reservations and ticket purchases can also be made at the website.

The following two websites will give you a good background of the villa’s history as well as what makes it architecturally unique.

This is the villa’s own website:

http://www.tugendhat.eu/en/

This is the villa’s entry at the website of the Brno Architectural Manual:

http://www.bam.brno.cz/en/object/c327-villa-tugendhat?filter=name