Dos and Don’ts: Culinary & Medicinal Customs

It's not just manners and payments that need to be considered.
Editor´s note: while the pieces of advice below are traditional lore in the Czech Republic, makes no claim concerning their validity.

We’ve covered how you should behave when visiting friends for a meal. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are numerous things you’ll be told to do or not do concerning what goes in your mouth.

Food and drink
One of the delights of summer in the Czech Republic is being able to get fresh cherries. It’s even better if you know someone with their own tree where you can eat your fill. However, if the summer sun is making you parched, think first before reaching for a glass of water or beer. You will invariably be told that drinking anything after eating cherries will make you sick.

When it comes to mushrooms, there are a number of don’ts. Two that are especially worth mentioning are that you shouldn’t reheat food containing mushrooms, and you shouldn’t drink alcohol after eating mushrooms. Actually, this last bit of advice has some validity.  Consuming alcohol after eating inky caps (Coprinopsis atramentaria) can result in adverse reactions including nausea and heart palpitations.

There are times, however, when it is considered beneficial to drink alcohol, and that is after a heavy and/or fatty meal. Alcohol, especially beer and spirits, are believed to help the body break down these foods.

Perhaps the biggest ‘do´ in Czech cuisine is that people should always have a warm meal once a day. According to folk wisdom, it is healthy. Folk wisdom also maintains that meat is necessary to a healthy life.

Beer and Onions are Medicine
The saying, “Pivo je lék” (Beer is medicine.) can be found printed, somewhat ironically, on beer mugs. However, there are some people who will claim it is true and not just for its gastric properties. The bitterness of some beers is believed to prevent the development of gall stones.

Slivovice is considered imbued with even more beneficial qualities. As well as a digestive aid, the fiery distillate from plums is believed to fight off colds and promote longevity. Not to mention, permanently block out the memory of any embarrassing incidents involving drinking great quantities of the stuff.

More than either of these, the Czech medicinal beverage par excellence is Becherovka. Known as the thirteenth spring of Karlovy Vary, this bitter herb liqueur is known also for its medicinal properties, especially helping digestion and even curing arthritis.

Not all Czech remedies are alcoholic. One purported cure for the common cold is to eat onion with sugar. However, if this advice brings tears to your eyes, most people will swear by tea with lemon and honey. Some may still recommend that you drop a shot of slivovice in there for good measure.

Onion is touted as a cure for snoring. In two liters of water, you can boil a chopped onion for fifteen minutes then add garlic and marjoram and cook for another five. Strain the mixture and add a teaspoon of honey and olive oil. Take a small amount every hour. Another, less demanding, cure for snoring is warm Vincentka – a type of mineral water.

Another use of onions is for treating bee stings. After removing the stinger, careful not to squeeze the poison sac, wash with soapy water and place a piece of onion there. For wasp stings, vinegar is recommended. Perhaps vinegar better complements the wasp poison. Who knows?

Customary Foods
By now you should all know about the traditional Czech Christmas meal – carp and potato salad. I’ll leave you to debate the culinary merits of this. However, if you do partake of the carp and happen to get a bone stuck in your throat, the recommended cure is to eat a piece of dry bread.

Concerned about your future? Apples are supposedly imbued with prophetic powers. Slice an apple horizontally with the stem pointing up. A star arrangement is meant to herald good fortune, but a cross is not so lucky.

On New Year’s Day, legend has it that you should eat lentils in order to have wealth in the coming year. Having done it for years I can’t vouch that it works, but it is a healthy alternative to all the rich Christmas food.

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Have you tried any of these? Did they work for you? Do you know some other remedies you’d like to share?

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