As we draw closer to Christmas, stands will be set up around the city and country. These stands – once far more common than they are now – sell carp, which, for many Czechs, is still the food to eat on Christmas.
The live fish are kept in large tubs, and customers choose their own. The carp may be killed on the spot, cleaned, filleted, and presented to the customers. Or, the customer can take home the fish and keep it until Christmas, when they will kill and cook it.
Some will buy two carp – one for eating, and one for setting free in a nearby river. Breaded, fried carp filets will be served on the day itself, as well as carp soup. The soup is made from the offal of the fish, and is said to be much tastier than the filets themselves. A few scales from the fish are kept in one’s wallet or purse, in the hope that they will bring prosperity in the following year.
One of the problems of carp – apart from the taste, of course – is that it is full of bones. It takes a particularly skilled person to fillet the fish in a way that removes all the bones. Every Christmas, hospitals see an upswing in choking victims due to carp consumption.
Why carp, though? Why should this common fish be regarded as the thing to eat on a holiday that is usually devoted to eating the best food you can have?
Carp were introduced to Bohemia in the 13th century, when it was farmed by monks. As a freshwater fish, it is easy to farm in ponds – and, indeed, it is still farmed in this country. At the time carp began to be farmed here, the area was still very religious, and Christmas was a time of fasting.
Carp was not considered as meat; therefore, it became a dish that was Church-approved. As it was easy to find and buy, it was even more attractive to those who could ill afford a lavish spread over the holidays. (Those with money, though, eschewed carp in favor of much tastier foods.)
The Třeboň region is famous for its carp farming, and the fish you see swimming in tubs are the products of Třeboň farms. Every year, Rybářství Třeboň a.s. produces approximately 3,000 tons of freshwater fish. Of this, carp account for about 95%. The region has been involved in fish farming since the 14th century – in other words, not long after carp were introduced to Bohemia.
Carp fell out of favor with the rise of Protestantism in this area, then regained its popularity when the Catholic Church regained power. During the Communist era, when good food was hard to come by, carp was, as always, both traditional and easy to get.
With the fall of Communism and the coming of all sorts of delicious food, carp are far less popular than they once were, but the tradition persists.