Take a moment to reflect on some of your earliest childhood memories. There’s a good chance that at least a couple of them bring back the smells, tastes and textures of unforgettable foods you enjoyed (maybe daily, possibly on special occasions) growing up. Maybe soup was one such dish.
When I take that journey back in time, my thoughts automatically harken back to my grandmother’s kitchen. She would craft homemade soups as a first course for lunch and dinner, every single day. That’s right. There isn’t a single day that I can remember her not preparing fresh, healthy and hearty soups for us to enjoy. Maybe it’s all the more memorable because she made them so well. The odour of fresh herbs, spices, garlic, veggies and meats wafted across her kitchen and turned our stomachs inside out with anticipation. Mealtime in her household was an event.
Probably due to her Czech heritage, Bubi believed that garlic was nature’s age-reversing elixir. This explains why she used so much of it in her cooking. Almost every recipe included at least a few cloves of the deliciously pungent onion relative. So committed to this idea was Bubi, that she once prepared a two-page essay to educate me on garlic’s many healing benefits. Her goal was to encourage me to always eat enough of it, malodorous breath be damned! Considering my grandparents and great-grandparents lived long and healthy lives into their 100’s, I took her lifestyle recommendations as gospel.
One of Bubi’s garlic-laden favourites was a dish called Cesnecka—or garlic soup—a staple of Czech and Slovak cuisine. Consider it the ultimate comfort food with a history as rich as its broth. That’s because traditional dishes such as this one date back more than a millennium to when the early Slavic states rose to power and asserted cultural dominance over large swaths of present-day Eastern Europe. The Duchy of Bohemia in today’s Czech Republic was one such powerful state, that gave rise to (the aptly-named) Bohemian cuisine that we know and love today.
The Bohemians weren’t fans of culinary complexity. Instead, they favoured simple recipes using the freshest, locally-grown seasonal ingredients.
This minimalist approach was made tastier thanks to fertile farmlands that each year yielded bushels full of hearty grains and ripe vegetables. A no-frills philosophy was also a sure fire way to satiate the region’s peasant farmers. Consider its creation a dietary win-win for everyone involved!
As centuries passed and trade thrived, Bohemia was influenced by many other cultures, but no more than the Habsburg Empire, under whose control the region fell in the 1500s. Suddenly, as new trade routes opened, Bohemian chefs from peasant farms to the royal court gained access to an array of new flavours in the form of spices such as oregano, caraway seeds, pepper and a wide range of Austrian delicacies from Schnitzel to dumplings. Through it all, garlic maintained its aromatic place of prominence in the region’s kitchens.
There’s no doubt that many Bohemians kept adding garlic to dishes—some ate it raw—because they understood its nutritional benefits (or at least had an instinctive hunch that it was good for them, given the rudimentary medical knowledge at the time). Turns out they were on to something. Garlic isn’t just high in vitamins A, B and C, it’s also full of selenium and calcium. Some, like my Bubi, argue that it’s something of a miracle aid when ill. Indeed, the allicin in garlic is said to have medicinal properties.
For those who overindulge, Cesnecka is even thought to be a hangover cure. But for me, Czech garlic soup is all about the wholesome flavour and memories of Bubi’s kitchen. In fact, the dish means so much to me that I wanted to share our recipe here with all of you.
Here’s what you’ll need to cook Cesnecka in your kitchen:
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 8-12 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 small yellow onion, diced
- 6 cups vegetable or chicken stock, preferably homemade
- 2 medium sized potatoes, peeled and cubed
- 1 tablespoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
- 1 handful fresh parsley, chopped for garnish
- 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese for garnish
- Homemade croutons (see recipe below)
Historically, garlic soup is a simple peasant dish. It’s as uncomplicated as they come and takes relatively little time to prepare. Start by melting butter in a stockpot, then add in your gorgeous garlic and the blend of seasonings listed above. You may not have used caraway seeds in many other recipes, but they’re a longstanding staple of Czech cuisine with a flavour and scent similar to anise (and they’re delicious!). Sauté the combination until the garlic becomes pungent and obvious. This should only take a few minutes (I tend to cook it a bit longer because I like the smell, but that’s really a personal preference).
By this point, your garlic should be soft to the touch, which means it’s time to mix in the broth and reduce the heat so the mixture can thicken and the dish’s many flavours can intermingle to produce that distinctive taste. Simmer for at least 30 minutes. Remember that the objective is for the soup to gain its unmistakable, garlic-infused flavour, not to be overpowering. Allotting ample cooking time is key.
At this point you can also add diced potatoes to make the soup heartier, and add croutons when the soup is plated. Just remember to add the potatoes soon after reducing the heat so they become as soft and delectable as the garlic base. Once the dish is ready, be sure to add some grated parmesan or, even better, a parmesan crisp, to give it a savoury kick.
And there you have it. I hope you enjoy this amazing soup as much as I did growing up. And who knows? Maybe it’ll become a staple in your house, too!
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Homemade Crouton Recipe
- 1 baguette, cut into 1/2 – 1 inch cubes
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon crushed garlic
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
Making homemade croutons is about as simple as crafting Czech garlic soup. In a mixing bowl, toss your cubed baguette with the ingredients listed above. Heat olive oil in a cast iron pan and toast the ingredients on your stovetop until the croutons are browned and crunchy. You can also bake your croutons to perfection–but I opt for the old-school stovetop method (it’s what Bubi preferred!). Garnish your Czech garlic soup with the croutons when ready and enjoy!
Fia Pagnello, founder