THE WASHINGTON POST – I’m sitting in a crowded cafe in Prague. It’s warmly lit, cosy and a little smokey. My band has just completed its first European tour, and we’re celebrating with our Czech driver and tour manager, David. David is translating the menu as I stumble phonetically through the brand-new-to-me word such as tla-cen-ka (head cheese; also, colloquially, traffic jam). Before long, the words turn into dishes, which appear on the table, entirely fresh and exciting, and yet, to my Ashkenazi palate, not entirely unfamiliar. The best kind of night.
Often served with rye bread, and sometimes translated as pickled cheese, the dish features a local variant of Camembert marinated in spiced, paprika-tinged oil, padded with raw onion and crowned with hot peppers. It’s creamy, spicy, salty and bright, but also a little brooding. And while I can’t enjoy it in its natural habitat for the time being, nakladany hermelin has proven to be an easy, rewarding and emotional pandemic cooking project.
It’s hard to overstate just how special the band-crew relationship can be, especially when that crew is just one or two other people. It’s a family. And I’ve been thinking a lot about our Czech family lately, as the pandemic stretches on and on, and tours remain grounded. The live music ecosystem goes well beyond artistes, and as a coping mechanism, I’ve turned to making nakladany hermelin as a way of paying tribute not just to David and Lukas, but to the whole community of hard-working, behind-the-scenes professionals so devastated by this crisis.
When I reached out to the restaurant from my daydream – Lokal – for its recipe and some cultural context, I was directed to Darina Sieglova, a staff writer at the Czech food magazine Apetit. I confirmed that the basic marinade consists of neutral oil, onions, peppercorns and paprika. Pickled or fresh chiles and other aromatics such as bay leaves are common garnishes or additions. “That’s what the cafe do,” said Sieglova, “but at home, feel free to play with it!” She pointed to sun-dried tomatoes, pesto, and nuts as possible variations. “It’s really about what you like to eat,” she added.
Another question was how long to marinate – the cheese gets tangier and more full-bodied with age, and can be either refrigerated or left to mature in the cellar. In a cafe setting, Sieglova told me, some connoisseurs know to ask their favourite waiters for specific vintages – a three-week hermelin vs a one-week, for example. And discerning waiters have been known to dissuade their regulars from ordering fresher batches.
But alas, for most of us, there are no friendly Czech waiters to consult, and with cafes, trips to Prague, and touring with David and Lukas off the menu for the time being, nakladany hermelin at home with a couple drinks is the best I can do. The taste is evocative enough to bring me back to that night in 2016, and to keep my link to that world – my pre-COVID career and self – alive. I try to be optimistic that one day soon we will be filling venues with music, travelling, sharing cultures, laughing in cafes, discovering new foods, seeing our friends and working in our chosen careers – again.
Until then, I am left to recapture and confront some of those feelings through food – the reassuring creaminess of the cheese buffered by the jolt of reality from the chiles and raw onion; the thick oil punctuated by punchy peppercorns and floral bay leaves.
There is a rhythm and harmony to cooking and eating this dish; it is comforting and complex, familiar and funky. It’s not quite like playing and sharing music with my friends, but it’ll do for now.
NAKLADANY HERMELIN (CZECH-STYLE MARINATED CAMEMBERT)
10 minutes (plus three days’ marinating time)
Originally produced in the mid-20th Century by Czechoslovak cheesemakers looking to re-create Camembert for the domestic market, hermelin is now a staple of Czech cuisine. The origins of its oil-marinated form are a little murkier, but the dish’s status as a cafe favourite gives us a few clues.
Many Czechs wait as much as a couple of weeks before eating, but you can eat it after just three to five days. Serve with rye, sourdough or your favourite bread.
Cheese wheels come in different widths. When selecting a container for marinating, choose a glass container in which the cheese and onions can be fully immersed in the oil. Or, if you don’t have one, the cheese can be cut into wedges and marinated in the seasoned oil along with free-floating onions and peppers.
Make Ahead: The marinated cheese needs to be made at least three days and up to two weeks before serving.
Storage Notes: Once cut, the cheese can be refrigerated, submerged in oil, for up to one week.
1 1/4 cups canola or vegetable oil
One tablespoon sweet paprika (see NOTE)
One teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon allspice berries (four to five berries)
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
Two bay leaves
Two cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
One (eight-ounce) wheel Camembert cheese
Two ounces yellow onion (about half small), sliced into 1/8-inch rounds, with rings intact
Two Fresno chiles, seeded and sliced into 1/4-inch strips (may substitute red jalapeños or long red hot chiles)
Have a roughly 20-ounce (2 1/2 cup), wide-mouthed glass container with an airtight seal at hand.
In a glass measuring cup, add the oil and paprika and stir; the oil should turn a rich red hue. Add the salt, allspice, peppercorns, bay leaves and garlic, and stir to combine.
Slice the Camembert in half across the equator. Arrange the intact onion rounds on one of the exposed halves, and sandwich with the other. Press down gently.
Pour half of the oil into the bowl. Place the Camembert in, then arrange the chili slices on top, and pour in the rest of the oil, making sure the cheese is submerged.
Seal tightly and leave in the refrigerator for at least three days and up to two weeks before serving.
When ready to serve, use a thin metal spatula to remove the cheese from the bowl, draining off some of the oil, and then arrange it with the pepper slices and garlic on a plate. Some onion may slip onto the plate, as well.