It’s already happening. The days are getting shorter, the nights colder. The winds are stronger, the chill starts biting your ankles. Summer is gone, autumn is upon us, and that’s great! This is a wonderful time of the year when we start enjoying some of the most wonderful drinks and start spending more time in some of the coziest places. I’d like to introduce you to some of that autumn charm.
A Summer for Old Women
Late September, all of October, early November, this time of year can be a little bit unpredictable. If you get lucky, though, you’ll experience “babí léto” – “the Old Women’s Summer”.
No one knows why we call it that. Then again, the name “Indian summer” is not particularly well explained either. It may be that it comes from the little strands of spider webs that float around in the late summer and bear a resemblance to grey hair of many a grandmother.
Or it may be something more poetic. The constellation of Pleiades becomes quite prominent in early October (in the northern hemisphere, anyway). The Pleiades are commonly known as “Kuřátka” (“Chicks”, the animal, not slang for girls, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that considering the next folk name), “Sedm sester” (“The Seven Sisters”) or “Baby” (“The Old Women”). Thus the time of year when the Pleiades become very noticeable in the evening sky becomes “The Old Women’s Summer”.
One last possible etymology was recorded by Karel Jaromír Erben, a writer and a collector of Czech folklore from the mid-19th century National Revival era (and an acquaintance of the Brothers Grimm, who were doing similar work with German folk culture). He explains the name comes from the fact that even the sunny days in October feel quite cold, just like old women often feel a bit cold even at the height of summer.
Whatever the origins of the name may be, it’s a great time to enjoy some of the following drinks!
Burčák – Patience is Overrated
Next time some wine aficionado tries to convince you that the 2005 Vieux Château Certan is totally worth the 200 dollar price tag, you may recall your time in the Czech Republic, where you got to enjoy amazing wine that wasn’t 13 years old. The grapes were, in fact, harvested just this year. The results are fantastic!
Burčák, as it’s called, is an unusual drink. That’s because while all drinks are defined by what they are, many are defined by where they’re from, burčák is also defined by its time – legally it’s only burčák between August 1st and November 30th, and you can usually only find it in shops by the end of October.
It also has to be made from grapes harvested and processed in the Czech Republic, and it has to be undergoing partial fermentation. It could perhaps become wine someday, but it won’t get that chance.
Burčák is a healthy, refreshing, naturally carbonated and only slightly alcoholic drink that this time of the year just cannot happen without. It contains a large amount of vitamins B1 and B2, and has a positive effect on digestion (sometimes too positive, if we’re being honest).
One warning: if you decide to get more than a glass, many wine shops will gladly sell you a plastic bottle. To avoid a sticky accident, either make sure you open and close the bottle cap every 30 minutes, or (if possible) don’t completely tighten the cap to begin with. Burčák is still undergoing fermentation, and carbon dioxide will build up in a closed bottle, with sometimes dramatic results.
Mošt – You’d Be Hard Pressed to Find Something More Seasonal
These days we have access to fruit from all over the planet, all the time. Traditionally, however, our diet was limited to whatever happened to be in season. And autumn is the season for apples and pears.
Just like with delicious grapes turning more delicious with pressing and a little bit of time, apples and pears become also fantastic with just a little bit of pressure. Many people actually bring their own fruit to a local press to get a stockpile for the winter.
In Czech, we differentiate between “džus” (lovely Czech phonetic spelling of “juice”) and “mošt”, in that “džus” is a general term of fruit juices and can come in many varieties, such as juice from concentrate, nectar, and so on.
Mošt isn’t legally defined, but I feel it could be best summed up as “craft juice”. It’s made in smaller batches, people often have it made from their own apples they’d collected, it’s usually unfiltered and often pasteurised in bottles for better storage, but that’s it. No added sugar, no preservatives, proper organic.
Unlike shop-bought apple juice, which tastes like apple juice, mošt should taste like apples, only in liquid form. And personally, I get a bit nauseous when I drink more than a glass of boxed apple juice, but I can drink a litre of mošt and feel perfectly fine. That’s got to be a good thing.
Svařák – Human Anti-Freeze
If it doesn’t work out with babí léto and autumn arrives with cold fury, then the sweet, slightly tart smell of “svařené víno” will surely warm your heart again. The Czech language loves univerbation, combining multiple words into one shorter one, and “svařák” is one of our favourites.
You may be familiar with it under other names – “hot wine”, “mulled wine”, “Glühwein” – and its popularity goes way back. Already in Ancient Rome, warm sweetened and spiced wine was a popular drink.
It’s a fantastic way to deal with the first days of annoying cold weather. And then to power through the rest of winter. Any cold day feels a lot nicer with a warm cup of delicious svařák in your hands.
The traditional recipe calls for red wine (not too cheap, but not too fancy) to be heated, but never boiled, and then flavoured. You cannot have svařák without cinnamon, clove, orange rind and star anise (that we call “badyán” from the Persian name for anise).
Add sugar to taste, and then enjoy a classic cold-weather treat!
And Where to Find Them?
Burčák is something you should ask about in wine shops. You’ll find plenty of those around the city, you can try asking at Vinotéka Voršilka, for instance, or around a corner from there at Vinárna Na Šikmé ploše, a great wine café from my college days.
Looking for mošt, you’re probably not going to be making a trip to a nearby juice press, considering you’re most likely in the centre of Prague. You may instead find very good quality at UGO fresh bars or in Sklizeno foodie shops.
For Svařák, the most common place you’ll find it is kiosks in the streets, and if you’re walking around and feeling cold, that’s where you’ll probably end up getting it. But the best svařák I had in years was at Leica Gallery Prague. You can sit down, relax and even look at an exhibition while you’re at it.
Tea, Coffee and Hot Chocolate – Perennial Classics
No list of autumn related drinks could ever be complete without mention of the classics. After all, tea is the most popular drink on the planet if we leave out water (and considering water is essential to all the other drinks, it really isn’t a fair fight otherwise). Coffee is on its heels, and hot chocolate, while not hugely popular, is still something like a warm hug in a cup.
Speaking of coffee, the first proven appearance of coffee in Central Europe is here in Prague, discovered in the Vladislav Hall at the Prague Castle, dated back to the late 16th and early 17th century. Tea, on the other hand, has a more mysterious history here and first records of it are found in literature in the 19th century.
For a pleasant tea experience I can recommend no other place than my favourite tea house in the city – U Zlatého kohouta (“At the Golden Rooster”) in Michalská street. It’s small, but it’s thoroughly wonderful. Try yogi tea or my personal favourite, jasmine green tea.
Coffee can be found in quite possibly trillions of places in Prague alone. I’m not sure why coffee has become a massive industry while tea hasn’t, but I feel tea doesn’t mind. If you want to avoid coffee-to-go corporate supremacy of Starbucks, another option may be something like Café Ebel in Kaprova street, a tiny little place with some of the best quality coffee in Prague (according to my barista friend, because I wouldn’t know).
Lastly, hot chocolate can mean many different things, from sweet, watery vending machine kind all the way to dark, creamy chocolate that’s less of a drink and more of a melted bar of chocolate. If you’d like to try some of the best of the latter category, find Choco Café U Červené židle (At the Red Chair) in Liliová.
For a quick and easy way to find all the places mentioned, check out the Google Maps list.
And if you’d like to find more tips like these, check out their dedicated category!