A beautiful crystal chandelier? A larger-than-life painting of the Prague Castle? A 4-feet Moser vase? No. None of these are great gifts when you want to bring a cheap, fun souvenir from Prague to your colleagues, classmates or friends in your chess team. But some classic Czech sweets, candies and chocolate bars? That’s an entirely different story: they are cheap, fun and also unique to the Czech environment. Not something you’d give your loved one for Valentine’s Days, sure, but they are lots of fun for the right person.
Now, of course, you can go very, very wrong with choosing the right kind. Not all of classic Czech sweets taste great or - more importantly - have a story behind them. Because let’s be honest: story sells. Even gifts. You want a sweet or a bar that has a rich history, something that has a track record behind it, something that was the primary cause behind our first cavities, drilled without anesthesia when the whole school went to the dentist like we used to do in the last years of Communism (but that’s an entirely different story). You want some sweets we grew up with. You want sweets like those listed below.
Antiperle: Truly the Czech 1960s take on Tic-Tacs, these tasty mints take about six weeks to make. Yup. Layers of mint-flavored sugar solution are slowly dripping on a single crystal of sugar and six weeks later, you end up with a small mint 4mm in diameter. They come in a cool, retro package that is hard to resist as a small, impromptu rumba shaker: inevitably, everyone starts playing with them once they have them in their hands. Look for them in some Tesco stores or smaller convenience stores.
Haslerky: This licorice and herbal hard candy dates back to 1920, but it is based on an older recipe dating back to 1877. It was named after Mr Karel Hasler, a famous songwriter, actor and cabaret singer with a hoarse voice, who made a deal with the manufacturer of this supposedly medicinal candy. If you like licorice, you have found heaven in these.
Lentilky: Just like Smarties, only cheaper. Oh yeah, and they totally do melt in your hand. They come various shapes and sized but we would aim for the classic: a long, thin paperboard package of less than 50 grams.
Pedro: It is really hard to describe the taste of this pink, fruity bubble gum that used to cost exactly 1 Czechoslovak Crown. The first word that comes to mind is “bubble gum”: the flavor is 99% sugar with notes of fruits, preservatives and additives. This is more a triumph of the chemical industry than a product of organic agriculture, honestly. That’s why it comes as a surprise that the product tastes good for about 5 minutes. In the 90s, they started adding different pictures and tattoos to the the gum packaging, so now it’s cooler than ever and you definitely need to give Pedro a try (and don’t worry: the longevity of the tattoo matches that of the chewing gum).
Piknik, Jesenka, Pikao: So similar, yet so very different. These are so good they made Jan’s list of guilty pleasures, and this threesome is arguably the guiltiest. What are they? Piknik is condensed milk, Jesenka is condensed cream and Pikao is condensed cocoa milk. You can get them in a can, but for the true, “gourmet" experience, you must get them in a tube (which comes in two sizes) and suck them straight out of it. Dear heavens! You can actually feel these delicious creams clogging your arteries as you eat them but you know what? You don’t care. Because you’re in a sugar coma. Defibrillator sold separately.
Tatranky: Originally a six-layer wafer with hazelnut, chocolate or peanut filling and chocolate coating on the sides was a staple of the school snack box when we were growing up: always a piece of bread with a spread or ham and cheese, and Tatranky as the sweet ending. Still very popular today, they became much smaller than they used to be (they even took one layer away). Still, we love'em. Secret tip: you have to press the package slightly to see if they're new or old (old ones are hard to press while the new, delicious ones, press more easily). For what Jan thinks is a better version, give the Horalky wafers a press and perhaps a try. (They are usually stored right next to Tatranky.)
Sojove rezy: This bar divides the nation: while some people swear by it, others just shake their head in disapproval. Clearly falling into the latter group, we are hardly unbiased judges here. The structure is similar to halva, but not quite the same: you can taste a bit of coconut but then again, it’s not coconut. This is love or hate at first bite.
Chocolate bars such as Margot, Koko, Kofila, Banany v cokolade, Deli, Tatiana to name a few: The first one tastes a bit like sojove rezy with a chocolate coating, so the love or hate relation applies to Margots, too. Koko is the Czech answer to the Bounty coconut bar. Kofila is an interesting chocolate bar, and although we don’t particularly like this one, we'd often buy it just because of its package. It’s been almost unchanged since 1921 when it was designed by Mr Zdenek Rykl.
Banany v cokolade is a banana-flavored marshmallow in dark chocolate loved by many, perhaps because real bananas were so exotic and hard to get during Communism. Deli is quite similar to the Milky Way bar in texture and size, but there are many different flavors (take the nutty one).
Tatiana started out as a box of chocolate you'd give your grandma for her birthday... only to get it back from your cousin on your own birthday. We don't know why. It is delicious. Today, you can get this nougat praline with hazelnuts as a bar too. It is cheap and super tasty.
AND AN ICE POP BONUS...
Misa: Sure, this is hardly a gift you pack in your luggage but it’s still worth a try. And you can always paint a word picture when you come back, right? These ice pops made of farmer cheese covered in dark chocolate are strangely, addictively delicious. Today you can find strawberry or apricot flavors, but the plain one is the one always available in the fridge when we were small.
Of course, there are many more great sweets such as Atlasky, Bonpari, Milena, Ledove kastany to try, but these should get you started. Picking the right one for you is a long but thoroughly enjoyable process.
Next post? Dental care in the Czech Republic...