It’s no real secret here that we’re pretty big fans of garlic.
Luckily for us, it seems we share our fanaticism for the pungent root with others out there. In fact, there’s a whole population that loves it just as much – but probably more – than we do.
Nowhere is the spirit of garlicphilia more apparent than in the Czech recipe for cesnecka, or garlic soup.
Cesnecka the Garlic Soup, Garlic Cultivation, and Bohemian Cuisine
In keeping with the old tenets of traditional Bohemian cooking, it’s fitting that such a simple recipe like garlic soup would be one of the most beloved and favored dishes in the local Czech cuisine.
Czech Cuisine: From Bohemia and Beyond
The genesis for what we consider the modern Czech cuisine dates back to the 9th century and the formation of the Duchy of Bohemia in the Great Moravian Empire. In the centuries prior to the unification, the lands were fragmented by relatively autonomous groups of Slavic settler tribes. It wasn’t until 7th century when the Avars, a Turkic nomadic tribe coming from the East, arrived that the Slavic tribes launched a united resistance under the leadership of a man named Samo. The successful anti-Avars insurgence triggered two centuries of geopolitical development that led to defined Slavic nation-states.
With the rise of Bohemia came the development of what are now considered as traditional Bohemian foods. A key principle to the old cuisine – and one that remains prevalent in cesnecka – to rely entirely on locally produced ingredients to create very simple, functional meals. It did help that the Duchy had the gift of fertile lands and a diverse ecosystem for ingredients at its disposal, but much of the cuisine at that time consisted of no-frill and highly substantial gruels. Millet, cabbage, eggs, mushrooms, dairy products and bread were the staples of the everyday commoner meal.
As the lands came under Austrian Hapsburg control by the 15th century, the Bohemian cuisine underwent a massive transformation and, you could say, a pseudo-Renaissance. The first Bohemian recipes were properly transcribed and cookbooks printed, and more higher-brow external influences made their way into the heart of the cuisine. “Noble” seasonings like cinnamon, pepper, oregano and, perhaps most significantly, caraway seeds were integrated into local dishes, and Germanic and Austrian recipes like schnitzel and dumplings very quickly became extremely popular with everybody.
Still, even with the rapid sophistication and changes in the cuisine, there has remained a preference and appreciation for what can be made with locally produced goods… like garlic.
Garlicphilia – The Love of Garlic
The Czechs’ love for garlic easily transcends the realm of food, and it has even attained urban legend status as a focal point of several Czech superstitions and traditions. At Christmas time, for example, you’ll see a bowl of peeled garlic put under the table to offer everyone strength and protection. When dealing with an ailment like a sinus infection, hangover or anything else, a bowl of garlic-heavy cesnecka is the de facto prescription.
Yes, part of the obsession lies in garlic’s well known health properties. In addition to allicin, garlic offers a strong source of vitamins A, B, C and minerals like selenium, calcium and iodine. It’s been shown to improve circulation in the body and to help regular blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Garlic is also a great antibiotic in times where you’re ailing, too.
This only partially explains, however, why the Czechs are so keen on their garlic and why average garlic consumption reaches up to 6.5-7 thousand tons per year! Another reason garlic has played such a large role in the Bohemian/Czech cuisine is because the locally grown Czech garlic has traditionally been considered to be of higher quality than the garlic produced elsewhere.
Thanks to the aforementioned fertile soils, Czech garlic contains more of the oils that give it a stronger aroma and taste than its foreign counterparts. And while local production of Bohemian garlic has gone down considerably in the past two decades, locally grown garlic is still preferred by – and a point of pride for – Czech consumers.
With or without having true Bohemian garlic, though, all of us can still enjoy the delectable aromas and flavors that come out of the keystone Czech dish of cesnecka.
About the Recipe
One of the beauties in our eyes of this cesnecka recipe is how easy it is to prepare. It’s little more than a true garlic soup, so the main steps to the dish surround your garlic and your broth.
To start, you’ll want to add and heat your garlic along with melted butter to let its oils and aromas to release into the pot. You can also add in some complementary and enhancing ingredients like salt and pepper, but just make sure to have garlic offer the predominant flavor profile.
One key spice that is surprisingly common in the Czech cuisine – and in cesnecka – are caraway seeds. Caraway came into the cuisine as part of the 15th century culinary renaissance alongside other herbs like marjoram, and it serves as a true flavor enhancer to this garlic soup in particular. Depending on which recipe you come across, caraway might be more an optional add-if-you-like ingredient, but it’s one that really does make a difference in the overall flavor.
With your garlic and accompanying ingredients softened, the next step in your cesnecka is to add in your broth and bring everything to a boil. Once boiling, you reduce the heat and let the liquid reduce and thicken with the flavors and oils that have come from the garlic. The broth will help to dilute the strong flavors but still leave you with a garlic soup with rich, savory yet subdued flavors.
Most commonly, cesnecka will either have potatoes and/or croutons added in as a means of thickening up the soup. Depending on your preference, you can choose one of either (or both), although your choice will affect the timing of the soup. If you choose to add potatoes, you’ll add them shortly after reducing the heat of your boiling broth and let them cook fully while the liquid reduces. As the potato cooks and flakes a bit, it will by default thicken your soup.
With your croutons, you simply add them in once the cesnecka is done and almost ready to serve. With a little grated cheese and some nicely soaked croutons, you’re all set and ready to enjoy!
Our Take on the Recipe
This garlic soup was a fun recipe to research, since almost every recipe we saw had their own unique style of preparing cesnecka. Still, for us we preferred the fairly laid back, laissez-faire style of this recipe that we used as our original reference. Nevertheless, we did take some liberties into making the recipe our own.
To start, we swapped out bouillon cubes and/or meat-based broths for a vegetable broth. Not only did we find this to be a slightly healthier option, but it makes the recipe an easy vegetarian-friendly offering now. Technically, cesnecka could also become vegan friendly, but for us it teetered on a bit too much manipulation of the recipe. We did, however, omit the egg from our preparation, but the butter and cheese stayed in.
When cooking the garlic, we added in a small diced onion to offer another complementary flavor. It’s not traditional per se, but garlic and onions can go hand in hand in virtually any recipe, including this one. We also made the caraway seeds mandatory in our recipe as well.
Finally, we thought to include homemade croutons in our version of cesnecka. Since they’re traditional accompaniments to the garlic soup in general that can be easily made while the broth is reducing, we added them in as an optional step for those that would want to make them like we did.
All in all, cesnecka instantly became one of our favorite dishes (for obvious reasons), and it’s perfect for any type of meal… provided you have no social engagements immediately thereafter.
How would you prepare and garnish your cesnecka? Comment below!
Food styled by: Phil Roepers
Helpers for this Recipe
Cesnecka: Czech Garlic Soup
Yield 6 people
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 6-12 cloves garlic, crushed (but not minced)
- 1 small yellow onion, diced (optional)
- 6 cups vegetable or chicken stock, preferably homemade
- 2 medium sized potatoes, peeled and cubed
- 1 teaspoon 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 (optional, but recommended)
Croutons (optional, but highly recommended)
- 1 baguette, cut into 1/2 - 1 inch cubes
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
Stage 1 - Combine Garlic Soup Ingredients
- In a large stockpot, melt your butter over medium-high heat
- Next, add your garlic and sauté for 1-2 minutes as it becomes fragrant
- Add your onion, caraway seeds, pepper and salt then sauté for another 1 minute
- As the onion starts to sweat and become translucent, begin adding in your vegetable stock into the pot
- With your stock added, bring everything to a boil
- Once boiling, add in your potatoes and reduce the heat to medium. Here you’ll let the potatoes simmer for 15-20 minutes as the potatoes cook through and start to “flake” off a bit which will thicken the cesnecka
Stage 2 - Tend to Croutons and other Garnishes while Cesnecka Cooks
- While the garlic soup is simmering together, preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit
- Take your cubed baguette pieces into a mixing bowl, and toss in your olive oil along with your spices (garlic powder, pepper, oregano, sea salt)
- Once well tossed, lay your croutons onto a flat baking dish and place into the oven for at least 10 minutes or until golden brown
- During the 10 minutes the croutons are baking, grate your cheese and chop your parsley in anticipation of serving
- By this point, your croutons are done and the cesnecka is just about ready. Take the croutons out of the oven and your garlic soup off the heat.
To serve, add some croutons, grated cheese and chopped parsley over your soup, and enjoy!