Urban agriculture and guilty pleasures in the Czech Republic

For the last five years I have taught a short course called ‘Food, sustainability and alternative food networks in the department of environmental studies at Masaryk University in Brno, on the invitation of the environmental economist Dr Nadia Johannisová.

This year, while my colleagues in Gloucester were wondering when the spring would finally arrive, my students and I were in short sleeves in Brno. The course is delivered over a week and for a week leading up to the start, students keep diaries of what they eat and drink. They then analyse these data and present findings in small groups, in relation to sustainability themes we have learned about.

In previous years there has been a division between students who are from nearby rural areas and those from the city. For example, home-made jablečny štrůdl (apple strudel) using the apples in granny’s garden, or stew from home-reared rabbits appear in the diaries of students who return home at weekends, and less routinely in students from Prague or Brno. Over the last few years, more diaries are reflecting vegetarianism and veganism as a result of a rise in vegan food shops and cafes, supplementing the established open-air vegetable markets at Zelný trh (this year with its new food hall) and Moravksé nám. One group of students operate a dumpster-diving collective, gleaning surplus food from supermarkets. The members have to be flexible about their convivial menus but feel they are reducing food waste and household expenditure. One of my favourite presentations contained a slide entitled ‘guilty pleasures’, which included pickled gherkins. Could be worse…

My interest in local distinctiveness and food practices was stimulated when, Helena Továrková, the Director of the Veronica Environmental Foundation, took me to visit Hustopeče, south of Brno. Huge areas of almond orchards cover the slopes above the town. Helena told me that there has been almond cultivation in Moravia since the 17th century and locally made almond milk was prized in cooking (so the products in the new vegan shops have ancient, local roots). Major planting started in 1949 to supply local chocolate factories and this reached a peak in the 1960s where 50,000 trees were planted over 185 hectares. During the economic transition in the 90s, Nestlé bought the local chocolate factory and the scale efficiencies of global sourcing led to a decline in the orchards. Some smallholders replaced almonds with apricots and the almonds dwindled to just four hectares.

Almond Blossom

In 2009 the local council bought back tracts of orchard from Nestlé and managed, restocked and expanded them. Picking rights are sold each year to supply local producers of almond cakes, liqueurs, oils and soaps. The walk up to the observation tower above the orchards made us  hungry so we rewarded ourselves with a lunch of svestkove knedliky – wheat dumplings stuffed with fruit (but at this time of year with jam) and covered with breadcrumbs and melted butter. These are now a new guilty pleasure of my own. The Veronica Foundation runs an enterprise in the White Carpathians which juices local apple and pear varieties sold in Brno and other regional centres. Supplying local farmers are incentivised to manage their orchards sustainably through a retail premium scheme, quite similar to initiatives I studied in Germany and about which I have written a paper.

Helena Továrková enjoying some Svestkove Knedliky

In the evening, Helena invited me to give a presentation to members of the local activists to talk about CCRI’s research on urban agriculture. There is much interest in this field in Brno, linked not least to the Czech passion for self-provisioning (reported in the literature by Joe Smith and Petr Jehlička of the Open University, for example). Lucie Sovová, of Masaryk University, has written about Brno’s Kraví hora allotment colony in a joint paper with Marlinde Koopmans and me. Again with Helena, I visited the urban gardens in Udolní run by the Open garden Foundation Partnership. Here locals can hire allotment spaces and hang out with their children among the hens, rabbits and vines. The land is owned by the Cistercian Convent which rents it to a local network called the ‘Open Garden Foundation Partnership’.

My accommodation is usually in the Capuchin monastery and this year I was sad to hear that brother Petr may be moved to another monastery as part of his service. He had previously talked about cultivating the monastery quadrangle as a small representation of Eden. The monks rent out some of their outbuildings to a café business, while just up the hill, their neighbours the nuns at the Donum Dei community run a restaurant specialising in Czech and French dishes reflecting the profile of the resident sisterhood.

Now, back in England, spring has arrived and I am being asked to contribute to CCRI’s response to the new DEFRA consultation on the future of agriculture. I will be emphasising the need to ensure cities are captured as part of our rich food story. Not only do cities offer new potentials for urban food production and innovation in the operation of urban consumer markets, but, culturally, cities always have been pre-eminent food spaces.

An event page for Dan’s course was created on Facebook.

You can view more of Dan Keech’s publications on his CCRI profile page many of which can be downloaded for free.

Beehives in the urban gardens – Udolní