At dawn on a crisp November day in the far south of Bohemia, Rudolf Provazek hops from his Land Rover and leads the way down to a raised patch of land dividing two immense expanses of shimmering water. Dressed in green from head to foot, a seagull feather tucked into the band of his trilby, he looks like a latter-day Robin Hood striding through the autumn leaves. Two tiny gold carp pinned to the lapels of his jacket hint at his profession: Provazek is managing director of Trebon Fisheries, the biggest carp producer in the world.
"That's Rozmberk Lake," he says, gesturing to his left at the silvery expanse fading off into the midmorning mist. "It's the largest in the Czech Republic--500 hectares [1,235 acres]. And this," he points to the other side of the path, "is Vitek." He sniffs the crisp air with satisfaction. "Beautiful, isn't it? This is some of the last untouched nature in the Czech countryside."
Well, the forests, peat bogs, and watercourses around Trebon in south Bohemia are indeed beautiful. But the landscape we're admiring was created 400 years ago by converting low-lying scrubland and poor farmland into a series of 250 lakes and ponds, containing 7,000 hectares [17,300 acres] of water. The transformation was a shrewd move. For one thing, it afforded protection against marauding Austrians across the frontier, 24 kilometers away. For another, since carp don't need running water in order to live, the ponds allowed the carp to be bred easily in near-still water as a year-round food supply in time of siege.
Now, with the Austrians behaving themselves, the need for defense has receded, but the demand for carp remains, or at least it does at Christmastime. This large-scaled bottom-feeder may be one of the ugliest fish that swims (though don't tell Provazek that), but it is the central feature of the traditional Christmas feast. A week or so before Christmas Eve, when all Czechs, regardless of religious affiliation, sit down to their holiday meal after a day of fasting, hundreds of live carp can be seen at street stalls, stocked in vats and small swimming pools. After a carp is purchased, for about $5, it may be killed on the spot with a blow to the head, but more often it is brought home alive and kept in the bathtub for a few days. "Usually, the children of the house become attached to it. They'll call it Johnny, or something," chuckles Nad'a Valaskova, a researcher at the Czech Ethnological Institute. "As often as not, Dad will end up having to take it down to the river and release it--but that's just part of the Czech tradition."
The fish farming itself goes on all year, and nearly 3,000 tons of fish are processed annually. But because 90% of the Czech Republic's fish production is carp, winter is definitely the high season. Beginning in September, the fishers of Trebon, a medieval town whose thick walls give it a cocoon-like feel, get out their nets.
On this particular autumn morning, Provazek's men are moving all the two-year-old fish from Vitek Lake, where they have lived since birth, to neighboring Rozmberk, in order to accommodate their rapid growth rate; they need plenty of room to thrive. Over the next two years, they will double in size, to 50 centimeters [20 inches]. By the time Provazek arrives, Vitek has already been partially drained through a system of canals, and patches of its muddy bottom are visible.
Now, as gulls screech overhead, men dressed in heavy, black rubber raincoats get to work. Taking poles and three flat-bottomed boats, six of them push out, while six others stay on the shore. Earlier, a large square dragnet had been placed on the floor of the pond. Now, the net is covered by a shallow layer of muddy water filled with leaping fish. Slowly, the men in boats begin gathering in the net, keeping the fish in the center. At the same time, their colleagues on the bank form a line and start heaving on a rope attached to the boats, pulling them closer to land. Each move is carefully orchestrated, and the boats seem to create their own tide as they are slowly pushed and pulled closer together.
ACQUIRED TASTE. Finally, the boats form three sides of a square, with the shore making the fourth. Switching to handheld nets, the men start scooping the trapped fish from the water and putting them into the large tubs on the shore. The carp are weighed, then placed in water tanks on a truck that will take them to Rozmberk. In two years, they will be moved again, to storage ponds in town, then sent all over the country in time for Christmas dinner. The carp end up as soup, the first course, or else are dusted in bread crumbs, fried, and served as the entree, accompanied by a potato salad. Carp, an acquired taste, has a flavor like well-boiled chicken.
According to tradition, while the family is busy eating in the dining room, the Baby Jesus creeps into the house and hides presents in the living room, which already has been decorated and locked so the kids will be surprised.
"Carp is as Czech as St. Nicholas," says Valaskova, although both in fact are imports. But in the Czech Republic, St. Nick dresses in green and arrives on Dec. 5 to quiz children about whether they've been good or bad. If good, they get candy from an angel. Bad ones believe they will be gathered up in a sack by the devil and dispatched to hell. Carp, too, has a somewhat dubious religious connection. They were probably introduced here around the year 1100 by monks from Asia, where, because of the carp's long life span, they are a symbol of longevity--a traditional wish at holiday time.
The Christmas carp stampede aside, most Czechs don't seem to share Valaskova's appreciation for the finnier things in life during the rest of the year. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain and arrival of the market economy 10 years ago, the steady Westernization of Eastern Europe and growth of fast-food has taken big chunks out of Provazek's domestic market. "If you're a young guy working in a bank, you'd rather sit down and have a quick hamburger and get back to the office," concedes Bretislav Grametbauer, one of Provazek's managers.
FAST-FOOD FISHCAKES. Still, the Trebon Fisheries has more than held its own in the brave new economy. In 1992, when it was privatized, the company won a license to export to the European Union. Today it exports almost as much as it sells at home, mostly to Belgium, France, Poland, and southern Germany and Austria. The biggest outside market--at least before this year's NATO bombing campaign--was Yugoslavia. "Last year, we shipped 600 tons to Belgrade alone," says Provazek. "But that's finished for the time being--they've nothing to pay us with, you see."
Provazek is working on a barter deal that would swap carp for frozen trout from the mountains. The trout would be offered to Czech hypermarket chains along with fishcakes, the Czech equivalent of fast food. "You have to move with the times," shrugs Provazek. "We can only maintain our share of the market by offering variety."
Back at headquarters, though, it's clear where his true loyalties lie. Carved wooden carp line the corridors of the fishery building. Plaques bearing the heads of monster fish dot the walls. Even the curtains sport a carp motif. "You know, the world is getting smaller and local customs are dying," he muses. But the Christmas carp is holding its own. Adds Provazek: "I'd hate to see Czechs eating turkey on December 24."