This story is intended as PARODY

The History of the 'Trdelník*‘

This lovely photo of a trdelník topped with ice cream, with St Nicholas Church on Old Town Square in the backdrop, comes from 'Hanna' of the travel blog, ‘Reaching Hot:’ https://reachinghot.com/prague-travel-planner/
Another beautiful photo of a classic trdelník served in the wild on Prague's Old Town Square. This image comes from ‘Lord Wes from Canberra’ (@wapple15).
I really love this photo as it captures the essential element of fire and the interplay of dough and heat. Photo by OrionNimrod - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.
What can I say? 'Haters gonna hate.' From a recent, very funny video: ‘I Am Not Czech Tradition,’ by Anna Hubená and Danny Takieddin: https://youtu.be/M4hJdCz5ioo?si=hHLyNAVjHHgfyidl

It's the spring of 2024, and as I walk through Prague’s delightful Old Town and take in the whirl of Gothic and baroque buildings, my senses are assaulted by the scent of baked dough fused with caramelized sugar. It’s both a head rush and an affirmation that, yes, the good guys do occasionally win. You see, not that long ago, street-food options in this part of the city were limited largely to a hot dog stuffed in a stale bread roll, a warmed-up sausage that's been idling on the grill for at least an hour, or a few precious slices of overpriced ham (20 euros, anyone?) served on a greasy paper plate. But not anymore.

As I follow my nose and wander along narrow Karlova street, the former coronation route of Bohemian kings, I spot the source (sources) of my olfactory delight: dozens of street-side shops grilling cylinders of sweetened dough over an open fire and letting the smoke and flame waft lazily into the open air. The "old Czech traditional" trdelník -- following a long absence -- has returned to the streets of the capital.

Everywhere I look, people are cupping the chewy cylinders in their hands, licking the ice cream off the top or simply crunching their teeth into some sugary goodness. And in their eyes, I spot an epiphany. Sure, most of the visitors milling around me now may not know much about (or care for) Gothic or baroque architecture, but everyone is down for a twist of grilled dough, drenched in sugar or cinnamon. I can almost read their minds: “Now I know why I came to Prague in the first place!”

A picture-perfect photo of a trdelník stand during the Christmas season. This image comes from ‘Klemens’ (@klemensstrasser).
This medieval street sign, marking the ancient guild of the trdelník-mongers, hangs over Karlova street in Prague’s Old Town. Photo by Mark Baker.
Some people quibble over the use of the word ‘trdlo’ to mark the shop of a trdelník seller. I'm agnostic. I do, though, appreciate the giant trdelník hanging from the door outside. Photo by Mark Baker.
A group of young students from who knows where on the hunt for Prague’s best trdelník in April 2024. Photo by Mark Baker.

Before I dig into the origins of the trdelník, allow me briefly to describe what these sweet, crunchy pastries are for the benefit of the uninitiated. At its base, the trdelník is a simple cake that's fashioned from raised dough and baked over an open fire—but it’s so much more than that.

According to traditions that reach back centuries, the magic begins with the preparation of the dough itself. For good luck, while stirring the mix, the baker must ceremoniously flick three drops of water from his index finger into the bowl (which also helps to relax the dough and make it easier to manipulate). The pastry is then rolled out into thin strips and wrapped around a wooden cylinder, called a “trdlo.” These days, beech is the preferred wood for fashioning the trdlo, though in centuries past, cylinders were crafted from elm or willow (or any other flexible wood at hand).

The trdlo’s diameter is strictly regulated and should never exceed 10cm (the average width of a nobleman’s hand). Surviving history books tell us the punishment for bakers using wider cylinders could be severe. One poor baker, Pan Kryštof Kobr of Koberštejn, centuries ago, had two fingers lopped off his right hand (so that he could never properly hold a trdelník again) for allegedly using a wider cylinder. Most modern trdlos measure between 8cm-10cm in diameter (no one wants to lose a finger!).

The dough is then baked slowly over the heat of a charcoal grill, with the baker taking great care to assure the trdelník is never burnt or served under-cooked. During the baking process, the cook lovingly bastes the dough with milk to impart a signature brownish-red color. Modern recipes call for cows’ milk here, though in past centuries, the milk of goats, sheep or -- on special occasions -- deer was the preferred basting mix. Once the dough is cooked and the deep-brown color achieved, the baker then carefully removes the dough from the cylinder so as to preserve its rounded shape.

A trdelník, of course, must be seasoned before it can be eaten. The use of cane sugar for this is a relatively recent addition. Bye-gone cooks often sweetened their trdelník with honey, mashed raspberries, roasted chestnuts, cinnamon (my favorite), or even Nutella, Skittles or crushed Oreos (depending on the village). The oldest surviving texts mention the occasional use of bolder flavorings, like ice cream, or savory concoctions, with cheese and sausage. Thankfully, all of these varieties are slowly being reintroduced into the wild.

A bustling trdelník stand operates in central Prague as shown in this rare black-and-white photo from the early 20th century. The Nazis and later the Communists would force these businesses to close down. Photo illustration: Adam Trachtman.
No busy thoroughfare in the capital would’ve been complete without a trusty trdelník-monger (see lower right), as depicted in this photo of Prague from the early 20th century. Photo illustration: Adam Trachtman.

The earliest origins of the trdelník are shrouded in mystery. Linguistic historians believe they may have traced the first use of the word "trdelník" to the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word turd’-ea, meaning something that is “brown or cylindrical in shape.” That may be conjecture (though it seems to make sense).

If that’s true, the trdelník could have crossed the Carpathian Mountains from Asia into modern-day Central Europe with the great movement of peoples, including the Slavs, from 500-700 AD. More recent research, however, has cast doubt on this theory and uncovered evidence that the trdelník may have been popular in this part of Europe much earlier. Archeological digs of ancient Celtic settlements, dating from as early as 200 BCE, around Prague and other Czech cities, have revealed the presence of rudimentary grills that may have been used for baking the dough. Those old wooden trdlos, sadly, if they ever existed, have long since disintegrated. We may never know the answer.

What we do know, though, is that by the time of the first long-distance Arab chroniclers to the region, around the 10th century AD, the trdelník was already a prominent part of the diet here. The great Arab traveler, Ahmed ibn Fadlan, wrote in his diary from 929 AD:

“The vast market of Urbane Prag, the fairest ville in the central upland, was overfilled with pastrye makers, who roasted their breaded slabs over coals and drenched them in the pungent nectar of bees.”**

The trdelník thrived in the early centuries of the Bohemian kingdom, though direct references are scant in surviving records. Young King Wenceslas III, the ruler of both Bohemia and Poland at the time, was allegedly carrying a partially eaten trdelník in his knapsack when he was found murdered in Olomouc in 1306 at the tender age of 16. The king’s murder remains one of Europe’s greatest unsolved mysteries (could he have been killed for a trdelník?).

The great Holy Roman emperors who ruled from Prague, such as Charles IV in the 14th century and Rudolf II in the early 17th century, both commonly featured the trdelník at royal feasts. The undisciplined Rudolf, in fact, was so enamored that he employed a battery of bakers who lived in the tiny houses along the narrow lanes that surround Prague Castle. The trdelník also featured prominently in important Ecclesiastical debates of the day. The radical religious reformer, Jan Hus, in his famous essay on Transubstantiation in the early 15th century, argued passionately for the inclusion of the trdelník in the eucharistic ritual. From Hus:

“The simple trdelník, bread of the flocke, mite not seem much at first look but pleaseth the palate much richer than the wafers now favored by the papal heathens.”**

Hus was tragically burned at the stake at Konstanz, in modern-day Germany, in 1415.

Much of what we know of day-to-day life in Europe during the late Dark Ages comes from the chronicles of early Arab travelers in the ninth and 10th centuries. This scroll probably does not have the word ‘trdelník’ anywhere in it. Source: https://sciencephotogallery.com/featured/ancient-arabic-manuscript-arabic-manuscripts-collectionnew-york-public-library.html
King Wenceslas III, the ruler of both Bohemia and Poland, was murdered in the city of Olomouc in 1306 at the age of 16. The crime remains unsolved to this day. Credit: https://www.private-prague-guide.com/article/wenceslas-iii-vaclav-iii-the-end-of-a-dynasty/
A woodcut of the radical Bohemian preacher, Jan Hus. Hus, a vocal critic of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, was burned at the stake in Konstanz in 1415. Image credit: Christoph Murer 1587, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Apparently, the trdelník was popular in Hungary too (who knew?). This image shows an early print recipe from ‘Aunt Rézi's Cookbook,’ published in Szeged in 1876. Source: Rézi Néni - kurtos.eu.

The popularity of the trdelník waxed and waned with the rise and fall of Czech society over the centuries. During the long period of Habsburg rule, from the 17th to the 20th centuries, the trdelník was pushed underground and into the arms of ancient secret societies, such as the infamous “Knights of the Trdlo” (the same group author Dan Brown wrote about in his epic bestseller,  "The Breadmakers.") The knights turned out batches of sweetened, grilled dough for the masses from the back of their palace in Malá Strana. That palace still stands today.

With the rise of industrialization and Czech nationalism in the 19th century – and as the Habsburgs loosened their grip – the familiar trdelník shops returned to the capital’s streets. Surviving black-and-white images (see photos, above) from the era show busy trdelník-mongers sharing commerce with cobblers, hatters and other tradesmen.

Indeed, it was only the occupation of Bohemia and Moravia by the Germans during World War II and the subsequent Communist government that seized power in 1948 that finally drove the trdelník out of the public consciousness and into near extinction. Hitler’s “Kein Gegrilltes Brot Mit Zucker!” decree, enacted at the start of the war, formally criminalized the making of trdelník. The early communist government under leader Klement Gottwald declared the trdelník to be the product of “Titoists and Zionists, an imperialist-led conspiracy to destroy the diet of the working classes.” And that was that. Trdelník recipes circulated widely underground, but public sale was banned.

In 1989, the Velvet Revolution toppled the communist government and paved the way for the eventual re-emergence of the trdelník to streets in Prague and in other cities around the country. At first the people of newly liberated Prague were reluctant to share their beloved trdelník with the growing number of visitors and tourists to their city. That changed around 2000, when at first one, then another, and then another trdelník stand opened in the center of the city. These days, there are literally dozens of trdelník shops in Prague where locals and visitors alike can break bread together and enjoy this ancient Czech tradition. Dobrou chut’!

(I am indebted to the talented Adam Trachtman for the funny black-and-white photo illustrations of Prague included here -- and no, to the best of my knowledge, there were no trdelník-sellers in central Prague in the early 1900s. To see more of Adam‘s work, pick up a copy of his graphic novel “Immersion,” which recounts epic stories of Central Europe in the ‘90s in a witty and highly entertaining way.)

*Full disclosure: As you've probably caught on by now, this post is intended as satire. The story I tell here is pure nonsense. The emergence of the trdelník is so ridiculous that I thought it merited an equally ridiculous story. One (more credible) theory on the origins of the trdelník posits that this delicacy is not native to the Czech Republic, but rather comes to us from historically Hungarian-speaking lands in southeastern Europe. These include parts of Transylvania (in modern-day Romania) and Hungary itself. In this view, the kürtöskalács, as they are called, may have entered into Czech culinary heritage as a minor player in the 18th or 19th century via Hungarian-ruled Slovakia. Their sudden appearance on the streets of Prague in the early 2000s was probably nothing more than a canny marketing move. Whatever … they taste good!

**He didn't actually write this.

A typical trdelník menu not far from Prague’s Old Town Square. I see that all of the classics are coming back: Kinder eggs, Oreos, Snickers, and brownies. Photo by Mark Baker.
Another modern twist found today in Prague’s Old Town. What better idea than to combine the traditional trdelník-monger with a coffee shop? Photo by Mark Baker.
Oops, how did this photo get in here? These are kolache, an ACTUAL traditional Czech specialty, and very good, photographed at ‘Kolacherie,’ at Celetná 27, in Prague’s Old Town. Photo by Mark Baker.
There's lots of innovation in this space these days. Here customers are invited to build their own trdelník, step-by-step. What would the ancients have thought? Photo by Mark Baker.

Comments

    • Hi Lisa, maybe I will trot it out again next year on April 1. Lots of people got the satire and had a good laugh, but some people did not. I agree with you, I very much hope the ‘facts’ in my story don’t end up on some Wikipedia page someday. 🙂

  1. Hilarious parody ?

    Until now, upon spying a trdlník-monger claiming to sell a “traditional Czech” treat, Praguers in the know had only one option: to wit, to stiffen and announce to all within earshot that trdlník are NOT traditionally Czech. You’ve given us a new option: now, we can regale visitors with fake historical facts and anecdotes. Me, I’m going to start telling people that they inspired the invention of the cardboard tube that toilet paper comes wrapped around.

    A little trdlník never hurt anyone. Better to laugh than cry; even better to invent a fictional Czech backstory!

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About the author

Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist, travel writer and author who’s lived in Central Europe for nearly three decades. I love the history, literature, culture and mystery of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, and I make my living writing articles and guidebooks about the region. Much of what I write eventually finds its way into commercial print or digital outlets, but a lot of it does not.

And that’s my aim with this website: to find a space for stories and experiences that fall outside the publishing mainstream.

My Book: ‘Čas Proměn’

In 2021, I published “Čas Proměn” (“Time of Changes”), my first book of historical nonfiction. The book, written in Czech, is a collection of stories about Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s and early ‘90s, including memories of the thrilling anti-communist revolutions of 1989. The idea for the book and many of the tales I tell there were directly inspired by this blog. Czech readers, find a link to purchase the book here. I hope you enjoy.

Tales of Travel & Adventure in Central Europe
Mark Baker