Monday, November 19, 2018

Moravian Wine and Klezmer in Mikulov, Czech Republic

Moravia! Just the sound of those melodious syllables conjures images of pristine beaches, swaying palm trees, and evening breezes filled with the scent of ... burcak. OK, I lied about the beaches and trees, but burcak in Moravia in the fall is very real and very, very good. Burcak is the Czech term for new wine that has just begun to ferment.

Burcak served fresh on the streets of Mikulov
For a few weeks in the fall - between being harvested and being bottled - burcak is available in the Moravian wine country of in the south part of the Czech Republic. The Moravian countryside becomes a magnet for city dwellers of Prague and Brno who flock to wine country towns like Mikulov to stroll around getting a mild buzz from burcak stands set along the streets selling this fizzy, slightly alcoholic elixir which serves as the national standard for Czech daytime drinking. With a flavor profile someplace between pineapple juice and champagne, you don't get sloppy drunk on burcak, but don't drive a car after a couple of glasses either.

Synagogue in Mikulov
While Czech beer is rightly famous, Moravia is wine country, and we were lucky to visit the town of Mikulov, one of the Czech wine producing centers, in the middle of the autumn burcak season. Mikulov was known in Yiddish as Nikolsburg back when Moravia was a safe haven for Jews in the Hapsburg Empire, with laws established that provided legal rights to the refugee Jews who would get expelled from Vienna every time the Kaiser farted.

The Nikolsburger Shul
Mikulov grew to be one of the largest Jewish communities in Moravia. The Holocaust left virtually no Jews in the town, and those that did survive coalesced into orthodox Hasidic communities in Monsey, NY, Brooklyn, and Israel. The Mikulov synagogue, however, has been restored and the old Jewish cemetery maintained as heritage sites which have made Mikulov a focal point for Jewish culture in the Czech Republic. I was invited to Mikulov for a Klezmer workshop weekend led by Vojtech Pestuka, who plays with the Prague Yiddish Kapelye. My co-teacher was the amazing Amit Weisberger. Amit - a fiddler, singer, dancer, actor, and clown school dropout - is a committed Yiddishist, rare for somebody who was born in Israel (but now based in France) 

Vojtech, Amit, and Optimus Prime. 
Amit is also a researcher of Klezmer history and Yiddish culture, who can be every bit as pedantic and hide bound as myself when it comes to historical accuracy in Yiddish music. He is also a magnetic performer, dancer, and teacher. Which is a good thing when one has to work with Czech students of klezmer. In my experience, teaching a Klezmer workshop in Europe means coaching a dozen or so kids from the high school violin class, a retired dixieland clarinetist or two, and the massed saxophone section of a local football marching band. In Mikulov, however, the students not only knew their music inside out, they often knew it better than me, including things they had learned from recordings of me. 

They play me better than me play me.. 
It was almost scary: when I mentioned an extremely obscure document about the deeply obscure Orkestra Rumunska Bel'fa - a klezmer band that recorded in 1911 in Lviv - the clarinet "student" (also named Votech... who knew there were so many Vojtechs in Klezmer?) reached into his case and produced a xerox copy of that very same obscure document... that he simply carries around with him. The mandolin player Jan didn't simply know who Andy Statman was - he had visited him in the USA. The flute players in the band were the finest I had ever heard in Klezmer music - and I hate flutes. The fiddlers had bow strokes coordinated in heaven. These folks had internalized the music down to the roots. Thank god for burcak.

Drowning my anxieties in half fermented wine.
Because burcak is not considered as dangerously intoxicating, and because it was being sold from every street corner, the teachers and participants of the music workshop were generally under the influence of the magical beverage. The burcak season traditionally ends in November 11 on Saint Martin's day. Saint Martin was a local - born in Pannonia in AD 316 before it was overrun with Hungarians - and his Catholic feast day is the occasion for opening the first bottles of finished wine and for eating goose. Apparently, St. Martin hid in a barn when the local Church wanted to appoint him as Bishop, but the geese honking gave him away, so we eat the geese in revenge. I didn't have any geese in the Czech Republic, but I did have duck.
Duck 'n' dumplings.
Czech food is not going to win awards for exotic spicing, but if you like good, honest, meaty food, you don't have to go far to find it. It is an old style of European cooking, much like the German style of cooking before the Germans discovered doner kebab and frozen yoghurt. When I travel in Germany or Austria I have to carry a bottle of El Yucateco Kubil-Ik Hot Sauce with me, just to make it through a Teutonic lunch. I put it on shnitzels, bratwurst, anything, and I plumb do not care if the waiter is standing over me horrified... but not in the Czech Republic. I like their food.

Roast Duck ... a safe choice among many safe choices.
Wikipedia tells us that the Czech Republic is the 6th safest and most peaceful place to live in the world, is one of the most non-religious places in the world, has tuition-free higher education, and ranks 14th in the Human Capital index. You don't want to fuck with that. If you start adding coriander leaves and hot peppers and mango lime sauce to those statistics then pretty soon there will be drug-funded paramilitaries and sadistic warlords and Bohemian micro-republics and crypto-currencies and dodgy real estate salesmen taking over the government. So let us accept the Czechs as they are - peace, prosperity, brown gravy, bread dumplings and all.

Kde domov můj?