I had never thought deeply about pork knuckles before I arrived in Prague. I never had to. Do pigs have knuckles? Golly. Do they punch each other?
I am still researching the latter question, but I can confirm that pigs do have knuckles. At least the Czech ones do. Pork knuckle is a national delicacy here and I would go so far as to say the size of its knuckles is one the qualities the Czechs cherish in a pig. You cannot sell your pig in Prague without engaging in a conversation about its knuckles. Pigs with good-sized knuckles fetch a better price than pigs without. It is a fact.
So pigs have knuckles. We have established that. Where do you look for them? They are not as south of the pig as I thought they would be. Pork knuckle is actually the section that connects the pig with its ‘trotters’ (feet). It’s kind of like our hip and knee joints rolled into one and fitted on to a pig with suitable adaptation. This is why you will also find it translated as ‘Pork knee’ or ‘Pork back of knee’ on menus (we Czechs simply call it koleno). It is similar to the cut the English refer to as ham hock, though if you ask me, the English have no appreciation for it – one joint that does the work of two, come on guys! – and no idea what to do with it except boil it in peas.
The Czechs (and the Germans and the Bavarians), on the other hand, give it a pride of place in their cuisine, eating it by the truckloads. Pork consumption in the Czech Republic is above the European average and accounts for more than 50% of the national meat consumption. Though swine inventories are actually on a decline, the Czechs still slaughter some 2 million hogs – each with four knuckles, might I add? – every year. Like I said, a lot of knuckles get consumed in the Czech Republic.
The dish itself can be traced back to the 11th century. One way the Czech aristocracy entertained itself was by following a simple formula: hunt boar, bake boar. Traditionally they used the whole leg (for some reason they preferred the left one), but these days they use just the joint.
I say just the joint, but that’s nothing to sniff at. Pork knuckles usually pack enough meat for two. You could get something from 800gm to upwards of 1kg. The prices range, too, depending on the size and, most importantly, the location and status of the restaurant. In Old Town Prague, if you avoid the very touristy parts, you can get a decent-sized knuckle for 200 CZK (£6.70) or under. If you were to wander closer to the Charles Bridge and try the Relief Restaurant, it would cost you 250 CZK and if you went for the upmarket U Zlate Konvice 499 CZK (£16.75).
My own order of knuckle cost 230 CZK, in a cellar pub in a tucked-away street near Old Town Square. It was from a sizable swine, I could tell: 1.2 kg of unadulterated knee, served on a cutting board with a small jug of mustard, horse radish, picked onions, gherkins, peppers, and a basket of coarse bread. It had been “withstood” in about 1.5 litres of dark beer for 24 hours, then baked for goodness-knows-how-long to soften the tough meat. The waiter served it with a steak knife stuck on top for effect. It looked a trifle intimidating, but I couldn’t let a swine get the better of me. So I pulled out the knife and got right into it.
What can I say? It was heavenly. Once you cut through the crispy skin and layer of fat, the meat was tender. The beer – it must have been the beer – gave it a flavour that was utterly delicious. It tasted better than meat. You cut a piece, dipped it in mustard, forked on a bit of the garnish…and entered heaven. Occasionally, when you wanted to return to earth, you took a bite of the brown bread. I could see why the Czechs are crazy about it.
It took me about 45 minutes – I was slightly impaired by a previous order of beef goulash and bread dumpling – but by the time the waiter returned, I had bid a tearful goodbye to the knuckle. I asked the waiter how I had done in comparison with his local patrons.
“Czech people share this, so you have done well, sir,” he said. “The local people don’t have a lot of money, so usually they order this and share around the table.”
“And the tourists? They share too?”
“Usually, yeah, they share.”
Perhaps seeing the self-congratulatory look on my face, he told me about his most astounding patron.
“There was an Asian girl who came in a few months ago. She sat just there – “ He indicated a table by the opposite wall behind me. “She ordered the mixed grill. That is for two people. It has steak, pork ribs, chicken – a lot more meat than the knuckle. She was tiny, very thin. One hour later… all gone! I thought she had a bag under her table, but no. I have never seen anything like that. So, sir, you have done well – but I have seen better.”
I paid the bill and stood up with difficulty. “Tomorrow I will be back,” I told the waiter. “For the mixed grill. We will see.”