Carps in a bathtub, Bratislava, Slovakia. Posted by Sean and Anne Edison-Albright on Flickr.
What length would you go to in order to make sure your Christmas dinner is fresh? In Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, where the staple dish on Christmas Eve is carp, tradition dictates that you keep the fish in your bathtub until the day you cook it.
The week before Christmas the streets of Prague, Bratislava and Krakow are lined with small stalls and plastic pools brimming with live carp. Once you've selected your favourite fish from the pool, you can either ask the stall owner to do the dirty work for you, or take it away in a plastic bag of water and look after it for a few days. In the end they all end up on the Christmas table as the main dish: covered in flour, egg and breadcrumbs, fried in oil and served with potato salad.
The perils of home fish farming
“We were surprised at how active the carp were in that small space”
Sean and Anne Edison-Albright, from Chicago, taught English in Bratislava for one year.
When we saw the carp tanks assembled in town we got that child-like anticipation: Christmas is coming! We didn't have a bathtub in our flat, but our downstairs neighbours did and they bought two very photogenic carp. The fish lived in their bathtub for a few days - we were surprised at how active they were, swimming around in that small space.
We didn't have the experience of living with them, but we got the perhaps preferable experience of visiting them, taking pictures, and enjoying the end product: delicious fried carp and potato salad on Christmas Eve.
The biggest part we missed out on was the dispatching of the carp and the major cleanup that inevitably follows. Our students told us stories about many messy Christmas Eves, including one family who had to repaint their kitchen after Christmas! Some of them told us their families had switched to salmon to avoid the mess."
“Most people have the carp killed for them because of how messy it can be”
Rudolf Krentík works at a manufacturer of optical systems in Prague. For four years, while at university, he sold carp during the Christmas holidays.
Eating carp is a habit we inherited from the past, when carp was affordable for everyone. There are many ponds in the Czech Republic, so in tough times it was never difficult to catch a fish yourself. But nowadays it is mainly a Christmas tradition.
Most people have the carp killed for them on the spot, because of how messy it can be if done at home. Still, when I worked on the stall, a third of our customers would take the fish live. It would always be a very busy week for us, often selling carp until midnight. On my last year, we managed to sell nine tonnes of carp. Given they weigh between 2.5 and 3 kilos, that works out at about 3,000 fish.
There is an important Christmas superstition associated with carp: we place several of the fish's scales under our dinner plates and another in our wallets, hoping it will bring us good luck for the upcoming year.
The carp do not always end up on the table. Some families let the fish swim in the bathtub for the children to look at and then release them into a pond."
Queuing for carps in Krakow, Poland. Posted by Sanne Aabjerg Kristiansen on Flickr.
Carp market in Prague, Czech Republic. Posted by Simon Neale on Flickr.
Fried carp and potato salad. Posted by Igor Nikolov on Flickr.
Not even a bathtub for this carp - who is living in the shower basin in Pultusk, Poland. Posted by Joanna Dzilinska on Flick.