How to make the perfect brewer’s goulash

The classic recipe for the classic Czech dish

“So, you like it?”

A simple question, but I’m too distracted to answer. The bowl of warm goulash and pillow-soft bacon dumplings on the table has me transfixed.

It’s the scent of wild marjoram, freshly grated horseradish and that exotic tang of paprika rising from the dark depths; the way the beef collapses under the fork, melting into delicious sweet, smoky richness. I’ve had goulash before, but nothing like this. And as he sits down opposite, the smile on chef Luděk Hauser’s face tells me he already knows it’s outstanding. Then again, that’s exactly why I’m here. To learn how to cook this classic Czech dish, it makes sense to ask the best.

Our day had begun early. But to make true goulash, it has to. Not long after first light my translator and I joined Luděk on his way to work, crossing the spectacular market square of České Budějovice (or ‘Budweis’ as it’s known in English) in South Bohemia. The sky was purple-gold above the handsome skyline; the lamps of the square still glowed and flakes of snow drifted in the air. As we walked and talked, the depth of the chef’s pride and passion for this place, its produce and the craft of traditional Czech cooking were quickly infectious, and understandable.

Budweis may be the largest city in South Bohemia, but it carried the feeling of a friendly small town just waking up. The street plan for its Old Town dates back to the thirteenth-century but the buildings around us leaned dramatically towards the Gothic and the Baroque. Like all historic places, this architecture spoke volumes of the town’s importance through time. If they could, the grand walls might talk of centuries of prosperity at the intersection of major trading routes, of the silver pulled from the surrounding mountains, of thriving fish and salt industries, and of this city’s most famous export – beer.

Beer has been brewed here under successive royal and holy decrees for over 700 years, and – as the glowing sign of the Budweiser Budvar brewery on the outskirts of town still proves – it remains a major industry here, interwoven with the fabric of people’s lives. Especially Luděk’s. The kitchen he presides over is located in the town’s finest beer hall and restaurant, the historic Masné Krámy.

Stepping through its grand doorway, we were greeted by Tomáš Olejník, the restaurant manager, who – over strong coffee – quickly reassured me I was in the right place to pick up the recipe. “Centuries ago, this place used to be the butcher’s market,” he said.

Masné Krámy actually translates as ‘meat stalls’ and, looking around its old interior, I could see that the restaurant is still divided into little arched sections – once the separate stalls of the market. Today, just like then, each is owned by a different family or business, their name scrawled on the walls, meaning that when the building undergoes any significant changes, all parties have to meet up and agree. Such traditions, combined with the feeling of ancient space and the 400-year-old fresco of a bear staring down from the wall conjured a fabulously medieval atmosphere. If the walls outside were talking, in Masné Krámy they were shouting.

“Now people come here for the best beer and the best traditional Czech food in the whole country.”

The best beer Tomáš was referring to – Budweis’ very own Budweiser Budvar – was a range of unfiltered and unpasteurised tank brews on tap, fresh from the nearby brewery. Likewise, everything on the menu was authentic Czech: plenty of pork, soups, rich stews, locally made charcuterie and fish like ‘pike-perch’ and trout from the area’s lakes and rivers. All hearty fare designed to go with a pint, which was the point, as Tomáš explained: “In this country, we drink beer more than wine. It’s part of our culture. So all our food goes really well with beer. It’s the Czech way.”

As recipes go, brewer’s goulash is perhaps the greatest embodiment of that pairing. It’s an adaptation of the world-famous dish that sees beer featuring in the ingredients as well as appearing on the table when served – and there’s culinary logic in this. “Adding beer to the stock underlines the flavour of the whole dish,” Luděk told me.

“It adds a pleasing bitterness in contrast to the sweeter paprika.” In other words, there’s much more to it than meets the eye. In fact, centuries of tradition and local adaptation were evident in many of the dishes on the menu, but I doubted many could have a lineage quite like goulash; its patchwork recipe is practically a metaphor for the complicated history of the Czech Republic.

Originally a cultural import from Hungary, goulash started life as a simple cattle herder’s stew; it was fortifying stuff to be eaten in the fields. Now over ten countries proudly count goulash as a national recipe. Nonetheless, the addition of beer is very much an old Czech tradition, and since the Velvet Revolution of 1989 re-opened this country’s cultural horizons and renewed its sense of identity, there has been a resurgence in preserving and celebrating this kind of culinary heritage, passed from generation to generation. “At the beginning of the last century Czech cuisine was ranked amongst the best in Europe,” Luděk explained. Now that time is coming back.

What could appear, on the surface at least, a simple dish for soaking up a couple of pints was beginning to reveal its true depths. Indeed, as Luděk was keen to point out, brewer’s goulash is a benchmark that puts the weight of expectation, as well as tradition, on any chef’s shoulders: “It seems basic, but it’s the test of a good cook. You can really judge a chef by their brewer’s goulash. It’s not just throwing a steak on a grill; you must slowly combine the flavours of the beef, the beer and the spices, lightly flavouring the sauce until it is perfect.”

With the kitchen set up and ready there was only one thing left to do: source the ingredients. The first stop was a bakery round the corner, which was just opening its doors as we arrived. A few hushed words were exchanged before the owner returned staggering under the weight of an enormous loaf of sourdough bread. It was still warm, studded with fragrant caraway seeds and had a hint of rye in the crumb. It was all I could do to resist scoffing a chunk of it there and then. Next we walked down to the market where Luděk demonstrated an almost telepathic ability to discern quality between several identical-looking strings of onions, chunky Czech garlic and bunches of fresh marjoram.

Any great goulash is dependent on the star of the show – the meat

And after a short drive, we were suddenly in the austere and distinctly chilly surroundings of a walk-in meat fridge. Things immediately warmed up, however, with the arrival of our ebullient butcher, Miroslav Smisek. The translator introduced him simply as ‘The Meat Man’, and in his bold striped waistcoat and tilted flat cap he certainly looked the part. He also knew his trade, grinning as he switched quickly between axe and large knife, wielding both with surgical precision to liberate a beautiful-looking slab of beef neck. Luděk gave it the thumbs up and, holding it up, turned to me: “This comes from near Písek and a local breed called Czech Red Pied. Neck is the best cut for goulash. It is leaner and juicier, with just the right fat content and lovely marbling. Great stuff.”

Back at the restaurant

Back at the restaurant the deep cooking pan was soon sizzling; the onions were sweating down in a mixture of pork and duck fat. From the off, Luděk wanted us to taste as we went, and just the interplay of those two fats, a little salt, and the onions alone was a flavour sensation. Next up he cubed the neck and sealed it in the pan before tipping in dollops of the rich, red tomato puree. Tomato doesn’t always feature in goulash, and certainly not in any of the old Hungarian recipes you might find. A little hit though is a welcome addition that brings just the right sweetness and acidity.

Despite being travel-hardy, paprika still needs to be cared for in the pot. If it burned it would go bitter, so I turned the mixture with a wooden spoon while Luděk performed some magic with the garlic and salt, mashing the two together to make a paste. “The secret is releasing the essential oils in the garlic, combining them with the salt,” he said, holding up the knife to show me. “It really brings out the flavour of the garlic.” You can say that again. As he dropped half the mixture into the pan, the clouds of steam that filled the room resembled a kind of savoury aromatherapy treatment.

Despite being travel-hardy, paprika still needs to be cared for in the pot. If it burned it would go bitter, so I turned the mixture with a wooden spoon while Luděk performed some magic with the garlic and salt, mashing the two together to make a paste. “The secret is releasing the essential oils in the garlic, combining them with the salt,” he said, holding up the knife to show me. “It really brings out the flavour of the garlic.” You can say that again. As he dropped half the mixture into the pan, the clouds of steam that filled the room resembled a kind of savoury aromatherapy treatment.

After pouring in some beef-bone broth, prepared overnight in the kitchen, he beckoned me over to the other end of the room, and then walked behind the bar. Pulling down a huge stein from the shelf, he filled it with beer, then expertly tapped off two smaller glasses and handed one to me. A chef has to taste ALL the ingredients, he laughed with a wink, raising his glass with a jovial ‘na zdraví’. Cheers.

Refreshed and back at the cooking pot, I watched as he poured in the whole stein, releasing notes of the sharp Czech Saaz hops from the beer, before tipping in the last of the stock and sealing it all up with a large steel lid. It was time to wait.

Perhaps the most important ingredient in brewer’s goulash is this one – time. At least 2 or 3 hours of simmering is needed once you reach this stage before the final addition of marjoram, seasoning and the rest of the mashed garlic. The proteins in the meat need that space to break down and it gives all the flavours the chance to really bond together. There are no shortcuts and no quick fixes to achieve the same result. In some places, the dish is even cooked the day before it’s required and always left to sit, refrigerating overnight, to exaggerate the alchemy.

So I waited. But after nearly three hours and my decidedly early rise, there were some audible rumbles in my stomach. My hunger was made worse by the fragrant plates of food gliding past me to rest before the hundred or so covers settling down for lunches and pints of Budvar. Then, finally, Luděk re-appeared with a fully laden tray and began ladling out two healthily sized portions of our co-created goulash, garnishing each with freshly grated horseradish, finely sliced red onion and a whole chilli on top. On the side, two steaming-hot bacon dumplings smelled extraordinarily good. Lastly, he set down a big board of sliced sourdough bread to mop things up – but by then I’d already begun tucking in.

“So, you like it?” he asks me again. I still can’t answer him though. This time it’s because my mouth is full of stunning textures and flavours: the bite of horseradish, the warm hug of paprika, the sharp notes of the beer and the slow-cooked, dissolve-in-the-mouth beef.

“Yes he does,” my translator chips in helpfully, reading my expression. Luděk smiles and raises his glass. “Well, now you know exactly how to make it!” And it’s true, but I’ll take another lesson from today too. Not all dishes can be made in fifteen-minutes; some go far deeper than the bottom of the bowl they arrive in. They take real time and real craft – and they are definitely worth every minute.

The perfect brewers goulash

Serves 4

Ingredients:

FOR THE GOULASH:
Beef neck (800g)
Onion (400g)
Pork and duck fat (80g)
Tomato puree (80g)
Budweiser Budvar ‘B:Original’ (200ml)
Sweet paprika (24g)
Ground cumin (4g)
Chilli powder (4g)
Marjoram(4g)
Garlic (4 cloves)
Salt and pepper
Beef stock from bone (800ml)
Dry sourdough finely grated (12g)

FOR THE GARNISH:
Big pinch of grated fresh horseradish
A whole red chilli
Few slices of red onion
Sprinkle of rough-chopped parsley

Method:

1. Peel and dice the onion into medium sized cubes, and sweat down gently in the fat until golden brown. Don’t let it catch or burn. Slice the meat into 4cm cubes and season with salt and pepper. Add the beef to the pan, and turn until the beef is light brown on all sides. Then add the tomato puree and – after a moment – the sweet paprika and stir, being careful not to overheat or burn the paprika.

2. Pour in the stock and the beer, stirring well. Then slice the garlic and crush it together with the salt to make a paste, releasing the oils. Add half of this to the pan before shaking in the cumin and chilli powder.

3. Bring everything to the boil, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer for at least two hours. Check the tenderness regularly by hand and, when the meat starts to soften and become tender, you are almost ready to serve.

4. Finely grate the sourdough bread and add to thicken the sauce. Then stir in the chopped marjoram and the other half of the garlic-salt paste. Taste and season with salt and pepper, if required.

5. Ladle into warm bowls and garnish with grated horseradish, finely sliced red onion, a whole chilli pepper and the parsley.

6. Serve with steamed bacon dumplings and/or thick slices of good sourdough bread.

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