Martin přijíždí na bílém koni
This Czech proverb associated with St. Martin’s Day translates into “Martin is coming on a white horse” and reflects a symbolic connection between the arrival of St. Martin and the first snow of the year. While the first snow of the year doesn’t come until well after the day in most of the Czech Republic, there’s much more to St. Martin’s festivities that can be explored.
St. Martin’s Day, which takes place on November 11, is observed in several countries around Europe. Generally, it marks the end of the agricultural year and celebrates a bountiful harvest. How the day is marked varies from country to country; in the Czech Republic, it’s not unlike Thanksgiving Day in North America.
St. Martin lived in the mid to late 300s and was a Roman soldier who later became a bishop of Tours, France. He was famous for cutting his riding cloak in half with his sword and giving one half to a beggar who was freezing. Because of his cloak, Martin is the patron saint of weavers and tailors. Because his feast coincides with the last grape harvest of the year, he is also the patron saint of vintners.
From a Czech perspective, St. Martin’s festivities begin with the uncorking of fresh wine at 11:00 in the morning on November 11 in cellars and other wine merchants across the country.
The traditional St. Martin’s meal is roast goose served up with stewed cabbage and traditional Czech dumplings, knedlíky. This is, of course, accompanied by a glass of young wine.
Through most of the week, restaurants across the country will offer special St. Martin’s menus in addition to their regular ones. It’s not unusual to see duck offered as an option on some restaurants’ special menus.
The goose dishes can be a bit more expensive; but it is only once a year that this event occurs, so it’s worth indulging.
St. Martin’s Wine
St. Martin’s wine is taken from the first wine produced in the current growing year. It should be refreshing, a bit dry, fruity in nature and of a relatively low alcohol content.
Traditionally, the new wine is seen as an indicator of the quality of the rest of the year’s wine production will possess. It is intended for immediate consumption and not to be aged.
In a purely Czech context, officially trademarked St. Martin’s wine (Svatomartinské víno) is strictly regulated by the Wine Fund of the Czech Republic. Only six types of wine are considered acceptable for use as Svatomartinské víno and the process for a wine producer who wishes to be certified to produce official St. Martin’s wine is quite complex, expensive and bureaucratic.
Wines from certified producers are marked with a distinctive white image of Martin on a horse placed on a red disc. This symbol is easily recognizable and displayed prominently on a great deal of advertising materials during the St. Martin’s period.
It should be noted that many more wine producers than those with official certification are quite capable of making a good wine fit for St. Martin’s events. These producers simply can’t label their product “Svatomartinské víno” and affix the official logo to it; their product should certainly not be presumed inferior for lacking official certification.
While St. Martin’s is occasion for some celebration and merriment, it is not a holiday on the Czech calendar. Work and school carry on as usual on November 11 in the Czech lands.
On the website of the Czech Wine Fund, this page will go into the specifics of St. Martin’s wine, its characteristics and how best to enjoy it.
On the Radio Prague website, this article goes into some detail on the history of St. Martin’s Day and includes an interview with a Prague based chef about how he prepares goose for the event.