/ 23 December 2005

Czech carp competes for Christmas-table spot

Carp, the traditional Christmas meal in Central Europe, is facing fierce competition this year from newcomers such as salmon and poultry, according to worried Czech producers.

Already facing pressure from poultry, carp prices have fallen by about 5% since last year, according to estimates from the biggest national carp producer, Trebon-based Rybarstvi Trebon in the heart of the Czech carp-production region.

”Prices could fall even more because of competition from salmon,” which has been helped by favourable customs duties in the enlarged European Union, said Petr Sedlacek, the commercial director of the company, which exports about 70% of its annual production of 3 000 tonnes.

In addition, there is the traditional competition from Poland and Hungary, the two other major providers of carp in Central Europe.

Still, impervious to the waves of globalisation, consumers jealously guard their place in the queue at the stall near Bosilecky Lake, where the fishermen of Rybarstvi Trebon sell their fish.

”Look at these fish, they are magnificent,” a grandfather exclaims to his son, visibly moved by the sight.

Some, however, are deterred by the price asked for top of the range carp, 250 koruna ($10,20) a kilo for larger live specimens.

Fishmongers who have set up stall across the capital since mid-December are offering cheaper prices — from about 70 koruna a kilo — to compete with fish-farmed salmon offered in supermarkets. About half of annual Czech carp production is sold during the Christmas period.

”The quality of Czech carp can not be compared with fish farmed salmon, our fish live in a natural environment,” argue representatives of the Trebon company.

On Bosilecky Lake, partially drained overnight, fishermen use boats armed with long poles and loading nets to haul in the carp carefully in the haze of the early-morning mist.

On land, professionals judge the weight of the wriggling fish by hand before selecting one of the large water-filled tubs for them.

In the muffled silence, only the sound of outboard motors and the lorries recalls the fact that the action is being played out in the 21st century.

In the Trebon region, production of carp dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries, when monks dug out about 27 000ha of artificial lakes for fish production.

Extracted from the lakes, the fish are usually sold live in large tubs in the run-up to Christmas.

Carp enthusiasts often keep them alive in their baths until Christmas Eve, when they are killed and cooked as the main festive meal. Those with weaker constitutions have them killed on site before taking them away.

Culinary tastes, however, are evolving. Kitchen space is shrinking and households devote less time to cooking. The challenge is as great on the local as the export market, with about half of the annual 20 000 tonnes of Czech carp produced annually destined for sale abroad.

At the same time, traditional methods of raising the fish leave no room for cutting costs. Two years is the minimum time for a young fish to grow naturally, without any stimulants as required by EU rules, into a commercially saleable adult.

What is more, the Association of Czech Fish Producers prefers to bet on the recognised quality of the ”Czech carp” mark, rather than take part in a price war.

In this light, environment group Greenpeace’s recent campaign highlighting the presence of health-damaging phthalates in raised carp was poorly received by the industry. The only consolation for them was that their Polish and Hungarian rivals were also targeted. — Sapa-AFP