Do You Know the Strudel Man?

Martin Barak makes what is likely the world’s best rolled apple pastry

By Justin Smith

Customer buying strudel from famous Strudel Man at Susta Strudl in Prague.

Customer buying strudel from famous Strudel Man at Susta Strudl in Prague. Photo courtesy expats.cz.

Many have said the best apple strudel in all of Europe lies not in Germany or Austria, but a tiny shop in Prague, Czech Republic.

Susta Strudl sells foot-long strudels (weighing about 1 pound each) for the whopping price of $2 (46 Koruna). That’s right, a strudel the size of a Subway sandwich sells for the price of a stack of Post-It notes.

Located in the heart of the sometimes seedy, sometimes trendy Zizkov district, Susta Strudl shop’s baked slices of golden apple delights can be savored at home or enjoyed on a bench in the nearby Parukarka park, wh
ich offers a stunning view of the terracotta roofs of the city.

It is a traditional recipe, which has been passed on in our family from generation to generation.

The shop’s international reputation got a boost a decade ago when the U.S. Travel Channel host Samantha Brown toured Prague for her show “Passport to Europe” and said SusScreen Shot 2016-04-13 at 5.32.05 PMta made “the best hot apple strudel in all of Europe.” Today people from around the world still take Brown’s word and navigate their way to the apartment where Susta Strudl resides at the bottom, and place their order through a barred window reminiscent of a box office at the local theater. Instead of tickets, a strudel–apple, curd, or poppy seed–is slid through the window.

The man behind the window, Martin Barak, has remained a mystery to most who visit Susta Strudl and said he was uncomfortable and too busy to meet in person. By email, however, he was willing to discuss what makes his strudels special, the most famous people he’s served, and whether
or not he eats his own strudel.

Where are you from? 

I come from Prague’s Strasnice district. [A district next to Zizkov where Susta Strudl operates].

Did your parents or grandparents make strudels? Where did the recipe come from?

The idea about this particular type of strudel doesn´t come from within my own family, but from the father of my wife. Strudlarna (a drawn-baked strudel shop) was established in 1993 and was long led by her father, Mr. Petr Susta (now in well-deserved retirement). The recipe comes from cooking books of my wife’s grandmothers. It is a traditional recipe, which has been passed on in our family from generation to generation.

When did you start making strudels? Did you always think you would make strudels as a career?

I started baking strudels approximately seven years ago. This opportunity was offered to me by my father-in-law. I have never had any kind of experience with baking and never thought about making it my living in the past. I am therefore the continuation of this tradition.

Only tasty apples make strudel a real strudel.

What makes a strudel from Susta Strudl special?

A big part is handwork, starting with the preparation of the dough, over to making various fillings, to the pulling and twisting for what is known as drawn strudel (a strudel that requires the dough to be carefully thinned out by hand). Furthermore the freshness of the ingredients used is essential.

Where do you get your apples? Do you monitor their cultivation?

The Strudel Man inside his shop. Photo courtesy

The Strudel Man’s father-in-law inside Susta Studl.

I choose and buy apples myself. I buy them from a certified supplier who gets them, for a prevailing part of the year, from Czech farmers. In the months of September and October I even have apples from the garden of my father-in-law, Mr. Susta. So one can say they are absolutely organic-quality apples. The color or shape of the apples I use is not important, but the taste and juiciness are essential. Only tasty apples make strudel a real strudel.

Do you ever try competitor’s strudels? 

Yes, I have; however like the majority of men, I prefer salty dishes.

What makes a good strudel?

The main thing is the freshness of the particular ingredients used, as well as the taste and processing of apples. I put the main emphasis on the processing in case of apple strudel. It is what, combined with cinnamon, gives the taste to the whole strudel. With the cottage cheese strudel, it is the kind of cottage cheese used that makes the difference. The cottage cheese needs to have enough dry mass content. For poppy strudel I only use Czech poppy and high-quality plum jam.

Has anyone ever tried to steal your recipe? If so, how, and what happened?

No, nobody has ever tried. The recipe for drawn-baked dough is in every cookbook. The processing of the dough is nevertheless very difficult, so not many people do it.

I also have to buy ingredients for strudels in my free time.

Who’s the most famous person that you served strudel to?

Lots of publicly known personalities come here to get our strudel. These are some people that came to buy strudels from me: Yvonne Prenosilova (Czech singer known as a pioneer of Czech Rhythm and Blues), Jiri Labus (Czech actor who gave his voice to Marge Simpson in the Czech adaptation of The Simpsons), Gabriela Vranova (Czech actress and theater teacher), Paul van Dyk (German Grammy-winning electronic music DJ, musician and record producer), and Tatiana Vilhelmova (Czech film and theater actress).

The strudel man himself. Photo courtesy Justin Smith.

The strudel man himself. Photo courtesy Justin Smith.

Did you ever get an order from abroad?

Yes, I have. Lots of foreign tourists, who happen to hear about this out-of-the-way Strudl shop, want to try it out. Majority of them come to taste some kind of our strudel and there are also those who take them back home with them.

Have you thought about trying to expand your business to more locations with more kinds of strudel? 

We ponder the question more often these days at home with my wife, that it would be good to extend our shop into more localities. While thinking about it, especially when there would be a need to accept some new employees, we are most afraid to keep the same quality that our customers are used to. During plum season, we make plum strudel (from fresh plums only) and we continue to work on a new kind of strudel, this time a salty one. 

What do you think about people saying you have the best strudel in Prague, or even Europe?

I am very glad that people like our strudels. It is a kind of satisfaction for doing this, sometimes very laborious hand work.

About how many strudels do you sell a week?

In our shop, strudel is always fresh, in an ideal case warm, just taken out of the oven. We bake the whole day, depending on how the people come in. It is very individual.

Fresh strudel from Susta Strudl. Photo courtesy Pinterest.

Fresh strudel from Susta Strudl. Photo courtesy Pinterest.

Describe the process of making one of your strudels, how long does it take?

The process of making strudel begins with the preparation of the filling. I make all fillings myself, starting with the processing of apples, to cottage cheese or poppy filling mixing. This takes probably the longest. Then the dough needs to be made. The dough for drawn-baked strudel needs to have absolutely precise consistency. If it is too thin, it will be runny while spreading over the board and nothing can be made of it. In the opposite case, the dough is too tough and cannot be spread over the board. The correct way to make the dough is a kind of alchemy in drawn-baked strudel making. I then follow by dividing the dough to pieces, which I roll out to flat cakes. These flat cakes are then pulled by hand to the length of approximately two meters (6.5 feet). Then I put in the already prepared filling and with it inside, the strudel is wrapped up. In a well-drawn strudel, there should not be any dough visible when the cut is made. The whole time from wrapping up to baking is approximately 40 minutes, not including the time to prepare the filling and the dough itself.

How is Austrian strudel different than Czech strudel? 

I’ve personally never eaten Austrian strudel. The recipe and the process of making the strudel is nevertheless the same.

Apple strudel atop a hill. Photo courtesy Justin Smith.

Apple strudel atop a hill. Photo courtesy Justin Smith.

What do you do when you’re not at Susta Strudl? 

I spend most of my free time doing sports. I also like to sit for a beer with my friends or go to a concert from time to time. I also have to buy ingredients for strudels in my free time.

What are your hopes for the future? Will you pass on the Susta Strudl to anyone?

I would like to leave it to my children, to let them continue the tradition. In the meantime, I do not have any children so we shall see in time if they start to like it.

Do you eat your own strudels? 

Yes, and I still like them even after such a long time.

Justin Smith is a double major in the NYU College of Arts and Sciences and the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development class of 2018 His hometown is South Kingstown, Rhode Island.

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Categories: Culture, Europe, Food, Spring 2016 Issue Number 2, Travel

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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