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The French live to eat, the Poles eat to live. Food is thought to be a failure unless plentiful - nouvelle cuisine would never get past a Pole. Polish food was designed to be filling. It took account of the cold, hard winters and sheer physical energy expended in daily living. The climate is still the same, but office life is decidely less calorie intensive than tilling the soil and gathering the harvest. Most traditional Polish cooking was heavy on preparation time as well as on the stomach, but doctors are busy explaining how heavy it is on the heart, too, and meals are finally shrinking.
Old Polish culinary tastes stem from an intermingling of cultures - heartland Polish, Oriental, French, Italian, German and Jewish; they grew out of the coexistence for centuries of many nationalities within the frameowrk of one state. In the late 15th century overseas explorations brought a turning point in the mentality of Europeans and trade expanded massively. 16th century Poland was a rich and culturally highgly-developed country. It was this century that saw the origins of contemporary culinary traditions, although it saw the duality in Polish cuisine. It is this mixture of Old Polish cuisine with the foreign influences which by various routes achieved primacy for a time in fashionable society before finally blending with the earlier traditions to produce what we call today 'traditional Polish cuisine.'
Along with the Swiss, the Italians also laid the foundations of Polish confectionery. Under Oriental influence, spices became widespread in Polish cuisine, giving a special taste to everyday fare. The east left in Polish cuisine buckwheat, poppy seed, sorbets (frozen fruit juice), dried fruit and nuts, confitures or in other words fruit cooked in honey, nougat, makagigi (cake made of honey, poppy seed, nuts and almonds), halva.
Eastern ways of preparing meat were also retained in Polish cuisine: marinating, chopping, shashliks (similar to a kebab), beef tartare; cooking with dried fruit and pickled vegetables. Christmas Eve almond soup, koutia and poppyseed twists are also left overs from the Orient. And the general habit of eating 'peppery and saffrony' was not driven out until the end of the 18th century.
Following the French, Polish cooking began to place more emphasis on varying the diet, on decorating serving dishes, on the delicate flavours of the dishes themselves; new techniques and methods of preparation and cooking were also introduced. The Polish diet began to include stuffings, pates, pies, broths and jellies (aspics). New seasonings began to be used: truffles, capers, anchovies. New terms also appeared : blanching, stuffing, baking, glazing, battering, larding, marinating.
The restaurant business, which began to develop from the 19th century, brought French cuisine into the homes of the Polish aristocracy. It was restaurants that spread the fashion for French cuisine. Jewish cooking also had a great influence on Polish cuisine and fused into Polish cookery over the centuries - due to the fact that Poles and Jews coexisted in Poland from the times of Casmir the Great onwards - and left permanent traces in ways of cooking goose, herring and other fish. Jewish dishes that survive include halka, goose pipes (stuffed goose necks), cabbage with sultanas and many fish dishes.
The partitioning of Poland had a major influence on Polish cuisine. The least influence can be seen in the Russian partition zone, where dislike of Tsarist rule discouraged the adoption of Russian dishes; the cuisine of the Posnan region took over a great deal from German cooking: pig's hock, cakes using yeast; and Krakow and Galician cookery is a mishmash of Hungarian cuisine (with Turkish and Balkan influences) and Austrian cuisine: pepper, aubergines, mamalyga or Hungarian goulash.
Late 19th century cuisine was not very different from what we know at the moment; the only possible differences are in the proportions of fruit and vegetables to meat.
Breakfast, taken at an ungodly hour because work starts early, is a selection of cold cuts of meat with bread and coffee. 'Second breakfast' is whatever you can get away with at work; usually another coffee and a sandwich at your desk, and if your desk happens to be in the front office of a bank, you munch in public view. Work finishes around 5 o'clock, and the main meal of the day, obiad (dinner), is eaten as soon after transport home allows. Soups as a first course are obligatory and substantial and look as if they should be tackled with knife and fork. The most famous is Barszcz, or beetroot. Rosol (chicken soup), as in the Jewish tradition, is said to be more than a soup, it is the medical and psychological equivalent of the English cup of tea.
For the second course, 'meat and two veg' is the norm - pork, beef, chicken, but not lamb. The Poles equate sheep with mutton, which they declare smells. The alternative main course is pasta: dishes like pierogi, triangular sweet or savoury ravioli, known throughout Europe and universally, though wrongly, translated as dumplings.
Kolacja (cold cuts), the last meal of the day, eaten any time between 6pm and midnight, depends on the sleeping (or otherwise) habits of the family. Like breakfast, it consists mainly of bread, cheese and cold meats. This is not as monotonous as it sounds for Poles have a bewildering variety of cold meats. They will smoke anything, and have as many varieties of sausage and hams as the French have cheeses.
The Poles love cheese too and produce many and smoke some. The unique native cheese, oscypek, doubles as folk art - diamond shaped with a folksy pattern embossed on it. It comes in two forms - soft and fresh, like dehydrated curd cheese with a salty tang, or hard and grateable, not unlike parmesan. They also market a vast range of creams, especially soured: for soups, desserts and sauces. Think of a culinary need and Poland produces a cream to fit.
Of traditional dishes bigos is usually rendered on menus as hunters' stew. Historically, bigos was made in a cauldron over a camp fire in the middle of a forest in winter. Hunters would arrive with a pot of sauerkraut and, adding to it whatever they had managed to bag, simmer it for several days, interrupting the process with spells of cooling it in the snow. Today a low hotplate replaces the camp fire and the fridge makes do for the snowy winters but two days cooking is still the recommended minimum and usually cooked by the eldest male (usually the husband) of the house. This is a good way waking up jaded appetites on the third day of Christmas, and one of the best disguises for turkey left overs.
The Poles pickle things - a throw back to long, hard winters before refrigerators - gherkins, beetroot, cabbage, onions, mushrooms, anything. Most cooks have an atavistic urge to pickle something come the autumn. And if they don't pickle it, they preserve it in alcohol. Traditional Polish herbs are parsley, marjoram, bay leaves and masses of dill. Polish pickles are exported all over the world and now everyone has learned that pickled cucumbers taste better with a sprig of dill in the bottle. Everyone except me that is. I loved gherkins until I came to live here - I think the dill actually spoils the taste and I prefer the way the French prepare them by using garlic and black peppercorns.
Supermarkets now offer a dazzling variety of seasonings and there is every sign that the next generation of Poles will grow up believing, along with other young Europeans, that curry is their traditional national dish. However, the Polish fight-back campaign is in place, with a marketing strategy so effective that Polish food is now available all over the world. Kabanos (pencil thin sausage) or bigos could be set to become the new curry.
Polish snails are not eaten, but collected and then packed off to France for the French to eat, a superior way of throwing them over the garden fence.
Compotes and cakes feature heavily, especially a sort of Swiss roll filled not with jam but with ground poppy seeds mixed with dried fruit (figs, dates, raisins) and honey.
Fish, when it makes an appearance, is either pickled (herrings) or freshwater: carp, pike, salmon, trout. Though the Polish fleet is one of the largest in the world, Poles have never quite taken to the fruits of the sea. When the government tried a poster campaign to overcome this, their slogan 'Eat Cod' acquired the graffiti: 'S... tastes even worse.' Charming!
The fruits of the forest, however, are held in high esteem. Berries and mushrooms of all sorts are collected avidly, and the most urbane of city people will know their nuts (pardon the expression). If you get marooned on a desert island, choose a Pole as your companion and you will never go hungry.
Drinking and Toasts
Breakfast coffee in many countries is a weak and milky affair. Not so in Poland where it consists of a generous spoonful of ground coffee heaped into a glass of boiling water. If your spoon does not stand up on its own, it is a failure. Exeperience teaches you when to stop sipping, just before you swallow the grounds.
Tea is also taken without milk, served with lemon in a glass specially designed to ensure that you burn your fingers. Tea with milk is known as 'Bavarian' and considered only fit for breast feeding mothers.
Vodka used to be consumed at home, which was only fair since much of it was brewed there. A child's chemistry set, described on the box as 'The Little Chemist,' is still known as 'The Little Brewer'. However the bars and pubs springing up in even the smallest towns are tempting many to wine and dine alfresco and in public.
Vodka is divided into two types: dry and clear for the man, theoretically at least (and this includes Bison vodka with the blade of grass in it), and sweet for the ladies. Beware Polish liquors! They are usually 40+% and drunk undiluted: firewater. The women might be seen to be sweeter toothed, but their head's have to be just as strong as the men's.
Technicoloured sweet vodka's can be made of virtually anything: ripe morello cherries, honey, nuts, lemon, hot chilli peppers. There is even one with bits of gold floating in it. Those Poles who do buy their vodka in a shop often doctor it at home and create delicious home-made liquors. These are generally made with a base of Polish pure spirit, 90%, 180 proof, the nearest to pure alcohol possible, and the strongest drink known to man. Avoid drinking this neat without prior instruction and a soft landing.
The methodology of drinking is in tiny cut-crystal glasses, drained in one gulp, after a toast, and usually, sensibly, accompanied by lots of food. The Pole, who invited home by an Englishman, sent his host's treasured Waterford flying into the two bar electric fire is apocryphal. Poles hang on to their glasses to ensure refills.
Rounds of toasts usually start with the health of the hosts, followed by the health of the guests, followed by the health of the beautiful ladies, and the handsome gents, then bachelor days. After that, tradition leaves each dinner party to its own devices. The uninventive can always continue with endless repetitions of the formula, and toast " The health of the guests" for the ninth time - for as long as they have stength to lift the glass.
So that's my little story about Polish food and drink but before I go I will leave you with a list of food to try out - you can probably buy some of these items in the UK.
Soup - Keep your eyes peeled for two of Poland's favourite soups.
Zurek (sour rye soup with sausages and potatoes floating in it) and Barszcz (beetroot, occasionally with dumplings thrown in). Feel free to dunk your bread rolls into it. Marks - 2/10 Disgusting!
Bigos - You'll either love it or hate it. Hunters stew is made using meat, cabbage, onion and sauerkraut. If you have second helpings then consider yourself a Pole by default. Marks 10/10 Excellent.
Golabki - Boiled cabbage leaves stuffed with beef, onion and rice before being baked in a tomato sauce. Marks 9/10 Delicious but be warned can give you heartburn.
Pierogi - pockets of dough traditionally filled with meat, cabbage or cheese but you can sometimes find other fillings like strawberries . 5/10 - Not a fan.
Smalec - fried lard, often served complimentary before a meal with hunks of homemade bread. You should eat this with a mug of ale as it is meant to keep the cold out. - I can't really mark the lard as there is no way you will get me to eat lard so I will mark it 10/10 for the ale. Polish beer rocks!
Kielbasa - sausages and here in Poland you will find several varieties made primarily with pork but sometimes using turkey and lamb. My favourite is Krakowska which is a Krakow speciality which uses pepper and garlic. Marks 10/10 Delicious.
A little added info - Kielbasa was also the nickname of one of Poland's notorious gangland figures of the 90's.
Zapiekanki - also known as Polish pizza. It consists of a baguette with melted cheese and then covered in mushrooms. It is then grilled and usually covered in tomato ketchup. I can eat these all the time - delicious and marks out of ten -10/10
When I first moved to Poland I was very enthusiastic about trying the food and I often used to come home with food I had never eaten before or perhaps would not have even contemplated eating in UK. Then I went trhough a stage of not eating any and sulking because I missed my 'treats' and food I liked. I thought all Polish food was pickled or smoked and revolting. Now 12 months on I actually eat a lot of Polish dishes and I am happy with most of the flavours. I like some of the meats and cheeses although I think English cheddars are much tastier. Polish bread is terrific and there are so many different varieties to choose from. Polish beer I love and can drink it by the gallon. However, I can't say the same about vodka. Three small glasses and I feel as though my brain has been removed. I avoid it as much as possible which is very difficult as there is always a celebration somewhere. I would say in general that the tastes aren't very subtle and a lot of the food is stodgy so my recommendation is not to eat too much and if you don't like vinegar then you are in trouble. Good Luck!