Polish food again

I’m going to write about Polish food again. Even as I was typing that sentence Poland’s sixth sense of persecution began tingling and a thousand emails beginning with the words “Ha! English kitchen is rubbish” were auto-created on the whirling servers beneath the Ministry of Knee-Jerk Reactions. Nevertheless, I’m going to plough on because there is something about Polish cooking that I would really like to understand. It seems to me that there are whole swathes of cuisine that are entirely absent from the Polish table, but I can’t see why. They are: beef, lamb, hard cheese and pastry.

Polish people don’t see this as odd because they regard these missing elements as obtainable but expensive rarities, in much the same way that a British person wouldn’t think it odd that octopus sandwiches don’t play a larger role in the nation’s diet. But it is odd. In every Western European country I’ve been to people regularly eat pork and chicken but also beef and lamb (or mutton – lamb is always expensive because supply is limited, but it’s certainly not a once-a-year thing).

I know that you, dear readers, can probably lay your hands on a venerable Polish beef or lamb recipe with a wave of the Google wand but I’ve lived here for four years now and you can’t fool me. Have a meal in Poland at a restaurant or somebody’s house or in the presidential palace and nine times out of ten the main course is going to be pork or chicken. I refuse to believe sheep and cows can’t be raised in Poland (the hilly bits in the south look like perfect sheep country and the flat bits are surely made for cattle) so why is there no tradition of raising and eating them?

Pork and chicken are very nice and Poles have a thousand ways of making them even nicer, but their almost complete dominance is very puzzling. In fact, their dominance is so stark that it must be a symptom of a powerful cultural force at work in Polish history. It can’t just be a geographical thing, like the factors that make rice rather than wheat the staple of Asia. But what is this factor? Was it a Communist thing? Were sheep regarded as bourgeois? Are Angus longhorns fifth columnists? When I ask Polish people why they eat beef and lamb so rarely they cite its high price, but that’s just another way of saying that it’s unpopular. If only one person in a thousand ate chicken, it would be more expensive than caviar.

The cheese question is even weirder. The classic Polish cheese is twaróg – a very soft, young cheese made without rennet. All European cultures have an equivalent but, strangely, in Poland it’s the only kind of cheese they make. Here’s an interesting quote from Ewa Spohn, who knows a lot more about cheese than me:

The missing ingredients are bacteria. A good cheesemaker is really a virtuoso in the management of bacteria. Describing how this biochemical miracle works would fill a whole library, but in short, a cheese that does any maturing at all, whether it’s cheddar, Rocquefort or Camembert, starts life as a vat of warm milk to which the cheesemaker adds the right type of bacteria. They are given time and warmth needed them to multiply and create the by-products that give cheese its flavour and texture.

So adding the right bacteria is key and is something that Polish cheesemakers, with a handful of exceptions, don’t do, relying instead on the bacteria that are naturally present in milk. We see the result everywhere: the familiar bland, fresh white cheese that goes sour pretty quickly. Some producers experiment by adding herbs and spices to the basic product. For example, in Korycin, near Białystok, and Wizajny near the Kaliningrad Oblast, members of the Korycin and Wizajny producers associations showed us how they add various flavourings like caraway, olives and basil to their cheeses. The finished cheeses don’t differ hugely from each other and neither type is a million miles away from the typical fresh, white Polish cheese you see everywhere.

Twaróg – the Moon isn’t made of it

The more I think about this the odder it becomes: making hard, mature cheese (an excellent way of preserving the protein in milk for the long term) is an incredibly ancient human discovery, but seems to have passed Poland by or been forgotten. Poles are a lot of things but they’re certainly not stupid, so how did this happen?

The absence of pastry also intrigues me, and it’s something I’ve written about before in The Polish pie mystery. My conclusions from the numerous comments under that post are that:

1) Pastry does exist, but it’s almost always found at the bottom of sweet tarts that I strongly suspect came to Poland through Napoleonic and Austro-Hungarian influence (the fact that ‘pastry’ is just called ‘ciasto’ lends support here I think).

2) There are some obscure Polish recipes that are something like filled-pastry pies, but, again like the beef and lamb recipes, you never come across them in real life so I don’t regard them as real Polish food.

What were the forces that so stunted Polish cuisine? I would genuinely love to know. It’s the The Bourne Identity of food. If you can also shed light on why the screwdriver was suddenly invented in Germany in the 15th century (the screwdriver is only 500 years old!), that would be good too.

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49 thoughts on “Polish food again

  1. Also seafood! Paula finally likes shrimp and allows it in dishes I prepare so now I need to get her to realise how wonderful clam chowder is.

  2. Simple explanation: Poverty over hundreds of years. Poland was an agrarian economy up to 1950 until the communist state dictated heavy industry development. From the Third Partition in 1795 Poland was an occupied state with most produce being ‘ripped off’ and much agricultural land under foreign control. Pigs and chickens can be intensively farmed to produce more protein than free-ranging sheep or cattle. Thus they are accessible to peasant farmers with only small plots of land. In fact the tolerance of private ownership of small farm holdings was a part of the communist regime who mostly collectivized the large, more commercial and foreign owned estates. So basically the majority of the Polish population had no reasonable access to lamb or beef for over 200 years. Similarly seafood is uncommon, apart from fresh water fish like the ubiquitous carp. Interestingly my mother, a great cook, disliked lamb because of the ‘bad smell’ and considered beef to be a luxury item. Beef was prepared as ‘beef steak’, a large minced beef patty with lots of bread crumbs or very rarely as ‘steak tartare’. Likewise sea fish smelled of cod liver oil and the only good fish was carp.

  3. Malcolm says:

    An even greater mystery is why it is so difficult to buy venison?
    Deer are everywhere. Surely it couldn’t be that difficult to put a fence around them and farm them…

  4. Wigster says:

    It’s not really that strange: if you look, the cuisine of Germany is even more pork heavy than the Polish.

    From the point of view of an average peasant’s life, 100+ years ago: you don’t kill cows, because they give you milk (from this perspective, it is in fact strange that veal is so unpopular in the UK: it is the sensible way of utilising male and therefore useless cows). So yes beef is a luxury product eaten by the rich. Only in places like the US and Argentina does everyone eat beef, because of the empty land where the cows can freely graze. And the beef from the US and Argentina is much better than anywhere in Europe for this reason too.

    Lamb: well sheep only make sense when you have mountains. Were it not for the Turks, lamb would be unknown in Germany. Britain has many poor mountainous regions (Scotland and Wales) where sheep are the only animal which can be sensibly raised.If you have flat land, it’s much more sensible to raise pigs or cows. Lamb is popular in the Mediterranean for this reason too.

    Cheese: the real cheese producers are the Mediterranean nations, not Northern Europeans. Sure every country has some cheeses (and very few in Germany for example), but nothing like the French, Italians and Spaniards. The reason here (allegedly) is that the incidence of lactose intolerance is much higher in the South than the North, so they have to process the milk before drinking it (have you ever seen a Greek ingest a glass of milk for fun?). Northern Europeans can drink milk straight from the cow, and largely that’s what we do. Say: the Dutch drink it for lunch every day. This is much cheaper than going through the whole process of cheese-making.

    About pies I indeed have no thoughts. Although things such as this *do* exist in Polish cooking:

    http://www.lubelskie.pl/?pid=673

    All of this does lead to a cuisine that is a little unvaried. But you have to take into account the fact that, in most of Europe, people were hungry until well into the 20th century, and in Eastern Europe until after WW2, so such things as eating thigns because they were nice did not have that much importance. You ate whatever the local land produced efficiently. Because of the large geographical uniformity of Poland and little contact with the sea, a short vegetative season, it’s mostly dough and milk (pierogi etc) and pigs for meat.

  5. polkaontheisland says:

    I don’t know why there REALLY is no pie culture. Maybe because a pie is something to be taken in the pocket to work? That’s not really necessary if you’re farming or the wife is not working or your factory has a canteen (like in PRL they all had) or you stay faithful to the bread and cheese sandwich recommended by Jan Chryzostom Pasek as a modest military food.

    And why do you say maturing cheeses are not real cheeses? Morski and Edamski are yellow enough, not?

  6. Kohlrabi says:

    And yet a thick gulasz (stew) made out of beef is one of the standard meals my mother prepares (the others being the usual kotlet mielony, kotlet schabowy and filet z kurczaka).

  7. Serratus says:

    Just want to add to what Wigster has written – it’s true that only ~20% of western countries citizens can digest milk (the rest gets all kinds of stomach problems if they drink ‘raw’ milk), but in most Slav countries the tolerance for lactose is ~50%.

    BTW – tribes living on the other side of Urals have almost 100% tolerance – they eat milk to every meal.

    ps. U can take all the ‘yellow’ cheese, I don’t care. I can trade any amount of it for the ‘white’ one.

  8. Michał says:

    Yes, lack of good Polish maturing cheese is a real pity, but there are some exceptions to this rule – like “Bursztyn” (try it!). It is not a product with hundreds of years of history, though.

  9. island1 says:

    The absence of seafood doesn’t surprise me, given how far away the sea is for most Poles. I would, however, happily commit murder for a clam chowder.

  10. island1 says:

    But most of Europe was primarily agrarian until fairly recently, and the average 18th century British agrarian worker was hardly rich.

    Interesting point about the small plots remaining in private ownership. I hadn’t thought of that.

  11. island1 says:

    But venison is hardly popular anywhere. I guess it’s more tricky to raise deer for food than it looks.

  12. island1 says:

    Beef would also have been a rare treat in Britain 100 years ago. I guess what happened was that, as people became richer, they were able to have the good stuff that would previously only have been eaten by aristocrats more often – the ‘traditional’ British Sunday roast beef being the result.

    I’m not convinced by your cheese argument. I know that there are dozens of matured cheese made in Britain. I think French and Italian cheeses are just better known internationally because of the weird idea that grew up in the last century that French and Italian cuisine is somehow superior.

    Lamb: Poland has lots of poor mountainous country down here in the south that is ideal for sheep and not much else.

  13. island1 says:

    Don’t know anything about Morski, but Edamski is clearly just Dutch cheese made in Poland. I guess somebody is making Brie somewhere in Poland, but that doesn’t make it a Polish cheese.

  14. island1 says:

    Goulash is Hungarian surely.

  15. island1 says:

    Yes, I think this is like the ‘Edamski’ case.

  16. Outsider says:

    Not being a meat eater, I’ve never given Polish meat (or any other meat, for that matter) a second thought, so if you say it lacks variety, I’ll take your word for it.

    However, you’re wrong about Polish cheese. Yes, twaróg, arguably the blandest food on Earth, is disturbingly popular in Poland, but it’s far from being the only cheese produced there. In fact, lots of different cheeses are made in Poland, from Dutch-style semi-hard yellow cheeses to local variations on Camembert and Roquefort to hard sheep cheeses like Oscypek.

    I’m no connoisseur, but I probably eat my own weight in cheese every year (although I’m not going to do the math for fear of confirming that) and I must say those few pounds of Polish cheese I can get my hands on hold up very well against foreign competition.

    So apart from the infamous twaróg (and serek topiony – now that’s a true abomination unto the Lord!), Polish cheese is fine IMHO. There may be fewer varieties than the size of the country would lead you to expect, but if you’re willing to poke around a bit, I’m sure you can find something to your taste.

  17. Lilo says:

    So? So was one third of Poland for quite a while. Besides, there are dozens of varieties of gulasz, the one my grandma makes is nothing like the one I ate in Budapest.

    While I agree there’s not much non-sweet pastry, I’m a bit surprised at the “no beef in Poland” claim. Everyone I know eats beef, though it’s rarely huge slabs of meat American-style (rather: gulasze, kotlety, pulpety, zrazy, rolady, even pierogi and gołąbki). My family even had to make a conscious switch to a healthier diet, so now we eat red meat less often.

    Really, you either didn’t know that you were eating beef, or you had really bad luck with penny-pinching cooks with limited range.

  18. Pistefka says:

    Well, for a little perspective I can report that here in Hungary pork is also the “default” meat, but beef is more common than in Poland. It has to be, as it is necessary for Gulyás (which is a soup here, not a stew) and for various beef stews (pörkölt etc, which are what the rest of the worl would call goulash.)

    The fish situation here is even more dire than in Poland. Unless you want to pay extortionate prices it is hard to find anything non-carplike. I did have some nice trout the other day though. Catfish and other dodgy types are available, but not eaten much, except in fish soup, which isn’t a bad way of using up unspectacular fish.In fact I now pine for Polish smoked mackerel and pickled herring. It is available here, but not in anything like the variety as in poland. The variety which always used to amuse me was “Sledz po góralsku” – I mean where the hell did the górale highlanders get their herring from?

    Hungarians are generally pretty rubbish at hard cheeses too, although they do have some nice semi-fermented stuff which is tastier than twaróg, but which you can only find in a few places.. The supermarkets are full of twaróg – like “túró”, and very very dull “trappista” – which is just like generic Polish “ser zolty”.

    Proper, bought from a babcia on the street or ski-slope Oscypek has to be the best Polish cheese for me.

    As for lamb, its also very hard to track down (down) here too, much to the dismay of my wife, who as a Transylvanian finds Easter isn’t Easter without it. And when you can find it, it doubles in price around Easter time.

    And they also eat TRIPE here too.

  19. Ewa says:

    The problem is that not that Poland doesn’t produce cheese, it’s that all cheeses taste the same here and there are very few farmhouse cheeses. Also oscypek is a semi soft cheese (it’s not matured to preserve it, rather it’s smoked) and a genuine example of that is very hard to find.

    I’m interested in the local variations on Camembert and Roquefort that you mention. Are you talking of things like Turek and Lazur or farmhouse versions?

  20. Ewa says:

    You very rarely raise deer for food (they don’t do well penned in, they need to roam in a herd) so venison is a wild food! A guy I know who makes kielbasa Mysliwska buys his from Macro as it has to have all sorts of veterinary checks before it can be sold as food, and you’re never sure whether the hunter you buy it from has checked or not. There are a couple of butchers at the Kleparz markets who also sell frozen venison.

  21. Ewa says:

    There are people trying to revive sheep farming across southern Poland, but the numbers of sheep have been dropping drastically every year since the peak in the 70s and 80s as the price of lamb has gone through the floor (most of our lamb is exported so it’s tied to the euro/zloty exchange rate). And EU subsidies for farming grass make for a much easier life.

  22. Outsider says:

    As I said, I’m not a connoisseur, and of course you’re right, Oscypek is semi-soft, not hard. I was thinking of Lazur (don’t know Turek) as the Polish Roquefort. The Polish Camembert I know of is “Slupski Chlopczyk”.

    And to be honest, the whole concept of “farmhouse cheese” seems to me far less appealing when applied to Poland. Think “Irish farmhouse” and you’ll think jolly sheep grazing in a lush valley. When I think “Polish farmhouse”, for some reason I picture a hung over guy smoking a cig while milking a depressed cow in a concrete shed. So I’m less bothered about most cheese in Poland coming from modern factories.

  23. Kohlrabi says:

    More on twaróg: note that it’s very universal. I personally eat it with sweet stuff like honey, jam (and Nutella when I was a kid). Thanks to that you can stuff yourself with bread with e.g. a thick layer of crystallized honeydew honey (mmm!) and don’t get sick of the sweetness too quickly. Or you can eat it w/salt, pepper etc.

  24. Michał says:

    No, it’s completely different :-) It’s hard, you can barely cut it… in fact it is recommended to cleave it. It has a very specific aroma, to me there’s a hint of peach, but the producer says something different. They say it’s closest to Grana padano, but I can’t tell – I didn’t try the latter. It’s certainly something we shouldn’t be ashamed of, in contrast to all those cheese kinds for around 20 zloty/kg.

    I also find “Lazur złocisty” quite enjoyable.

  25. meinglanz says:

    Beef and veal are very popular in Upper Silesia.

  26. Kohlrabi says:

    Of course a good slab of twaróg on the honey.

  27. Sheep don’t need mountains! Australia has more sheep than people! I like roast lamb, Greek style. (lamb is $AUD6 – $AUD 15 per kilo)

    “Australia has in excess of 110 million sheep or roughly 10% of the world sheep population and sheep and wool production has always been a major Australian rural industry.” http://agrifoodcareers.com.au/ONtrack/ONtrack/pages/jobs/livestock/sheeprod.html

  28. odrzut says:

    Yeah, because in Ireland their farmers don’t ever drink (so they don’t have hangovers when milking their jolly sheeps). They also don’t smoke, and their sheds are wooden or brick, which greatly improves the quality of cheese. Also – the grass is greener there. Typical Polish inferiority complex I detect :) (OK, the grass probably is greener in Ireland, nevermind)

    I much prefer everything that comes from the farmhouse to what I can buy in mall – I’ve lived in the countryside for 20 years, and while many farmers drink quite a lot, their produces are much better to the cheap shit food factories make.

  29. Outsider says:

    Wow, it took over 17 hours for the cowpat to hit the fan! Is trolling around here is less fun than it used to be, or are fewer Poles willing to defend their farming industry to the death?… :-)

    I freely admit I’m a city boy who gets nauseous at the mere sight of a chicken, but I’ve been to the countryside in lots of places and unfortunately rural Poland takes the cake when it comes to general unpleasantness. That said, your village may very well be full of sober, clean and industrious people tending to healthy livestock. I’ve just never seen such a place. :-)

    One other thing about Polish cheese worth mentioning: smoked cheese rules! It’s delicious and there’s lots of it, but for some reason this form of preserving cheese seems to be largely unknown in the “West”. I don’t care if Poles burn wood, tires or witches to smoke their cheese – I just hope they keep doing what they’re doing and export more of it!

  30. Stefan says:

    1) Beef used to be more popular in Poland 20 years ago, before the mad cows disease panic to be exact. After a short break in Britain and America, the consumption of beef has returned to the previous level whereas in Poland hasn’t.
    2) Beef used to be cheaper than pork under communism, and people did eat it, mainly in form of ‘zrazy zawijane’, mince, sometimes roast beef (pieczeń wołowa) in sauce and steak tartare. As it’s easy to notice, beef in Poland makes no good material for steaks, getting tough too fast. Polish beef requires quite long thermal processing, while we tend to spend less and less time in the kitchen.
    3) Most of Poles asked why they don’t eat lamb or mutton will answer that it stinks. What does it stink? It simply stinks mutton! My grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles hated mutton, so did friends and neighbours. I started eating mutton when I was in my early twenties. In my opinion the fragrance mutton gives off is not very pleasant but you can cope with it with some garlic, marjoram or other herbs.
    When I read English novels set in the 19th century and their characters had mutton chops with mint sauce, I did believe those people suffered from “this horrible English cuisine”. It turned out another stereotype as lamb chops with mint sauce are delicious!
    4) As for cheese, you’re absolutely right. I do not really know how to explain this lack of our original hard types of cheese. In my opinion quite original (beside ‘oscypek’) is “ser koryciński” (feel invited to Białystok and buy some). However, it’s still a sort of ‘twaróg’ although a bit hardened with rennet.
    5) Some “paszteciki” with meat may pass for pastry, although you’re absolutely right, we don’t have pies in Poland.

    All in all, the question “why haven’t they invented this or that” is, however, almost impossible.to answer. Nobody knows why the Inkas didn’t use the wheel, although nobody should claim there weren’t any intelligent people among them. Maybe when Dutch cheeses reached Poland, the Poles decided just to copy their invention. (Seriously, hard cheeses produced in Poland are not really hard, it’s enough to compare English cheddar and something that is called ‘cheddar’ in Poland).

  31. scatts says:

    I’m liking wigster’s definition of Wales and Scotland as “poor mountainous regions”. You’ll go far!

    Cheese is not just a med thing. As Jamie says, the UK has been making very fine hard cheese for centuries. Admittedly one or two recipes from the Romans but certainly not all of them and in the intervening 1,500 years the Brits may have earned the right to claim ownership in any case.

    I’m actually quite comfortable with an explanation that “Poles just don’t like lamb” because it does seem to be true even today when some very good lamb can be found in many restaurants. It’s getting more popular here in Warsaw at least, but it will never be as popular as in the UK. I’m far more confused about beef because Poles do like beef.

    Don’t agree about seafood. Move to Warsaw! :-)

    Pies – the history of almost all British pies, pasties and the like is as an easy, cheap but nutritious and transportable working man’s lunch. Britain obviously had a lot more working class people in need of such a thing than did Poland. Might have something to do with Britain being more urban and industrial (back in the day) compared to Poland being more rural and agricultural? Farm workers can generally find better things to eat than pies and they aren’t stuck in a factory for days on end being flogged by some evil Victorian bastard.

  32. scatts says:

    Michał is right, Bursztyn is rock hard, a little like that Old Amsterdam one you can buy. But, there are very very few hard cheeses here and they tend to be super hard.

    Polish cheese-makers find it impossible to establish a middle ground of hardness, it is either soft or rock-hard.

  33. scatts says:

    Let’s hear it for the miners!!

    I’ll bet the miners have pies as well, right?

  34. VLF says:

    “weird idea that grew up in the last century that French and Italian cuisine is somehow superior.”
    IMHO Italian cuisine is boring beyond belief. How many names can they come up for flour mixed with water?

    French on the other hand… yummmm… with bigos or steak-and-three-veg we have no chance for culinary domination, not even in the fast food domain.
    Imagine trying to order a “Large McBigos meal, with Coke, no ice.” “Would you like extra lard with that?”
    Or “A lump of McGrey lump of cow… and today I think I’ll have the three-veg combo.””Supersize?”

    As to white, soft cheese, try some May bundz. That would have to be the best white cheese ever made. My Ozzie pertner insists we come to Krakow every May/June to have bundz with koperek and tomatoes on rye for every meal.
    Do yourself a favour Jamie, try it! You’ll get it at any of the farmers markets in Krakow.

  35. Yana says:

    Funny thing, actually I don’t like the taste of lamb or beef and I’m not fond of pastry though I live in England and I could buy all these things easily. Lamb is just… eewwww. My husband’s family (all Polish and living in Poland) eat a lot of lamb and beef, but I just can’t stand the taste of the meat. In my own family actually nobody likes lamb. Even the smell of cooking lamb makes me retch bleurgh :-)

    I don’t know why there’s no Polish Mature Cheddar though, it’s simply delicious!
    A lot of Polish people don’t like cider, which is strange for me – I love it.

  36. Sylwia says:

    The various kinds of Dutch and Swiss cheese are Polish because they were made by Polish Dutch and Polish Swiss. That’s why they come either from the seaside or ex-magnate properties. I.e. ‘ser puławski’ – Puławy was a family seat of the Czartoryskis who brought the Mennonite farmers.

    There was a strict role division in the magnate properties. Serfs didn’t produce cheese.

    In places where there was no serfdom one finds various kinds of regional cheese like bryndza or oscypek in the mountains.

    I’m sure the era of communism had a great impact on our food. You should have tried that beef to know why many Poles don’t eat it nowadays. Yellow cheese, any yellow cheese, was something I hadn’t known as a kid. We thought of cheese with holes as a kind of abomination, like the cloned Dolly sheep. Something you know exists but you don’t really think you’re ever going to see it. I also thought they had it only in Switzerland.

    Cheese like brie or camembert didn’t exist at all. I had no idea there was something like that. So there were only two kinds of cheese, white which we knew and yellow which we heard about.

    The only exception was a very orange cheese sent by the Americans. It was dubbed “Reagan’s Revenge”. I don’t think Poles would buy it today.

    White cheese was something my grandma and many other grandmas used to produce themselves. You could see it hanging, attached to the tap above sink, in every Polish kitchen.

  37. TheAngol says:

    Two excellent cheeses are produced in Radzyń Podlaski – Bursztyn, which beats any cheddar I’ve found here at an acceptable price, and Rubin, its rather less flavourful cousin. About 40zł a kilo, delicious by themselves and excellent for cooking with.

  38. tea says:

    (all PL)

    There are traditional hard cheeses in Podkarpacie region – Podkarpacki Ser Zółty and Rolada Ustrzycka. There’s also Liliput Wielkopolski.

    I also coincidentally happened to read at least two articles recently about the explosion of small, yet already quite recognized (internationally even) fromageries (?) and how people in Poland are eating more and more cheese…. I guess that if you’d give some more time and no tragedy happened, more and more locally produced cheese (whether it’s produced on foreign recipes or else) would emerge eventually. People have more money and are not afraid to invest in a risky, expensive business – and as I’ve read, producing a good cheese is an expensive endeavor (http://polskalokalna.pl/wiadomosci/malopolskie/news/ekskluzywny-ser-z-twarza-kluski,1274842)

  39. tee says:

    oops sorry about the brackets on the top – they’re quite irrelevant now.

  40. gumish says:

    someone already mentioned it – but I will reapeat it – mutton is simply disgusting – don’t know about lamb meat but I believe it is not much better – and now you have one of the mysteries unveiled – I’m Polish – I don’t know any good recipies for mutton – I only prepared it once while in Britain – gawd it was so awful

  41. Dawid says:

    nine times out of ten the main course is going to be pork or chicken

    Interestingly, pork’s popularity is a fairly recent phenomenon in Poland. Old Polish cookbokks are almost entirely free of pork-based recipes, instead relying heavily on freshwater fish (there used to be a fish pond in sight almost everywhere here) and kapłon, which was a fattened castrated rooster.

    Was it a Communist thing? Were sheep regarded as bourgeois?

    I distinctly remember mutton being sold in Polish “supermarkets” (called “sams”) in the late 1980’s, and even heavily advertised (if you can call a lame slogan painted on the wall advertising). So I don’t think communism has anything to do with the indifference towards mutton here. Still, it’s a shame – personally I think mutton is great, once you know what spices to use.

    I refuse to believe […] cows can’t be raised in Poland […] so why is there no tradition of raising and eating them?

    Beef is definitely not nearly as popular as pork here, but there are some everyday recipes that I don’t even need a Google search to come up with. One would be rosół wołowy (beef soup), which is cooked basically in the same way as the chicken soup, only with beef and some “heavier” veggies. And zrazy zawijane (no idea how to translate it), which are made predominantly of beef with onion, egg, pickled gherkin and mustard filling. They don’t look very appetizing, but looks are misleading. And this is a very old recipe, if I’m not mistaken dating back to the 17th century at least, and still quite popular (although some prefer to prepare them with pork instead).

    The classic Polish cheese is twaróg […] in Poland it’s the only kind of cheese they make.

    I know very well the merits of rhetorical exagerration, but c’mon. You may not consided ser żółty (“yellow”. i.e. hard cheese) the real thing, but you can’t honestly say it’s the same as twaróg. There are many kinds of these Polish style hard cheeses, they are very popular, often there’s more kinds of them on the shelves than there are of twaróg. I know that to many a Western palate they don’t seem flavoursome enough to be compared to classic French (OK, OK, British too…) cheeses, but they are not white soft cheeses by any measure. About twaróg, yes, it is bland – just like a lot of food is (including meat) until you use some other ingredients and spices. I don’t know anybody who eats twaróg on its own. Salt and pepper is a common addition. I myself like to put some finely chopped onion in it as well, and some sour cream to improve the texture – in the same way that I add salt, pepper, garlic, onion, what have you, when I cook meat.

    Incidentally, Poland is the sixth largest cheese making nation in the world (after the USA, Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheese#World_production_and_consumption ), so how about trying to look past stereotypes and appreciate the local cheese culture for what it is, instead of endlessly comparing it with other cultures?

  42. Name says:

    Most of the author’s observations could be extended to all of central and eastern europe – except the balkans but including eastern Germany. The explanation is of economical nature and have much to do with a process known as the second serfdom.

    From 15th century onwards territories east of the Elbe river became more and more a source of food (mostly cereal) and raw materials (wood, hide) for urbanizing and industrializing areas of western Europe like the Netherlands, England or Northern Italy. This lead to changes in social structure – the ruling noble classes wanted to produce and sell as much as possible, so they gradually extended they rule over peasants, finally reducing them to a status not much different from slaves. What does this have to do with food? Let’s see:

    1. The nobleman does not export meat (which could not be preserved for long), he exports cereal. So he wants fields of wheat rather than pastures full of cows. As a result cows were kept in limited numbers, mostly for milk and to produce oxen which were improtant working animals. Sheep were once kept in Polish plains and mountains alike – again not for meat, but for wool which could be exported. Once the export became unprofitable (somehow in 18th century), the tradition of keeping sheep became to disappear.
    Therefore you do not eat beef, as cows are precious milk giving animals. You also do not eat mutton, as there are no sheep around anymore. Finaly you do not eat goats – goat is a poor man’s cow, it’s milk often the only source of animal protein for those who cannot afford a cow.

    2. A tradition of elaborate cheese making (just like the tradition of making wine or cider or any other sophisticated processed food) depends on existence of a certain social class, namely wealthy, free peasant farmers who produce food to be sold. You need generations and generations of such farmers to invent and perfect something like cheddar or parmigiano, or gouda. As explained above in early modern Poland this social class did not exist or was very small. The majority peasants were poor serfs who mostly worked on their noble master’s fields, and if they produced anything by themselves they also ate it themselves.

    When the nobleman wanted some hard cheese produced, he would bring Dutch settlers to his lands. Later, when a food processing factory wanted to produce cheese on industrial basis it would use foreign technology. Therefore hard cheese produced in Poland is called ‘Edamski’ or ‘Gouda’ or ‘Dutch type’. (I suppose what the author meant by ‘no hard cheese’ is lack of local traditions, not complete lack of hard cheese in groceries, as the latter is obviously not true).

    And as I mentioned in the beggining all of the above applies not just to Poland, but to territories of Europe east of the Elbe river – former kingdom of Prussia, former kingdom of Hungary, Bohemia, Belarus and Ukraine, european Russia. In all of this territory beef consumption is relatively rare, while pork is the default meat. Nowhere there’s much local tradfition of hard cheese production, and if there is it was probably imported. (the kind of cheese the Czechs and Slovaks use for frying in breadcrumbs is called ‘eidam’, another clear sign of Dutch influence). So the author’s supposition that Poland is somehow special seems to come from lack of wider perspective.

    3. And the pastry question IMHO makes as much sense as ‘why there is no english pizza tradition’.

  43. Ben says:

    Very interesting posts and comments. I didn’t realize that the Poles did not eat hard cheese.

    Do you know if kefir or kombucha is popular in Poland?

  44. Dawid says:

    Ben, we do eat hard cheese! Did you really read the comments?

    Kefir is widely available.

    – wealthy, free peasant farmers who produce food to be sold […] in early modern Poland this social class did not exist or was very small

    Technically true, but looking for the exact same social structure in different cultures is misleading. There were hardly any “wealthy free peasants” in Old Poland if you define this group in the same way as you would define it for Western Europe, but if you look for the closest counterpart it would be szlachta (nobles) themselves. They were basically wealthy large-scale farmers who made money by growing crops and selling them – just like “wealthy free peasants” in the Western Europe. The only difference was their lineage. And they found other foodstuffs than cheese to invent and perfect, namely nalewki (fruit- and herb-flavoured liquors) and wędliny (all kinds of savoury kielbasas, that are today associated with peasant food, but actually were never present on a peasant’s table.) And one more thing – some cheeses seem to have been developed not by wealthy free peasants, but by monks. And here’s another interesting difference – while Western Europe, notably Belgium and Germany, has a real abundance of beers from monastery breweries, Poland has hardly any…

    – the kind of cheese the Czechs and Slovaks use for frying in breadcrumbs is called ‘eidam’, another clear sign of Dutch influence

    How about Slovak string cheese, called korbaciki? Doesn’t sound Dutch to me, just like oscypki. There is some native tradition of making hard cheese here, although fairly limited.

  45. Ben says:

    Hi Dawid,

    I had only read through the first few comments at the time of writing the reply (before seeing how many there were and deciding to come back later and finish reading them).

    Anways, sorry for the ignorant sounding comment. Still, I find it remarkable that a long time resident of Poland could have the impression that nearly all Polish cheeses are soft. No matter the cheeses that the Polish people make, it seems like they do not appear to play a large role in their culture diet?

    It is also interesting how the political landscape has an affect on the diet and cuisine of a country. There are probably a lot of other foods which developed because of these differences.

  46. Dawid says:

    “I find it remarkable that a long time resident of Poland could have the impression that nearly all Polish cheeses are soft.

    I think it might be rhetorical exaggeration on his part.

    “No matter the cheeses that the Polish people make, it seems like they do not appear to play a large role in their culture diet?

    They do. All my teenage years I was carrying “kanapki z serem żółtym” (bread with hard cheese) to school everyday. “Yellow cheese”, as we call it, is very much a staple here, one of the basic ingredients of sandwiches. It’s rarely used in hot dishes though*, so if someone dines mostly at restaurants (I’m not saying the author of the article does, but that might explain his misconception), they will have very little idea of how widely “yellow cheese” is consumed here.

    *there are certain meat rolls that are stuffed with hard cheese but I guess they are not something that would be eaten on a regular basis, unlike cheese sandwiches

  47. Ben says:

    Dawid,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond to my question again.

  48. Tomala says:

    My grandfather said me (when he had lived) that before war… there were barely fresh heerings in shops in villages in now eastern Poland.

  49. Maggie says:

    I agree about lamb, it’s easy to find only in mountains and some delicatessen in big cities, but beef is very common. In my family we make it roast, fry and sometimes use as a base (stock? broth?) to cook soup.

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