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.