Tag Archives: Polish food

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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What is Polish "comfort food"?

Sczęśliwego New Year everyone!

Judging by the way 2011 has kicked off, I have a feeling many of us will be in need of goodly portions of comfort food this year. The economic problems that have made a misery of at least the last two years are still here, which will mean another year of uncertainty and struggle for anyone whose livelihood is in any way dependent on economic growth and a decent amount of money sloshing around the system. Most banks now seem to be reporting very healthy figures and associated bonus plans but their tactics appear to be to keep the vast majority of the money coming in and give very little of it out, thus improving their balance sheets at the expense of stimulating activity elsewhere.

To make matters worse we still have the ‘ghost of crashes past’ hanging around in the shape of the sneaky feeling that some people are not telling the whole truth about their situation. This could almost apply to anyone but most fingers are pointing at Spain and Portugal with the consequential worry about the Eurozone as a whole. Every time I manage to catch Jeff Randall on Sky he seems to be asking the same question, “Who will be left in the Eurozone when all this is finished (or will there even be one)?”. It’s not just Spain and Portugal though. There are still unanswered questions about those already bailed out, Ireland & Greece as well as the effectiveness of measures taken in the UK, USA and just about everywhere else. Even below the country level, how many companies that have been hanging on by the skin of their teeth for the last two years will hear the fat lady singing in 2011?

Even locally here in Poland we should not be complacent. While most people blithely quote statistics of this country leading the pack for growth in 2010 as if this makes Poland somehow immune to every economic virus, there remain plenty of possibilities for us to fall from grace and even to be a star member of the ‘third wave’ of trouble makers – first wave being the likes of USA, UK, Germany, second being Hungary, Spain, Ireland, Portugal & Greece and the third……… Let’s hope that the run in to 2012 footie combined with a generally good sentiment compared to other countries encourages more companies to reconsider Poland as a place to invest the little they have available. There are some early signs of this happening.

Let’s just say I have yet to find anyone taking a seriously up-beat optimistic stance about the world / European economy in 2011 and hence the reason you should stock up on your comfort food items!

Now that I’ve cheered you all up, let’s talk about the concept of ‘comfort food’. It is a popular term but it wasn’t really one that I thought related to me very much, until last week. Last week was the first week back from holidays for most people and it was a 24 carat bitch of a week. For varied reasons, every day was non stop aggravation from start to finish, occasionally even beyond the finish. So it was that on one particular evening having gone yet another day without food I reached out for a tin of cream of chicken soup and suddenly realised that this meant more to me than just a tin of crappy soup. As I tore off chunks of bread and threw them into the warm soup I could feel the stress that had built up during the day slipping away and by the time I’d finished I was ready once more to conquer the world, or at least Młociny! Admittedly, this was only a tin of M&S chicken soup, not the real Heinz variety but beggars can’t be choosers.

The more I think about it, the more foods I might put into this category although it is hard to draw the line between genuine comfort food and just food I like to eat, which is why I’ve had such a hard time with the concept in the past. The only other one I can definitely say is ‘comforting’ is a “full English”, especially after too much alcohol.

I’ve been trying to establish whether any Polish food has yet to truly comfort me and I’m not sure. There’s no question that a lot of it has the potential to make that league but I will hold judgment for now.

I’d like therefore to hear from you, especially the Poles and especially Poles abroad about what food comforts you? I’d guess that kiełbasa, pierogi, flaki, żurek, Polish bread (whatever that is), barszcz and other beetrooty things are contenders but I might well be wrong.

UPDATE: Here’s the list so far from the comments in no particular order or language –

Placki ziemniaczane/potato pancakes
zupa chrzanowa
grochówka i gulasz z kaszą i ogórki
Liver pate (pasztetowa),mushroom soup (grzybowa) and poppy seeds cake (makowiec)
soups – flaki, rosół, żurek & pomidorowa
Scrambled eggs with onion and tomatoes or with bacon and mushrooms
chicken liver with onion and bread
płucka, chicken hearts gulash
Polish chocolate
Polish bread with Almette salmon spread
Pierogi z jagodami, barszcz z uszkami, ogorki kiszone, makowiec, agrest, anything with chrzan
mielony z ziemniakami i buraczki.
Pierogi Ruskie
ogorek kiszony
Polędwica wołowa “burger”
“pyzy ziemniaczane” with “skwarki”
stale bread (3-4 days old) put into hot oven for a few minutes and then sliced
naleśniki z serem

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Bizarre Polish Food

Because we are now media giants who have been mentioned on the evening news at least twice, all kinds of global corporations regularly get in touch with us asking how they too can become movers and shakers on Poland’s internets. As long as they can satisfy Scatts’ insatiably lust for Hummers, we try to help them out.

Hummers—we accept them as payment

This month, television production company Tremendous! Entertainment (corporate slogan: Yes, we really do have an exclamation mark in our name! Also in our slogan.) Wrote and asked if we could tell them about bizarre Polish food they could feature in an upcoming episode of their Travel Channel program: Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. The premiss of the show is that a bald man travels to various countries and eats things that most Americans would call an exterminator to deal with. Asia, multi-legged insects and unusually-coloured eggs feature heavily. Weird foods in Poland—”You’re going to struggle” was my initial thought. Polish food can be very nice, but it’s not exactly unconventional from a Western perspective. An example of the program here.

A bald man and friend looking enthusiastic about new culinary experiences—in Asia

Every country wishes it had bizarre food, but few outside of the Pacific Rim can deliver. Numerous times Polish people have taken me aside and explained confidentially about kaszanka and oscypek as if they were revealing a national weakness for human flesh—black pudding and sheep cheese, wow. They don’t even eat deep-fried Mars bars here.

Nevertheless, I promised to write a post about typical Polish food and, therefore, plan to take the opportunity to rant in my customary manner.

Fresh food
Polish people who move to the UK inevitably complain that the meat and vegetables taste like poorly-illustrated cardboard versions of the real thing, and they are absolutely right. Unfortunately these same Polish people leap to the conclusion that only tomatoes grown in Poland and pork raised on Polish restaurant scraps are worth eating. The real difference is between supermarket fare and locally-grown produce. Buy tomatoes in Poland and they taste like they were grown in your neighbour’s garden because, they were grown in your neighbour’s garden. On the other hand, go to your local Carrefour in Poland and you’ll find square metres of tomatoes that taste like incompetently-coloured water—just like in England. The difference here is between an economy where agriculture is still a significant contributor and an economy where we are far too busy trading in imaginary tomato futures to actually grow any. One day soon Poland’s food supply will be dominated by unscrupulous multinationals and the local producers of tomatoes, pork and dog sausages will long ago have hanged themselves in poverty.

God, I’m sick of Polish people going on about Polish bread. You’d think it could cure death at the very least. Here’s the lowdown: Polish bread is different from other European breads because it conforms to a recipe that was dictated by decades of shortages and rationing. It’s not better, it’s just what you’re used to. Go eat a genuine French baguette or an Italian ciabatta and then tell me there is something special about Polish bread that doesn’t just refer to it’s uncanny resemblance to warmed cement.

Polish bread—building material of the future?

Kotlet schabowy
To make kotlet schabowy take a perfectly good piece of pork, beat it with a large wooden hammer until it resembles a road-accident victim and then coat it in egg, spices and flour so that you can’t taste the pork any more. As long as your customers like the taste of seasoned fried egg and flour you can’t fail—there might as well be soundly beaten bits of shoe in there and, in many cases, there probably are.

Gołąbki is the most sophisticated and tasty Polish food I’ve come across, and I’m convinced it’s not really Polish. It hasn’t got any pork in it for a start—Polish cuisine is largely pork-based, to an extent that begins to look like and anti-Jewish conspiracy. It also has rice, which is about as common as tiger-loin in the typical Polish kitchen. Of course, I may be completely wrong about this—kasza and pork would do just as well as rice and tiger.

Google image search does not understand ‘gołąbki’

Please add your recommendations for the most bizarre/typical foods in Poland in the comments—powers greater than us are awaiting an answer.

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I fell down rather badly in this piece with my Polish spelling. I have now replaced ‘gołębki’ with ‘gołąbki’ and ‘kasia’ with ‘kasza.’ It was late, I was tired and emotional, I have no other excuses.

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The mysterious case of the wooden mushrooms

There are many attractions to living in Poland and one of them is the menu translations!

It is always with a sense of excitement that I open a menu wondering what surprises I might find inside or even if I will find the holy grail of a perfectly translated menu from front to back. It’s a bit like like having Christmas over and over again every time you walk into a restaurant.

Most intriguing is the way most people seem to get some rather complicated things right and then slip up with what should be bread and butter translations (excuse the intentional pun).

Here’s a page from the menu of the cafe inside the castle at Nidzica (click for bigger version):

The most obvious amuse bouche, and the reason I took the photo, are the “Herring with wooden mushrooms”, which should probably be (including the bracketed ‘marynowane’) “Herring with preserved woodland mushrooms”. Reading further though you have steak tartar described mouth-wateringly as “raw beef”. True, at least. Then you have the rather awkward “King’s meat” or “King’s fish”, which I suppose should really be something like “Fish in a King’s style” but is actually quite hard for me to translate after so many years of seeing the “po Grecku” or “po something else” plopped on the end of the description.

Finally, my favourite gripe is calling pierogi, “dumplings”! I know this is perhaps the most obvious description but it really doesn’t do them justice. For most English speaking people dumplings (anywhere outside a Chinese restaurant) are big, stodgy, fatty, jabba-the-hutt type things that you don’t want to eat unless you’re about to swim the Baltic sea, naked. Pierogi are not like that, well most of them anyway, so we really do need a better translation for them. I suppose “Polish style dumplings” would be an improvement, or even using the word “ravioli”, which is actually a lot closer than dumplings.

Here’s a shot of a “pierogi” I took at the Star Wars exhibition in County Hall, London. Would you order this from the menu? I thought not!

The bottom line is that ordering food in Poland using the English translations is a hit & miss affair. So much so that I generally refuse the English menu I’m offered and ask for a Polish one. It’s the only way of knowing exactly what I’m ordering.

Bear in mind, these errors exist in every menu throughout Poland. It is not restricted by either class of restaurant or by geography. When I see this in a high quality restaurant I have to wonder how much they spent on printing the fancy menus and just how they would feel if the Polish menu was equally badly described. Surely they would be sending it back to the translator / printer and demanding a recount! Does every restaurateur in Poland have their second cousin who got a ‘B’ in English lessons do the translating for their menu??

I have often thought of starting up a “Menu translation service”. I have no idea how many of these things need translating each year but I’d be prepared to do it for a nominal fee of say 10 PLN per page (+VAT) just for the satisfaction of seeing better menus in restaurants. What do you think, good idea?

Interested in why we were in the castle at Nidzica? Go check out 20 east.

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