Featured Country of the month: Poland
Globally, Poland is best known for Pierogies and Vodka and I have to admit, when I visited Krakow in 2013, I didn’t even get as far as sampling the Pierogies as priority at that time fell with the latter of the two. However, Polish cuisine has a lot more to offer than just this. Like many Eastern European countries, the fare to be found within Poland is undeniably hearty - making it an ideal country to feature in February when I am still craving wholesome stews.
Having said that, seasonality plays a large role in Polish cuisine as whilst the freezing cold winters require meaty stews, the long hot summers provide a plethora of cold soups. Both through tradition and necessity, foraging and hunting are still present within lots of Polish communities. The Communist years between 1945 and 1989 induced mass food shortages across Poland where vinegar was frequently one of the only few ingredients available on the shelves of shops. Growing or foraging for fresh ingredients to be pickled became a staple for many Polish families. Despite the vastly different circumstances of Poland today, the traditions of foraging and pickling remain. Sauerkraut and pickled cucumber are two of the most commonly consumed pickles.
Given its location, Poland is also particularly susceptible to foreign influences. A large number of Polish royalty has originated from different countries. It was the Italian Queen Bona’s love for vegetables that led Poland to start integrating large quantities of vegetables into their cuisine. As a result - the Polish word for vegetable is derived from the Polish for Italy!
Almost every country has their own version of a dumpling and Poland is no exception with the well-known Polish variant - Pierogi! Perhaps unlike other versions of the dumpling, Pierogies differ in that they are almost as likely to be filled with a sweet filling like blueberries or chocolate as they are to be filled with meat or cheese. Additionally, I can’t think of many other countries whose love of dumpling goes as far as within Poland, where there is a Patron Saint of Pierogi. On this occasion I opted to make Ruskie Pierogi, which are filled with a combination of potato, cheese and onion.
It did not start off well (or end particularly well for that matter). I had initially decided I was going to make two batches of Pierogi - one sweet and one savoury, from a master dough claiming to make 40 Pierogis.
I usually enjoy making dumplings by hand - yes it is hard work to knead the dough but the satisfying smoothness of the dough that usually develops beneath your fingers is enough of a pay off for me. As you may have guessed, this did not happen on this occasion. The first red flag 🚩🚩 of this recipe, should have been that it requested just 250ml of water for one KILOGRAM of plain flour. After scrabbling about with the dough on the countertop to no avail (and almost double the amount of water the recipe originally stated), I gave up and threw the whole lot in my Kenwood mixer and let it deal with the mess I had made. After it had managed to cobble together an almost workable dough I took out half to knead further by hand and in a moment of madness, drowned the remaining half in the mixer which resulted in a sloppy mess which I threw out.
One batch of Pierogis would have to suffice. Blueberries got the heave ho as I had made the Ruski filling earlier in the day to give it time to cool down. This was a simple filling to make, consisting of mashed potato, a Polish curd cheese called Twarog, and lightly caramelised onions. Filling the dumplings was easy enough and I appreciated that the typical Polish way of folding doesn’t involve anything complicated, just pressing the dough closed with your fingers. There are numerous different ways of cooking Pierogi and I went for a best of both approach by first boiling them and then frying them off in a bit of butter to give them some colour. I served them with sour cream and a sprinkle of dill.
Did you like it?
I was chuffed with how they looked and the general consistency of the dough - it’s thicker than gyoza or wontons, with a bit more chew to it which was pleasant. Alas, they were disappointingly tasteless. Further seasoning to the filling was definitely required - I think the Twarog cheese’s likeness in appearance to feta made me foolishly think it would be similar in flavour. I did taste some, so I knew this not to be the case but still, this was a major failing on my part..! Overall, not my greatest success.
Marks out of 10: 5/10 - these had the potential to be great.. but they weren't..
Hunter's Stew (Bigos)
In the tradition of attempting the most meat laden stew a country has to offer (see Fejoada, and Cassoulet), I had to give Bigos a go. Unsurprisingly, the English translation of Bigos - 'Hunter's Stew’ comes from its origins as a meal to be taken on hunting trips to fuel the hunters on their long journeys.
There are just two staple ingredients in Bigos - meat and sauerkraut. The rest is very much open to interpretation but will often include fresh cabbage, dried wild mushrooms, and prunes. Like all good stews, the best way to bring out the flavours is to cook it low and slow - traditionally this would be done very slowly, sometimes up to four days! It is also advised that the stew is made well in advance of serving and then reheated, to allow all of the flavours to fully develop.
My version was flavoured with Juniper Berries and Caraway seeds and used a combination of pork belly and Kielbasa (Polish smoked sausage). I took the slight shortcut of only cooking for four hours but I did so in the morning and reheated for dinner in the evening.
Did you like it?
It was bloody lovely. I wasn’t sure if I was a fan of Sauerkraut but I loved it and have been using the remainder of the massive jar i bought in meals since and have found it to be an excellent tangy addition to dishes.
Marks out of 10: 9/10
Strawberry & Rhubarb Soup
As mentioned above, Poland is well-known for its array of unusual cold soups. Fruit soups are a common occurrence in Poland and utilise whatever fruit happens to be in season. However, fruit soup is by no means the most unusual soup you could be served in Poland. Czernina is a fascinating soup both for its main ingredient - duck blood, and for its significance on the dating scene. Historically, if a man had intentions to propose to a woman, he would be invited to her house for a meal. If he was served Czernina, the answer was ‘no’. A pea soup however, was better news for the suitor. I actually can’t think of a worse way to be rejected than by a bowl of soup.
The making of this soup was very simple - rhubarb is stewed on the hob with some water until soft, whilst you mash up the strawberries with some sugar. The whole lot is combined then simmered for a while longer. The soup is then cooled and cream is added. The soup is served with cold pasta which has to be cooked and cooled separately.
Did you like it?
This one was not for me, and apparently I am not alone in this. Since making the soup I have read numerous accounts of this particular dish haunting the childhoods of many Polish people. I am going to generously apportion part of my distaste for the soup to the fact I have gone completely against the Polish seasonal way of eating. Really, this soup should only be consumed with the freshest berries in the peak of Summer. Suffice to say I don’t feel the need to try this out.
Marks out of 10: 3//10 - unfortunately on this occasion, it tasted as horrible as it sounds.
You can view all previous 'Country of the Month' articles HERE.