History

History

By
Zuza Zak
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
9781849497268
Photographer
Laura Edwards

“Polskę żeśmy przejedli i przepili”

“Too much eating and drinking cost us our Poland.”

[Polish proverb]

This proverb beautifully describes the Polish love of food, drink and parties, which often led to us not being in the right frame of mind to defend our country from attack. Considering the number of enemies Poland had (both outside and within), it’s understandable that we turned to these simple pleasures as a distraction from continual bombardment.

“the enemies… have nothing in common but the desire to annihilate us when some hordes depart others immediately appear Goths, Tatars, Swedes, imperial legions.”

[Zbigniew Herbert]

Polish cuisine, like the country’s past, is rich and varied. The geography, the rulers, migration, even the ongoing political turbulence and war have all brought with them culinary changes and developments. Being on the central plain between East and West, Poland has always been geographically vulnerable to invasion; historian Norman Davies dubbed it ‘God’s Playground’.

The beginning of Polish history, as we know it, is marked by a feast. The feast was given by Piast, a ploughman of Prince Popiel, during the ancient right of hair clipping (the pagan equivalent of a christening). Two strangers knocked on the door of his modest household, having been refused entry to the castle of the mean-spirited Prince Popielo. Although his feast was modest, Piast welcomed the strangers into his abode. The strangers turned out to have magical powers and made the food and drink grow and multiply creating a fantastical feast that the guests remembered for the rest of their lives. Once he’d grown up, the son of Piast, the lucky Siemiowit, drove out the Popiel prince, and formed the first Polish ruling dynasty called the Piasty Clan. This feast was the stuff of dreams and legends, yet it offers a perfect example of the Polish art of hospitality and entertaining. Everyone is welcome. Food and drink is to be shared amongst friends and strangers alike, snobbery or any kind of exclusion is unacceptable.

When talking to my grandmother about the ruling dynasties of Poland, I was surprised to learn that aside from the foremost Piasty clan, all Polish royalty had hailed from other countries. The Italian Queen Bona brought with her many vegetables (indeed the Polish word włoszczyzna which we use to describe vegetables, comes directly from our word for Italy); the famous Jagiellonian Dynasty started with the pagan Lithuanian King Jagiello and the Polish-Hungarian Queen Jadwiga, who left both Lithuanian and Hungarian traces on our cuisine and culture, Jan III Sobiecki brought Asian influences; and during the reign of the last Polish King, Poniatowski, French cuisine was à la mode. Poniatowski was also a lover of Catherine the Great of Russia, who it is said, placed him in his position of power. But it was the peasant cooking of Russia which had the greatest influence on our Polish cuisine, and that of course came from the common people rather than the royal court.

In addition, we cannot ignore the Polish Catholic bond with the Papal See. The church officials and urban elites looked to Italy for influences in every area of life, especially the kitchen. By the 18th Century, Polish aristocrats were writing about a golden age of Polish cookery, yet the dishes they wrote about were mostly from Tuscan or Milanese descent, adapted to suit Polish ingredients and tastes.

Medieval poland

The horse-bound, nomadic Tartars were a constant threat as their fierce hordes rampaged our lands on a regular basis, attacking the Slav settlers. Their culture has had an undeniable impact, reflected in dishes such as Steak Tartare – originally made from horsemeat minced under their saddles – and Tartar sauce – which is now commonplace European fare.

At the other end of the scale, some influences were positively welcomed into the country. During the Middle Ages, Poland was heavily influenced by Czech cuisine. While from the 14th Century onwards, Armenians were invited to settle on Polish land by an array of Polish Kings and brought with them many of their culinary traditions. It is more difficult to determine exactly where our Middle-Eastern influences came from but we do know that as well as the Armenian settlers, throughout the Middle Ages Arab traders came to our shores. Similarly, we don’t know the exact date the Jewish settlers arrived, but it could be as early as the start of the formation of the Polish state. The increased persecution of people from surrounding lands also brought a steady influx of migrants over the centuries. By the 14th Century Polish King, Kazimierz Wielki (Casimir the Great), extended his royal protection to the Jews who were fleeing persecution in Silesia (then under rule of the Habsburgs).

We can taste the Middle East in the famous gołąmbki – cabbage leaves stuffed with rice and meat as well as the refreshing cucumber and yoghurt salad we eat during the summer. Bread and butter, soured milk, pickles, radishes, cumin, paprika and dill are popular in our culture, yet working out where these culinary influences came from is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack. I suspect many popular Polish dishes originated in the homes of Armenian and Jewish immigrants and were adapted to include Polish ingredients and cooking methods. Cooking, like all oral traditions, was passed down from one family member or friend to another, as an everyday act of love and as a means of keeping these culinary heirlooms alive in the memories of each generation. And so, before literacy became widespread in Poland, these recipes only existed in the nations memory.

The partitions

Between 1795 and 1914 Poland was wiped off the map of Europe and lived on only in the hearts of its inhabitants. During these partitions, Russian, Prussian and Austro-Hungarian cuisines officially ruled, depending on which part of Poland you were in. In the homes of Poles, food became a symbol of the old country, the last vestige of their national identity. The Polish cuisine endured although its land were fractionalised and it became a small, stubborn act of defiance in the face of national displacement. Ever since 1945, despite Poland’s fragmented history and the maps being drawn and redrawn over and over again with ever-changing borders, the country has occupied more or less the same terrain as it did under its very first ruler – Mieszko I. Bitter irony, considering the amount of turmoil, destruction and human sacrifice expended on and over these lands in the last thousand years.

Communist Poland

During the grey Communist years (1945–89), culture was viewed with suspicion and there was often nothing in the shops due to incompetency and mismanagement of resources. Yet again, Polish cuisine was kept alive mainly in peoples’ homes and memories, as a symbol of their heritage and resilience. Despite the rations (it was not uncommon to find only vinegar on store shelves), or perhaps because of it, people paid the greatest care to maintaining their hospitable traditions in those days, sharing and swapping whatever food they managed to get hold of. Growing one’s own fruit and vegetables, as well as foraging for food, became essential in this part of the world. The meagre food served outside of the home was bland and overcooked – the typical Communist Milk Bars stand as a living testament to this period in Poland’s food history (ironically, many of which are now patronised by writers and artists, which means that the quality of the food served has greatly improved).

Many sources and records of culinary information were lost during this time of intolerance and political extremism. The burning of Poland’s national archives in 1944 by the Nazis destroyed 75 per cent of the archived material of the aristocracy – a massive and unfortunate loss, since it was mostly the aristocracy that had the time and the inclination to indulge in the pastime of recording their recipes.

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