Seasons

Seasons

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

Winter is the time for bigos (Polish kimchi) and introspection. Seething winter punishes the earth and its inhabitants with a biting cold. When I was little there was so much snow in Poland that we used to make igloos; these days there is much less. Summer, on the other hand, is rich and golden. Filled with golden skin, light and whispering fields of wheat. Even in Eastern Europe this is the time for light foods, fun and dalliances, though I can’t deny that there remains a certain Slavic melancholy during these carefree times, for we know only too well that everything must end and change according to the seasons. Even though everything is now available to buy in the shops, seasonality is still a prevailing factor in the way most people eat. Being in touch with nature and the earth is an integral part of our eating and cooking methods. Surviving harsh Polish winters throughout the ages led to the invention of pickling and preserving fish and vegetables. Whereas, during the long, hot summers there is an abundance of fresh, cooling food, such as our cold soups. Autumn is a time for our favourite national pastime of foraging for wild mushrooms, whereas in spring we look forward to the emergence of our first young vegetables. Although we love our food, we don’t obsess over it, yet we do long for it; it’s a truly romantic approach.

Spring

After a harsh, frost-bitten winter, spring comes as a sigh of relief. Easter is an even bigger event than Christmas. Big, fluffy baba cakes are baked. Baskets full of dyed eggs, smoked sausage and other breakfast treats, along with little sugar lambs are blessed in church before being eaten. Such is the rhythm of life: fasting during times when the earth is barren which allows for the clearing away of the old and preparing for the new. The Easter feast is always a cold buffet of zakąski, as guests come and go all day long, with warm dishes being served at intervals. During spring the earth is pregnant with planted seeds and we anxiously await the arrival of our first vegetables. The custom goes that when you eat the first vegetable of the season you must grab the ear of the person that you are sharing it with, and whoever does it first will receive good luck for the year ahead. We still eat many things that are pickled and dried during spring, but we constantly move towards fresher tastes and lighter foods.

Summer

Summers are often stiflingly hot on these Eastern plains and due to the extended period of Communism and the political movement’s preference for concrete high-rise accommodation for the masses, many Polish towns become suffocating, concrete jungles. Thus, hot days are usually spent in our allotments in the countryside, called the działka, or dacha (in Russian). Each piece of land, no matter how humble, is sacred to us as it’s where we feel the most connected to the earth. In the summer, whenever possible, we eat outside. My childhood summer memories are always set within nature: family and friends congregating: eating cold beetroot soup in the the welcome shade of fruit trees; my grandma sitting with a massive bowl between her chubby legs, shelling peas under an awning; adults playing cards and drinking vodka by the Vistula river while we children collected wild cherries for soup; older boys building a szałas tipi out of branches in the forest, potatoes and sausages sizzling in the fire at dusk; jumping into lakes and rivers, our sun-drenched skin flashing gold as we played... There were always big gatherings. Everyone brought something delicious and the earth provided the rest.

In the summer, Poles often travel to the enchanted waters of the Lake District, part of one of the imposing Tatra Mountains or the icing sugar soft beaches of the Baltic coast. Whose beaches are strewn with little bits of amber: tiny orange, brown and yellow transparent pebbles, as light as plastic. In the Middle Ages the merchants from Arabia would stop off in Poland on the way to Western Europe to swap their spices for this golden resin, which was believed to have healing qualities.

Summers here smell of pine – the hardy tree that has claimed these lands for millions of years – and tastes of freshly caught, fried fish washed down with cold beer. We have a long tradition of beer drinking and we are proud of the fact that one Polish King refused to go on a crusade to the Holy Land because he was not accustomed to drinking anything other than beer, so could not be parted from it.

Autumn

Early autumn is a period where the earth changes and we begin to prepare for the hard season to come. It’s the time of leafy trees, glimmering shades of red, orange, yellow and brown under the final, warm summer rays. I have vivid memories of walking with my grandma Halinka in Łazienki Park, through a river of fallen leaves. At times the river reached my knees as I ran through it, collecting chocolate-coloured chestnuts and little green acorn heads that looked as if they were wearing berets similar to mine.

Then comes All Hallows Eve with its ocean of candles burning against the sad graves: an ethereal glow envelops the smoke-filled cemeteries where we spend Halloween; with those we have loved and lost. Walking through graveyards, we catch up with distant family members and elders reminisce about their younger days. This is a time of nostalgia, memories and melancholia (that we Eastern Europeans do so well).

During Autumn we begin our preparations, as the coming months will not be easy. Pickling is a typical way of preparing for the harshness of winter, where the frost and snow prevent anything from sprouting. Pickled mushrooms are very popular as are the dried varieties. At regular intervals, every household’s nominated mushroom picker will go into the nearest forest and methodically re-visit each of their secret spots. Even in her advanced old age, my grandma Ziuta, used to spot a beautiful 17 ‘Cossack’ (a fitting nickname for a tanned and proud prince of mushrooms) from afar, hidden in the undergrowth. Then there are all the other foraged pickles: gherkins, beetroot, cabbage, red peppers and pumpkins, – all of which will keep us fed and our larders stocked throughout the coming season.

Winter

Winter has a severe yet glistening beauty. Bare black branches cast ink onto creamy skies, frosty lace covers the naked earth and when the snow comes it forms a welcome duvet upon the land.

We start preparing for Christmas in mid- December. I grew up in the times of Communism, it was during these hard years that a large part of our preparation was spent trying to source food. This seemingly simple part of the process actually took a great deal of time and effort. It was about families and friends working collectively to ensure they gathered all they needed for the upcoming festivities, it was that communal sense of pulling ourselves together against all odds that made Christmas day even more special. You’d need a carp for Christmas Eve, a goose or turkey for Christmas day, and that’s not even taking into account all the other ingredients that you need for the 12–13 non-meat dishes (one for each of the apostles, some also count Jesus) that we eat on Christmas Eve and the meaty dishes for the day after. The tradition was to keep the carp alive in the bathtub until the very last moment, so that it was as fresh as possible when eaten. This meant that the carp took priority over anyone else in the household; no one could have a bath until the carp was finally out of the tub and on the slab.

What fills the Christmas table depends on where you are, but for my family it’s always been: Russian salad, ryba po Grecku (pollock in an aromatic sauce), various types of herrings, either fish in aspic or fish marinated in vodka, fresh bread and butter. The first warm course was usually barszcz z uszkami (borscht with little ears). An hour or so later, there would be a fried fish meal such as carp. After another short break kapusta z grzybami (sauerkraut stew with wild mushrooms and beans) would emerge, piping hot from the kitchen. Finally, dried fruit kompot (stewed dried fruits) would accompany the assortment of cakes, in order to help you digest. Traditionally, you would be drinking a lighter version of the fruit kompot throughout the evening, along with vodka. In my family we tend to prefer champagne as an accompaniment to this meal, interspersed with an occasional shot of vodka. The cold dishes remain on the table until it’s time for the sweets. Essentially, the whole evening is about trying as many dishes as possible – folkloric wisdom decrees that the more things you try during this feast the more varied and complete the following year will be.

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