10 Polish Dishes That Will Probably Weird You Out
Would you eat beaver tails? Or seasoned sirloin wrapped in milk skins? If you look at Polish cuisine over the centuries, you'll find many products or dishes that will probably weird you out.
Recently a heated discussion flared up on the Internet about how far chefs can go in their culinary explorations. The eccentric chef Aleksander Baron became a prime mover and shaker in this mess, serving up multi-sensory dinner dishes that were, as he found out, too strange or plain inedible for some guests. An example? Drone bee larvae served on honeycomb, or Chinese pond mussels on sand with calamus (a wetland reed). If you have a closer look at Polish cuisine over the centuries, you’ll find many products and dishes that may appear surprising, perhaps even nauseating.
Each and every adult in Poland has had childhood experiences with overly-boiled food, and will definitely have encountered milk skin, the membrane on boiled milk. 99% of Poles would say that this is the most disgusting thing they’ve ever eaten. But a handful of milk skin lovers will recall with tenderness eating a slice of bread covered with these abominations and sprinkled with sugar. Once we entered the era of UHT milk, there was no need to boil it, and the skins became a rare sight. When you mention milk skins, most people will start shivering, however there are chefs trying to convince people to give it a chance, to try it in various combinations. Suffice to say, that’s what two of them were doing: Wojciech Modest Amaro and Aleksander Baron. The former served milk skin with creamed herring and onion chutney. The latter tried to win over people with two dishes: milk skins served with cod in saffron, bacon and raisins; and seasoned sirloin wrapped in milk skins together with an emulsion made from young barley shoots, cold-pressed rapeseed oil and fermented barley grains.
Calamus in sugar
Who would ever consider gobbling those reeds that grow by lakes? Well, Poles would. It’s called calamus and it’s all over the place. Several hundred years ago, there was a fashionable baroque dessert called “Tatar Herb in Sugar”. It was made from just two ingredients, calamus and sugar, and was very time-consuming to prepare. The recipe was included in a collection of medical, farming and culinary tips called Compendium Medicum Auctum. The book said that the calamus should be boiled several times (to remove the bitterness), then fried on low heat ''until dry, while mixing slowly with a paddle''. It claimed that candied calamus should taste similar to ginger but have a less spicy flavour. How did it really taste? Professor Jarosław Dumanowski, a researcher of old Polish cuisine says: ''Tatar herb in sugar was about the juxtaposition of different taste experiences. A bitter aftertaste and aromatic fragrance, all jarring with sweetness''. He adds that this pillar of aesthetic construction in Polish Sarmatian confectionery “disappeared from history with a rumble”, and reflections on it can even be found in literature such as Żona Modna by Ignacy Krasicki, a Polish Enlightenment writer. Although ''Tatar Herb in Sugar'' is already consigned to history, from time to time someone makes it as an experiment – recipes can be found on the Internet.
Foreign gourmets do not associate Polish cuisine with fancy cheese. They rather think of Poland as a wasteland when it comes to cheese-making. Thanks to the nascent fashion for farm cheese, “the Polish Cheese Map” is not the same as before the transformation. Many of them are surprising. Not only new original cheeses are being created, but also old recipes, popular long time ago and forgotten during the communist period. This includes specialities such as dried curd, sometimes known as quark. In a sense, its history reflects the history of Polish manor houses. After 1945, when they disappeared, everybody forgot about dried curd as well. Thanks to producers such as Ancypo from Sokółka in the eastern area of Podlasie, it’s no longer left in the realm of imagination but you can actually taste it! Gieno Mientkiewicz, an expert in farmstead cheese underlines that
the first bites are inconspicuous, the next are absorbing. You never know when the cheese disappears. It’s hard, so you have to split it. A sour accent breaks through the saltiness and sweetness and makes our salivary glands work piece-by-piece and constantly wanting more and more'.
In the past, dried curd was produced in a cheese house. This wooden construction, shaped like a stork’s nest, was covered with shingles and supported on pillars. They were built beside every manorhouse for the landowners to dry curds there.
It was such an integral part of the Polish landscape, that its description was included in Pan Tadeusz, the epic Polish poem by Adam Mickiewicz.
''...stood a large old cheese house, built of lattice work made
of beams nailed across one another, like a cage.
In it there shone many scores of white cheeses;
around them bunches of sage, bennet, cardoon, and wild thyme hung drying''
Borderland cucumbers with honey
In traditional Polish cuisine, fresh cucumbers, nowadays universally associated with mizeria, were also supposedly a dessert. It was a speciality in Kresy (the eastern borderlands) during the Second Polish Republic. They were served cold and topped with delicate honey. People liked these “Troki” cucumbers, saying they were made to be munched on with lime honey. People from the borderlands who settled in Warsaw after WWI could not stand Varsovians' dismissive attitude towards this delicacy. ''They mock Eastern borderland people, saying that they are the last to eat and are satisfied with cucumbers in honey".
Pickled 'rydze' mushrooms
One of the hallmarks of Polish cuisine is the taste of pickled cucumbers or cabbage. This method of preserving food uses fermentation which protects it from spoiling, but can cause disgust in those societies that don’t eat pickles at all. Although pickled cabbage or cucumber doesn’t surprise most visitors to Poland, they definitely blink at pickled rydze mushrooms. This speciality, described by every self-respecting 19th-century cookbook author, is today only made locally, namely in the south (Podhale, Beskid Niski, and Bieszczady). Polish sour soup, known as Żur, with pickled rydze is also a local delicacy. Can a soup made of fermented flour and fermented mushrooms really be tasty? Stary Dom Zdrojowy in Wysowa Zdrój in the Lower Beskids is the best place to find out.
Lampreys are parasitic jawless vertebrates, similar to leeches. Today no one remembers that they were considered edible. Back in days of yore, they were appreciated in Polish cuisine for their delicate flesh. Lampreys were even popular in the royal court. The oldest cook book written in Polish, Compendium Ferculorum (recently published in English), has recipes for lampreys with gingerbread as well as cherry juice, pepper, cloves, cinnamon and sugar. In the 19th century, lampreys fried in butter were a snack to go with alcoholic beverages. It’s interesting that they were served both fresh and marinated, even though they were said to be harmful to the stomach. They’ve disappeared from Polish cuisine only because of water contamination – nowadays they’re under protection and you can only eat them occasionally, usually fried and marinated.
Is beaver's tail edible? According to 17th-century chefs, it definitely is. Moreover, 300 years ago it was a dish during religious holidays when meat wasn’t allowed (the tail is covered with peculiar scales, similar to that of a fish, so the beaver was considered a cold-blooded animal). A recipe for beaver's tail, boiled in salt and vinegar with garlic, olive oil or butter, is included in the previously-mentioned Compendium Ferculorum. Nowadays, beavers are partially protected (due to their population's reduction), however there are some beaver meat lovers out there. Do they also like the tails? It’s hard to say.
European bison sirloin steak
Poland is one of the few European countries that has European bison. Almost half of this wild population grazes in Białowieża Forest in the east. The species has been under strict protection for several centuries. However, from time to time, you can find a bison not only in a forest, but also on your plate in a restaurant. Some restaurants in Warsaw (e.g. Kafe Zielony Niedźwiedź) serve bison sirloin, roasts or carpaccio and even the heart. How is this possible? Because of licensed hunting, as authorised by the Ministry of Environment. Only old, injured, or aggressive bison may be hunted. Moreover, bisons have a healthy natural rate of population growth and there’s not enough space for them all in the forest. Even those who’ve only tried it once say the meat is delicate and delicious.
People with strong stomachs can try out żentyca when visiting shepherd huts in Podhale in the south. It’s a drink made of sheep milk whey with rennet, produced alongside traditional highland cheese . Fittingly, they say żentyca tastes better in the mountains, where it is cooled and fresh or ripe. It’s so Polish that it was added to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development’s list of traditional products. Its strong, aromatic fragrance is not necessarily for everybody - in the 19th century, it was even used as a medicine for respiratory problems. Caution! Even if you like it, don’t drink too much żentyca in one go: it can cause stomach disorders!
Finally something that can be easily found in every shop, every culinary festival, and at every tavern serving traditional dishes. We’re talking about smalec, namely lard produced by rendering pork fat, eaten with salt, crackling, and sometimes sausage or chopped apple. This thick lard spread is said to be highly unhealthy, so eat it with a slice of rustic bread to make yourself feel less disgusting. When foreigners hear it contains 99% fat, they’re often a little put off.
Written by Magdalena Kasprzyk – Chevriaux, translated by ND, edited by AZ, August 2015