Polish Dutch Cheese: In a Mennonite Kitchen
Mennonites began settling in Poland in the 16th century. They left behind traces of their presence: both in architecture and in cuisine.
In the 16th century, Mennonites started settling on the bank of the River Wisła and in the Mazovia region (for example in Kazuń near Warsaw). They were Dutch settlers belonging to the Anabaptist movement, a radical Christian denomination with its roots in the Radical Reformation. They specialised in draining wetlands and swamps. The persecuted group found solace by the River Wisła. After the partitions of Poland in the end of the 18th century, a lot of them left the country which ceased to exist. Mennonite communities still flourish in the USA and even in Brazil. The few who stayed on the bank of Wisła eventually emigrated from Poland in 1945.
Today, the Mennonite presence is preserved through tourist routes. A Mennonite cycling trail was created between Gdańsk and Elbląg in the Żuławy Wiślane region, There are many impressive tourist attractions and objects of material culture – starting with houses with arcades and wooden huts, through a historic hydraulic engineering device, ending with a windmill. A historic hut in Chrystkowo (from the end of the 18th century) with a teaching-museum centre hosts an annual event devoted to Mennonites and their cuisine. In turn, Mennonicki Szlak Kulinarny (editor’s translation: the Mennonite Culinary Trail) in the valley of the Lower Wisła popularises cooking à la mennonite.
Mennonites brought their culture, religion and cuisine from the Netherlands. In the beginning, Dutch cuisine, with its dairy products, was the base of their nutrition. Since the Mennonites bred cows, they made ‘Dutch’ cheeses. The oldest Polish recipes for Dutch cheeses were written by Jakub Kazimierz Haur in 1679:
Calf rennet is added to fresh milk which is then slowly heated up by the fire. The curds which appear are wrapped in a thin cloth and put in a tight wooden form with little holes at the bottom for whey to flow out. The form is covered with a lid and pressed with a rock until the Dutch cheese sets.
Over time, their cuisine was shaped by the areas they settled in. For this reason, the Mennonite cuisine, similarly to Jewish cuisine, became a mélange of their own traditions and the ones adopted from other nations. In other words, the Mennonite cuisine is a cuisine of immigrants who adapted products and dishes from the country they happened to live in. Even today, the Mennonite restaurants in some Canadian provinces serve Polish dishes like borscht. In turn, American Mennonites eat a dish called bidgot which is comprised of sauerkraut and fish meatballs. It’s possible that the name of the dish comes from Bydgoszcz or the Polish bigos.
In his Mennonici: Życie od Kuchni (editor’s translation: Mennonites: Life as Seen through the Kitchen), Wojciech Marchlewski lists several dozen of recipes from the Polish Mennonites as well as Mennonites around the world.
In Poland, they adapted cabbage, both fresh and sauerkraut. They made various types of cabbage soups, like red cabbage soup or with łazanki, a type of Polish pasta. Before winter, they chopped cabbage heads which they then stored in tree logs or barrels.
Over time, more pork started appearing in Mennonite cuisine, in the form of ribs in cabbage, parsnip and beets, lard and bacon bits. The harvester’s soup is based on white and brown bread boiled in water with bacon bits seasoned with salt and pepper – Mennonite cuisine did not use many spices. Beef was served with plums, raisins and vinegar, while the pierogi cheese filling sometimes also included beets, which is quite uncommon. When potatoes started being grown in Poland, they also appeared in Mennonite cuisine.
It’s possible that a visit to a Mennonite house would involve eating kluski or knedle (a kind of Polish dumpling) with bacon bits and onions, jacket potatoes covered with a thick sauce based on sour cream, butter and eggs. Perhaps even goose meat – Mennonites inhabited the area in which these birds were bred.
Originally written in Polish, Jun 2017, translated by AP, 16 Aug 2017