The Secrets of Polish Broth
Until recently, chicken soup or broth, served with thin, home-made filini pasta, was served at every Sunday lunch in Polish homes. Today, rosół
/ˈrɔs̪uw/ still occupies a prominent place in Poland’s culinary culture.
Without rosół, the rich and nutritious soup and ultimate one-pot meal, Polish cuisine could not exist. No self-respecting traditional Polish restaurant, cafeteria, milk bar or roadside eatery would do without it on their menu. It is a common home remedy for colds and the flu. Although the original recipe includes a variety of meats, today, it is most frequently a stock made of chicken. But how was rosół cooked in olden times?
First thing’s first – let’s focus on its name. The etymology of the word is quite interesting. According to one of Poland’s most famous linguists, Professor Jan Miodek, ‘rosół should be associated with salt [Polish: sól]. Contemporary rosół originates from the word ‘rozsolić’ [‘to desalt’] and its original name was ‘rozsół’. Meat was once preserved by salting and drying it, therefore, in order to make it edible, the meat needed to be desalted by ‘rozsolenie’ [‘desalting’, i.e. soaking in water] or desalination.
Czerniecki's Polish rosół
Rosół known as ‘Polish’ (rosół polski) first appeared in culinary literature in the 17th-century, in a recipe included in Compendium Ferculorum, the oldest Polish cookbook written by chef Stanisław Czerniecki (the English edition of the cookbook was published by the Museum of King Jan III’s Palace in Wilanów and is available online).
The base of the baroque rosół à la Czerniecki included ‘animal meat of all kinds’, i.e. ‘beef or veal’, or poultry such as hazel grouse, partridge or pigeon. After soaking (desalting), the meat would be put into a pot filled with water and cooked until denaturated. Czerniecki would then add parsley and dill. In order to eliminate unpleasant odours, he would also add garlic or onion. At the time, a good broth could not go without spices, such as pepper or mace. And, as Czarniecki put it: ‘lemon and rosemary would not ruin any broth.’
The 17th-century rosół was served not only with ‘Polish and Italian pasta’, but also with croutons, meat balls, sausages made of e.g. cockerel, or with sorrel, peas, gooseberries, exotic sounding ‘green wine’ or other ‘garden items’, i.e. vegetables and herbs. Interestingly enough, in the 17th century the phrase ‘polski rosół’ was also used in reference to a type of marinade for fish made of beer vinegar and water.
‘Clear broth, prepared with great art’
Old Polish rosół was cooked not only using poultry, beef, veal and vegetables, but also with the use of wild poultry, e.g. hazel grouse, wild boar, venison or haze, or as Paul Tremo, chef to King Stanisław August Poniatowski did – using eel.
Or the old-Polish clear broth, prepared with great art,
Into which, by a secret old recipe, threw
The Tribune a gold coin and of pearls not a few.
(Such a broth the blood purges, improving one's health).
The recipe for the above-mentioned broth was taken from Compendium Ferculorum. Czerniecki’s ‘Third Secret of the Chef’ includes a recipe for a meat stock for ‘those ailing, suffering and lamenting about their health’. The ingredients of the remedy included mutton, cockerel, deer and beef juices. After all the meat was roasted, it was punctured, so all its juices would spill out, creating a kind of soup. The liquid was poured into a dish and ‘spiced’ with a string of pearls and a gold coin; the concoction was then wrapped in an animal bladder and linen, placed in a big pot with cold water and cooked for a few hours. This ‘soup’ was served to an ailing patient on an empty stomach immediately after boiling. Of course, the necklace and the coin were removed prior to feeding it to them.
Rosół in every larder
In the 19th-century every cookbook began with a chapter dedicated to various types of broth and stock: for the healthy, for children, for the sick, the very sick and the weak, for every day and for special events. Many pages were dedicated to advice on how to choose the best pieces of meat and to technical observations about the method and time of cooking.
Rosół was a must in each and every larder: in Bronisława Leśniewska’s Polish Chef she reminds 19th-century housewives:
A significant amount of broth is needed for preparing each lunch, whether small or big one: for making sauces, for adding to cooked vegetables, meals, roasted meat and even for cooking poultry; thus, a prudent housewife should always have some spare broth in her larder.
Some cookbook authors, such as the popular Maria Ochorowicz-Monatowa, claimed that a good broth could only be cooked in a special stone pot, used exclusively for this purpose. Several decades later, the popular cookbook author Elżbieta Kiewnarska commended that:
This is a superstition, and - as many other superstitions - a totally unjustified one.
At the beginning of the 20th-century broth made from a few types of meat was sometimes called ‘royal broth’ in order to distinguish it from broth made from just one type of meat.
The most popular ‘everyday broth’ was made of beef. At the beginning of the 20th-century Alina Gniewkowska advised on how to make it:
In order to cook a good broth one must use 400 grams of beef per person, as there should not be too much meat in the broth. The taste of broth will be enhanced a lot by adding poultry giblets, you can add them if you happen to be serving poultry for lunch that day; otherwise you can buy some at the market.... The tastiest broth is cooked in stoneware or a clay pot […] Cook the broth on low heat, covered; the slower the meat cooks, the more juices will be released from the meat and the stronger the soup will be. The froth should be removed delicately. Let the broth cook for 3 to 6 hours. The best pieces of meat for broth are: all parts of round, thin rib or flank. Rinse the meat carefully, then put it into the pot and cover it in cold water –2 glasses per person; put the lid on tightly and let simmer – remember: the slower you cook it, the better the broth. Then, depending on the amount of broth you are making, add 2-4 medium-sized parsley roots, a couple of carrots, a piece of celery, a leak, a turnip, some cabbage and a sautéed onion. When adding the mirepoix to the pot, add some salt for flavour, along with a few grains of pepper and allspice. Approximately 20 minutes before serving, take the broth off the stove and let it ‘rest’, then pour the broth into the serving dish through a special sieve. In the summer, I dry green beans in my oven; in the winter I use them in my broth – they enhance its colour. The broth can be served with anything you would like.
Rosół was (and remains) the base for the majority of Polish soups. Elżbieta Kiewnarska in her book Soups and Sauces (1929) gives the following advice:
...the broth should have a mouth-watering aroma, it should be lightly golden and absolutely clear... in spring, when fresh vegetables are not yet available, and the old ones smell of the cellar, it is better to use dried vegetables. This kind of broth can be the base for a whole range of thick, seasoned soups. The clear broth can be served with the vegetables that were cooked in it, finely diced, with cooked and chopped savoy cabbage leaves and with a few boiled potatoes.
What was added to the broth apart from mirepoix, cabbage and potatoes? Not only noodles. There were also groats, meatballs, and pieces of stuffed cabbage. Alina Gniewkowska summed it up simply:
Broth may be served with whatever you would like.
The meat which was left over from the broth was later served as a stew or with horseradish sauce. Today it is known as the immortal "sztuka mięsa” – piece of meat.
Rosół as a remedy
Throughout the centuries, broth was believed to be good for your health. It was given to the ill and to convalescents. Broth was supposed to have active ingredients, ‘which positively affect your digestion.’ Broths for the sick were made with veal or chicken. Although by the 19th-century no one remembered Czerniecki’s broth made with pearls and coins, the sick were served a special kind of broth, called ‘meat extract.’ A piece of sirloin or round, cleared of tallow and fat, was diced. The meat and vegetables were put into a jar overnight so the water would ‘bring out’ all the meat juices. Ochorowicz-Monatowa wrote:
In the morning put the jar in a pot full of hey, pour cold water over it and cook for 3 hours. When cool, take out the jar, open it, pour the broth through a sieve, add salt, and when it is cool enough – serve it to the ailing patient in a teacup.
Interestingly, in the 20th-century cookbooks began to promote culinary tricks, such as instant stock cubes, which had just come on the market:
In order to spare the energy and time required to cook meat for broth, it is better to use instant broth cubes.
100 years later we know that the ‘magic cube’ can still not compete with the real thing: traditionally cooked rosół is the way to go.
Originally written in Polish, 7 October 2016; translated by IS, edited by NR, 7 Feb 2017; includes quotations from Marcel Weyland's translation of Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz