Crisp & Sweet: Polish Apple Culture
default, Apple harvest in Pniewy, photo: Krzysztof Żuczkowski / Forum, center, jablka_sad_forum-0429287711.jpg
Poles love their fruit and produce tonnes of them. When the season comes, we devour strawberries and raspberries with reckless abandon; when it comes to blackcurrants and blueberries we are among the biggest exporters in the world; and in the fall we make jars upon jars of plum preserves. Yet on the Polish table there is one fruit that reigns supreme: the almighty apple.
With almost 2.5 million tonnes of apples produced in 2017, we are the fourth largest producer in the world (after China, USA and Turkey). There are dozens of species cultivated in Poland and dozens of both sweet and savoury apple dishes that belong to the Polish culinary tradition. There are also apple-centric businesses and cookbooks devoted solely to this versatile and symbolic ingredient. Here’s a look at Polish apples and what we do with them.
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Europe’s biggest orchard
The oldest orchard region is Sandomierszczyzna, located in south-eastern Poland. With its specific microclimate and black earth, it’s also famous for its apricots. The first orchards were cultivated there by Cistercian monks in the 12th century. The oldest cultivars were reinettes and kosztele, which are now rare and considered a delicacy. In the following centuries, the city of Sandomierz was described by historians as a beautiful garden, since almost every citizen had a small apple orchard next to their house. One of the things they used to make with apples is so-called ‘apple cheese’ – a very thick preserve made by cooking apple mousse with sugar or honey for a very long time – which is now a regional delicacy.
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The area which is sometimes called ‘Europe’s Biggest Orchard’ is located in the southern Mazovia region. The towns of Grójec and Warka are almost synonymous with apples. Their story began in the 16th century when Queen Bona Sforza – who came from Italy to marry King Sigismund I the Old and allegedly brought with her vegetables, which to this day are known as włoszczyzna (‘of Italy’) – was given a big area on which she decided to plant orchard trees, mostly apple.
In the following years, apples from Grójec graced the royal tables and the orchards were developed by priests such as Roch Wójcicki from Belsko, Stefan Roguski from Goszczyn and Edward Kawiński from Konary. In the 20th century, the first repository was built, and apples from Grójec became a delicacy in Warsaw. Today, the Grójec-Warka region is responsible for 40% of Polish apple production.
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Jabłka grójeckie (apples from Grójec) now hold a Protected Geographical Indication EU certificate. You can find their label not only on trays of apples (it’s worth mentioning that there are no less than 27 different cultivars grown in the region), but also apple juices and even the Yabu energy drink.
Jabłko na widelcu (apple on a fork), on the other hand, is a regional certificate given to restaurants and producers from the Warka region which show off local apples. In Fum Restaurant, you can try roast duck with caramelised apples, apple and cinnamon pierogi, or an apple and white vegetables soup, while the Zajazd na Winiarach restaurant serves leek and apple soup and apple fritters. There’s also an apple-centred educational programme for kids organised in the region called Szkółka Owocowa Bończa (Bończa Fruit School). Children learn about orchards which are seen as part of the Polish ecosystem and about different apple cultivars. They also make and sample apple preserves: chutneys, mustards and jams.
Kids are bound to like an apple-centred school trip. Very often they’re one of the first solid foods we give to babies, and the Polish idea of eating sweets as a main course may be controversial, yet often appeals to kids. And so, as adults, we have sentimental memories about dishes such as sweet pierogi and knedle dumplings filled with fruit or crêpes with sweetened white cheese. Apples often play an important role: we would eat rice cooked in milk served with stewed apples and cinnamon, or apple pancakes (racuchy), and wash them down with a bit of apple kompot. Yet apples are also served with duck – a baked bird with apples, marjoram, cranberries and roast potatoes is one of Poland’s most elegant classics.
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Szarlotka – our version of apple pie – is one of Poland’s most popular cakes. The name comes from the French word charlotte. This dessert made of stewed fruit baked with bread slices was an invention of the famous Marie-Antoine Carême, created in the 18th century. It soon became popular in Poland – you can find a version in Lucyna Ćwierciakiewiczowa’s legendary 19th-century cookbook 365 Meals for 5 Złotys. Today, szarlotka usually consists of a thin layer of shortcrust pastry, a thick layer of apples and either a streusel or a meringue on top. The name is sometimes used interchangeably with the word jabłecznik, yet the latter can also be a sponge cake or a pound cake with pieces of apple.
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The cider house rules
In Poland. cider was mentioned for the first time in the 16th century, yet for quite some time it wasn’t highly valued and was rather considered a drink for the poor. Famous Polish baroque poet Jan Andrzej Morsztyn refers to ‘jabłecznik i grusznik’ (cider and perry) from Normandy as disagreeable.
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It only became fashionable in Europe in the 19th century. As it is quite simple to produce, people started making it at home. Then, for years, it almost completely disappeared – we didn’t produce it, nor did we import it – and apple alcohol became synonymous with cheap, fruit wine usually referred to (negatively) as jabol. In the past decade though, cider has made a comeback; in 2013, there was a 100% increase in cider production. Mass-produced ciders are now available in most Polish shops (look for Cydr Lubelski or CiderInn, which received the best marks from wine experts at Winicjatywa), yet the ones that are truly worth checking out are the innumerable craft ciders that the producers keep experimenting with. Cydr Ignaców, Cydr Pełnia and Cydr Chyliczki are all quality producers, whose exclusive products are worth looking for.
Kwaśne jabłko (sour apple) is another one of them. It’s not only a cider – it’s also a cider house in Włodowa in the Warmia region, which you can visit for a yoga retreat, a lazy weekend, or just for a cider tasting. Using old cultivars such as grochówka, papierówka and antonówka, the owners – Ewa and Marcin Wiechowscy – make sustainable, elegant ciders, but also use apples in their cooking. On a Saturday, guests can drop by for cider-marinated lamb, cider-battered apples, or apple and parsnip soup.
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Mr Andrzej from the greengrocer's prepared special apples for Valentine's Day, Rzeszów, photo: Krzysztof Koch / Agencja Gazeta
A testament to the popularity of apples in Poland is the fact that there are not only tourist paths and regional programmes dedicated to this particular fruit, but also cookbooks and even some unexpected businesses revolving all around them.
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Although there are so many apple producers and exporters in Poland, there are still people who manage to stand out, focussing not on mass-production, but on the originality, quality and sustainability of their products, appealing mostly to the younger generation of health- and ecology-aware consumers. The Bracia Sadownicy brand, for example, was created by two young guys who grew up around orchards and decided to reach the next level by selling cold-pressed apple juices, smoothies and fizzy drinks.
Bio2Materials, a brand created by a bunch of nature-focussed entrepreneurs is planning to produce apple leather: a sustainable textile product that may well become an alternative to animal and synthetic leathers.
One of Poland’s most popular food bloggers, Eliza Mórawska aka White Plate, published a book entitled On Apples in 2014, where she collected recipes for pancakes, omelettes, soups and tarts, all celebrating this versatile ingredient. And she’s not the only one – Joanna Tołoczko’s Polskie Jabłka (Polish Apples) published in 2016 is also worth a read.
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So whether you’re looking for a cleansing smoothie, a decadent dessert or a glass of alcoholic bubbly, Polish apples have got you covered!
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Written by Natalia Mętrak-Ruda, Dec 2019