Nowicki has been exploring the secrets of old Polish cuisine and the recipes from the oldest Polish cookbook, Compendium Ferculorum by Stanisław Czerniecki, for several years. A few years ago, the book was given an updated edit by Professor Jarosław Dumanowski and Magdalena Spychaj and was also recently published in English.
Magdalena Kasprzyk-Chevriaux: You’ve been reconstructing old recipes for the Museum of King Jan III’s Palace in Wilanów for years. Now, for several weeks, you’ve been introducing bloggers, chefs and food journalists to culinary re-enactment, as part of an innovative project carried out by the museum. What kind of project is it?
Maciej Nowicki: It’s a socially-oriented educational project called Smaki Wisły, Cztery Pory Roku (editor's translation: Tastes of the Wisła, Four Seasons) addressed to bloggers and culinary media. The programme is interdisciplinary and combines historical recipes with contemporary culinary trends. As part of the museum’s programme, part of the palace garden has been opened to participants, who will plant seedlings of selected plants there. We’ll use them later during our workshops. Part of each of the eight sessions will be a lecture delivered by museum employees and invited specialists.
MK: What, in your opinion, is the most important thing in culinary re-enactment?
MN: It depends on who’s asking and who’s answering. For a historian, the priority is to recreate the taste and appearance of dishes as accurately as possible – the best term to describe this approach would be ‘reconstruction’. A chef would rather try to reconcile the taste and aesthetics of historical dishes with contemporary culinary sensitivities, most likely putting emphasis on the latter. For a re-enactor / educator, the aim will be finding a balance between these two approaches. Questions are determined by the nationality, age and background of the inquirer, and especially by their ability to situate the subject (in this case, a dish) within a specific historical context.
A chef should keep the interpreted recipe in perspective, especially if it’s coming from one of the oldest unsystematic cookbooks out there... In my case, overly literal attempts to interpret historical recipes have always ended in disappointment. In relation to the past and present, our taste buds sometimes have more to do with art than craft. In the end, however, you have to work through a lot of dishes, preferably in several countries, and gain enough experience to feel at ease in dealing with different ingredients. Also, awareness of where the differences in the flavour combination selections originate seems very important to me.
MK: So, an inexperienced cook shouldn’t try culinary re-enactment?
MN: It would certainly be harder for them to understand certain aspects. But in the end it all comes down to passion for culinary art. Someone who has a knack for it and cooks with passion and commitment won’t have any problems. As with anything else, talent and practice are less important than simple curiosity. I know a lot of people who have little to do with cooking and culinary re-enactment, but they are great at it.
MK: Do you mean that they rely on their own taste and don’t need any special education? After all, you are a historian...
MN: Of course not. Their path will certainly be a bit harder and longer, but it’ll eventually lead them somewhere. It’s good to be aware that their reconstructions will be less accurate though. Each reconstruction of a recipe from, for example, Stanisław Czerniecki's Compendium Ferculorum, can be called a re-enactment. However, a historian will evaluate a dish by the accuracy in reading the source (ingredient selection, thermal processing methods, and so on), while a student of a cooking school or a workshop participant will judge it in terms of taste and appearance.
MK: Can we recreate old tastes, get close to them?
MN: We can certainly get close to them, but definitely not recreate them exactly. In the late 17th century, recipes looked different from how they do now. Firstly, they weren’t as precise as today. They usually included a list of basic ingredients and a rather casual description of the cooking procedure. Secondly, the lack of measurements unfortunately leaves us unable to know exactly what King Jan III Sobieski ate in such-and-such year, but we can get a general idea. We should remember that what we do is a cultural implication. When conducting re-enactment workshops, I often use comparisons. For example, ‘sweet flag’ is like ginger.
MK: What are the most important differences? The texture of dishes, or maybe the ingredients used, such as vegetables?
MN: The former is especially problematic. From the perspective of today's culinary sensitivity, a lot of old recipes seem to make little sense. For example, there’s a 17th-century fried eel recipe, according to which it should be boiled first, then fried coated in flour and served with bay leaves and sour oranges. In this way, the texture of a very delicate fish, first boiled and then fried in butter, will be a far cry from today's concept of culinary art. We have to focus on the taste rather than on the method of obtaining it. So instead, we could marinate the fish in sour orange juice, then fry or boil it in the same juice with a little sugar and a bay leaf. In this way, we would keep the essence of the original taste, but give up some of the culinary procedures and abandon the history.
Ingredients are another important thing. For example, how do we know what kind of canary the author’s talking about? Or what does he mean by describing it as ‘exquisite’? How did poultry taste 300 years ago? Which carrot variety tastes similar to one used in Sobieski's times? Most questions like these will remain unanswered, and just prove that to approach the topic seriously we should undertake interdisciplinary work. Therefore, it’s good to consult some recipes with a biologist, ethnologist or ichthyologist. Apart from the ingredients and the methods, there’s a whole world of different food definitions and classifications, with dish names such as ‘brain groats’ or ‘fish bigosek" (literally ‘little bigos’), etc.
MK: Have you thought about writing a cookbook based on reconstructions of historical recipes, one’s we could recreate at home today?
MN: Yes, I’ve been thinking about it, but I’m trying to address the topic in two ways. My upcoming book will be a contemporary interpretation of recipes from Wojciech Wielądko's cookbook Kucharz Doskonały (The Perfect Cook). I tried to keep it as simple as possible, so that no one has problems following it at home, for example when finding the ingredients. The dishes only contain a few ingredients, so the book’s a kind of introduction to culinary re-enactment. Other than that, I’ve been working on another book for over 2 years that has slightly more complex recipes, both in terms of ingredients, palette of flavours, and historical periods. I’d like to start in the 16th century, ending around the 1930s.
MK: Surely this’ll be a substantive thing, based on factual knowledge, not just anecdotes?
MN: Yes, I’d like to expand the narrative part and explain why I’ve used a certain method, why I’ve replaced a certain ingredient with another one, or what can be omitted if necessary to keep the general meaning. And finally, I’d like to explain what I mean by ‘meaning’ in culinary art. I’d like to introduce my strategy for working with old recipes.
MK: Please tell us something more about that.
MN: Very often I have to make choices. For example, when I reconstruct an original recipe of four or five ingredients, which, from our point of view, are mutually exclusive, I choose the ones I find most representative. I have to cope with the problem by making some adjustments to the recipe, like for example, by putting a certain ingredient in a side dish instead of in a meat main course. Time is another thing that matters. I recreate every recipe several times. I’ve been working on some of them, my favourite ones, for many years, always making changes and playing with them.
MK: Is the Baroque era and 17th-century cuisine your favourite when it comes to culinary re-enactment? The one so difficult to understand because it’s so distant in terms of time and culture, or maybe some other period in the history of culinary art?
MN: I like Baroque cuisine, but I don’t deny being fascinated by the late 19th century and the things that were going on in Polish cuisine in the inter-war period.
MK: What’s so fascinating about Polish cuisine back then?
MN: It was probably the most diverse period in the entire history of our cuisine. In the menu of this period, classical Polish dishes described by cookbook authors such as Jan Szyttler, Anna Ciundziewicka and Antoni Teslar co-exist with exquisite ingredients from European cuisine (like oysters and champagne), and goose neck stuffed with beef tripe appears side by side with truffles! Pure madness.
MK: But that cuisine is culturally quite close to ours. Recreating the recipes of that period can’t be proper culinary re-enactment, can it?
MN: Of course, you’re right, but for me it’s the last period somehow connected to 17th- and 19th-century cuisine. We can see a continuity, trace a cause-and-effect chain, which can clearly be seen in the evolution of sauces, for example. This is a very interesting part of my work with old recipes. Tracking the history of particular dishes, studying how they evolved, acquiring the characteristics of European and world cuisine. For example, it can be seen in the high-class delicatessen products described in Antoni Teslar’s fantastic book.
MK: Such as great snacks, for example. After all, Poland was a cultural melting pot during that time...
MN: Exactly. In the inter-war period, ethnic Poles constituted about 65% of society. There were strong influences from Jewish, Ukrainian, German, to some extent also Hungarian, and of course French cuisine. So, if I had to choose the most interesting period in our cuisine in terms of colours and flavours, it would probably be the inter-war period.
MK: Are young chefs interested in culinary re-enactment, or, to put it bluntly, in tinkering with old recipes? Like those from the book published by the museum, which is full of surprising recipes?
MN: All the books from the museum’s Monumenta Poloniae Culinaria series met with great interest. We’re witnessing a trend of going back to the roots of Polish cuisine and the broadly understood ‘culture of the table’. As a community, however, we still have a lot of work to do. There are still very few people professionally involved in historical cuisine, but I’m convinced that will change dynamically over time. I’m looking forward to the moment when all the knowledge we are talking about now will blend in with the identity of an ordinary Pole's taste.
MK: Should we even like the taste of reconstructed dishes? Or maybe we shouldn’t judge old cuisine and its flavours from our point of view at all?
MN: This is a very interesting and inspiring question. I will answer the same way I did at the beginning of our conversation: it depends on who’s asking.
We should ask ourselves how accurate we ought to be in the case of, for example, workshops for children and young people. Will the children like the onion soup from Compendium Ferculorum? Probably not. To achieve our goals in education, we have to speak the same language, an element of persuasive communication. We should use as many ingredients known to children as possible, so that they find the taste familiar, and convey the message of a museum lesson through other means, for example by the use of spices, or the combination of honey and vinegar.
Working with students from cooking schools is a completely different thing, because the expectations towards understanding the subject are different. In their case, dishes should inspire, provoke questions, encourage a search for comparisons and analogies in what we call today's culinary sensitivity. Yet another thing is cooking for people with a solid background in the culinary arts. I allow myself more bold combinations, more spices, but also a freer choice of ingredients. And finally, there’s the entire culinary industry. Evaluation and generalisation is needed to digest this forgotten knowledge, to help some of its elements influence the menu of an average Polish restaurant. All you need is to want it and keep trying.
MK: Do children participating in the re-enactment workshops like any of the dishes?
MN: Yes, they like many of the recipes, like fish cooked in milk with onion and cinnamon, and all kinds of puddings, both savoury and sweet. They also like arkas – milk jelly served with various seasoning (a 17th-century recipe).
MK: How about the beer soup children used to be fed with?
MN: Well, it does have the bitterness of beer. It should be made using a proper kind of beer. Back in the past, another kind of beer was used. There are various kinds of sauces in the old Polish cuisine to which beer was added, such as so-called ‘grey sauce’ based on dark beer with the addition of honey, raisins, almonds, vegetable stock and gingerbread. It’s a very difficult combination, a real challenge for a chef. It’s not an obvious palette of flavours even for adults, so we can’t expect all of today's children to like it. We should just plant a seed of curiosity and let it grow.
MK: It seems that very old things are actually new and interesting.
MN: I think there’s something in this. Most of us find unknown recipes interesting. Discovering their potential to be combined with other recipes in what we call a final dish, makes them complete.
Interview conducted in Polish, Aug 2017; translated by AW, March 2018