Old Polish cuisine is well-known for its abundance of fish dishes, and foreign visitors have long observed that the art of preparing the little fellows was at a very high level of sophistication in Poland. Let Culture.pl guide you through some of these fish recipe secrets.
Various elaborate fish recipes were developed in Poland to help with those long-lasting and restrictive periods when meat was off the menu during the year. For example, fish has always been the basis of dinner on Christmas Eve, an evening when eating other kinds of meat was (and still is) regarded as being untraditional. There was even a Lenten saying: 'Fasting season, day or night, always gives gourmets delight'.
According to Stanisław Czerniecki, the author of the 17th-century Compendium Ferculorum, the oldest Polish cookbook, chefs at manor houses prepared deep sea fish as well as fresh water fish in all possible styles – raw, smoked, salt cured, and dried:
...salmon from the Danzig Bay and from the Dunajec River, common sturgeon, trout, sterlet, common barbel, stone loach, grayling, vimba, bullhead, eel, a variety of river fish, great sturgeon, herring, Venetian caviar, Turkish caviar, Danube herring, grouper, flounder, plaice, pike, Danube carp, large- and medium-sized carp, perch, crucian carp, bream, tench, stockfish, Atlantic cod, Baltic cod, amernice, oysters, turtles, snails and crayfish …
The Christmas Eve table featured pike, as well as carp, eel, and salmon from the Vistula River. Salmon was served as one of the Christmas Eve dishes to King Jan III Sobieski in 1695, for example. Foreigners visiting Poland noticed that the art of preparing fish dishes was extremely sophisticated. In the following ages, fish was also valued on Polish menus, but it was cooked not only according to old Polish recipes but also Czech, Hungarian, Dutch, English, Moravian, and French ones. Hence, savoury fish custards or soufflés, various types of fish balls, fishcakes and fish casseroles were prepared. In view of such an abundant selection of fish, carp (although much appreciated, as described here) was not the most important fish to be served on Christmas Eve.
Pike á la polonaise
Pike á la polonaise was a delight which made old Polish cuisine famous in Europe. The recipe was cited in cookbooks of various countries between the 16th and 18th centuries, e.g. in the Czech Kucharstvo, in a German cookbook by Anna Wecker (end of the 16th century), and in the 17th century in French and Austrian cookbooks. The Polish character of the dish manifested itself with a hot flavour achieved by adding spices such as pepper, ginger, saffron, and nutmeg. Other ingredients, namely peas, croutons, onions and parsley root, were liquidized in order to prepare a thick, wine-based sauce.
In the times of the Enlightenment, Paul Tremo, court chef to King Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski, developed a milder version of the dish. Its hot flavour was reduced by reducing the amount of spice in line with the governing Enlightenment rules. Another famous 17th-century recipe is pike served whole, which is even mentioned in Pan Tadeusz. As the pike was skewered on the horizontal spit of a rotisserie, liquid fat was poured over a part of it while another part of it was covered with a cloth on which vinegar was poured; the part that was to be roasted was treated with fat only at the very end.
The importance of pike in the Polish cuisine did not change in the subsequent centuries. The fish was first cooked in a stock made of spices and vegetables, or was roasted while being basted with liquid butter, and was finally dipped in horseradish sauce. Another popular method of serving pike was similar to that of serving carp, namely in grey sauce (made of lager beer or ale, with a bit of wine, fish blood and caramel, or rye bread) or in saffron sauce – a type of hollandaise sauce flavoured with this valuable spice. The fish was cooked without removing its scales, in salted water mixed with white wine.
Since there is no platter big enough to serve the whole fish on, one has to serve it on a wooden board covered with a table cloth fixed to it, with the fish in a ‘standing’ position. Also, the board cannot be carried, so the sideboard attendant has to cut portions of fish and put them on plates, which are then delivered to each feaster.
– explained Antoni Teslar in the 1910 edition of Polish and French Cuisine. Christmas pike could also be fried in cream, or served in aspic or as a roulade.
Zander – regarded as the second noblest of all fresh-water fish next to pike – also had to mark its presence on the Christmas Eve table. There were so many recipes for it that it could be cooked in a different way each day: stewed with eggs, ‘á la anglaise’, boiled and smothered with butter; ‘á la francaise’ in white wine; ‘á la Radziwiłł’; with forest mushrooms; ‘á la cardinal’, etc. Pike with crayfish, arranged in monumental constructions covered with aspic and decorated with mayonnaise, was especially appreciated by gourmets.
At the end of the 19th century Maria Ochorowicz-Monatowa, a popular author of cookbooks, suggested that the Christmas Eve menu should include fried zander with lettuce or zander á la Parisienne. The latter was stewed in white wine and butter, then put in a casserole dish, with fish balls and button mushrooms arranged around it, covered with wine and cream sauce, and roasted. A classical proposal included zander cooked in a vegetable and spice stock, served with chopped-up hard-boiled eggs (i.e. ‘à la polonaise’), seasoned with chopped up parsley leaves. As with other big fish, zander could be stuffed, Jewish style. First, the skin would be carefully removed, and the flesh mixed with vegetables and eggs to make a filling which would then be sewn into the skin. It would then be stewed in a roasting pan with an ‘Italian mix’ of vegetables (namely chopped carrots, parsley root, cabbage, celery, and leek). When sliced, the pike tasted best with horseradish sauce. Pike custard was also an elegant proposal. And sides? Not only cabbage, but also kale with sweet chestnuts, pasta, potatoes, groats, or rice.
The old Polish Christmas Eve menu was incomplete without tench, especially tench steaks fried in butter. This was served with sour cabbage and forest mushrooms or horseradish – like in the case of carp. Another version included tench in red cabbage stewed with butter, red wine, lemons and glazed onions, and a bit of sugar. When the cabbage was nearly ready, fish steaks previously blanched for a few seconds in the boiling water were added to it.
Tench cooked in cream was also popular. The cookbooks of those times recommended to use smaller fish for this recipe. It was cooked in cream with lemon juice, and seasoned with parsley and dill. Kalduny dumplings with tench filling were a more sophisticated dish. The filling was made with chopped tench, a bread roll, onions, marjoram, eggs, pepper, and nutmeg. The dough for the dumplings was made of wheat flower and rolled very thinly. Tench in aspic was also a delight, along with tench rolls stuffed with forest mushrooms and stewed in vegetable stock.
Other freshwater fish like crucian carp, perch, and bream were cooked in a similar way. Although much appreciated for their taste, they were not eaten very often due to the large amount of bones they contain.
Paul Tremo, the above mentioned master chef who cooked for the last of the Polish kings, used to make a consommé of eel and tench. In old Polish times, eel was also cooked in parsley or dill sauce. Moda bardzo dobra smażenia konfektów różnych [A Very Good Fashion of Making Various Condiments…] (17th century, author unknown) includes a recipe for yellow eel, i.e., cooked for a long time with spices and saffron. Another 17th-century recipe includes advice on how to make eel with bastard balm. Roasted fish had to be placed in a dish full of grated bastard balm and seasoned with spices. Eel could also be dipped in flour and fried in butter. According to some cooks, eel could be eaten only by people with healthy stomachs, as it was deemed to be hard to digest. That’s why they recommended buying live eels to ensure freshness. And since it is a fatty fish, common knowledge was that it tasted best with spicy or sour sauces, e.g. with tartar sauce. In addition, today eel is regarded as an exquisite food; it is, however, only available smoked.
Herring and carp
Herring, known throughout the ages and to all generations of Polish cooks, is today chiefly eaten raw and dressed with cream or oil. In the past, it was the only fish the poor had for Christmas Eve. This is why the authors of culinary columns in leftist newspapers (e.g. ‘Women’s Voice’, published before WWII) wrote a lot about meatless Christmas Eve dishes for those who in fact did not eat meat all year round due to poverty. Some of these simple recipes made with staple foods may be interesting today, e.g., herring butter (with dill and hard boiled eggs), herring vorschmack with caper or tartar sauce, or puff pastry with roe and herring milt.
Before 1939, carp used to appear on the Christmas Eve table but it was only one of the many freshwater fish eaten in Poland. ‘Carp à la polonaise’ was one of the items on Antoni Teslar’s menu. After WWII, the communist regime started to intensively farm cheap carp due to problems with access to other freshwater fish such as perch, pike, tench, zander, and eel, under the so-called ‘battle of trade’ policy. Today, the majority of Poles can't imagine Christmas Eve supper without the taste of carp, although a lot of people say they hate it. Under the communist regime, the culinary traditions and old recipes for carp, especially those once widely used by noblemen and the aristocracy, were regarded as superfluous reactionary whimsies and forgotten about. Today, some of them are being rediscovered. A longer article about old Polish recipes for carp can be found here.