Observed between Ash Wednesday and Easter, the 40 days of Lent are all about fasting and quiet. Traditionally, Old Poland’s Catholic nobility were very strict about it, avoiding their famed parties and rich meat dishes. But seeing as Old Polish cuisine was heavily based on meat and animal fats, what did they eat when they had to go ‘vegetarian’? On the menu, presented to you in 17th-century rhyme, we have: almond soup, beetroot and… snails.
Fish pretending partridges
Before the 18th-century, the nobility of Old Poland loved their meat, seeing it as nutritious and healthy. They’d eat plenty of poultry, game and veal and use lard and other animal fats for flavour, much like how we use spices today. The meats would typically be served with sauces containing an abundance of other aromatic ingredients: nutmeg, coriander, cumin, vinegar, fruit juices, ginger, raisins, etc. The more, the merrier.
The dishes would often be so rich in flavour that one wouldn’t actually feel the taste of the main ingredient: the meat. The popular thought that this might have had something to do with covering up the smell of bad meat isn’t actually true. In the foreword of a recent English edition of what is considered the first ever Polish cookbook, the 1682 Compendium Ferculorum by Stanisław Czerniecki, the culinary expert professor Jarosław Dumanowski explains:
(…) The cuisine of the baroque, that is the cuisine reaching to contrast, illusion, and readily resorting to surprising concepts. Flavours selected on the principle of contrast, astonishing differences between the appearance and flavour of dishes, fish pretending partridges buckwheat prepared without a single grain of buckwheat and riddle dishes all come to create a [specific] culinary style.
According to this approach, covering up ingredients’ natural flavours was all about creating the sensation of bewilderment.
Another reason behind all the meat and spices was status. Commoners couldn’t afford meat and ate it seldom. Spices like saffron and cinnamon as well as exotic fruits such as lemons or figs were even rarer and served as a differentiator of status amongst those who were able to afford meat. So the more meat you ate and the more spices you used, the higher you were up the food chain, as it were.
The importance of meat in Old Polish cuisine is nicely evidenced by the fact that a third of the three hundred and thirty three recipes in Compendium Ferculorum are for meat, and many others include animal fats.
A delightful trifle
Every year, however, the meat-eating came to a lengthy hiatus dictated by Lent. Old Poland’s Catholic nobility would traditionally observe this 40-day period of fasting and quiet between Ash Wednesday and Easter by not holding parties and not consuming meat dishes. To make the fast more meaningful, animal products like lard, eggs, butter and cheese were off limits too.
But that’s not to say that the Old Polish Lenten diet was vegan or even vegetarian. One could call it ‘pescatarian’ – fish was allowed on the menu due to it being a symbol of Christianity.
So what choice of non-meat dishes did meaty Old Polish cuisine offer? An answer to this question is provided by Postny Obiad albo Zabaweczka (Lenten Lunch or a Trifle) a delightful little book from the mid-17th century by the poet and priest Hiacynt Przetocki. In it, the author describes the Lenten menu of his times in a series of epigrams and digressions.
Even though he doesn’t serve up full recipes, you can get a sense of what the non-meat dishes of Old Poland must have been like thanks to his evocative writing. The poet makes mention of soups, veggies, desserts and plenty of fish. Interestingly, among the latter he includes… snails, a food that would occasionally appear on Old Polish tables. The dishes he describes include many of the the already-mentioned exotic fruits and spices, so the Lenten delicacies were probably as rich in flavour as the regular ones. Here’s a taste of Przetocki’s verse:
Almond Soup, with Raisins and Rice
Among soups, o Lent, holds the first place
They cook capons and beef in borscht
Sausages, herrings, eggs and lard
They add cream, mint, dried fish and groats
Borscht, I add to you, two mushrooms, oil and salt
If you’ve put snails on the table, give some torches also
You’ve to search for each in a cavern, before it goes cold
Or you go before me with your lit-up head
Its yellow shall serve me as a burning stick
Having a party of various fish by its side
The pike tussled with the hungry before lunchtime
And told the small fish to fight each other
To that the guest said, to greet you first we’ll bother
What Lithuania doesn’t want we take with delight
The ghastly beetroot, o Lent, on our table you find
We have everything, there’s but one thing missing
Beet greens still haven’t a place in Polish cuisine
Fresh turnip with oil has a place on the table
After you eat it go outside for an amble
There you’ll hear loud winds coming from certain places
Seems that turnip must’ve grown in the windy mountains
To the Hick
Few figs on the plate, not for you, not for me
I’ve two in my hand, take the one you please
To the Greedy
The cabbage reheated in the evening you won’t take
Yet you ask me for the twice-baked biscuit cake
This one’s also been heated twice
Fear of nausea here alike
Do it yourself
To top things off we have a recipe for one of the above dishes as penned by the expert chef Stanisław Czerniecki in his Compendium Ferculorum. Here’s his original 17th-century Old Polish recipe for almond soup. Bon appetite:
Chop some blanched almonds and mash them well in a mixing bowl, then dilute them with water, add sugar, small raisins, and bring to boil. Cook some rice beforehand to have it at the ready to dish out onto platters and run it over with your pottage.
Author: Marek Kępa, Feb 2018