Polish Flavour: The Glory of Pickling
default, Polish Flavour:
The Glory of Pickling, Still from the film 'Nights & Days', directed by Jerzy Antczak, 1975, photo: Studio Filmowe Kadr / Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl, full_kiszenie_kapusty_fn_noce_i_dnie_770.jpg
They’re healthy, tasty and unique because they were produced by home-grown Polish bacteria. Here is a panorama of things Poles pickle: from gherkins through fermented-flour soup, all the way to pickled saffron milk-cap mushrooms.
To quote the poet and satirist Ludwik Jerzy Kern, a long-serving writer for the famous Kraków magazine Przekrój:
Is taste bestowed on us by nature
Or by behaviour, perhaps culture?
Would people end up being disgraced
If they should have no sense of taste?
This is a rather touchy question.
For some love mussels,
Others love onion,
While a third declares
Spuds are their passion.
So what is a distinct flavour of Polish cuisine? According to Hanna Szymanderska, a researcher of regional fare and author of dozens of cookery books:
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The taste of our national cuisine depends not only on how dishes are prepared and seasoned, or the way in which they are served. Above all, it depends on the quality and specific taste of the ingredients used to make the dishes. The secret behind the taste of Polish cuisine is the unique bacterial flora which causes gherkins, cabbage and mushrooms to pickle…
A couple of hundred years ago, it was written that ‘Poles have always loved sour dishes which, in a way, are typical for their country and essential to health’. Everyday Polish cuisine brings to mind pickled vegetables, particularly cabbage and gherkins, as well as naturally fermented pickled gherkin brine, sauerkraut juice, beetroot brine and fermented-flour soup, known as żurek.
This method of preserving foods relies on a fermentation process that takes place in vegetables and fruit. Bacteria convert sugars into lactic acid, preventing decay and giving an acidic taste. A bonus: pickles possess nourishing properties.
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Every summer, the market stalls groan with gherkins and bouquets of dill and horseradish. Gherkins are the most popular vegetable for pickling, which is still often done at home. Over a century ago, the esteemed author Maria Ochorowicz-Monatowa recommended choosing gherkins to pickle for the winter in mid-August, when they are at their ripest. The gherkins were placed into oak barrels, layered with dill, vine or cherry leaves, garlic, and a chunk of peeled horseradish. They were seasoned with aromatic caraway and mustard seed, summer savory and tarragon.
The Rolls Royce of gherkins are those pickled around the village of Kruszewo in Podlasie, near Narew National Park (once known as Polish Amazonia). Local producers have been growing these vegetables for generations, and the traditions and recipes are handed down. Interestingly, their gherkins are pickled in wooden barrels which are then submerged in the Narew River (and even left to mature there until spring). Kruszewo’s gherkins are legendary: they are reputed to have delighted Napoleon as he marched on Moscow with his troops. On the Baltic coast, gherkins from Kołobrzeg are pickled in brine taken from an underground salt spring. ‘Lake-pickled gherkins’ are famous in Pomerania. Why lake-pickled? Because they are pickled in wooden 100-litre barrels which are immersed in a lake.
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Sliced pickled gherkins are served with meat roulades, and there is a famous pickled-gherkin sauce for hot dishes. Traditionally, gherkins used to be eaten (and still are, to a lesser extent) as ‘chasers’ after shots of vodka. Moreover, they regularly appear as a side dish for main courses (e.g. cheese-and-potato pierogi) or are chopped and added to the ever-popular root vegetable salad. Łemko cuisine features kiszonka baligrodzka, a special variety of the popular gherkin soup made with suet, sour cream, gherkins and gherkin brine.
Contemporary versions of gherkin soup are heavily customised, however. For example, in his book Kuchnia Polska XXI Wieku ('21st-Century Polish Cuisine'), the world-renowned Polish chef Wojciech Modest Amaro proposes an accompanying jelly made of pickled-gherkin brine and dill brine thickened with xanthan gum.
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As in other countries, cabbage has been pickled here for centuries, but ‘sauerkraut’ was rare in refined 17th-century cookery. 300 years ago, the Polish signature dish, bigos, was made of chopped meat or fish with added lime, which began to be replaced with cheaper pickled cabbage in the 18th century.
In the past, cabbage was of greater significance than nowadays, as it saved the poor from starvation and disease. Pickling cabbage was a family ritual: the outer leaves were stripped off, then it was shredded, salted, and trodden barefoot, and seasoned with caraway, dill, or juniper. Carrots (which are still popular in today's sauerkraut) and whole apples were also added. Up until a few decades ago, pickled apples could still be bought at markets, but now they are hard to find.
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The queen of Polish sauerkrauts originates from the Charsznica area, near Kraków, where the growing and pickling process has remained unchanged for generations. Every year, the local authorities organise a cabbage festival and pickling workshops. Unfortunately, the once-popular pickled whole heads of cabbage, the leaves of which were used in local cuisine to wrap stuffed gołąbki (cabbage rolls), have almost vanished into oblivion.
In Podhale, pickled cabbage juice is used to produce a local variety of cabbage soup, known as kwaśnica. At Christmastime, sauerkraut is used as a pierogi filling, or stewed with mushrooms, raisins or peas and served as one of the traditional Christmas Eve dishes.
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Another taste of Poland is pickled beetroot brine. Chopped beetroot is put into brine with added spices to make it ferment and turn into a sour, healthy liquid. This brine is the basis of barszcz, or red borscht, and is still often made at home. ‘There should always be borscht in the house, and when one batch runs out, you should immediately ferment a new one’, advised the authors of 19th-century cookbooks.
Many people believe that pickled beetroot brine tastes even better with added horseradish root, spices and a few root vegetables (celeriac, parsley, carrot). It also goes well with other, more unorthodox ingredients such as ginger or rhubarb, as suggested by chef Amaro. In one of his books, he serves the finished product, i.e. red barszcz, with horseradish oil and filo pastry croquettes.
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In baroque Poland, they used to pickle shoots of young hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium, a plant of the celery family, known as barszcz in Polish) seasoned with rye-flour brine. The tradition of pickling this plant died out in the 18th century, but the name remained and is now used to describe red barszcz with pickled beetroot brine, and white rye-bread borscht, known as żur, with fermented-flour brine.
Żur is usually made with coarse rye flour (or wheat and oatmeal flour). The method for making the brine which forms the base of this popular soup is the same as for pickled beetroot brine. Cloves of garlic, bay leaves, peppercorns and allspice are added to the fermenting liquid. To this day, it is believed that ‘pickled rye borscht, formerly the staple diet of village folk, is very tasty and healthy’. Łemko cuisine also has a special type of żur pickled with milk.
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Pickled saffron milk-cap mushrooms are a local (and sadly rare) speciality. They are mostly pickled in the South (Podhale, the Low Beskids and Bieszczady). In his Kuchnia Polsko–Francuska ('Polish–French Cuisine') from the early 20th century, Antoni Tesslar, the Potockis’ head chef (of French extraction) at Krzeszowice, near Kraków, listed a simple recipe: ‘Blanch the milk caps in boiling water, sieve, then pour cold water onto them. Place them in a cask or pot, salt, add a little spice, then layer them with sliced white onion or a whole small onion. Cover it with a white cloth and a wooden press held down with a stone. Once pickled, store in a cool place’. Another local speciality is żur with pickled milk caps.
Almost any vegetables can be pickled: green beans, cauliflower, courgettes, tomatoes, turnips, bell peppers, etc. There are also much older recipes for other pickles, but they proved to be less popular.
Finally, we should not forget curdled (or ‘sour’) milk – a drink made from fresh (i.e. unpasteurised, unsterilised) milk which has been left to go off (lactic fermentation due to natural bacteria in the milk). Curdled milk is inextricably associated with summer and the simplest of dishes, such as new potatoes with dill.
Author: Magdalena Kasprzyk-Chevriaux, Jan 2015
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