Scrumptious Seafood: Treasures from Polish Waters
small, Scrumptious Seafood:
Treasures from Polish Waters, A cover of the culinary book 'Jedz ryby, będziesz zdrów jak ryba' (Eat Fish and You Will Be Healthy As a Fish), by Maria Grabowska, published by Komit, center, ryby-okladka-polona.jpg
Poland is not necessarily known for its seafood. But that doesn't mean we don't have anything to brag about. Polish lakes and rivers, as well as the Baltic Sea, all contain many specialities worth tasting.
Baltic trout is a magnificent fish from the Salmonidae family. Just like the salmon, it is anadromous and travels from the sea to freshwater to reproduce. It can reach up to 100 centimetres in length. The trout is a protected species: fishermen can catch only specimens above 35 centimetres in freshwaters and above 50 centimetres in the sea. The first person to describe the Baltic trout as a separate species was a priest and biologist named Jan Krzysztof Kluk – he did it in the 18th century. He called it ‘łososiopstrąg’ – ‘salmon-trout’.
In the past, the fish often appeared in the basin of the upper Vistula and Oder rivers. Nowadays, due to construction, pollution and degradation of its habitats, the Baltic trout no longer travels as much, but it can still be encountered in the Vistula and some of its tributaries, in the basins of the Oder, in Warta and in the rivers of the Pomeranian region. It is difficult to buy in shops and can occasionally be found in restaurants. The trout’s taste varies from season to season. In Dym na Wodzie (editor’s translation: Smoke on the Water) in Ustka, chef Rafał Niewiarowski served a Baltic trout cannibal mound (accompanied by pickled mirabelle plum, semi-pickled cucumber, marinated Cantharellus mushrooms and pickled onions).
Turbot is a delicious fish from the pleuronectiformes order with white, tender meat. It is a hard-to-find and expensive delicacy served here and there during the season. In the Polish part of the Baltic, it grows up to 50 centimetres. Since the turbot does not shoal in large numbers, single specimens are usually encountered while fishing for other fish. It was considered to be a very elegant and expensive fish in the past – it was valued more than the flounder. The turbot enriched the menu of sumptuous banquets before the war. It was prepared in a special utensil called a ‘turbotiera’ and served – as Maria Ochorowicz-Monatowa notes – whole on a special silver platter. It was recommended to poach it in white wine and serve with sauces or to bake it.
The Poles did not build an empire out of herringbones and did not change its odour into gold like the Dutch, nor did they pray to a holy herring like the French. Still, the herring remains one of our most favourite snacks, even though its significance has diminished. Maatje fillets usually contain preservatives and are bleached with vinegar. Meanwhile, the herring’s natural colour is grey with shades of pink here and there. The herring’s greasiness also depends on the species, season, and the place where it was caught. Better quality restaurants serve finely selected Baltic herring alongside the Dutch maatje. The fish can also be caught in a pond with nets like in the case of ‘Pan Śledz’ (‘Mr Herring’) near Jastarnia.
‘This herring is excellent. People cannot believe it can be that good,’ chef Michał Kuter explained in an interview for Culture.pl. ‘The fish is gutted right away, on the ship, thanks to which it does not infuse and the enzymes do not spoil the meat.’
Vendaces live in shoals not only in big lakes but also in the Baltic. Unfortunately, their numbers have greatly diminished. This is why, if one encounters a vendace, it is good to make sure where it came from. The WWF recommends choosing ones which swim in lakes and are fished on a small scale (at least 18 centimetres in length). Fresh vendace can be easily bought during the summer holidays in the Warmia and Masuria region.
The recipes have remained the same for centuries. They taste the best fried (coated in flour) or smoked and marinated in vinegar. Zygmunt Gloger wrote in the Encyclopaedia of Old Poland that a vendace with white meat is one of the most delicious freshwater fish in Europe. It was served everywhere throughout Lithuania, Prussia, and Greater Poland. In the 19th century, the most valued vendaces came from the Sejna and Serwa lakes – they were called Augustinian. In the 1850s, the Kurier Warszawski newspaper reported that these vendaces topped all others in terms of size, oiliness, and softness.
It is quite possible that one particular image from Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum, that of a fisherman catching a horse head and extracting eels out of its mouth, was so vivid that readers of this book will never go near an eel in a restaurant setting – this fish is, after all, a scavenger.
Old culinary books warned that the eel is only for those with a strong stomach, and housemistresses and the press had a low opinion of the eel: ‘its decent flavour can’t be denied but it’s also very fatty and – because of that – difficult to digest’. Others emphasised that ‘large, autumn carps are also very fatty, and catfish have even more fat than the eel. In any case, we won’t find such lobes of pure fat in the eel as we will in the abdomen of a big carp or a catfish.’ Nowadays, eel is an expensive delicacy. It is most often served smoked but soup made from it is also excellent. It tastes the best when served near the lakes where it is caught.
In the past, amateur poets wrote memoirs to celebrate the smelt – a delicious freshwater fish living in the Masuria lakes which grows up to a few centimetres in length. They reminisced about the feasts of the Kresy region: ‘There were basses and fried roaches, fresh and smoked vendaces, white tenches dressed in salads and sizeable marinated lampreys. Smoked eel, like fatty ham, and smelt cooked in sour broth.’
A fresh smelt, with its distinctive scent of cucumber salad, is available only during the winter hauls. They are frozen for summer to be served as smelt ‘French fries’ in Masuria’s rotisseries. This delicacy rarely appears also in the winter menu of selected restaurants. Almost 200 years ago, smelts were delivered fresh to Warsaw’s stores and bazaars. In the old days, fried smelts on sticks were eaten with, for example, sauerkraut, lettuce cream, and lemon.
In the past, sturgeon was very popular in Polish cuisine. Nowadays, it is starting to play an important part in it once again thanks to very intensive farming – most often in Warmia and Masuria, Brodnickie Lakeland and Greater Poland. Sturgeon from the Gosławice Fish Farm are the most renowned (it is the same farm which produces the well-reputed Antonius caviar).
‘Trout is one of the most tender fish,’ Maria Ochorowicz-Monatowa wrote almost half a century ago in her Universal Culinary Book. Unfortunately, nowadays it comes primarily from extensive farming – to the detriment of its quality and flavour. Trout’s natural development is hastened and its breeding cycle is triggered using artificial methods. The fish are fed with fodder stuffed with antibiotics and hormones and live in containers. Fortunately, there are also examples of good practices – it is worth asking for the trout’s source of origin when ordering it in a restaurant.
For a few years, fish farmers have been bringing back the brown trout in the Ojców National Park. The history of farming this fish in Ojców National Park stretches back to the Interwar Period when Duchess Ludwika Czartoryska was the owner of some of the lands. In 2014, the ponds were once again leased and the high-quality trout returned thanks to hard work of fish farmers. The Ojców trout’s flavour is appreciated by popularisers of healthy food and renowned chefs. However, it is best-served on-the-spot – cooked or smoked – in the park’s valleys, or at culinary events in Kraków such as Najedzeni Fest.
Poles and the Atlantic salmon? Why not? ‘Jurassic Salmon’, an organic Atlantic salmon farm, started in Janowo a few years ago. It is one of the most modern farms dedicated to farming this particular species. Here, salmon grows and develops in very clean and microbiologically safe geo-thermal water from the Lower Jurassic era, flowing from a well 1,224 metres deep. This ensures the farm’s safety – the fish does not have contact with outside water and does not have to be preventively vaccinated against diseases and viruses. Jurassic salmon is fed with fodder containing protein from sea animals and a natural colouring – panaferd. It does not contain any GMO or protein from land animals. The manufacturer received many prizes for his innovative and progressive farming methods.
When ordering fish at a restaurant or buying them in a shop, it is worth remembering that exploitation of the Baltic’s resources, which was at its highest in the 1970s and 1980s, resulted in a dramatic population decline of many species such as the codfish. Many still catch more fish than they are allowed to. Among sea fish which are fished for extensively, the only species not endangered are the herring, sprat and mackerel. More and more is also being said about the Baltic’s pollution (also caused by the waste from the times of the war). One should look for restaurants and shops which mark the source of origin, offer fish which were caught in a way that does not put their survival at risk, using the selective method (the so-called ‘bycatch’) or from local establishments and preferably with an MFC certificate granted for sustainable fishing.
Originally written in Polish, Nov 2018, translated by PG, Mar 2018