The Man Who Pickles Everything: An Interview with Aleksander Baron
small, The Man Who Pickles Everything: An Interview with Aleksander Baron, Aleksander Baron, photo: Małgorzata Opala, Aleksander Baron, photo: Małgorzata Opala
Aleksander Baron, the chef of Warsaw's Zoni restaurant (and formerly Solec 44), talks about promoting Polish cuisine abroad and his fascination with the Polish tradition of pickling and fermentation.
Aleksander Baron is known for breaking stereotypes and restoring traditional Polish cuisine back to its former glory using the best Polish local products. For several years, he ran his own restaurant Solec 44 while promoting Polish culinary art abroad. He co-authored the book Przepisy i Opowieści (editor’s translation: Recipes and Stories) published by Wydawnictwo Dwie Siostry and authored another book Kiszonki i Fermentacje (Pickling and Fermentation) published in 2016. Ewa Chwilczyńska spoke to him for Culture.pl just before his trip to Korea in May 2017.
Ewa Chwilczyńska: You have participated in projects aimed at promoting Polish culinary art all over the world for several years. Which of them do you find most memorable?
Aleksander Baron: All of them were very interesting. I have very good memories of Israel and the Polish Cuisine Festival in Haifa, where in one of the restaurants we served a Polish-Israeli menu created by myself and a local chef. It was an amazing experience thanks to the interactions with our guests, and the event attracted about three hundred of them. Many of them approached me to talk about Poland. They were the survivors of Nazi death camps and the Second World War or their relatives. And they missed Polish cuisine very much. Very emotional and touching for me was also an event in Arkhangelsk organised by the Polish Institute in Saint Petersburg. It was attended by the Poles who had been formerly exiled to this part of Russia and had a strong emotional bond with Poland. Every now and then someone approached me just to see me closely or to touch me.
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These examples show clearly that to understand Polish cuisine you should first know and understand the history of Poland. Although it was often a tragic history, contrary to appearances traces of those tragedies and hard experiences of the past cannot be found in our dishes. Even when Poland was conquered or occupied, our cuisine was doing well.
The development of Polish cuisine was also influenced by the culinary art of the neighbouring countries and ethnic minorities inhabiting the territory of Poland. While carrying out one of the projects with the participation of guests from Turkey, I presented a film showing the borders of Poland changing over the centuries, including the period in which Poland bordered the Ottoman Empire. Thanks to that, the Turkish participants of the project could understand why halva or coffee enjoyed such great popularity in Poland. Besides, the Jewish community existing in Poland for more than a thousand years had a great impact on our cuisine as well. Hence the popularity of such dishes and products as challah, potato pancakes, gołąbki (stuffed cabbage rolls) and kogel mogel. Also Lithuanian, Muslim, Tartar and other influences on our cuisine can be traced.
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Here I would like to mention one of my new projects: I would like to have my DNA tested. If I can find out who my ancestors were, I will create a tasting menu titled 'Aleksander Baron'. I am sure that it will include not only typical Polish dishes, but also dishes from the neighbouring countries, or perhaps even something more exotic.
EC: I wonder if the DNA testing would show that you also have some Asian blood. Maybe it is time now to reveal where you are going in the near future?
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AB: This May I will participate in my most important project this year. It is organised by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute under the brand Culture.pl and the Jeju Food and Wine Festival in South Korea. I was invited to be one of 15 chefs from all over the world who will be working together for 4 days on the Korean Jeju Island, preparing dishes based on the island’s local ingredients, but also incorporating elements typical for the cuisines they represent. My participation in the Jeju Food and Wine Festival will also be a great opportunity to get to know the island, which in the photos looks like a paradise on earth, full of rich vegetation growing on fertile volcanic soil.
EC: You are bringing a special ingredient to the Jeju Food and Wine Festival: Polish kimchi. I am sure that the Koreans in particular will be very curious to know what it is and what is the difference between the Polish kimchi and the traditional Korean pickles going by the same name.
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AB: First of all, it is a precedent that the organisers of the festival allowed me to bring a local ingredient from Poland. Yes, I am taking Polish kimchi with me, but I think that it should not come as a surprise for anyone. The tradition of pickling has been vivid in Poland for centuries. Our ancestors used to ferment more than 60-70 different vegetable products. Professor Łukasz Łuczaj from Kraków in his publication mentions more than 300 kinds of pickles made by the Slavs. Nowadays, in Poland the trend for pickling is making a great comeback. The Poles have discovered that not only cabbage or cucumbers, but nearly anything can be pickled. And that is precisely what I am doing. The trend for pickling emerged alongside the increasing popularity of Asian cuisine in Poland, especially of Korean kimchi.
EC: Tell us then, what and how do you pickle and ferment?
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AB: In my book Kiszonki i Fermentacje, I share my methods and experiences of pickling and fermenting. What is exciting about it is that the process is different each time, depending on the ingredients, the type of salt, the water and the bacterial flora. I love the feeling of expectation accompanying pickling and the surprise in the end when I open my pickles after a few weeks, months or even years. It can be compared to the emotions of a gambler who makes a lot of bets and is anxious and excited for the results.
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As for my Polish kimchi, it is off course inspired by the Korean kimchi. Korean pickles are usually associated with Chinese cabbage, spicy chilli, garlic, rice as well as such ingredients like fish sauce or seafood. However, Korean kimchi has not always been spicy, so my Polish kimchi also does not contain chilli peppers.
So far, I have made several dozen variations of my kimchi. For example, kimchi made of white cabbage and horseradish with spices typical for Polish cuisine, high-mineralised water Krystynka from Ciechocinek and cold-pressed rapeseed oil from Góra Św. Wawrzyńca. The possibilities are endless. For example, I use oil from Camelina sativa, commonly known as false flax, which gives kimchi a special aroma. One of my favourites is kimchi made of boletus and honey. I also use apples, pears, Hungarian smoked paprika, sour rye, rye malt, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, bay leaves and wild garlic. A variation of kimchi with an incredible flavour was made of cabbage and dried smelts (a kind of small fish). But perhaps the most gourmet pickle was obtained from the combination of white cabbage and zander roe. Some of my kimchi can be tasted in my Solec 44 restaurant where I serve them in sets of three.
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EC: Do you already know which of the above mentioned versions of Polish kimchi will you take to Korea?
AB: Yes, it will be the kimchi of boletus with aromatic honey made by the bees in Warsaw. The advantage of the honey made in Warsaw is that in the city there are no pesticides so commonly used in agriculture. And it has a really wonderful flavour.
EC: More and more Koreans are coming to visit Poland in recent years. With what dishes they should begin their adventure with Polish cuisine?
AB: If they would like to start with something safe, I would suggest dishes similar to those of Korean cuisine. In the first place, I would recommend them trying pickled cabbage and cucumbers. I would also serve them typical Polish soups, which distinguish our cuisine from other European cuisines, for example żurek (sour rye soup) with smoked pork or barszcz (borsht) – a sour soup with a hint of sweetness from beetroots served with uszka (tiny raviolis). If I were the one to cook the barszcz, I would serve it with a kind of special uszka stuffed with smoked butter instead of meat. Such uszka literally explode with taste in the mouth and can surprise many gourmets. Of course, I would serve bigos as the main course, but not with sausage or bacon as usually, but with duck or goose meat. It could be bigos made with sauerkraut as a base or with something else.
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Analysing the history of Polish culinary art, you can find out that the most distinctive flavour of our cuisine is the sour taste. That is why I think that Koreans have a lot to discover in Polish cuisine. I believe it has a good chance to appeal to them.
EC: Thank you for the conversation and I wish you a fruitful exploration of Korean flavours during your visit in Korea.
AB: I hope to visit the local bazaars, the kimchi museum and meet many interesting people. I feel a great need for cultural exchange. In my opinion, culinary art is a wonderful, universal tool of such exchange. I have been to Israel, Palestine, Russia and I know one thing: cuisine brings people together. Through learning each other’s tastes you can make interesting friendships, build relationships and exchange experiences.
EC: I hope you come back from Korea with a head full of new ideas for pickling.
AB: I am sure I will, thank you very much. These are very good wishes!
Translated by AW, 1 May 2017
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