If you order "seta i galareta" in Poland, you will be brought pork jelly (galaretka) and a shot of vodka (seta). The alcoholic addition is the aggressive digestive kick to the popular salty appetizer that resembles head cheese set in aspic.
Galaretka's long history is reflected in its many regional names: "nóżki w galarecie" (pig trotters in jelly), "zimne nóżki" (cold pigs feet), "galart" in Greater Poland, "zylc" in the Kujawy and Pomeranian regions, "studzienina" in the East (old Galicia and Lviv), and "kwaszenina" centuries ago in the Vilnius region. In some regions, meat jellies are a traditional Easter dish, made around pig-slaughtering season. Different parts of the pig and other cold cuts are used. Galaretka can be prepared with pigs' trotters, or with the addition of flesh from the head, pork knuckle, veal shank or pork skin. It is always drizzled with vinegar or lemon. For decoration and taste, some add cooked pieces of vegetables to the aspic such as green peas or boiled egg. The most important step of the process is the preparation of the meat stock or consommé with a large quantity of herbs. It should be left to simmer over a slow fire for about five hours. By the end, the meat should come away easily from the bone. As a result, a type of glue is produced and curdles the liquid, making adding gelatin unneccessary.
Different coloured jellies
Jellies and aspics have been an integral part of Polish cuisine since time immemorial. Sources claim that meat jelly was served in 1518 at the wedding feast of King Zygmunt I Stary (Sigismund I of Poland) and Bona Sforza. Pork was not a popular meat in old Polish cuisine, thus, meat jellies were made with young chickens (pulard), castrated roosters (kapłon) and fish, all boiled in stock. Poured into a mould, the liquid solidified and could be cut with the knife. Jellies were dyed and decorated. In the vintage cookbook Compendium Ferculorum chef de cuisine, Stanisław Czerniecki wrote "take a castrated rooster, non-fatty veal bones and veal trotters" and after cooking, clarifying and spicing he advised dying the dish with differently coloured flakes of linen called "tornosel". In his "Description of the customs under Augustus III", 18th-century chronicler Father Jędrzej Kitowicz explained that "tornosels" were pieces of old shirts and undergarments. In his detailed accounts of the tables and banquets of the nobility, Kitowicz notes the "cold pork trotters in jelly" set next to the rosół (chicken broth), barszcz (beetroot soup), meat cuts, bigos, goose, tripe soup spiced with saffron, veal, chicks and chickens, castrated roosters and other fowl. It was around the same time that Wojciech Wielądko, author of the then popular Kucharz Doskonały (The Ideal Chef) suggested that poultry and veal galaretka clarified with eggs, drizzled with lemon, sugar, with a pinch of salt, coriander and cinnamon, would be a good cold remedy. Some continue to believe in the healing properties of galaretka and use it to strengthen bones.
Thanks to the discovery and popularisation of gelatine, jellies have become easier to prepare. Or so says the theory. 19th-century cookbooks are brimming with inventive recipes for making aspics from trotters, different meats, vegetables and fish. In the cookbook 365 Dinners for 5 złoty Polish cuisine expert Lucyna Ćwierczakiewiczowa took making jellies a step further. She wrote about a clarified aspic called chaud-froid - a meat jelly with cream. Her recipe required ten fieldfare birds, bread, gelatin, alchermes (a type of alcohol), a paper straw for decorating, and a large and long turnip used as a dish. Although the basic recipe used at that time for galaretka was meat stock or consommé that turned into glue after five hours of cooking, cookbooks authors started to incite readers to use gelatin.
Restaurant - Przekąski Zakąski
The exotic and sophisticated jellies and aspics were soon abandoned. But simple galaretki remained ensconced in Poland's cuisine. They are consumed in homes and restaurants and sold in bars which specialise in drinks and snacks. To drink vodka like a Pole you follow the shot with a "zakąska" - a bite to have with the drink. "Zakąski" are Poland's answer to tapas and Polish "tapas bars" offer sausages (serdelki), pickled herring (śledzie), steak tatar (tatary) and spreads (aawanturka). One such bar called Przekąski Zakąski opened in Krakowskie Przedmieście in Warsaw's old town and turned out to be a lucrative business idea. To the detriment of quality and good taste, the bar was open 24 hours a day and tried to replicate the atmosphere of bars from the past. This particular one no longer exists but the concept spread to other Polish cities.
Many such bars existed in Poland before World War II. High-end restaurants also used to offer a shot and a quick bite at the bar. Warm and cold appetizers included small open sandwiches (tartinki), giant herring, jellied eel, carp, sausages, white sausage, sardines or jellied pig trotters.
Warsaw's przekąski bars from the late 30s were memorable. Good food, drinks and great service. And they weren't confined to the centre - even distant parts of Praga across the Vistula had modest interiors but many guests. There you could order an "electric coffee" or finish off a vodka with a "meduza" (meat jelly).
The communist regime quenched the rebirth of gastronomy in the post-war period. Due to the high tax imposed on restaurants and eateries that were fashioned in pre-war style, most of them disappeared. They were replaced by "formal, empty, state-owned and dusty restaurants, with a long menu from which one could select things which might or might not actually appear" as Anne Applebaum writes for Culture.pl. There, you could still find the famous "seta i galareta" (vodka shot and meat jelly) and the "lorneta z meduzą" (two shots of vodka with meat jelly).
Author: Magdalena Kasprzyk – Chevriaux, translator: MJ 22/08/2014