Sausage has always been an important part of Polish culinary culture, and top chefs and amateurs alike are now going back to its roots and rediscovering all its subtleties
Polish sausages in the past
Meat preserved by smoking was mentioned by the medieval Polish chronicler Jan Długosz in the 15th century. The first known Polish cook book, published by Stanisław Czerniecki in the 17th century, contains several recipes for smoked hams, sausages and head cheeses. The look, shape, texture and taste of those ancient products was notably different from that of today. Pork was uncommon. Sausages and head cheeses were made from veal, but also from capons or venison - thanks to hunting in plentiful forests.
Surprisingly, the dominant flavour was sweet and sour, and a wide range of exotic spices was added. For ages, sausages were made at every manor house. It is said that in the 18th century every renowned cook should know how to make at least 12 types of sausage. Commercial production began in the 19th century only was due to industrialization and urbanization. Today, Polish sausages are primarily made of pork meat. Other types of meat are also used, like goose, beef, lamb or venison although these sausages are not so easily available to the public, but rather at food festival or events catering to foodies.
Were sausages better during communism?
It is widespread belief that communism had an adverse effect on Polish culinary culture. Did this also affect the long-standing Polish tradition of sausage-making? A lot of Poles are of the opinion that the quality of sausages did not deteriorate during communism. At least according to Stanley Mariański, an author of Polish origin, who wrote in his book “Polish sausages – authentic recipes and instructions”:
In 1945 the government standardized Polish meat products using traditional and time proven recipes. In 1959 the government published an official guide for making meat products and sausages. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, only the Polish government and local sausage makers knew the secrets to making the finest Polish sausages. When the political climate changed, so did the sausages, as Polish manufacturers competing in the world market opted for faster and cheaper production over quality.
Those recipes, according to Mariański, were written by the best Polish professionals in meat science. The quality of sausages deteriorated after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Why is that? The meat industry started to use chemicals, meats of low quality and preservatives. Today an increasing number of Polish foodies are in search of the old taste and quality. They visit food festivals or urban markets seeking for small local producers making honest food.
When and how do Poles eat sausages?
On weekdays, parties or during Christmas or Easter, Polish cold hams and sausages are traditionally served in cuts with cold side accompaniments: pickled mushrooms, gherkins, spicy horseradish, ćwikła (a mixture of shredded beets and horseradish), tartare sauce, mustard, root vegetable salad. A lot of people eat open faced sandwiches (kanapki) and they top them with ham or sausages.
Some sausages are tastier when fried. Some say that a sausage is at its best when fried on a stick over a campfire - a habit which still persists in the summertime. However, barbecue became the new national sport after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In large cities, small towns and in the countryside, everyone grills all types of sausages.
Sausages are added to various soups, such as, for example, żurek (sour rye soup) or kapuśniak (cabbage soup).
Some versions of bigos – the traditional and delicious hunter's stew with sauerkraut - call for good quality sausage, in addition to other meats.
Kiełbasa - Poland's Best-Known Fare
While in American English kiełbasa refers to a specific smoked variety, in Polish it simply means sausage. The various denominations usually derive their name from the region they were originally made or the name of its main ingredients (kiełbasa krakowska is a Kraków-style sausage).
Because of climate conditions, Polish sausages (and hams) have been traditionally preserved by smoking. Sausages may be cold smoked dry and semi dry; hot smoked dry and semi dry (poached or baked); hot smoked and emulsified. There are other categories such as fresh sausages (called "white" sausages), head cheeses, liver sausages, liver pate sausages, and blood sausages.
What are the most famous varieties?
Lisiecka sausage (kiełbasa lisiecka): it is smoked and baked, seasoned with pepper and garlic, made from high quality gammon. It has been made in the Lesser Poland region for at least 100 years. It is under the PGI protection since 2010. Its name comes from the name of Liszki, a small village located close to Kraków, the former capital of Poland.
Krakowska sausage (kiełbasa krakowska) – one of the best sellers of Polish sausages: it is made from lean pork meat and is smoked, baked or boiled and dried. It usually is eaten in thin slices. It is available in food stores all over Poland, but originally comes from Kraków which, before World War II enjoyed a good reputation for sausages not only within the Polish territories but also abroad.
Kabanos - a very long and thin dry sausage. Its name comes from the "kabanek", a young pig of no more than 120 kg in weight. Originally, kabanos was made from horsemeat, but today pork meat usually is used. It is eaten cold, as an appetizer for example.
Hunter's sausage (kiełbasa myśliwska) - hunting was common in the past and this sausage was the ideal snack for hunters. This sausage has quite a strong smoked taste and flavour, thanks to juniper berries.
Juniper sausage (kiełbasa jałowcowa) - a sausage with the addition of crushed fresh juniper.
Metka - a cold, smoked, but not cooked sausage, used as a spread for bread.
Farmer's sausage (kiełbasa wiejska) – "wiejska" means rural in Polish language. Traditional recipes call for quality meat and spices; it should have large pieces of meat stuffing.
White sausage (biała kiełbasa). A delicious sausage sold uncooked and unsmoked. It may be either boiled, fried, grilled (served with horseradish) or cooked in a sour rye soup (żurek). Some recipes – depending on the region - use spices such as garlic, marjoram, black and white pepper and salt.
Head cheese (salceson), has been made for years in Poland and was recognized as a delicacy in the past. Meat leftovers of butchering are used to make this type of sausage, which is very tasty and has a high nutritional value.
Blood sausage (kaszanka, kiszka, krupniok - depending on the region); It is a mixture of pork blood, pig offal and groats (buckwheat or barley). It is flavoured with onion, black pepper or marjoram and traditionally served fried or grilled with the addition of onion, accompanied with sauerkraut or apples.
Author: Magdalena Kasprzyk-Chevriaux, December 2013