Before I moved to Poland the only Polish food I knew was a meal that my mother would make from time to time. She had been taught it years ago by her late Polish father and it consisted of mashed potato with bits of bacon and fried onion and covered with a sauce made from cucumber, cream, sugar and vinegar. My mum said she thought it was called ‘Mizeria’. It was known as ‘Polish Stuff’ in our Welsh house.
‘Mum, what’s for tea?’ us kids would ask (‘tea’ meaning evening meal).
‘Polish Stuff,’ my mum would reply as she squeezed the life out of some chopped cucumber.
And so it went. As I got older and became more curious about our family’s Polish root I asked my mum if there were any other Polish meals her dad would make.
‘He would eat lard on bread with some salt and pepper,’ she said, that sounded disgusting, ‘and he’d make Duck’s Blood Soup.’
I really hoped the name of this soup was like how we call vodka and tomato juice a ‘Bloody Mary’ and that it was just a name. Maybe it was tomato soup with bits of duck in it, that would be nice. With false confidence I asked, ‘So...what was in Duck’s Blood Soup?
‘Duck’s blood,’ my mum answered and I wanted to run to the toilet and throw up.
I stopped asking after that.
When I moved out to Poland I didn’t know what the food would be like. Even in 2005 British people didn’t know much about the Polish lifestyle. I was (and still am) a quarter Polish and I had no idea about the lifestyle or diet, other than they ate the blood of loveable birds and fat sandwiches. I told myself that in the worst case scenario I would just eat cereal to feed myself. You can’t go wrong with cereal. Unless you replace the milk with duck’s blood.
On one of my first few nights in Poland I went out with my boss Rafal to a restaurant in the woods called Leśniczówka and we roasted sausages on an open fire. We sat there with our long forks, drinking beer and talking - I have always said it felt like we were fishing for sausages. This lovely, sociable way of cooking tasty sausages was new to me and I liked it – it was a good start. Sadly when I was cooking for myself in that first year I just bought what I found familiar in Tesco. I normally ended up eating Spaghetti Bolognese or French bread and ham. Not exactly Polish specialities.
As time went on I was taken to a little cafe in Tarnowskie Góry that no longer exists and it was there that I began to discover Polish food. The owner was a very charismatic guy who spoke good English and would advise me of all the different things to try on the menu. Looking back it is possible he wanted me to try all these different things so I would spend more money in there – I wasn’t exactly fighting for a seat. It was in this cafe that I discovered pyzy, kluski, pierogi, golonko, żurek and flaczki. Yes, I even ate flaczki. I liked them all. Sure, it wasn’t the most elegant food in the world but it made you full. For me, the main priority of food is to get you full. I’d take a plate full of pierogi over a small piece of expensive meat or fish any day.
So the more I got to eat Polish food the more I liked it. Then I heard rumours about another meal I hadn’t tried. I was living in Siliesia so I had to eat their sacred food – Rolady, Kluski i Modra Kapusta. I had my first one in Kurna Chata in TG and have had it about a million times since. After I ate it a few times I loved to tell my students and friends that I had eaten it. I thought all Silesians would accept me into their hearts and call me one of their own. The problem was every time I referred to it I was calling it ‘Rolady, Kluski i Mądra Kapusta’. I’m so intelligent even my vegetables have to be clever. I think I was calling it ‘Mądra Kapusta’ for about six months before somebody corrected me. I didn’t feel very mądry that day.
In Britain we are always told on TV shows and adverts that fresh food is the best. I was surprised to hear there is a Polish meal that should only be eaten after three days. I am, of course, talking about bigos. This was the first Polish meal I tried to make and to this day it remains my biggest success. One summer I was back in Wales and I made it for my family. They hadn’t seen anything like it before and weren’t too happy when I told them it was three days old. I asked them what they thought.
‘It’d be nice with chips,’ my sister said.
On the whole they liked it, even if they thought it was a strange idea. Because I was pretty good at making bigos I invited my future parents-in-law to come around to my flat in Fazos and I would make it for them. I hoped by showing them my terrific understanding of Polish food they would eventually let Clever Cabbage Man marry their daughter.
I know bigos is basically an excuse to empty the fridge and use up any old sausage or meat lying around. That wouldn’t be good enough for this bigos. I bought the best frankfuterki from a deli on Krakowska Street, chopped it up and put it in the pot. I made it on the Thursday so it would be ready for Sunday when my visitors would come. My flatmate Simon knew how important this upcoming meal was to me and we referred to the pot of bigos as ‘The Baby’ because of the care and attention we both gave it when we were carrying it to and from the balcony, holding it tight in our protecting arms. It was the most important thing in the flat for a few days and took over our lives. I would ring Simon when he was at home and ask him to cook The Baby for a few more hours and then ring him again a few hours later to ask how The Baby was doing. On the Friday night there was a disaster. I was concerned The Baby looked weak and wasn’t big enough to feed the five people that would be there on Sunday. Simon and I panicked and dished it up on five separate plates and we agreed there wouldn’t quite be enough. At 2am on Saturday morning I decided I had no choice and ran through the snow to Tesco to buy more sausage and cabbage. I brought it home, quickly cooked it and gave it to The Baby to make it big and healthy again. Crisis over.
My future in-laws came round on the Sunday, they really liked the bigos and now they are my in-laws. Was my marriage down to the bigos? Perhaps...
The bigos I make these days really is very good. It’s one of the best I’ve tasted. It’s true! It’s hard to be modest when your bigos is so tasty. But I don’t really enjoy eating it. I enjoy the cooking of it more than the eating. Every few months I’ll say to myself ‘I think I’ll make a bigos’. I’ll buy all the stuff, go to the Polish Delikatesy in a nearby Welsh town and get some sausages and take a few hours chopping, frying and boiling and putting it all together and it smells very nice. Then I cook it for a few hours, stirring every now and again. Then the next day the house smells of bigos and I cook it for a few more hours, stirring and stirring again, carefully monitoring how much it has reduced. Then the next day I cook it for a few more hours, stirring and stirring some more. By the time it is ready to eat I’m sick of the sight and smell of it and would rather have some fish and chips.
The only Polish food that I’ve tasted that I don’t really like are Fasolka Po Bretońsku and Placki Ziemniaczane. I find the fasolka are too big and the placki was disgusting. Just not for me. Everything else I generally like. It’s not too different to English food, really. In Poland the variety of flavours and different meals that can be made from limited ingredients is very impressive. I never knew the cabbage was so versatile. Or how intelligent it is.
When I was teaching in Poland I had a friendly adult class. They liked to hear any story about my Dziadek that I could remember. For my birthday one year they got me a bottle of vodka, some gherkins, a loaf of bread and a pretty yellow bowl filled with some lard - like the lard on bread he used to eat. They told me if I tried them all together I’d like it. I politely told them I’d try but secretly wished they’d just given me the vodka. The next night I was home in my flat – I was a little bit bored, a little bit drunk and a little bit hungry. I decided to have a Dziadek supper. I put some lard on a slice of bread, with some of the gherkin and a glass of the vodka. I ate the slice and drank the vodka. It was amazing. I finished it all within a few hours. Five years later the same pretty yellow bowl is on a shelf in my house in Wales. I can’t get rid of it because it has a good memory attached to it.
I find food is attached to memories – if your memory of a place is positive then the food you ate, the songs you heard and the people you were with will always be special. When I ate Fasolka Po Bretońsku it was at some crappy petrol station in the middle of a cold night. That’s probably why I don’t like it. However I don’t like Placki Ziemniaczane because it really is horrible.
I have a nightmare that haunts me. It worries me because I know one day it will come true. In maybe ten or fifteen years it’ll be summer and I’ll be deep in the Polish countryside with my wife. We’ll be driving around and stop for some dinner at a quiet little wooden restaurant by a lake. We’ll go in and sit down and talk about how nice it is inside. We’ll see a big fat woman cooking in the small kitchen while a bored girl in traditional dress hands us a menu. I’ll flick through the menu – by then I’ll be fluent in Polish, of course – and I’ll see Duck’s Blood Soup. I won’t run to the toilet and throw up. In fact I’ll hand the menu back to the girl. I’ll order the soup, it’ll come, and I’ll enjoy it.
Then the world will explode.