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The Warsaw Voice » Special Sections » December 1, 2014
Polska... tastes good!
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Christmas Table Full of Goodies
December 1, 2014   
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Christmas is a special time in Poland when most families gather by the Christmas tree and sit around a lavishly decked table, relishing in an array of traditional dishes. It’s becoming increasingly common to find Christmas food prepared from ingredients bearing the “Try Fine Food” label and officially listed as traditional and regional specialties in Polish and EU quality schemes for agricultural products and foodstuffs.

Christmas abounds in distinctive dishes that have been prepared in Polish homes for generations. Traditionally, Polish families begin Christmas festivities with a ceremonial dinner on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24. It is customary for the dinner not to include any meat or animal products. Fasting on Christmas Eve is widely observed even though no longer required by many Christian denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church. The Christmas Eve menu differs from region to region and from family to family, but the general rule is that there should be 12 dishes and every family member should try each dish, which is believed to bring good luck in the upcoming year.

Fish are an important part of the Christmas Eve dinner, especially as cold starters. Herring in particular holds a special place in Polish cuisine and, while for centuries it was the main food of the poor, it was frequently eaten by royalty nonetheless. Herring has been prepared in a variety of styles, including marinated, fried, roasted over an open fire, salted and smoked, served with sour cream, oil and mayonnaise. Many herring dishes, especially those from Pomerania province in northern Poland, are listed as traditional products and include śledź po bałtycku (Baltic-style herring), śledź po kaszubsku (Kashubia-style herring) and herring salad.

Another hugely popular fish during Christmas in Poland is carp, served in aspic or different dressings as a starter, or fried as the main course. One variety of the fish, zatorski carp, has been registered as a traditional product. This kind of carp is farmed in three neighboring districts in Małopolska province, Zator, Przeciszów and Spytkowice, the largest ponds being located in Zator, hence the name of the fish.

The zatorski carp owes its distinctive taste to a two-year breeding cycle in ponds dug in the ground and a feeding method based on natural food and quality cereals such as wheat, barley, triticale and corn.

Soups are a Polish Christmas Eve fixture and, depending on region and family tradition, the usual choice is between pea soup, mushroom soup, żur sour made with leavened flour, and borscht soup made from beetroot. Borscht is the most popular Christmas soup and its variety from Małopolska province, the red Cracow borscht, is listed as a regional product. Prepared in the Cracow area for generations, it is based on fermented beetroot that local housewives prepared as the base for tasty soups and healthy beverages. Red borscht has been served at Christmas in Poland for centuries, especially on Christmas Eve, when it is eaten with small dumplings called uszka filled with finely chopped mushrooms. It also goes well with pierogi with cabbage.

In the Kujawy region in north-central Poland, the traditional Christmas Eve soup is made from prunes. It is only served Dec. 24 and the preparation technique has remained unchanged for many years. This soup is usually served with homemade noodles.

Other traditional dishes from Kujawy include noodles with poppy seeds. These symbolize fertility in folk traditions and accordingly, every girl should grind poppy seeds if she wants to get married soon. Eaten on Christmas Eve, poppy seeds are also said to bring good luck. Another regional and highly popular dish in Kujawy is cabbage with peas. Recipes for this dish have been handed down from generation to generation. The local people used to believe that eating peas prevented diseases and, when combined with cabbage, peas were seen as a promise of a good harvest.

In Silesia in southern Poland, traditional Christmas Eve delicacies include the moczka soup, also known as bryja, made from gingerbread, beer, nuts and dried fruits. Despite these distinctive ingredients, the soup’s flavor can differ greatly from home to home, as different families have slightly different ways of preparing it. Sometimes the soup can have a strong taste of gingerbread, chocolate, fruits or cinnamon and can also be more sweet or somewhat salty.

By way of beverages, Poles are fond of kompot drinks made from boiled fruit. A kompot variety that is seen as a distinctly Christmas specialty is made from boiled dry fruit, prunes in particular.

After the fasting on Christmas Eve, the two Christmas days, Dec. 25 and 26, abound in different kinds of meats in Poland. Traditional holiday cold meats include ham prepared in different ways, loins of pork, sausages and patés. Some of the finest and most popular cold meats and patés have been listed as traditional products and awarded the Try Fine Food label. A variety of cold meats from Poland are also listed in the EU register of protected designations of origin, protected geographical indications and traditional specialties guaranteed. One such product with an EU geographical designation is the thin, dried kabanos sausage, which is one of the most popular kinds of sausage in Poland. Kabanos is dark, cherry-red on the outside and intensely red inside with whitish specks of fat dotting the meat. The sausage tastes of corned and roasted pork with a hint of caraway, pepper and smoke. Polish sausages protected under EU law also include jałowcowa (juniper sausage), myśliwska (hunter’s sausage), and lisiecka (Liszki sausage). Juniper sausage is made from pork or pork mixed with beef and it owes the name to the content of juniper berries used as spices. Juniper sausage has been eaten in Poland for centuries. In the 18th century, cooks in aristocratic households had recipes for 24 different kinds of sausage, including juniper sausage.

The dried myśliwska sausage is made from pork and has a distinctive flavor and shape. The sausage is dark brown, darker than most other sausages. The meat is very tender and remains fresh for a long time. It tastes of cured, roasted and smoked pork, treated with a blend of spices containing pepper, juniper berries, fresh garlic and sugar.

Lisiecka sausage, produced in the villages of Liszki and Czernichów near the southern city of Cracow, is wider than average. The skin is dark and a little shiny. Compared to other sausages, the meat in lisiecka sausage is lean; when sliced, it reveals large chunks of pork ham embedded in the filling. Ham accounts for most of the meat content.

While cold meats are the centerpiece of Christmas breakfasts, hot meat dishes prevail as the main courses of dinners served Dec. 25 and 26. Poland has a wide variety of Christmas meat dishes, from roasts, pork chops and meat rolls to beef and game dishes. Poultry is also popular in all parts of Poland, with goose meat seen as the most exquisite kind of poultry. Tasty traditional regional dishes include roast owsiana (oat) goose from Bogusławice, Łódź province in central Poland. This kind of goose has been bred in that area for over 30 years using the same breeding methods. The meat is obtained from young geese aged four to five months. In the final, three-week fattening stage, the geese only eat oat, hence the name.

Those with a penchant for traditional Polish food are familiar with another goose variety known as the oat goose of Ostrzeszów (gęś owsiana ostrzeszowska). Such geese are bred in the western Wielkopolska province, where goose meat is particularly popular. Wielkopolska produces almost 30 percent of all goose meat exported from Poland. One of the most popular goose dishes in the region is roast goose stuffed with barley or buckwheat groats.

Beef is another kind of meat often served on Christmas in Poland. Different beef dishes were prepared here already in the Middle Ages, even though beef was usually more expensive and harder to obtain than other kinds of meat. The tastiest beef dishes include roulades, usually served on religious holidays and family celebrations. Wielkopolska-style beef roulade is made from beef stuffed with fatback and breadcrumbs mixed with fat, finely chopped onions and other ingredients.

Poles like to eat a lot on Christmas and holiday dinners are obligatorily finished off with cakes and pies, the most popular kinds being poppy-seed cakes, cheesecakes and gingerbread. One of the Polish cakes officially listed as a traditional product is the poppy-seed cake from Sędziszów, Podkarpacie province in the southeast of the country. With a tradition going back many centuries, this cake used to be baked and eaten only on special occasions such as Christmas. Housewives from Sędziszów made the cake from yeast dough and a poppy-seed filling with nuts, raisins and other dried fruit. A well-done poppy-seed cake was something to feel proud of and the best cakes were those with a slightly brown crust on top and yellow inside with a contrasting black spiral of the poppy-seed filling.

Polish gourmets are also fond of the królewski (royal) cheesecake from Ryczów, Małopolska province. What distinguishes it from other cheesecakes served on Christmas is its five-layer structure and the use of vegetable oil instead of butter. The main ingredients are, naturally, cheese and eggs. The distinctive taste of cottage cheese is enriched with the slightly sour quality of raisins and a hint of coconut, as the cheesecake is sprinkled with grated coconut right after it is taken out of the oven. The królewski cheesecake is only prepared for special occasions such as family celebrations, Christmas and Easter.

Gingerbread is another must on the Christmas table. In Lublin province in eastern Poland, many locals eat żydowski (Jewish) gingerbread, which originated near the town of Włodawa. This dark brown cake contains a lot of nuts, raisins and other dry fruit and has a strong, oriental scent. The recipe is based on the Lekach Jewish honey cake that Jews in eastern Poland, Germany and Russia used to bake as a token of hope of a prosperous year. In a way, żydowski gingerbread is part of the cultural legacy of the Jewish community who lived in the area. The Jewish recipe has been embraced by Polish families who bake the cake to this day, handing the recipe over to the next generations.
A.R.
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