Polish Food 101 ‒ Pickles
Pickles are an essential component of Polish cuisine, and the main source of its characteristically sharp taste. There is an incredible variety of recipes for them, but a few classic preparations have already conquered pantry shelves all over the world.
According to Hanna Szymanderska, a researcher on local cooking and the author of numerous cookbooks 'the secret of Polish cuisine is the exquisite bacterial flora thanks to which cucumbers, cabbage and mushrooms get pickled.'
A few hundred years ago it was recorded that 'Poles liked and still like sour dishes, which are to some extent specific to their country as well as necessary for health'”. And so, everyday Polish cuisine is often associated with pickles – first and foremost pickled cucumbers and cabbage (often known to the English speaker as sauerkraut), as well as juice from these pickles, beetroot leaven and żur (sour rye soup).
This means of preserving food employs a process of fermentation in fruit and vegetables – bacteria transform sugars into lactic acid, which then prevents food from going off and gives it a sour flavour. Pickles also have health benefits.
Every summer, market booths bend under the weight of cucumbers and bouquets of dill and horseradish. Cucumbers are the most popular vegetable that still frequently gets home-pickled. More than a hundred years ago, the acclaimed author Maria Ochorowicz-Monatowa advised selecting cucumbers for winter pickling as early as August, when they are at their ripest. The cucumbers were placed in an oak barrel, layered with dill and grape or cherry leaves, cloves of garlic and a piece of peeled horseradish. They were seasoned with cumin, mustard seed, tarragon, and savory.
The Rolls Royces of the cucumber world are the kruszewskie cucumbers – they are grown near the village of Kruszewo in the Podlasie region, right by the Narew National Park (an area known as the Polish Amazonian forest). Local producers have been growing this vegetable for generations, with traditions and various recipes passed down as family heirlooms. The cucumbers in Kruszewo used to be pickled in barrels and submerged in the Narew river, pickling there even up to the spring. Legend has it that Napoleon marvelled at them as he marched on Moscow with his troops.
The city of Kołobrzeg by the Baltic sea boasts its own kołobrzeskie pickles – pickled in brine taken from a spring, while the Pomerania region is famous for its “lake pickles”, which are put into 100-litre barrels and dipped in the nearby lakes, thus earning their name.
Long slices of pickle also serve as the filling of zrazy beef rolls, and dill pickle gravy served with warm dishes is a well-known recipe as well. The pickled cucumber used to be – and at times still is – the traditional zagrycha (“bite”) that accompanied a glass of vodka. In everyday life, it is often served on the side of a main course, accompanying either pierogi or meatballs. It can also be chopped up and used as an ingredient of the timeless vegetable salad (made with carrot, parsley root, celeriac, potatoes, peas, eggs and mayonnaise). Poles also often make their very much-loved cucumber soup with pickles. To read on about the most loved Polish flavours in soups, see:
Poland’s south-eastern Łemko minority have their own variation of the soup which they call the Baligród kiszonka – it is made with lard, fresh cream, pickled cucumbers and the pickling solution.
But when it comes to contemporary cooking, there is a highly-tuned innovative version of pickled cucumber soup proposed by Wojciech Modest Amaro in his book Polish Cuisine of the 21st Century – it is served with jellied pickle water and dill-flavoured water with xanthan gum.
Cabbage has been pickled for centuries in many countries. But the cuisine of the 17th-century gentry rarely included sour cabbage. The flagship Polish dish – bigos – was made with chopped meat or fish mixed with lime, and in fact it was not until the 18th century that limes were replaced with the cheaper soured cabbage. For fans of the dish, here is an in-depth study of this Polish classic:
Now very popular, cabbage used to have a much greater significance in the past – it saved the poor from hunger and disease. The pickling of cabbages constituted a family ritual. Cabbage heads had their outer leaves peeled off, then chopped, salted and beaten down by… foot. They were seasoned with cumin, dill and juniper. Carrot was often added to the cabbage (and it still is today), and entire apples were also tossed in and made to pickle with it. Pickled apples used to be available half a century ago in street markets, but today they are very hard to find.
The queen of Polish cabbage comes from the Charsznica region near Kraków. It is cultivated and pickled in an manner unaltered for centuries. Every year, local authorities organise a cabbage feast, with special workshops devoted to the process of pickling. Unfortunately, one custom, once very popular, seems to have fallen into complete oblivion – pickling entire cabbage heads, which were then used for making the famous gołąbki cabbage rolls. Read on about the strangely-named “little dove” dish in our article:
In Podhale, pickled cabbage juice is used to make a regional variety of the kapuśniak, called kwaśnica. Soured cabbage makes up one of the classic dishes of Polish Christmas – it is simmered with mushrooms, raisins, or beans, or used as a filling in pierogi dumplings.
Beetroot leaven, soured rye
The characteristic Polish taste is also built on the acidic flavour of pickled beetroot. The chopped vegetable is submerged in salty water and seasoned before it ferments and transforms the water into a healthy leaven. This acid is a base for red borscht, one of the Polish national soups. In many households, it is still home-made. The author of a 19th-century cookbook even stated “Borscht should always be in stock at the house, when it ends one should immediately sour up some fresh”. According to some, beetroot tastes even better when one adds a piece of horseradish and vegetables such as celery, parsley or carrot. It goes well with other, less orthodox ingredients such as ginger and rhubarb – proposed by the chef Wojciech Modest Amaro, who also suggests serving red borscht with horseradish olive oil and a croquette made of filo pastry.
Young sprouts of common hogweed (Heracleum Sphondylium) were also once pickled in Baroque Poland, and they were additionally seasoned with soured rye flour. The custom of pickling the plant vanished in the 18th century, but the name remained and it is now used to describe red beetroot-based borscht and borscht made with soured rye.
Żur soup preparations require coarsely ground rye flour (alternatively, wheat or oat flour can also be used). The method of preparing the base of this popular soup is similar to making beetroot leaven. Fermenting liquid is seasoned with cloves of garlic, laurel leaves, pepper grains and allspice. The conviction that “the soured rye borscht which formed the base of the country-folk’s nutrition is very tasty and healthy” has survived to this day. A specific regional variety of żur was known among the Łemko people, who soured their rye flour in milk.
A local and rare speciality is pickled Saffron milk-cap mushrooms (Lactarius deliciosus). They are mostly made in the south of Poland (in the Podhale region in the Tatra mountain range, as well as the Beskidy and Bieszczady mountains). The chef of the Potocki family, Antoni Tesslar (of French origin) provides us with his own recipe from the early 20th century – “blanch the Saffron milk-caps in boiling water, place them on a sieve and rinse with cold water. Place inside a little barrel or a pan, salt while adding a bit of spice, layer with sliced white onion or small whole onion. Cover with a white cloth and a wooden lid and press the lid with stone. When they sour, they must be kept in the cold”. And a local speciality of the region became żur with soured Saffron milk-cap.
Almost any vegetable can be pickled – beans, cauliflowers, zucchini, tomatoes, turnips, peppers – and recipes for other kinds of pickles have been around for a long time, but they are less popular.
And lastly, let us say a few words about the so-called zsiadłe ('sitting') milk, or sour milk – a traditional drink made from fresh, unpasteurised milk left to sour (the souring is a process of the milk’s fermentation which occurs thanks to the natural lactic bacteria found in the milk). Zsiadłe is always associated by Poles with the summertime, accompanying the most simple and delicious of dishes – young potatoes seasoned with fresh dill.
Author: Magdalena Kasprzyk-Chevriaux, translated by Paulina Schlosser, 13/11/2014