Matters of taste

Cooking a Polish meal
February 22, 2012
Polish delis full of mysteriously labelled tins are becoming common

If a league table of world cuisines existed, Poland, it’s safe to say, wouldn’t be near the top. Currently riding high, I suspect, would be Denmark, home to the “world’s best restaurant,” Noma. Spain would be up there too. France, these days, would be mid-table, long ago eclipsed by Italy. China, Korea and Mexico would be rising fast. Poland, meanwhile, would be somewhere near the bottom, battling it out with the likes of Cuba, Ireland and the Philippines.

Yet despite this, Polish food in Britain is, in a way, flourishing. Since the country joined the EU in 2004, several hundred thousand Poles have come to live in Britain, joining the small number that arrived after the war. (Last year, the Office of National Statistics estimated that 532,000 Poles were resident in Britain.) Over the last decade, Polish sausage and pierogi have become common sights in grocery shops and many supermarkets have Polish sections. In areas where lots of Poles live, specialist delis have opened, with their cured meat counters, rows of pickled vegetables and mysterious tins labelled with words like bigos (hunters’ stew) and flaki (tripe).

However, in contrast to earlier waves of immigration, this development hasn’t noticeably affected the eating—or cooking—habits of the British. The Italians who arrived in the first half of the 20th century brought pizza, pasta and cappuccinos, and these became British staples. The cuisines of China and India—or at least, Anglicised versions of them—have likewise been eagerly taken up. Even fish and chips is Sephardic in origin. But despite the new visibility of Polish food, it remains largely overlooked by the indigenous population. Some cuisines become popular wherever they go; others never cross-fertilise. Polish food belongs—so far—to the latter camp.

Will this change, or can only Poles love Polish food? To be in a better position to judge, I decided to cook a Polish meal for my wife and mother. Their response on being told this was not wildly enthusiastic, though this probably has something to do with the fact that my wife is a vegetarian and my mother is not a big fan of either pickled vegetables or smoked meats. All the same, I felt hopeful that, with shrewd menu planning, I could win them round.

The first thing to be said about Polish food in Britain is that it hasn’t done a very good job of making itself accessible to the ignorant. At Waterstones in Bloomsbury, the cookery section had hundreds of books, but not a single Polish one. So I researched online, comparing recipes from different Polish food sites, trying to determine which might work. I settled on a mix of starters and small dishes: dill pickle soup, pierogi filled with sauerkraut and mushroom, cabbage cooked in bozcek (a fatty smoked pork not unlike pancetta) and a selection of sausages and salted herring. Most of the ingredients were things you could buy in any supermarket, though for the smoked meats and herring I went to a Polish deli near where I live in Forest Hill, south London.

The soup was quick and simple to make: slices of potato and grated pickled cucumber boiled for around ten minutes in vegetable stock, along with some of the pickling juice from the jar. When the potato was tender, I whisked in a cupful of milk mixed with some flour, as directed by the recipe. Off the heat, I added a beaten egg and then, stirring, returned the pan to the heat (but didn’t allow it to boil). To serve, I added chopped dill and ´smietana (sour cream). For something with so few ingredients, and such basic ones at that, the soup was delicious, clean tasting and with an interesting texture, the milk, flour and egg having made it creamily opaque.

The pierogi, unsurprisingly, were more of a production. There are lots of different methods for making pierogi dough; I settled on one that’s like a low-fat pastry, made by rubbing butter into flour, then adding water. While the dough rested, I made a filling by slowly frying onions, mushrooms and garlic in butter, before adding sauerkraut. Having rolled the dough out, I used a large cup to cut it into circles. Onto each of these I placed a teaspoon-full of filling, then folded the dough over, sealing the join with beaten egg. I baked some of my pierogi in the oven, as recommended by Nigel Slater; the rest, more conventionally, I dropped into boiling water for a few minutes, like ravioli. The results were mixed: with the baked pierogi, the dough, which had gone slightly crispy, seemed too dominant, and overwhelmed the filling, whose flavour was too mild to compete. (Something with cheese might have worked better.) With the boiled pierogi, the dough was lighter, and the overall result better, although I think they would have been even tastier if I’d crammed in more filling.

To finish, we had sausages and herring with sunflower seed and rye bread, together with my improvised cabbage dish. For me, this course was the meal’s highlight, because I love cured meats and the Polish—unarguably—do them well. It’s fair to say that smoked garlic sausages are the real glory of Polish cuisine, the one area in which it attains genuine complexity. There are a large number of subtly different flavours, and most can either be eaten cold or used in cooking. Compared with, say, Italian salami, they are also appealingly cheap.

Earlier, at the deli, I had sampled a large number, along with two types of headcheese (or brawn) and other cured meats, one of which, a raw smoked pork, confusingly bore a name that sounded like salmon. So great is the variety that a try-and-see approach is essential. Washed down with vodka, the meats tasted even better later on, and helped make up for the pierogi. Though my dining companions were unconvinced, I began to think that Polish food really has a future in Britain.