Try Polish cuisine
Those wanting to take a quick foxtrot through the world of the Polish kitchen should consider putting the following to the test:
Fried lard, often served complimentary before a meal with hunks of homemade bread. It sounds evil, but it works like a miracle any day, especially an arctic one. Ideally partnered with a mug of local beer. Any Polish restaurant worth its salt should give you lashings of this prior to your meal. You only need ask.
In Poland bread is a particularly respected food. To this day, many households maintain the tradition that bread which has fallen on the floor must be picked up and kissed. Until recently many people did not use a knife to cut bread but tore pieces off the loaf instead, and they considered that left over bread should never be thrown away. In some regions of Poland bread is shared among dinner guests at Christmas and Easter, as is done with the Christmas wafer. Many homes, especially in the country, still practice the tradition of greeting guests with bread and salt as a symbol of hospitality and affection. Real bread can still be purchased in the rural areas of Poland. Baked in small ovens, according to traditional recipes and from wholesome ingredients, loaves are half a metre long and stay fresh for a long time. In cities, small bakeries sell excellent bread - delicious, traditional bread, including dark bread and many varieties of small breads and sweet and savoury buns with dried fruit honey, as well as herbs and seeds.
Keep your eyes peeled for Poland's two signature soups; żurek (sour rye soup with sausages and potatoes floating in it - the best hangover soup after millennium party, traditionally Easter soup) and barszcz (beetroot, occasionally with dumplings thrown in). Table manners go out of the window when eating these two, so feel free to dunk bread rolls in them.
Polish Flaki - tripe is best ordered in restaurants since preparing tripe is enormously time consuming. It is available in all places which serve traditional Polish meals. Faultless cleaning of the ingredients and boiling several times over takes up a lot of time but should you decide to cook tripe at home you will find the end product justifies your efforts. Raw tripe can be purchased in open-air markets but is also available in some large shops. Beef tripe is most frequently cooked though poultry and veal tripe are also popular. An original, very tasty meal is made from finely sliced tripe, stewed in broth with vegetables. The stewing should contain sliced vegetables with ginger, paprika, nutmeg and marjoram added to taste.
You'll either love it or vomit. Bigos, also known as hunters stew, is made using meat, cabbage, onion and sauerkraut before being left to simmer for a few days. If you have second helpings then consider yourself a Pole by default. Not for vegetarians! This is just crammed with meats and sausages, with the sweetness of apples more than balanced by the sharpness of sauerkraut - but it's hearty and delicious and really quite unforgettable. Traditionally served in Poland as a good-luck New Year's dish, it was originally eaten only by the Polish aristocracy (they being the only ones allowed to hunt game on their estates...and the only ones who could afford so much meat).
Pockets of dough traditionally filled with meat, cabbage or cheese, though you will also occasionally find maverick fillings such as chocolate or strawberries. Pierogi are an inexpensive, easy to make, nourishing and very tasty dish. They may be served directly after cooking, or fried when cool. In both versions they are delicious, so that it is worthwhile making them in greater quantities, served freshly cooked for lunch and refried for dinner. This is a valued dinner dish in the Polish cuisine, and is served with various vegetable salads, and especially raw sauerkraut.
Sausage Polish-style - pork and beef kiełbasa are the most popular kinds of sausages and kiełbasa and scrambled eggs are popular for breakfast. There are shops which sell a typical and special wild boar and venison sausage but the Polish versions of this sausage are not as sharp in taste as in Hungary where paprika is added, and which contain garlic and various mild or strong herbs. The best and most popular types of kiełbasa are characteristically spiced, or smoked, mild or strong.
In Poland fish dishes appear more often during the holidays. Obligatory elements of a Christmas dinner are fried and jellied carp as well as herrings served in the old Polish manner in oil, onions, apples and cream, also as rollmops, herring stuffed with cucumber and paprika in vinegar, and Jewish-style with herbs. Seasoned, steamed and stuffed fish have also become popular, while in some regions crucians are served in cream or as an original fish soup, often carp, with added caramel. Fish are not served during Easter though there are some who eat only fish dishes on the fasting days of Wednesday and Friday.
The taste and therapeutic properties of horseradish have been known in Poland and made full use of since the 16th century. The horseradish root is what is usually used; it is enormously pungent when freshly grated. It was, indeed still is, treated as a folk medicine: when grated and drunk with wine it cures headaches, and in grated form left to mature in wine it cures stomach pains and improves digestion. It works best in the winter and spring when your organism requires protection and vitamins, horseradish having high vitamin-C content and strong antibacterial properties. It tastes best as a strong accompaniment to meat and fish and is also excellent when used together with beetroot and vegetable salads. Together with dill and garlic they are added to cucumbers in brine as well as other vegetables, to conserve the marinades and make them headier in taste.
Sour cabbage (sauerkraut) not only has a unique taste, but also contains vitamin c and during the long Polish winter is a valuable nutritive addition to the diet. It is an ingredient of many traditional dishes, including the very popular bigos. Christmas Eve dinner cannot be served without cabbage, the initial and major dish being cabbage with mushrooms. No less popular are pierogi-ravioli stuffed with cabbage and mushrooms, sour cabbage salad with olive oil and sugar and kwaśnica - that magnificent thick Highland soup made from sour cabbage, potatoes and bacon. In former times housewives prepared the cabbage at home but today only a few, mostly in rural districts, personally pickle their own cabbage. Conditions just do not exist in urban homes to prepare the cabbage which is best pickled in barrels of several dozen litre capacity. So city dwellers have to make do with pickled cabbage purchased in open-air markets or local fruit and vegetable shops.
Real smoked ewe's milk cheese, known in Poland as oscypek, is produced between May and September when Highland shepherds are grazing their flocks on the mountain meadows. Two kinds of cheese and a type of whey can be made from ewe's milk - a hard (bundz) and a soft (bryndza) cheese, the latter of unfermented milk. The nearly finished oscypek is placed in salted water which extracts the water and kills any micro-organisms. Put it on a shelf near the ceiling of a shepherd's hut where it will be smoked to a golden colour. The best colour and flavour is achieved from alder and beech wood smoke.
When you meet a person in a wood carrying a bag or basket, who gives you an unfriendly glare, you may be sure you are on the site of a jealous mushroom gatherer. Mushrooms usually grow in colonies so if you find one, take a close look for the others. The best and most noble of all are ceps which like the company of oak trees most. But make sure you avoid the fly agaric, or toadstool, which is highly poisonous. They can be eaten immediately after gathering, fried or braised with onion. They can also be stored by drying, freezing or marinating. Large-cap mushrooms are the best for drying and can be used in the winter for stuffing and in gravies. Chanterelles and the lepiota taste best fried in butter. Small and medium mushrooms are best for marinating, though whole large mushrooms can also be used. The best vinegar marinates are the ceps which are delicious and look nice since their pilei acquire a bright shade. Mushroom marinates are usually served as an appetiser with smoked meats or added to a salad.
Forest Fruit - wild raspberries, blackberries and blueberries grow in the forests of every region in Poland. If you venture down less-frequented paths, you will have no trouble finding bushes literally laden with fruit. However, blueberry picking can be very labour-intensive and long, so the simplest way is to buy them from village children who sell them on the roadside. Cranberries, an excellent accompaniment for meat dishes, are in season at the end of August. Poland blueberries are used to make soup and fillings for pierogi, while raspberries are most often dessert ingredients. Blackberries are less popular. Bittersweet huckleberries and cranberries will be an excellent accompaniment to venison dishes and will add some zest to roast chicken. Traditional raspberry or blackberry jams and preserves will be the perfect thing for cakes and winter jellies. Blueberries are a very good filling for sweet yeast buns. Finally, tea with raspberry jam does not only smell and taste wonderful, it is also a great remedy for winter colds.
Strawberries - strawberries make their appearance in Poland in June. They differ greatly from those large, insipid fruits, a few of them packed in small plastic boxes, on view in supermarkets. Polish strawberries emerge slowly on the streets, expensive at the beginning as all early vegetables, to flood entire cities within a few days. They are touted on almost every street corner, sold from vans or trailers. Traditionally we purchase them in 2.5 kilogram trugs, baskets. They are invariably freshly picked, which means they are sweet, succulent and delightfully aromatic. Everyone gorges on them in June. Unfortunately, the strawberry season lasts only a few weeks after which we have to purchase frozen or processed fruit. Many Polish households build winter reserves for themselves, buying strawberries when they are the cheapest - 3 to 5 PLN per trug, basket, or - use home-grown strawberries to make any of a huge range of jellies, jams, juices and stewed fruits - without doubt much better than what you get in the shops.
Few things in life get a Pole more animated than a good dessert. Sernik (cheese cake) being a must if you want to even attempt to convince a Pole you have visited their country. It should be noted that Polish cheese cake is very unlike the American variety; having a solid, dry consistency - although it is moist and flavourful. Another example is poppy-seed cake - traditional Christmas Eve desert.
The Pyramid Cake (sękacz) is very popular in eastern Poland. Recipes are handed down from generation to generation and are only revealed very unwillingly. A real pyramid cake requires a large number of eggs (50 to 60 depending on size), with sugar added. The secret of the cake's sponginess lies in the thorough beating of the dough, to which some butter and a little flour are added. But that is not enough. To make a good cake it must be properly baked. . The art of baking a pyramid cake consists of very slowly manually turning a special pipe or skewer whilst simultaneously pouring a thin stream of dough onto it. The process goes on and on, layer by layer.
Pierniki (gingerbread) - no one knows exactly when the first Toruń gingerbread - made of flour, honey, spices and eggs - was baked. The earliest records in the city chronicles of gingerbread baking date back to the 13th century. Why Toruń? It was, no doubt, an excellent place to develop the baking of such a confection - the fertile soil of the region yielded flour of the highest quality and the surrounding villages had a thriving apiculture commerce which produced excellent honey. And Toruń lay on a trade route. Spices came to the city from Persia, India and Turkey. All these ingredients gave Toruń gingerbread its unique taste.
Vodka - there is no better way to end a good meal than with a few shots of vodka. Some might be accustomed to drinking vodka in cocktail form, or diluted with coca cola, orange or tomato juice. In Poland this is a crime on a par with sleeping with your sister. Drink it neat and chilled (the glass as well), and keep an eye out for Chopin and Belwedere - the best of the best. If you do insist on tampering with the drink then look for vodkas that come with slices of lemon, orange or strawberries inside the bottle. Particularly popular with foreigners is Żubrowka. Each bottle contains a blade of bison grass, and it's socially acceptable to drink it with a dash of apple juice.
Polish Mead - mead is a beverage similar to wine with between 14 and 19 percent alcohol content and is obtained from the fermentation of a mash of honey previously diluted with water. Yeast is added to the mash to accelerate the fermenting process. The alcoholic content is evident after 4 to 6 weeks of fermentation and the mead must then be left to mature for anything between several months and even years. Mead can be either natural, without additives, or spicy, herbal, fruit, or based on hops, these being added when preparing the mash. Mead can be unsaturated or saturated, depending on the way the mash is prepared. There are also many varieties of mead depending on the dilution of the mash: półtorak (three halves), dwójniak (double), trójniak (triple) and czwórniak (quadruple). The best is półtorak containing 1 litre of honey for every half-litre of water but is extremely difficult to ferment and must mature in oak casks for even as many as 10 years before being drunk. This variety is of a dark amber colour, very sweet and has a characteristic aroma as a result of the added portion of buckwheat honey. The dwójniak variety, with 1 litre of water for each litre of honey, is not so sweet and must mature for around four years, while the trójniak (two parts water for one part of honey) requires about two years to mature. The czwórniak is the driest variety which can be bottled after one year of maturing but is the least refined and can be brewed at home.
Polish Beer - Poland is famous for a vodka-drinking tradition. Nevertheless, there are some popular Polish beers. One famous brewery is Zywiec which was founded in 1852 and nowadays owned by Heineken. Another well know beer brand is Okocim; an old-established brewery (founded 1845), which is now owned by Carlsberg. Both Zywiec and Okocim lagers consist of more than 5 % alcohol.