Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Capon and Topinambour (1). Preword to the Series Regarding Old Polish Cuisine. Hunter's Stew. Famous Bigos.

Have you ever eaten capon or topinambour? For some time, I have been reading a lot about Old Polish cuisine and I am planning to start reviewing truly old Polish recipes, some of them having origins as early as in the 17th century. I want to show you how Polish cuisine was evolving and how multicultural it was. Such recipes, quite often, are difficult to recreate because the products that were popular 200 or 300 years ago are hardly available nowadays, like capons or topinambour.

In September, I participated in an event designated to Old Polish 17th century cuisine and Polish wines, titled “Capon and figatelle – the story about Old Polish cuisine”. It took place in Winoman, a wine bar and restaurant in Kraków. The lecture and the dinner were moderated by professor Jarosław Dumanowski,  historian at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń. He specializes in the history and culture of nutrition. Do you know anything about Old Polish cuisine and Polish wines? You think that maybe it was “poulet et patates” or “pork and cabbage”? Not exactly. That food had nothing to do with what Poles eat nowadays. In the old recipes, dated from the 17th and the 18th centuries, one will rather not find any pork meat or any potatoes. The most popular meat was capons – castrated cocks. Potatoes were popularized much later. The cuisine of old Poland was multicultural and influenced by Ukrainians, Jews, Lithuanians, Czechs, Prussians, Hungarians, Tatars etc. In their authentic 17th century version, those dishes would be extremely difficult to swallow (at least for us, Poles). Sensitivity of our taste buds changed over hundreds of years… At Winoman, dishes served to us were only inspired by those authentic ones from the 17th century. Otherwise they would hardly be edible.

The history of food and nutrition means, inter alia, extensive research of historical sources and books. In Poland, we had just a few titles that were discovered and reprinted recently. To say the truth, there is one and only monumental Polish cookbook dating from the period before the partitions of Poland, titled Compendium Ferculorum. The book had been printed out in Kraków, and its author, Stanisław Czerniecki, was a cook of the aristocratic Lubomirscy clan at their castle in Nowy Wiśnicz in southern Poland – I ordered it via internet and once it arrives I will write more about it.
In the baroque era, Old Polish cuisine was based on strong, explicit tastes, like, for example, pepper, saffron, sour and sweet. The flavors should had been mixed and changed – most notably, in such a way that it was hard to recognize what was served at the table (this reminds me times of communism when poor quality of food served in some restaurants made their patrons  unable to recognize what was served to them.
During September dinner we had a chance to taste four dishes inspired by baroque cuisine as well as eight different Polish wines. Forgive me moderate quality of the pictures.

Boneless carp

Carp is probably most popular fish in Poland, especially during Christmas Season and the tradition of its culture on the territories of Poland is centuries long. Some of the species, like “carp zatorski” have been registered in the European Union as regional products. However, despite the fact that the fish is commonly cultured in Poland, my impression is that the mediocrity of communism killed the variety of carp recipes. Carp served to us at Winoman was boneless, previously macerated, then fried in butter with the addition of some grated bread. The flesh of the fish was sour, thanks to the addition of vinegar. The acidity of the flesh was broken by cranberry preserves, sweet onion, raisins and sugar. I could also sense quite strong taste of pepper and cinnamon. The fish was decorated with a wedge of lime (which I squeezed on my fish fillet to make it more sour). The mixture of flavors and aromas was more similar to some of the Asian food than to contemporary Polish cuisine.

Aromatic sturgeon in butter

Sturgeon – one of the most popular fresh water fish – was served with sweet onion, parsley, wine, raisins, cinnamon and muscatel.  The taste of “4 spices” dominated, but despite the fact that I am not an afficionado of cinnamon, the flavors of the fish flex were well balanced. The fish was served with a pea purée and blanched leaves of Brussels sprouts. In the old times Poland potatoes were non-edible. Instead, old fashioned vegetables like topinambour or peas were widespread.


Besides capons, goose meat was quite popular hence the population of those birds was huge. After the WWII, geese practically disappeared from the stores. (You can find out more about young oat Polish goose - “gęś owsiana” here). Półgęsek – cold-smoked goose breasts has become more and more popular again, but it is still not easy to buy in retail grocery stores; I believe that the majority of its production goes to food festivals and restaurants. We were served thin slices of “półgęsek” with cherry preserves. It was a simple and tasty starter, however the amount of slices was minuscule so I could not delight myself enough with the taste of this excellent regional Polish specialty.


The The Figatelle dish had nothing to do with Italian cooking. In Old Polish cuisine, pork meat was very rare, and meat balls made from the mixture of veal and capon meat with the addition of buffalo grease, pepper, nutmeg, raisins and eggs were common. In the old times they were served as a side dish to the main courses.

At the end, Professor Dumanowski told us a few lines about the most popular meat in Old (three hundred years ago) Poland which was capon. Today, you will not find this meat neither in the restaurant nor in the stores. I had capon meat a few times in my life, but that  was in France as my mother-in-law used to bake it. More about capons in the future posts.

Bigos (contemporary hunters stew)

Bigos is a traditional stew typical for Polish and Lithuanian cuisines. Many consider it to be the Poland's national dish No.1. Indeed, bigos has an extremely long tradition in Poland. Some say that bigos can be traced back to the middle ages. It is said that bigos was introduced in Poland by Jagiełło, a Lithuanian prince who became the king of Poland in the 14th century and established long lasting union between two states. To make a long story short, nowadays bigos consists of a long-braised mixture of various types of meats and sauerkraut. However two or three hundred years ago cabbage was even not added to it ! Instead, a lot of lime juice, wine and vinegar were put into the dish. When Poland gradually became more and more impoverished in the 18th Century, lime and expensive spices usage was greatly reduced and, to keep sour taste of bigos, people started to add cheap pickled (fermented with salt) cabbage, today internationally known as sauerkraut. I will cook cabbage-free bigos in a future recipe (when I receive my old Poland cookbook). Today, I propose my mum's version (my dad’s version is slightly different), which is very tasty. I love to eat it in the winter time.
In the old times, bigos was stored in every household’s pantries in big stone or clay pots, ready to be served to unexpected guests or as a provision for long trips. If anyone asks me about the most traditional and yet most pauperized Polish dish during the communism – the answer is instant: bigos. As almost everything in the Polish cooking after the war, this old and rich dish was brutally simplified due to, among others, food shortcomings caused by inefficient economy which instead of free market – was politically driven. I remember it from my school years as a few shredded leaves of poor quality cabbage swimming in an awful dirty sour sauce-like liquid. This had nothing to do with real bigos, which needs many ingredients and the art of patient long and repeatable cooking.  Even today, in many cheap eateries or “milk bars” you can order an ersatz of bigos, meaning cooked cabbage with a bit of sausage added.
There exist many variations of this flagship of the Polish cuisine and the one that I present in my book is what I was taught by my mom. Remember: there is no standard recipe for bigos. It’s just like with paella in Spain or with bouillabaisse in southern France. Recipes vary from region to region and from family to family being the very nucleus of people’s culinary pride and honor. There are, however, certain rules and the set of basic ingredients: hours long, slow cooking, different types of meat and cold cuts, an addition of dried smoked plums (prunes), dried forest mushrooms and spices. The base is always sauerkraut, sometimes some sweet cabbage added is added, various cuts of meats, hams and sausages, tomato paste, honey, sour apples, bay leaves, allspice, cloves, mustard and red wine. In my family bigos is cooked traditionally between Christmas and New Year's when various meats leftovers are available, so it is ready for Sylwester – the New Year’s Eve party and it often crowns it when served at early morning hours to refresh exhausted party guests. And last but not least, Polish style: it tastes great with frozen vodka.

Few tips: bigos must have a dense solid consistence. It should be rich with meat. It is said that the best proportions are: half meat and half cabbage, although this depends on your own preferred taste. It is important that almost all juices slowly evaporate while cooking. When served, you should not have any liquid left on the plate. My father cooks bigos for a few days. Several hours of braising on a very low burner (frequently stirring so the mixture would not stick to the bottom of the pot) and then onto the balcony where it freezes overnight. The following day this procedure repeats. And then again, for a day or two until bigos is fully macerated and all flavors combine into one unique blend. And half a bottle of red wine goes into the pot for the final twenty minutes of warming the dish up before serving.
I do not add tomato concentrate. Some recipes advise to do so, which, in my opinion, is incorrect. You can add types of meat other than those indicated in the recipe like greasy duck, goose, venison, ham and sausages. The wider variety of meats - the better. Bigos should be quite spicy in taste, a bit sour, with an explicit wine aftertaste. The meat should be completely soft, nearly melted like in French rilettes. You can replace prunes with a couple of spoons of plums preserves (powidła). You can make it fifty-fifty of sauerkraut and white cabbage. In such a case, white cabbage should be finely chopped and separately precooked until half-soft.
And bigos is one of those dishes that taste better with the flow of time. It tastes best after 3 days of cooking and refrigerating. Considering long cooking time and plethora of ingredients, it is not worth preparing for 4 people only. Cook the big quantity. Bigos freezes easily and when thawed - – it will still be delicious or even better !

My Mum's Polish Hunter's Stew (Bigos)

Cooking time – 3 days (3 x 1-1,5 hour) 

Serves 10

1.5 kg sour cabbage (you may use 50/50 sour and regular white cabbage, however I prefer bigos made only with sour cabbage)
400 g raw, smoked bacon cut in strips 3 cm long
650 g pork shoulder, cut in cubes of 1.5 cm
650 g beef, for example shank (prega wolowa – do gotowania), cut in cubes 1.5 cm
2 onions, peeled and washed, finely chopped
120 g dried, smoked plums, without seeds and cut into halves
50 g dried ceps
30 g sultan raisins
3 bay leaves
8 grains allspice
8 grains juniper berries
10 grains black pepper
3-4 cloves
500 ml meat stock
500 ml dry red wine
4 tablespoons goose grease
2 tablespoons flour

Prepare the cabbage: Chop it finely. Squeeze it in hands and remove any excess of sour juice saving it for later adding it to the dish if necessary. Place the cabbage in a large saucepan, add onions and spices: bay leaves, cloves, juniper, allspice and pepper. Pour half of bullion into the cabbage and onions and mix everything.
Cook for hour and a half, until cabbage and onions are soft, on a small flame and stir often, so the cabbage does not stick to the bottom. Put aside.

Prepare the meat: In the meantime, prepare the meat. Put the pork and veal in two separate bowls. Sprinkle them with a bit of flour and mix. Heat two saucepans or frying pans and melt 2 tablespoons of goose grease in each pan. When the grease is hot, put pork and beef into the pans, sauteé them and cook under the cover over a medium flame until soft for around one hour. If necessary, add some beef or veal stock. Stir frequently. In a hot frying pan, cook the bacon until the grease is fully released. When the bacon and meats are done, place them in the saucepan with cabbage and mix well. Simmer for another hour, stirring often. Remove from the heat, let it cool down completely and put overnight into the fridge or outdoor.

Finish your bigos: On the next day, put mushrooms into 500 ml of water and let them soak overnight. Soak  raisins in 100 ml of water. On the next day, cook mushrooms for 10 minutes. Remove bigos from the cold place. Strain the mushrooms and raisins, reserve the bullion. Cut mushrooms into strips (0.5 cm wide) and add them to bigos. Add raisins and plums, mushroom stock, mix well and cook over a small flame for another hour and a half. Mix often.
When all juices evaporate, add wine and let it cook until wine evaporates completely. Mix often, do not let bigos burn ! Salt and pepper to taste, if too sour add some honey. You can serve it immediately, however it tastes best after at least one more night in the cold place and one more hour of cooking. Serve with good organic bread. Don’t forget about a shot of vodka !

Bon appétit !

And yet something for those who know all meanders of our beautiful Polish language. My father has been cooking for decades but from time to time he also writes funny culinary poems and plans to publish them soon. The hero of one of his pieces is bigos, this icon of our national cuisine. It comes in a form of a classic sonnet:

Sonet bigośny

            Stanąłem dziś przy beczce kiszonej kapusty
            Świątecznej kaczuszki resztek mam ci w domu fest
            Do tego szyneczka, boczuś, co tam jeszcze jest
            Grzybki, śliwki, jałowiec i reszta rozpusty

            Bigos warzę raz w roku, on wszak mrozu łaknie
            Na ogień, na balkon, na ogień, na balkon - tak !
            Gdy zaniedbasz tę rutynę, wyjdzie byle jak
            Niby będzie miał wszystko – lecz mu duszy zbraknie

            Maceruj go, maceruj, aż sczeźnie do imentu
            Przegryzaj go, przegryzaj, kapusty zakłóć woń
            Wszystko to zapisuj, aż braknie atramentu

            A gdy dojdzie już on, winem podchmiel go wreszcie
            Winem się uszlachetni i będzie mógł pójść w świat
            Bigosować ! Naród niech sławi się ! Nareszcie !

Copyright by Krzysztof W. Kasprzyk, 2011


Karmel-itka said...

uważam, że Twój dzisiejszy post jest świetny.
piszesz naprawdę tak, że mogę czytać bez końca o polskiej kuchni.
a do tego wspaniałe dania. i prawdziwy bigos :]

Florian said...

Meatballs with veal, capon, buffalo grease, nutmeg and raisins... That sounds interesting!

Magdalena said...

Karmelitko, bardzo mi miło, że tak piszesz, lecz tym razem jestem nieco zdziwiona, gdyż post - przyznam się szczerze - pisałam wczoraj na kolanie i muszę zrobić koniecznie redakcję angielskiego trekstu - roi się wnim od błędów. Mimo wszystko mam nadzieję, że znajdziesz tutaj parę ciekawych przepisów (z bardzo staropolskiej kuchni).

Florian - thanks for visiting; I would love to try this dish but I am afraid that the main problem is to buy a capon...:)

Amanda said...

What an interesting post. I find it amazing that at a time, it was easy to find lime in Poland. Where did they come from?
I am of polish decent, born in France. I love to find out about food and traditions from poland.
I have lived in the US for over 34 years.

Magdalena said...

Nadege, not only limes, but other exotic fruits and spices, too. It is because Poland was quite a huge country at that time; there were several historical trade "routes" via Old Poland (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trade_route). If you want to find out more about traditions from Poland, in particular those forgotten ones, my blog is a perfect place:)

italia od kuchni said...

No właśnie, szkoda, ze tak rzadko piszesz, ale najważniejsze, że piszesz. Fajnie, że ktoś opiewa tę naszą polską kuchnie i przybliża ją światu, podczas gdy większość osób porywa się na zagraniczne potrawy na polskich blogach. Ale tak to już chyba jest, że zaczyna się naprawdę doceniać, to co nasze, gdy się żyje z dala od Polski...
Ja też wolę bigos 100% z kwaszonej kapusty.

Unknown said...

Dużo dobrego tym blogiem czynisz :) W kwestii bigosu u mnie musi być fifty:fifty, z samej kwaszonej dla mnie za kwaśny.

Magdalena said...

Bigosów tyle, co domów i gospodyń domowych; u mnie w domu zawsze gotowano bigos wyłącznie z dodatkiem samej kiszonej kapusty - stąd lubię, gdy jest mocno kwaśny, winny i pikantny :)

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