Culinary traditions spring forth from the past and become rejuvenated, much like the way new shoots emerge anew from an age-old tree in springtime. Recipes for traditional bread and cheese, for spicy curries and pierogi dumplings, get passed down in places as diverse as New York, Delhi, and Poland’s highlander region of Podhale.
Sharing a recipe is like sharing a secret. It is, essentially, an act of great trust, giving away part of your story, your treasure. A shoebox stuffed full of memories, an old notebook with carefully handwritten recipes for ginger snaps and sourdough bread, the taste of which you so vividly recall. Recipes try hard to capture something ephemeral and fleeting, sometimes by using such old-fashioned terms as ‘Siberian buckwheat’ (simply buckwheat), by describing the shade of ‘gosling green’ (light green), or by calling for ćwiklas (a dusty old Polish word for pickled beetroot juice). Words that are slowly disappearing forever, blending into the background, fading like an old photograph. The taste of żurek, a classic Polish sour rye soup, cannot truly be conveyed by a recipe in a notebook. Its memory is passed on to a Polish child subtly, somewhere between a pat on the head and a stir of the soup with a spoon. It is only in this space that our Polish identity – what we are made of and what makes us who we are – can survive.
Blades and spindles
I watch carefully as my mother kneads the dough for her pierogi dumplings, how she pours a perfectly measured amount of hot water, at a temperature she determines as cautiously as one uses an elbow to check the warmth of a baby’s bath. She kneads the dough with her old, tired hands, struggling. I watch carefully and learn, as soon she may not have enough strength to knead the dough anymore, to sprinkle it with flour, check its elasticity with her finger. Recipe? What recipe?
I was once caught in the rain and took shelter at a mountain hut up on Hala Majerz, high in Poland’s Pieniny Mountains, where the Komperda family resided. We sat around enjoying our Slivovitz plum brandy, which the shepherd Wojtek poured for us, and looked out across the wet peaks through the door – the only opening in the hut through which one could hope for air to breathe, because the smoke inside stung your eyes and stayed in your clothes for a long time. The hostess, Ania Komperda, gave us freshly-drained cheese and her own homemade bread. I asked for a recipe. She replied: “I make it the way bread is made.” As simple as that.
The cheese, however, is a more complex case. Oscypek, the smoked sheep’s cheese produced in the Podhale region, has a strictly defined method of production. That method was set forth in an application submitted to the European Commission by the Podhale shepherds, who banded together and decided to register and protect the trade name, as there are fakes produced all over Poland. The name relates to the production process, and may be derived from the Polish word oszczypywać, meaning ‘to pinch repeatedly’ (this is one of the production stages), and from the word oszczep, meaning a ‘small javelin’ (in reference to the characteristic shape of the cheese).
The cheese is made by hand from sheep’s milk (sometimes with a small admixture of cow’s milk) from May to September. After the animals are milked, the milk is poured through a linen cloth into a wooden bucket to eliminate impurities, such as bits of straw. Next, klog (dried rennet) is added to the milk, which curdles it. It is then pressed to form a spindle-shaped cheese. Its characteristic decorative shape is created by moulding the cheese on a carved wooden form. The cheeses are soaked in brine for 24 hours and placed beneath the roof of the huts, where they are smoked in cold smoke from a small bonfire outside. They are then left to mature for between several days to two weeks, so that they can develop their characteristic scent and light-brown colour. Ripe oscypek is hard and salty, with a distinct smoked aftertaste. It has the EU’s Protected Designation of Origin stamp. The right to manufacture a certified product can only be obtained by producers in specific regions, which includes the Tatra and Nowy Targ counties, and certain other counties, such as Limanowa, Sucha and Nowy Sącz, as well as several municipalities from the Żywiec region and Istebna.
Is it possible to learn how to make oscypek from the internet? Properly milking the sheep alone is as difficult as performing a polynomial transformation in the Turing sense, let alone actually making the cheese. Perhaps such knowledge is transmitted through the DNA of highlanders who have grown up surrounded by the scent of this cheese. Practice certainly makes perfect, but another requirement here is love – of mountains, sheep, grazing, fire, smoke and loneliness under the great sky, because from spring to autumn shepherds spend most of their time in remote mountain huts and in the field. They are part of the landscape, like grass.
Sourdough under the covers
In 1977, women from the village Gałki near Rusinów (not far from the town of Radom) got together to form the ‘Zakukała Kukułecka’ group, part of the local Rural Homemakers’ Club. Their goal was to raise money for the construction of a new school in Rusinów. They organized events for young people, performed, sang, and showcased traditional customs. The founder of the group was Franciszka Siwiec, and later Józefa Siwiec became the manager. At the end of the 1980s, the group split for the first time when Maria Walasik left to lead the Jaskółki ensemble.
In 2012, the most important singers left the group (new members came and went, and the group got smaller over time) to start the Gołcunecki group led by Maria Siwiec. Today, Maria Siwiec is an important figure in Polish folk music. Heavily involved in cultural events in Gałki, she also leads singing workshops. In 2014, she won the Oskar Kolberg award. She is very charismatic and a talented storyteller. “When my mother would knead the dough for bread, she would put the kneading trough in my bed under the covers. I slept with the sourdough. I grew along with the bread,” she laughs. She also recalls how they were poor, but always had bread and butter at home. She is overcome with emotion when she says: “What I wouldn’t give to go back to those times.”
Zofia Kucharczyk, another singer from the same village, recalls that water-powered flour mills were more popular than electric-powered ones, because the latter allegedly “burned the flour”. In her stories, food was a much respected commodity, and the skills of running a home and feeding the family were very important. When guests come over to her house, she serves them soup with sausage, a home-baked cake and store-bought cookies. You can sit in her bright green kitchen, or warm up by the stove, or sit on a bed covered by a bedspread concealing a huge feather eiderdown. You have to hold the plate on your knee, because the only table in the room is the altar underneath a huge holy picture. It’s reserved for the spiritual world.
A thousand kitchens
According to Kazimierz Dobrowolski’s Studia nad życiem społecznym i kulturą [Studies on Social Life and Culture] (1966): “Tradition is the legacy that is passed on from the older generation to the younger generation. There are two main channels of cultural transmission. The first is passing on cultural heritage orally through speech and other sounds (such as music) to the recipient. The other way is visually, by showing objects or demonstrating activities. These ways of passing on cultural heritage always involve direct human contact. Tradition means passing down from generation to generation customs, beliefs, principles, views, ways of thinking, feeling or behaviour, events from the past, artistic or craft skills, etc.”
Human contact, or interpersonal contact, as Dobrowolski writes, is the main requirement for passing on traditions in any culture anywhere in the world. In 2017, while attending the Tasting India Symposium in Delhi, I met two young Hindu girls who run the online Goya Journal. In their #1000Kitchens projects, they shared many recipes and kitchen stories gathered during their travels around India. These young ladies had set out on their own initiative to record the legacy and heritage of their country, meeting with well-known and famous personalities, specialists in various fields – such as Kaveri Ponnapa, a culinary writer and author of The Vanishing Kodavas, who shared her family recipe for a homemade pandi curry dish. They also interviewed their own mothers, asking for traditional recipes. As a result, they created a collection of short word and picture stories, and through a well-written narrative, illustrations and great pictures, they captured the atmosphere of the house, the character of people, the way of preparing dishes, and their different presentations in various regions of India. It is not just the recipes, but their context and the personal experiences that were the essence of this project.
On the other side of the world, in New York, 95-year-old Jane Hauck (mother of Dr Anna Hauck, a dietitian, retired food and nutrition professor at Brooklyn College, and CEO of Brooklyn Mompost, an organization that promotes composting) recalls in a quivering voice memories of her childhood growing up on a multi-generational farm in Klisowo. She sailed to the US on the Batory ship in 1937, bringing with her a tradition of rich but seasonal cuisine; tailoring the customs her mother and grandmother had given her to her new life in a Brooklyn brownstone. “It was only after a pig slaughter that we had plenty of meat, lots of kiełbasa,” she recounts in English, saying the word for ‘sausage’ in Polish with perfect pronunciation and no hint of an accent. “But every day we made pierogi, cooked cabbage and noodles, and baked bread. It was good food.”
Throughout her entire life in the States, she made the traditional Easter basket every year with her children, and cooked mushroom soup for Christmas Eve. Now, nearly 100 years old, she remembers that the dough for pierogi is ready when it makes a funny squeaking sound.
I think about it as I’m making pierogi with my own mother and daughter, now back in Warsaw, in between my New York and Delhi trips. My daughter says: “I can’t make pierogi sitting down, can you?”
“No,” my mother and I say in unison, “we can’t either.”
My mother’s fruit pierogi
Ingredients for the dough:
500g of wheat flour
A pinch of salt
A cup of hot water
Ingredients for the filling:
Seasonal or frozen fruit (strawberries, cherries or blackberries are best)
A spoonful of butter
A small amount of honey
Mix the flour and salt, and gradually add water, stirring with a wooden spoon. Put the spoon to the side and continue to stir the dough gently with your hand until it no longer sticks to it. Don’t stir for too long. The dough is pliable enough when you press it with your finger and it returns to its shape without leaving a dent. Next, roll the dough into a ball, then cut a piece, sprinkle it with flour, roll out a large, round piece about 3 millimetres thick, and cut out circles with an overturned glass.
To make sweet pierogi, you need strawberries, cherries or blackberries (you can use frozen ones). Place one cherry or a tablespoon of berries in the centre of the dough circle. Next, fold it over and stick the edges together (you can make a ‘frill’ shape), making sure that there are no holes so that the juices do not leak.
Place the pierogi gently into a large pot of boiled water, stirring carefully to make sure they don’t stick to the bottom of the pot. When they float to the surface, wait about 3 minutes and strain them with a slotted spoon.
Finally, heat up a pan, add a spoonful of butter, and heat slowly until light brown, then pour it over the pierogi and drizzle over a bit of honey.
Translated from the Polish by Daniel J. Sax
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