Note: For the glossary of Polish terms mentioned, scroll down or click here.
Brushing off a thin layer of dust, I reveal yet another handwritten label. This time, it’s tarnina (blackthorn), 2018. Next, there’s pigwa (quince) 2020, czeremcha (bird cherry) 2021, and at least three scores of bottles more.
On the opposite wall, wooden shelves groan under a load of weighty jars. Large ones contain ferments – mostly kapusta kiszona (sauerkraut) and ogórki kiszone (fermented cucumbers in brine). The smaller ones hold pickled wild mushrooms and an assortment of fruit preserves.
Is this a treasure trove? You could say so. I’m on a guided tour of mister Zbigniew’s secret vault – his musty basement unit, on the lower ground floor of the 1960s tower block.
“Autumn is drawing to a close. I’m wrapping up my nalewka-making season for the year,” he reveals with pride.
During the warmer months, Zbigniew collects the juiciest and ripest seasonal fruit in enormous 4-litre jars. These fruits mostly come from ‘działka’, his small nearby allotment garden – but for greater variety, he sometimes trades his surplus of sour cherries for his neighbour’s mirabelle plums or forages in local forests and meadows.
Zbigniew then drowns the ingredients in precisely calculated alcohol, carefully labelling each jar and documenting the exact steps in a tiny leather notebook.
However, this is just the beginning of an elaborate process. The ingredients then macerate for weeks, months, or even years, allowing the alcohol to absorb all the flavours, capturing the essence of summer in a jar. After filtering the alcohol, the remaining fruit is coated in sugar and set aside to release all of its liquids. The alcoholic tincture is then mixed with the retrieved juices and bottled individually for further maturation.
The final, arguably the most crucial element is… patience and a lot of it. “You cannot rush perfection,” Zbigniew advises. “Soft berries and cherries give out their essence more swiftly, but a decent quince nalewka takes years to mature.”
”Is it worth the wait?” I ask. His eyes glow up. “Oh, for sure. The effort gets rewarded in flavour. Have a taste and see for yourself.”
Why We Wait
The proverb goes, “patience is a virtue,” but regrettably, it wasn’t one of mine. In the past, I was one of those restless individuals who would frantically tap their phone or push the elevator button repeatedly to hasten its arrival.
Perhaps this is why I found mister Zbigniew’s attitude to be so very soothing. His philosophy of unhurried, leisurely cooking is in stark contrast to both my own struggles and the present-day zeitgeist.
In an age where the world is always on the move, we’re constantly attempting to keep up, but often falling short. We’ll jump at any chance to obtain a decent-ish meal instantly, and with a multitude of choices available, it’s no wonder ready meals, take-outs, meal replacements, semi-prepared meal kits, and dietary catering are so appealing.
Even when we do cook at home, we depend on a plethora of gadgets, such as microwaves, air fryers, and instant pots, in an effort to streamline the process.
In a society that celebrates efficiency and immediate gratification, is there still a place for unhurried, mindful food preparation? In my little corner of the world, it certainly appears so.
The Provident’s ‘Barometer’ survey of 2022 revealed that 17% of Poles engage in canning, fermenting, and nalewka-making to continue their family traditions. Interestingly, for every tenth respondent, this is seen as a relaxing pastime that provides an escape from the stress of everyday life.
It is no surprise that nearly half (48.3%) of all survey participants report preparing homemade preserves each year. The pleasure gained from the process itself appears to be more important than the end result, which could be easily obtained from a store.
Better with Each Reheat
These survey results resonated with me. And as I slid down the rabbit hole of Polish culinary practices, my perspective began to shift.
My journey started with bigos, a dish known for its lengthy preparation time. Think days (sic!), not hours. It’s a fragrant, slow-braised stew, made with fresh cabbage, sauerkraut, dried wild mushrooms, jałowcowa (juniper kiełbasa), juniper berries, prunes, various types of meat, and more.
There’s an old Polish saying that tells us: “ile domów, tyle bigosów”, which roughly translates to “there are as many bigos stews, as there are homes”. But while recipes may vary, there’s one thing all home cooks and professional chefs uniformly agree on: the longer you let it simmer, and the more times you reheat it over the course of several days, the better it tastes.
Ah, the waiting game. It’s the most challenging part. As I stirred the pot and snuck a little taste, a nagging thought would inevitably creep into my mind, saying, “that’s good enough, let’s eat already!” Fending off this temptation was no mean feat, but I tried my hardest to stay on track.
Bigos requires more than just patience; it demands close attention. You can’t just set it on the stove, give it a stir or two, and walk away. Before you know it, the stew will burn, and all your hard work will go to waste. The only solution is to stay present, observe as it thickens, adjust the heat if necessary, and be mindful of the process.
To minimise distractions, I switched off my phone, and to my surprise… the world didn’t end. As the minutes passed, I became more at ease and felt a sense of calm.
After hours of preparation, anticipation hung thick in the air as the bigos stew finally simmered to completion. Despite years of enjoying the classic Polish dish, the prospect of tasting my own creation was a nerve-wracking one. With a deep breath, I dove in, spoonful by spoonful.
To my immense relief, the bigos stew was a triumph – a perfect balance of sweet and sour, with every ingredient contributing its own unique flavour profile. Tender chunks of melt-in-your-mouth meat mingled with just-tender cabbage, while the umami richness of dried mushrooms was perfectly offset by the smoky tang of prunes and the piney aroma of juniper berries.
But the satisfaction didn’t end with the taste. As I sat, savouring the flavours and textures, a sense of peace descended. The satisfaction of creating something so special, from start to finish, was as delicious as the dish itself.
Sharing Tradition in the Digital Age
Early success with bigos has piqued my curiosity and compelled me to delve deeper into the world of traditional Polish cuisine.
For centuries, the Polish people have been perfecting the arts of fermentation, pickling, smoking, curing, and cheese-making. It is fascinating how humble, seasonal ingredients can be transformed into something so remarkable. It would be a great shame not to make use of this invaluable wealth of culinary wisdom.
In the past, traditional culinary practices transferred organically, within and between generations. We would learn these skills from our elders and peers, absorbing their knowledge and experience. However, with the advent of the digital age, the conversation has moved online. Now, millions of enthusiasts connect and share their experiences with each other through the world wide web.
Zbigniew, a gentleman in his late 60s whom I previously introduced to you, represents this trend. He is an active member of a 117+ thousand-strong Facebook group of amateur nalewka-makers. That’s where we became acquainted; I sought advice on my inaugural batch and mister Zbigniew generously offered his expertise.
This is just one of the hundreds of similar online discussion boards, each dedicated to a different culinary practice. Members of these groups are meticulous in their approach, investing time and effort into perfecting their craft. Their passion and pride in the quality of their creations are truly inspiring.
For me, these virtual connections have proven more impactful than any guidebook could ever be. And so, dear reader, I hope to share this beacon of culinary wisdom with you.
Keep Calm and Cook On
As my kitchen transforms, so does my state of mind. Cooking, to me, became akin to meditation – but with the added bonus of a delicious outcome.
By focusing on the process instead of the end result, I’ve discovered that slow, unhurried culinary practices allow me to unwind, calm down and reconnect with myself.
Following the footsteps of mister Zbigniew, am slowly stocking up my basement with a variety of homemade preserves. So far, I have only a few jars of chanterelles and saffron milk caps pickled in vinegar, alongside my very first batch of plum nalewka. But who knows? Perhaps one day my storage will be – pardon the pun – jam-packed with other preserved delicacies.