If you ask a contemporary Pole what are traditional Polish dishes, certainly, among others, he will mention ‘schabowy’ (pork chops) with potatoes or ‘bigos’. But only a few know that both dishes are quite new to Polish cuisine.
Potatoes were brought to Europe from America, initially as ornamental plants. Their culinary advantages had not been noticed until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In Poland, potatoes became widespread by the end of nineteenth century, which was slightly more than 100 years ago. ‘Kotlet schabowy’ became popular in the PRL period (Communist Poland 1945 – 1989), and it is a copy of the Austrian Viennese style schnitzel (not Wiener Schnitzel which is made from veal). ‘Bigos’ was already known in the sixteenth century, but, in fact, it was rather similar to contemporary ‘goulash’ just pieces of chopped meat. It did not evolve into the contemporary form dishes made of cabbage and meat until the eighteenth century.
So what should you eat if you want to experience old Polish delicacies?
If you want to eat like a medieval Polish peasant, you should try kasha. And it should not be buckwheat, which is the popular choice, but rather millet, rye, or eventually wheat groats. You may add meat, but remember that it was very rare on peasant tables, and usually, it was just some cracklings or lard. But you may add, for example, some berries or mushrooms. In the forest you will also find spices – mostly local herbs. If you decide to make the sweet version, you should add honey. If you prefer unsweetened food, pour a lot of salt. People in the Middle Ages knew no restraint at this point. The abundance of salt in Poland made the seasoning inexpensive, even for peasant villagers. If we had had a chance to taste the original medieval Polish cuisine, we would have found most dishes far oversalted.
Salt was used mostly for meat, due to its preserving qualities. Knights often ate game meat (especially bear meat today rather inaccessible), peasants mainly farm animals: poultry, pork and beef. Sometimes they ate small wild animals, but only when they decided to expose themselves to very severe penalties for poaching in lord’s woods.
But since peasants did not eat much meat, how did they acquire the proteins they needed?
Mainly, similar to modern vegetarians, they received protein from legumes, which were well-known in medieval Europe. So they ate a lot of broad beans and peas. Another popular source of proteins were fish – an accessible and inexpensive food. Marine fish were eaten mainly at the seaside. Some of them (especially herrings) were transported to the south. But Medieval people (both rich and poor) willingly consumed freshwater fish. Catholic fasts forced abstinence from eating meat at least in certain periods of the year. As a result, Polish cuisine reached the zenith in the art of cooking freshwater fish. Western travelers describing Polish cuisine payed special attention to the perfectly cooked fish.
And what did they drink?
Very well. We have eaten kasha, fish, broad beans and maybe a little meat. All very salty. It behooves one to drink something. What did the ancient Poles used to drink?
If you are a child, a pregnant women or simply do not want to drink alcohol, you may enjoy a cup of milk, whey, buttermilk, or various herb infusions. But for fans of alcoholic beverages, Polish medieval cuisine proposes something special. No, I do not mean vodka. Vodka is associated with Poland, and it is one of the most respected Polish exported goods. It was known in the Middle Ages (the word ‘vodka’ was used for the first time in Sandomierz court documents in 1405), but it was not consumed as a beverage, but rather as a medicine.
I do not mean the beer either. Indeed, it was very popular and everyone drank it in large quantities. We know that the first Polish king, Bolesław Chrobry was a great fan of the beer. Thietmar, the German chronicler, calls him a beer lover. But beer was common in all Northern European countries, not just in Poland. Of course, if you like to arrange a Slavic feast, you should have a beer, but keep in mind that the one you buy in a store today has very little in common with the one that had been drunk in medieval Poland. Wheat beer may be similar, but remember that medieval beer contained about 2% of alcohol. Not much.
But the absolute delicacy was mead. Sweet and a relatively strong drink, it was perhaps not as popular as beer, and was a liquor for chivalry rather than peasantry, but it was popular in this part of Europe (it was eagerly consumed also by the Lithuanians). Leszek the White (one of the Polish princes) held mead so much in high esteem, that he refused to participate in the crusade. And he didn’t try to invent any excuses. Lack of mead in the Holy Land was a sufficient reason, that neither he nor his knighthood, felt obliged to fulfill their Christian duty.
Contemporary Polish cuisine is very different from the medieval. But still, when you come to Poland – for example on the Genealogy and History Tours organized by PolishOrigins – you can try dishes that remember the times of Mieszko I (the first historical prince of Poland).
You can still eat kasha, preferably with mushroom sauce. Also some soups, like tripe soup or mushroom soup have a long tradition, but remember that usually soups include mirepoix, which appeared in Poland in the sixteenth century thanks to Queen Bona. In many restaurants you may be able to order game dishes. They are usually prepared according to traditional recipes. Today, roasted wild boar or deer probably tastes similar to the way it did a thousand years ago. And finally, be sure to follow it up with mead. Just be careful, it may be insidious!