Herbs growing first in the wild and later in gardens were of paramount importance in improving the flavor of the simple meals of the rural people of Europe and Asia.
• Try This Polish Recipe: Sorrel Spring Soup
In the years 1386 to 1399, meals at the royal court of King Wladyslaw II Jagiello and Queen Jadwigal of Poland were elaborate and sumptuous affairs. Wines imported from the Far East were mulled with costly cinnamon and cloves and consumed from crystal goblets. Fish swimming in saffron sauces were served up on pewter platters. Cooks carefully seasoned side dishes of rice with nutmeg and cardamom. Tall cakes studded with raisins and spiced with ginger concluded lavish meals. Servants staggered under the weight of food they brought to the table in numerous courses.
It was a golden time in Poland. The dark years of the black plague were over. The country was at peace, enjoying social and cultural changes as well as experiencing an unparalleled expansion of its boundaries. Taking advantage of the agreeable political climate, merchants from all over Europe and Asia took to the roads and the seas to sell their wares. Ships from Spain, Portugal, and Holland laden with exquisite lace and fine wines docked in Gda´nsk on the Baltic Sea. Caravans from Persia followed ancient trade routes across Europe, bearing Turkish carpets, cloth of gold, silks, precious jewels, and metals to sell to the newly affluent nobility.
Among their goods—more valuable than all their other wares combined—were casks and pouches of rare herbs and spices. These dried roots, berries, seeds, and other plant parts provided the true measure of a merchant’s wealth, for a slave could be purchased for a cup of peppercorns, and an ounce of spice was worth a poor man’s yearly wage. Aware that only the very rich could afford to buy or barter for herbs and spices, the merchants and peddlers bypassed the smaller country fairs and marketplaces and traveled directly to Cracow to set up their tents near the castle of the king and queen of Poland. Here, the market was lucrative, for the nobles and landed aristocrats could pay the exorbitant prices that the traders demanded. In the nearby castle, the royal couple and their entourage of minor princelings, dukes, and foreign dignitaries dined on partridge and plover subtly seasoned with the precious spices of pepper, mace, ginger, and nutmeg.
In the servants’ hall, however, dining was an altogether different experience. Food, served on wooden trenchers that frequently had to be shared, was enhanced not by foreign spices (for these were kept under lock and key), but by local, homegrown herbs. Caraway brought out the best in boiled cabbage and fresh goat cheese. Pungent horseradish sparked the taste of sausages and headcheese. Dill and parsley flavored much of their fare. A tankard of beer flavored with juniper berries gathered in the king’s forest washed down the meal.
More than 500 years have passed since the king and queen of Poland enjoyed their meals enhanced with herbs and spices imported from foreign climes. Although it became fashionable for commoners in Poland to imitate royalty, the use of rare, imported spices in Polish culinary traditions did not withstand the test of time. The mainstay of Polish cooking was—and continues to be—the indigenous plants and herbs found growing wild in the fields and those cultivated in the small cottage gardens belonging to the country folk.
Many food historians agree that it is peasant cooking that has made the greatest use of herbs over the centuries. Herbs growing first in the wild and later in gardens were of paramount importance in improving the flavor of the simple meals of the rural people of Europe and Asia.
From the time of the Jagiellos until the turn of the century, the Polish peasant’s everyday diet was meager. Beef was rarely eaten because cows were killed only when they went dry, and calves were sold at the marketplace to buy other essentials. Fresh milk was also sold, but dairy by-products were available for the table. Buttermilk and cream were valuable accessories to the otherwise plain flour-, potato-, and grain-based dishes that were mainstays of the peasant diet. Sour cream found its way into just about everything, as did a variety of cheeses. Pork, another Polish favorite, was rare on the table except for holiday splurges. In its place, salt pork, lard, and suet flavored a host of grain dishes. In these difficult times, the addition of herbs was often the saving grace of a meal. Every housewife foraged for herbs in fields and meadows and kept a small cottage garden of basic herbs, flowers, vegetables, and shrubs.
Unlike the kitchen gardens of England and Colonial America, the Polish cottage garden was not directly accessible from the back door. Usually, the Polish cottage garden was in the front of the house facing the road and, whenever possible, facing south.
Inside the wooden picket or wattle fence, roses and other flowers mingled comfortably with vegetables, berries, and herbs. In these overflowing gardens, the unmarried girls in the family tended rosemary and rue for their bridal wreaths and grew lavender to place among the linens in their marriage chests. Vegetables included radishes, watercress, lettuce, cucumbers, carrots, garlic, and onions, depending on a family’s needs and tastes. Currant and gooseberry bushes supplied the makings for jams and preserves. A few medicinal herbs such as lovage and wormwood were planted, but most medicinal herbs in Poland were gathered in the wild.
To preserve stored foods and enliven the daily fare, peasants planted a few choice culinary herbs with no pretensions to the unusual and exotic. Off in a corner against the fence, the large leaves of horseradish grew abundantly year after year. Next to it stood the stately angelica. Caraway, with its aromatic crescent-shaped seeds, would find its way into the next batch of rye bread. Sweet marjoram would season the Easter sausage and dill, fresh or pickled cucumbers. Parsley, sage, and fennel flavored soups and stews. Every garden boasted tufts of sorrel if none graced the surrounding fields.
In the spring and summer, fresh herbs transformed the taste of a plain bowl of buckwheat groats into something grander. Dried ones provided flavoring during the cold winter months when food was at its blandest. Drying herbs hung next to strings of mushrooms, garlic, and onions in the attic or near the ceiling in the kitchen. Here are the herbs that every Polish country housewife strove to keep on hand.
Caraway (kminek in Polish) has been used to enhance food in Poland at least since that country’s founding in 966. First gathered in the wild and later cultivated in gardens, caraway seeds flavored meat dishes, especially pork and roast goose, as well as vegetable and beet soups, potato dishes, and baked goods such as heavy rye bread. Cabbage, a staple food in Poland for centuries, whether eaten fresh or prepared as sauerkraut, rarely made it to the table without a generous helping of caraway.
Dill (koper in Polish) was one of the most important herbs in Polish country cuisine. As early as the seventeenth century, Polish herbalists noted that dill was useful both as a digestive aid and flavoring. The leaves were used with meats, soups, and vegetables; the seeds were added to cabbage and to sausages. The entire plant—root, stem, leaves, and seeds—was used in pickling. Polish cooks preserved the foliage for winter use by chopping it very fine, packing it tightly between layers of salt in stone crocks or jars, and storing it in a cold place.
Dill is still generously used in Polish cuisine today, especially for hors d’oeuvres, salads, soups, and sauces. If the seeds are sown early in spring, the leaves are available at the end of May and can be used throughout the summer. During warm weather, dill flavored cold beet soups called chlodnik. When the Polish housewife boiled a pot of potatoes and had no sauce to serve with it, she chopped dill leaves and sprinkled them over the hot potatoes just before serving. Truly, potatoes need no other flavoring.
A native of the Mediterranean region, marjoram (majeranek) made its appearance in Poland during the sixteenth century and has proved to be one of its most popular culinary herbs. Often used as a substitute for salt by the poor, it was used in the preparation of fatty foods such as goose, pork roasts, meat pies, and stuffings. It improved the taste of bean and tripe soups and was the chief herbal seasoning of sausage. For many Polish Americans today, Easter wouldn’t be the same without a special marjoram-flavored holiday sausage.
Cultivated in Poland since the twelfth century, horseradish (chrzan) is one of the country’s oldest condiments. In Polish cottages, horseradish roots were kept in sand in the root cellar over the winter. During the summer, fresh juice from the root was added to milk to keep it from souring too quickly, and wrapping the leaves around butter kept it fresh longer.
Cwikla, a mixture of grated horseradish and grated cooked red beets, has been esteemed as a condiment in Poland since ancient times. It enhances the flavors of most cold meats, especially ham and sausage. Today, it’s the preferred side dish for the Easter meal.
Polish historians credit the Italian princess Bona Sforza, second wife of the Polish king Sigismund I (1467–1548), with introducing parsley to Poland. To this day, the flat-leaved Italian variety is preferred to the curly-leaved variety. Parsley is called pietruska in Polish.
Fresh parsley leaves have always been a standby in Polish kitchens. Housewives often threw a few stalks into a pot of boiling potatoes, especially those that had become old and wrinkled over the winter. Like dill, parsley was chopped fine and sprinkled on a batch of fresh, new potatoes. It was frequently added to cheese, soups, vegetables, and meats. Dried carefully and stored in cloth bags, its flavor enlivened monotonous winter fare.
Sorrel (szczaw), a perennial herb native to Europe, grows wild in Poland, and so peasants planted it only when it was not readily available in the fields. In early spring, when larders were devoid of variety and dangerously close to being empty, the delicate sour taste was a welcome addition to meals. Children, encouraged to be on the lookout for sorrel when pasturing the cattle in spring, brought it home to use as a salad or in making soup (see Sorrel Spring Soup).
As the centuries passed, imported spices became less expensive and began to appear at the fairs and marketplaces of even the smallest Polish villages. The Polish peasant housewife readily embraced these spices in her baking and cooking. By the end of the nineteenth century, her kitchen held spice jars filled with pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and ginger. Salt cellars and coffee mills hung on the walls. But the simple herbs from her garden, which have flavored the food of her ancesters down through the centuries, will always be foremost in the Polish herb cupboard.
Sophie Hodorowicz Knab is a writer in Grand Island, New York. She is the author of Polish Herbs, Flowers and Folk Medicine (Hippocrene Books, 1996).
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