Polish Cooking in a Country Cottage

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.

| February/March 1997

  • A wattle fence encloses a front-yard garden of herbs, flowers, and vegetables at this thatched cottage in Poland.

• 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.

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