Saturday, September 13, 2014

BBC Good FOOD India: Malopolska

Eat like a local 
From artisan cheese to home-brewed liquor, it is all about the good life in this southern Polish region

In a picturesque pocket of Poland lies the sparkling region of Malopolska. A mosaic of quaint villages, Renaissance towns, lavish palaces, towering castles, rich forests, the alpine Tatra mountains and the fertile Vistula valley, so complete is it in itself that it’s often called Little Poland. A mix of diverse geography and rich history is found on its platters that are always served with cheer.

Hearty, unfussy and infused with natural flavours and colours, the strength of Małopolska cuisine lies in using fresh ingredients. Meals are centered around sour or cream-enriched soups and stews (Bigos or Hunter’s Stew is considered the national dish); a selection of breads; braised, cured or roasted meats; pickled vegetables and fruity desserts. Cooking owes it tastes to root vegetables as well as mild spices, particularly marjoram, caraway, dill and poppy seeds. A remarkable variety of kielbasa or sausages (lisiecka is considered culinary perfection), smoked or fresh, spice up the fare. When paired with home-brewed traditional Polish vodka, beer or fruit wines, these are perfect accompaniments for ‘Na Zdrowie’ or raising a toast.  

Quintessentially, ingredients from the fields and forests go into the pans, are cooked with love and relished together by the family. Every meal is a celebration, and endearingly, despite winds of change, like in India, babka (granny) nostalgia is evoked when conversation veers around food. Almost anyone you meet will have their favourite babka recipes to share. It’s no wonder then that one of the most-loved yeast cakes across Poland is simply called ‘Babka’.

The day’s main repast is obiad or dinner and it’s eaten anytime between 12 noon and 4 pm. If it is later than that it’s obiadokolacja or ‘lunchsupper’. In between there’s drugie sniadanie or second breakfast. A leisurely obiad is usually a three-course affair, and  favourites mains include kaczka z jablkami (baked duck with apples and cranberry sauce), kotlet schabowy (breaded pork cutlet) and golabki (cabbage leaves stuffed with a meat and rice). Freshwater fish as trout or salmon are enjoyed too.    
The trade in Baltic amber and salt — from its mines of Wieliczka and Bochnia — particularly enriched Malopolska with assorted culinary customs, one of these was the dumpling that’s now the Polish favourite pierogi. Each region has its version and Malopolska is famed for the classic Pierogi Ruskie that’s simply filled with potato, onion and cheese. It can be a snack or meal in itself. Never steamed (“that’s Chinese”, you are told), these half-moons are always boiled and garnished with a sprinkling of fried onions or browned breadcrumbs, chives and sour cream. Some do prefer it fried.

One of its cousin is the tiny uszka, Polish for 'little ears', that’s prepared with wild mushrooms. These are eaten dunked into the traditional barszcz, a ruby-red complexioned beetroot sour soup. Each season packs pierogi with different stuffing. Summer menus especially offer a variety of fruit fillings, from strawberries and cherries to forest blueberries and orchard-fresh apples. Traditionally, the rolled-out dough is cut into circles using a glass tumbler and whether its star-hotels or farmer homes, everyone adheres to that age-old custom. The singular is pierog, but rarely used, for you can’t just eat one.

Flavoursome soups and wholegrain breads are table regulars and often both use a common ingredient: rye flour. Sour soups are a Slavic tradition, and of the appetizing Zurek it’s said, there are as many recipes as there are homes in Poland. What they all agree on, however, is its homemade sourdough starter zakwas prepared with fermented rye flour. Zurek is often called 'yesterday's menu soup' as a whole lot of raw leftovers are tossed in along with fresh biala kielbasa or white sausage, garlic and mushrooms. Commercially always served in an arresting bread bowl, it’s a lightly tart, creamy-textured soup. An optional sliced hard-boiled egg in it is a treat to the eyes and palate.

Malopolska’s cuisine remains incomplete without the mention of the scenic highlands of Podhale, in the Tatra foothills of the Carpathian Mountain. This is the region that produces the distinct spindle-shaped oscypek, a smoked sheep-milk cheese. Every Tatran worth his cheese will definitely have it on the kitchen shelves, and a grilled oscypek is as gourmet as it gets. Over the years, the cylindrical golka, made with cow's milk, the sour and nutty tasting sheep-milk bundz and the soft, pungent bryndza cheese have gained in reputation.

The celebrated culinary traditions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire have had an enormous influence on Malopolska as has Jewish cooking. So along with strudel, schnitzel, gingerbread and torte, the holiszki as golabki, latkes as placki ziemniaczane or potato pancake etc have also become a part of its repertoire. Borrowing from the French is noticeable too, especially in the all-time-favourite kremowka. This is flavoured creme patissiere between two layers of puff-pastry and, interestingly, has become part of a neo-legend. In 1999, during a trip back home to Wadowice, near Krakow, Pope John Paul II mentioned being fond of it. Overnight the dessert got re-branded ‘kremowka papieska’ or ‘papal cream cake’.  

Though most Malopolska foodstuff has reached department stores there is nothing quite like tasting it in its place of origin, the original way.

 Click here to read complete piece and recipes of 

Barszcz Czysty Czerwony
Placki Ziemniaczane
Pierogi ruskie
4Traditional Polish piernik

Published in BBC Good Food India, September 2014  
Section: eat away

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