Sunday, July 17, 2016

Polska - Zuza Zak

I'm quietly pleased by the growing trend in cookbooks that look to Eastern Europe. One reason for that is summed up in the opening paragraph of 'Polska'; "to understand a cuisine is to understand a culture. To understand a culture is to understand the spirit of a nation." Which builds on the quote that Zuza Zak chooses to start with; "The most vital attribute of food is its placement precisely on the border between the world of nature and the world of culture" ("Najistotniejsza cecha jedzenia jest jego umiejscowanie na granicy świata natury I świata Kultury", which I've copied just to see if the iPad would let me).

Another reason, especially with this book, might be that there's already a deep rooted cultural link that food enhances. The Białowieża forest is one of the last, and largest, remaining parts of the primeval forest that once covered Northern Europe, that's the remains of the forest that so many of our fairy tales have come from. I've never seen it, though it's high on my wish list of places to go, I wonder if I do get there if I'll find the same moments of recognition as I do on this book - memories of food I've never eaten but which come straight out of fairy tales.

On a less fanciful note (though half the charm of a new cook book lies in its potential romance) because the intention of this book wasn't to write a typical traditional cookbook 'but to create something contemporary, a love letter to the country I left behind.' there's little that can't easily be picked up in any polish shop or the international section of a supermarket. Lovage and lemon balm would probably be the hardest things to find, but as both are easy to grow (especially lemon balm which has totally colonised D's garden) they don't present much of a challenge. Handily the names which will appear on the packets/tins/jars/tubs are also given, that makes the Polish shop round the corner easier to use, and that's something else I like about this book - it'll take me out of Tesco's and into the community on my doorstep.

It's reassuring (at least, I find it reassuring) that these books are appearing, they're a long way from the Cold War image of queue's, shortages, and a grey uniformity (which is pretty much how I pictured life behind the iron curtain). In that sense they really do hint at the spirit of a nation, nations full of colour and flavour.

Other things I like about this book are that a lot of the meat and fish recipes serve 2 or 3 (the puddings on the other hand are designed to feed 10 - 20...). As someone who habitually cooks for only 2 or 3 people at a time it's refreshing not too have to think to much about scaling recipes down all the time. The breakfast and bread chapter has all sorts of good things in it; scrambled eggs with caramelised onions, semolina and honey porridge with raspberries (semolina pudding basically, but why not have it for breakfast?) a cinnamon apple bake which is basically a rice pudding with thick layers of juicy sweet apple sandwiching thin layers of soft sticky rice (which sounds like a great autumn winter breakfast). It's a slight readjustment of ideas towards families ingredients, and that's something that I always find exciting.

The cocktail chapter is also intriguing - a spiced chocolate martini made with cardamom infused vodka sounds very good, mulled beer has possibilities, and so does a bilberry or blackberry concoction with lime, vodka, brown sugar, and soda water. There are lots of dumpling recipes which beg to be made (I've never really cooked dumplings so this might be fun).

Finally, the photographs and bits of history, family memories, quotes, and other snippets give context to the recipes without overwhelming them. The overall effect really does feel like a love letter to Poland. It's a beautiful book.


  1. Claire (The Captive Reader) has left a new comment on your post "Polska - Zuza Zak":

    Sounds wonderful. I'm really enjoying the releases of so many Central and Eastern European cookbooks, not least because it is the sort of food that makes me think of home and family. Lots of culinary traditions were lost during the communist years (certainly in my family, where the combination of bad food supply and full-time work made my grandmother hate everything to do with cooking) so its wonderful to see - and benefit from - them being recovered now.

  2. I think recovery is the key word. In some ways these books do feel like part of a healing process, as well as being full of delicious things. I remember reading about how in Hungary they had to re learn how to make tokaji as under the soviets the technique/knowledge had been lost. It's one of the worlds legendary wines, as well as one of its great pleasures, and yet we almost lost it in a generation. It's a humbling thought.