Harpers & Queen, December 1990
Perhaps I should come clean at the outset – not one drop of Polish blood flows in my veins. But there must have been some sort of osmotic transfusion because after more than 30 years of marriage to a Pole, I recently heard myself referred to as “plus polonaise que le Pape”. Embrace a Pole and you embrace a stormy history and rich cultural baggage.
When one is 21 and madly in love, the last thing one thinks of is history and culture (in fact I don’t remember thinking of anything much beyond the honeymoon). Exploring my husband’s background has been a voyage of discovery that still surprises and delights, notwithstanding the shadows of tragedy. The Poles’ suffering at the hands of rapacious neighbours accounts to some extent for their tenacious hold on language, religion and tradition. To this day they boast a wonderfully varied armful of customs rooted in the past, and those belonging to the Christmas season are a good example of the rural and religious background from which so many of them spring. Wherever Poles are gathered this Christmas, from Krakow to Vancouver to Tokyo, at least some of the old ways that I am about to describe will be lovingly kept alive.
Like most Continentals, the Poles “anticipate” Christmas Day, the main celebration taking place on 24 December. This is called Wigilia, the vigil. Throughout the evening there are frequent reminders that it is the birth of Christ that is celebrated – not a public holiday with commercial clout. Christmas Eve marks the last day of the four-week Advent period, in the old days a time of fasting and abstinence. Even today no meat is served at Wigilia. Lest you think this sounds penitential or severe, I should point out that twelve courses are de rigueur, one for each Apostle (I have long since compromised with twelve dishes). The fishy flavour contrasts nicely with the goose or turkey served in the Anglo-Polish household on Christmas Day. The tenor of Wigilia is rather more thoughtful than the exuberance proper to the 25th, but this reflective mood in no way inhibits the feasting, the jollity and the exchange of presents common to Christmas rejoicing found among all Christians.
Wigilia begins when the first star appears, the star of Bethlehem. The children watch anxiously for the twinkling signal (6 o’clock if it’s cloudy) when everyone clusters round the dining-room doorway. It is a family occasion but efforts are made to include the lonely; indeed an extra place is laid for the unexpected guest. The prelude to dinner is the distribution of oplatek by Mama. Oplatek is a fine white wafer, similar to communion bread, embossed with a nativity scene. This is the most solemn moment of Wigilia, intended to draw the company closer together; a time to reconcile small differences. The hostess breaks the oplatek and hands each person a portion with a kiss and a Christmas greeting. They in turn do the same to each other so that all have kissed and greeted everyone present. Inevitably tears accompany the hugs when oplatek is shared; dear ones who are far away are remembered, or those who have died during the year.
After grace, everyone sits down at a table adorned in white: white china, candles, flowers and napkins. The stranger will notice that the white table-cloth is not quite flat, in fact rather lumpy in places. This is because some hay has been placed under it as a reminder that Jesus was born in a stable (since the guinea-pigs died I have substituted grass).
The first course of the dinner is always a clear beetroot soup (barszcz) with uszki, “little ears”. This course is my personal nightmare. Unless one has tasted barszcz in a Polish household and knows how it ought to taste, it is difficult to reproduce. And I have never yet made enough uszki – delicious pastry “ears” filled with mushroom, fashioned round one’s little finger. After the soup, there follow as many fish dishes as the cook has skill or energy to produce. I make a white fish mix with cooked vegetables, set in aspic – galaretce, a salmon mousse, herring salad, ramekins of smoked fish. Potato salad and a hot sauerkraut-and-mushroom dish accompany the fish. Fresh salads, tomatoes and eggs are not usually included because in the old days the kitchen garden would have been under snow, and eggs belong specifically to Easter. Stuffed carp, or pike, are Polish Christmas specialties I’ve never got to grips with. For pudding and dessert there is a compote, perhaps kisiel (a runny lemon jelly), Torun gingerbread, and poppy-seed cake – makowiec. Fruit, nuts and sweeties top off the feast – and make up the twelve dishes.
After dinner it was the custom to go into the orchard and whack the trees to encourage them to fruit well the following year. But it was thought wise to be more circumspect with the bees; one merely informed these thinking creatures that Christ was born. On Christmas Eve the animals in the barn are able to speak with human voices; several visits are made to encourage them to do this, though some say it’s unlucky if you hear them.
And of course there is a Christmas tree, decorated with all manner of home-made offerings – painted nuts and cones, blown eggs painted with glue and dipped in rice, paper-chains, and stars and angels made from straw. The family party will gather by the tree to exchange presents and sing carols before setting out for Midnight Mass. In the family with a Polish accent, echoes of the poetry and solemnity of Christmas combine in the carol that begins: “God is born, power trembles”.
Barszcz (pronounced bar-sh-ch) serves 8
Make about 3 pints of good vegetable stock using carrots, celery, a little celeriac, a parsnip, parsley stalks, a few peppercorns, 1 or 2 dried mushrooms, 2-3 grated raw beetroot. Onion, leek and garlic are optional, personally I don’t use them. Cook at length to extract all the goodness. Sieve once or twice until very clear. Bring liquid back to simmer and add two or three grated fresh cooked beetroot (not pickled), cook for 20 minutes. Strain again. The colour should by now be a good deep red. Pour into a clean pan, bring to simmer but do not boil. Season. Add juice of 3 lemons and 2 dessertspoons sugar. Add more of either to achieve sweet/ sour taste; or a vegetable stock cube for more “body”. Serve very hot, with sour cream and chopped dill handed separately.
Uszki (pronounced oosh-ky)
dough: 8 ozs (225 g) plain flour; 5 ozs (150g) butter; an egg; 1 tbsp sour cream; ½ tsp salt
Mix ingredients with a knife, then knead into a dough. Rest it for ½ hour in the fridge.
filling: 1 small onion; fresh breadcrumbs; 1 lb mushrooms; ½ hard-boiled egg; few dried mushrooms; chopped parsley; 1dstsp sauerkraut (optional)
Chop the onion small and cook it in a little butter. Chop the mushrooms roughly and cook in a little butter. Add sauerkraut. Place together in a liquidiser and blend very finely. Press out liquid (which you can add to barszcz). Place in a bowl and bind together with breadcrumbs, seasoning and finely chopped hard-boiled egg. Add chopped parsley if wanted. Roll out dough very thinly and cut into small (optimum 4cm-square) squares. Place a little filling in centres. Form triangles with dough and seal edges firmly with egg white. Turn triangle round your little finger and pinch two ends together to form a “little ear” (or tiara). Bake in a hot oven till golden brown. Serve warm with barszcz.
Ryba w Galaretc (fish in aspic)
Poach a combination of fresh white fish (cod, haddock, halibut) gently in good vegetable stock, seasoned, with a bayleaf and stalks, until firm. Thoroughly strain and reserve. Flake the fish in largish pieces. Cook a selection of vegetables in the stock: diced carrot, celery, peas, sweetcorn. Make up a packet of aspic with water, wine, and a little lemon juice. Pour aspic in the bottom of a mould and then with layers of fish and vegetables. Turn out when set and garnish prettily. I usually some prawns for colour and extra taste. Serve with lots of mayonnaise.
Gently poach a combination of pre-soaked, dried fruits (prunes, figs, apple rings, apricots) in water to cover, with a cinnamon stick and a tablespoon of sugar. Leave to cool. Add a little lemon juice and a few dates if liked. Serve with cream. The poppy-seed cake that goes so well with kompot can usually be found in delicatessens.