No more black-market veal: Polish fare rebounds after Communism

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Anne Applebaum is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist who has covered Poland and Eastern Europe since 1988. She began by reporting on the disintegration of Communist Poland, which is now her second home.

She’s lived through Poland’s amazing culinary renaissance. With friend and fellow journalist Danielle Crittenden, Applebaum has written From a Polish Country House Kitchen: 90 Recipes for the Ultimate Comfort Food.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: How did you come to have a home in Poland?


Anne Applebaum. Photo by Bogdan and Dorota Bialy.

Anne Applebaum: In the 1980s, when Communism was really on its last legs, my husband and his parents bought a ruined manor house. When I married him, I married him with the ruined manor and with the understanding that we were going to renovate it. It took about 10 years longer than it was supposed to do, but we did the renovations.

It was a real learning experience; not only because I'd never renovated a destroyed manor house before, but because we did it in the 1990s, when Poland was also renovating itself. So we learned a lot about how Poland was changing while doing it.

My husband was born and raised in Poland by Polish parents. He lived and went to high school there but left when he was 18, which is when the Polish Communists declared martial law. He received political asylum in England and went to university in England.

LRK: What did Communism do to Polish cuisine?

AA: Communism did not destroy Polish cuisine, but it made Polish cuisine's life very difficult. One of the features of Communism that was one of the most difficult for for everybody was the shortages. This was particularly difficult for people who needed to cook and feed families.

It was a very inefficient economy. It was very bad at distributing things. This meant it was very hard to get fresh vegetables unless you happen to live near somebody with a garden or if you had a garden yourself. It was hard to get fresh meat, so Polish food lost many of its historical flavors and its historical variety.

This was particularly true in Polish restaurants, which were famously bad in this period. Often they did not have many things that were on the menu. So you would go in and order something and they would say, "Sorry, we haven't got that, we haven't got that, we haven't got that." The only thing you could have would be a piece of fried pork with rice, and that was the stereotype.

People did cook at home. Just before the collapse of Communism, people somehow managed to organize food. They were able to welcome guests and produce really rather amazing food in their own homes. But it required effort; it required contacts.

In Warsaw, there was a veal lady that all my friends had contact with. She would come to your house and deliver veal, but it was sort of a black-market arrangement. You had to know somebody to be able to do it. But people did make those kinds of arrangements and they did eat well in their houses.

LRK: So, I realize Polish cuisine is one that Americans know little about, except maybe in parts of the country where there is a Polish community. What makes Polish cuisine Polish? What don't we know?

AA: The best thing about Polish food is the soup. The great thing about soup is -- and anybody who makes soup knows -- it’s what you make on a day when you have to be at home anyway. You don't want to sit over the stove all day. You can throw things in, let it simmer for an hour, and then come back and throw in a little pepper and leave it alone for another hour.

Polish food has some flavors that we are not used to, and that I think are not well known in our country. Sweet and sour foods are a major part of the cuisine. There is a famous Polish soup that is a sour rye bread soup called Zurek.

The summer version of that is something called chlodnik (pictured at top), which is a cold beetroot soup that you make with yogurt or, even better, kefir. It mixes the sweet of the beets with a little bit of the sour using milk, yogurt or kefir. It is extremely good, and it is exactly what you want to eat on a hot day. Chlodnik is very, very refreshing and at the same time light and has fresh vegetables in it.

LRK: What do you love to cook when you are in Poland?

AA: Probably my favorite standby dish -- and this will sound more exotic than it really is -- is a venison stew. I make it with dates and fennel. It’s made with a wine marinade as well, and it all steams together and you get a little bit of sweetness from the meat with some crunchiness from the fennel. This one is adjusted a little bit, so it is not classic Polish cuisine, but still very good.

It’s very common in Poland to cook meat with fruit. You often see pork cooked with plums, or you see meat stewed with fruit. I think people make use not only of their fruit trees in the summer, but they make use of jams and preserved fruit, and they cook that with meat in the winter.

Venison stew is one of these things you can put on in the morning, then put it on the oven and it cooks for 2 hours. If you happen to get distracted and leave it for an extra 20 minutes because you are working on a paragraph and you need to finish it, that’s OK.

So it works perfectly with my life and is something everybody in my family likes to eat. We’re lucky to have friends who hunt, so we usually have quite a lot of venison in our freezer.

LRK: If you don't have venison, you could use beef, right?

AA: The stew is better with venison. I'm not sure I would do beef with dates; I would have to think about that. One of the conceits of this book was that I collected most of the recipes and sent them to my co-author, Danielle Crittenden, and she then cooks them.

The test was: Can we cook this in the United States? Are all the ingredients we need present, and can I buy them at my local supermarket? And she discovered that you could. There was quite a lot of frozen venison in her supermarket in middle of Washington, D.C. So, if she can do it, we knew it was possible for others. Venison is a wonderful meat because it’s as organic as you can possibly get.

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