Once upon a time, a long time ago, there lived a princess who did her part in adding a bit of culture to the Polish court. Princess Bona Maria Sforza was born in Vigevano near Milan in 1494 to her proud parents; Gian Galeazzo Sforza of Milan and Isabella of Naples – and if she needed to further cement her rank in society, her aunt was Bianca Maria Sforza who in 1493 married the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, and her namesake grandmother was Bona of Savoy. In 1518 she was married off to Sigmund, King of Poland and Grand Prince of Lithuania.
Polish historians credit her with introducing the art of cooking to Poland and, for that time, many new and exotic produce that her gardeners cultivated: asparagus, broccoli, and tomatoes.
As niece of the empress, Bona was a patron of Renaissance culture, which thanks to her, thrived in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. She also influenced the Polish and Lithuanian cuisines by introducing many new dishes to the Commonwealth. These influences included a profusion of strange new condiments and spices, and increased focus on food ornamentation gold and artificial colorings. New flavorings included the addition of marzipan and almonds, all for the purpose of strategically showcasing the wealth of the high nobility, rather than any real flavor enhancer. In farmer’s markets to this day, bundles of salad greens that are called wloszczyna or “italian things” are available for purchase.
Unfortunately when she was distracted by court intrigue and the like, things did not go so well. When her died, she sided with many the Catholic in Poland opposing her son King Sigmund II Augustus’ marriage to the Lithuanian Calvinist, Barbara Radziwill, and was suspected of poisoning the new queen, who died shortly after her coronation. In 1556, upon her return to Italy, her private secretary, Gian Lorenzo Pappacoda, poisoned her. Pappacoda apparently acted on behalf of Philip II of Spain, who wished to avoid repaying his sizable debts to the Polish queen.
Poland is located in Central Europe and is bordered by Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and the Baltic Sea. Poland is the 9th largest country in Europe and the 69th in the world. Poland’s population stands at around 38 million.
The Poles speak a Slavic language, but maintain a fondness for English (the most popular foreign language in Poland). More than 60% of the population lives in cities, with several cities with populations in excess of 500,000 (Warsaw, the capital, is the largest at 1.7 million inhabitants, Krakow (Cracow), Wroclaw, Poznan, Gdansk to name a few)
Poland’s national culture emerged as combination of Latin and Byzantine influences and further absorbed flavors from the numerous European occupations, throughout its history. Customs, traditions and mores display a diverse mix of the East and the West.
Paper cut outs from Poland is renowned throughout the world for their artistic ingenuity. Folk cut outs is one of the indigenous art style and found mainly in non-urban centers. The cut outs are used primarily for Christmas and Easter home decoration. An interesting take of this art form is the wafer cut outs; flour and water are the basic materials out of which Polish women, devoid of any training, shape designs of astonishing beauty. Wood work, leather work and ceramics are also common, as is amber jewelry. The craftsmanship is awe inspiring and very different than you can find elsewhere.
Poles are gregarious and love to show affection during interaction. The word “czesc” is Polish for “hi”. The first few minutes of any meeting is spent in greeting each other and shaking hands. Familiarity is expressed with embraces and pecks on the cheek.
The prefix Pan (Mr) or Pani (Ms) is the safest way to address someone who is Polish. This should be accompanied by the first name, of course. Using the surname is seen as a slight even when a Pan/Pani is placed before.
“Ty” is polish for “you”. If one is allowed to call the other “Ty”, it signals that the relationship is close and informal.
Unlike many other cultures, it is not the birthday that is important, but the name day (the patron saint’s day as opposed to birthdays), and is celebrated with the same fanfare as a traditional western birthday. To avoid awkward situations, check the calendar for the date. If you miss the actual day, you can “make up” for the omission within the “octave” (i.e. the next few days).
Eating and Drinking
Bruderszaft is a fraternal toast, a sign of camaraderie, and declining it can be viewed as an insult. Relationships become more cordial after this ceremony and people graduate to using first names. Bruderszaft is two people raising toasts simultaneously with arms interlocked and downing their drinks together. The last part is an exchange of kisses and a “Call me Jack,” – “Call me Oyster”.
Polish cuisine and dining table etiquette reflects the warmth in the Polish character. Having a meal with one’s family is not just about the food – it is celebration. Guests are always welcome. Breakfasts are generally heavy with vegetables and cold cuts of meat. Dinners only more so. Cold cuts and sausage, frequently grilled, are also a mainstay.
Polish cuisine has both influenced and been influenced by the cuisines of surrounding countries. Polish kitchen are a mixing bowl of influences from primarily France and Italy, but also: Turkish, Armenian, Lithuanian, Cossack, Hungarian and Jewish. Poland is a carnivore’s paradise, especially if you like pork.
Polish cuisine starts with the soups, and here’s a sampling to whet the appetite:
- flaczki or flaki – pork or beef tripe stew with marjoram
- czernina – duck blood soup
- rosól – clear chicken soup
- chlodnik – cold soup of soured milk, young beet leaves, cucumbers, beets, and chopped fresh dill
- barszcz – popular Slavic beet soup
- zupa grzybowa – mushroom soup
- zur – soured rye flour soup with white sausage and/or hard-boiled egg
Some main courses include:
- bigos – it is a stew of sauerkraut and meat, that improves with reheating
- pierogi – these small boiled pastries are filled with sauerkraut or mushrooms, meat, potato. A bit of vanilla might be added. In the US, these little bites of flavor might also be pan friend, and I’ve even seen where people grill them.
- zapiekanka – fast food sandwich
Desserts to expect
- pączki - a rich jelly doughnut
As the Polish would say, “Jedzcie, pijcie i popuszczajcie pasa”… “Eat, drink and loosen your belt“