Friday, March 12, 2010

Savoring Polish cuisine and Żywiec.

When my Polish friend's family took me around the country, I had the opportunity to savor a variety of Polish cuisine, both at their home in Żywiec and at restaurants around the country. Polish cuisine contains much that is distinctive, but little that is truly unique to the country, with most of it representing a blend of culinary styles that run across countries in east-central Europe, such as Belarus, Lithuania, and Ukraine. Meat and potatoes are the mainstay of the national diet, while north European vegetables including carrots, cabbage, and beetroot provide good accompaniment.

When I visited, it was in February, still the winter season, though at the end of it, so there was plenty of snow that had yet to melt. During this time of year, vegetables become harder to come by, excluding those imported, and together with the long cold season, the people consume more meat and cheese. Every morning, together with the family I had bread with many kinds of cheese and ham. It was simple, but the bread bought at a nearby bakery was certainly not something I find everywhere, and it was the first time I felt I could eat cheese without eating it with something else. Simple, but depending on the combination of bread, ham, and cheese, you could enjoy a variety of tastes. A good choice of sweet pastries goes along well too.

What I also enjoyed much was the soup. It plays an important role in any Polish menu, serving as an introduction to a multi-course meal or just a mid-day stomach-filler. The most famous of them, and what I found to be my favorite as well, is barszcz (borscht), a reddish beetroot-flavored broth with a mild yet perfect balance of sweet and sour tastes. If you visit in the summer, you would find a refreshing variation on these theme called chłodnik, which is cold borscht served with lashings of sour cream and a side order of boiled potatoes. Another soup I remember is the fasolka, a solid, almost stew-like combination of beans and smoked sausage.

As I previously mentioned, meat is often the main part of Polish cooking, but it is pork that takes up top billing. You can reveal for yourself how important the pig is to the Polish society if you look over the delicatessen counter and see the sheer size of the repertoire of sausages and smoked cuts of pork. Although the generic name for sausage is kiełbasa, there are plenty of varieties to choose from: the thin, smoked kabanos, the garlic-rich wiejska, and the pink, mildly-spicy krakowska. A pork dish that I remember well is golonka, a deliciously tender roasted pork knuckle, traditionally served with chrzan, which is horseradish sauce. Dairy products, especially the cheese, is also central to the Polish diet. The oscypek, which is a bun-shaped sheep milk cheese sold everywhere in the town of Zakopane (though available in other places as well), was delicious, especially the smoked ones.

Something not to miss, and what has become more or less an icon of Polish cuisine is the pierogi. They are boiled dumplings of scallop shell shape and size, and are stuffed with a variety of savory or sweet ingredients, from minced meat, cabbage, potatoes, mushrooms, and cheese, to strawberries, cherries, or other fruit. The food is consumed well in this part of Europe, where the people speak language of the Slav origin. Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, Czech are all among them, although sometimes they are under different names such as kalduny in Belarus, and koldūnai in Lithuania. There is a similarity to the Italian ravioli and tortellini, or the manti, khinkali, or chuchvara in the trans-Caucasus region, including Turkey, while not too similar but still sharing some aspects are the Afghani mantu, Mongolian buuz, Nepalese-Tibetan momo, Chinese wonton, Japanese gyoza, and the Korean mandu.

Oh, yes, and I didn't leave out beer! Situated in the southeastern corner of Silesia province in Poland, Żywiec is a peaceful countryside town with a population of just over 30,000, and it is known for the beer that is named after the town. Although now under the Dutch Heineken empire, the Żywiec Brewery was originally founded by the Habsburg family in 1852 and has been producing ever since. Competing brewers include Tyskie and Lech, and though I could not recognize too much of a difference between the three, it was certainly nice to visit the history-rich bar located adjacent to the brewery and sip on a glass of Żywiec, naturally the most popular of the three in this part of Poland, enjoying the atmosphere of a Polish countryside bar.

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