Spring arrives in earnest in Japan as a wave of cherry-blossom pink rolling across the country from southwest to northeast, drawing an entire nation outside to sit and talk and feast beneath the blooming trees in celebration of this season of new beginnings. This moment happens to come at about the same time as another special day in countries such as those in Europe with Christian traditions: Easter.
Today, CuriousCuisine sits at a table laid out in the manner of just one such European country with a deep Easter tradition, Poland — a place where the holiday celebrations seem to take the form of an ode to spring and its flurry of bright new blooms. Tables are bedecked in seasonal decorations, enlivening the atmosphere for the traditional meals soon to be set before family members assembled for the occasion.
We have reported once before on Polish Easter traditions and the abundant feast that attends that holiday. (‘Polish Easter: Living culture and a celebration of the season at the family table’)Today, though, we are ready to dig into the more everyday deliciousness of a full Polish breakfast.
Present day Polish cuisine seems to prize the preservation of tradition and the best of the home kitchen. On the table today is a striking red drink with a thick cap of whole strawberries. This is one of many Polish compotes, called “kompot truskawkowy,” and according to a Polish diner on hand, this version reminds her of the same stuff served by her grandmother.
The story puts this writer in mind of the apricot tree in the yard at the family home, and the season every year when the fruit would be slow-cooked into a lovely compote. (Though at the time, none in the house knew the European word “compote.”) So there is a sense of real familiarity with this central European creation. Mind you, this compote is unmistakably a drink, not something for flavouring yoghurt or bread.
Glasses filled and strawberry sweet first sips taken, we dig into the food itself, beginning with an Easter favourite soup, “żurek.” Boiled egg and bite-sized cuts of sausage poke out from the herb-dappled surface. Take a spoonful, and a lightly creamy taste and texture spreads across the tongue, boasting just touches of sourness and onion sweetness. With the egg and sausage filling it out, just this soup could easily be a light meal if paired with a slice of bread or two.
Now to a widely known Polish classic, “pierogi,” topped with sautéed onions, sour cream and a sprinkling of spring onion. If it weren’t for the toppings, they would look every bit like boiled gyoza. These pierogi are full of cheese and potato, but the handmade dumplings can come packed with a variety of tasty fillings, including dried mushrooms and meats.
The main plate comes jam packed with foods to keep your motor running through a busy morning, from tomato-laced scrambled eggs to sausages, a small potato pancake with sour cream, and a savory apple cake with a sprig of rosemary. Joining them is a fresh-tasting salad of diced radish, spring onion and cottage cheese.
Your reporter must admit few encounters with cottage cheese, and even less knowledge of how to use it. Well, this is certainly a tasty way, the surprising lightness of the cheese letting the fresh notes of radish and onion shine through. Adding a dash of salt and pepper just enhances the whole. It’s a good source of protein and, important for busy folks, looks easy to make – definitely a dish for the home recipe book.
Incidentally, there are apparently a number of cottage cheese varieties in Poland, and one way to eat them is simply on bread.
This is a full-course breakfast, so it’s time for the sweets. We were presented a trio of temptations, including a thick baked cheese (sernik) and a cinnamon-rich apple crumble (szarlotka) with a side of vanilla ice cream. However, it was the third item that captured this reporter’s heart: a cake called “kremówka.” In all honesty, it looks simply like a thick cream on top of a dark, flaky pastry base, but it is in fact a custard mixed with whipped cream. In the mouth it is rich but not overwhelming, a brush of velvet on the tongue. The crust adds deeper tones to the whole, and is a lovely contrast to the cloudlike filling.
To wash it all down at the end is “kawa zbożowa,” a hot drink that looks for all the world like a thick cup of coffee. It even smells like coffee, but coffee it is not. It is made of roasted grains, and that deep roasted flavour flowers with each smooth sip. There is no bitterness (or caffeine), and the taste is not dissimilar to Japanese “mugicha” barley tea, though with a great deal more body.
Apparently, in Poland caffeinated coffee is generally considered for adults only, so kids are often given cups of kawa zbożowa with the words, “Here, this is grain coffee.”
After a number of reporting encounters, CuriousCuisine’s impression of Poland is that it is broad-minded, unaffected and deeply hospitable to guests. Due both to its geography and its history, it has come to absorb many cultural influences. This reporter, for one, would love to try a homestay there to see, experience and indeed be immersed by all this.
Story by: Rika Sakai
English Text By: Robert Sakai-Irvine