Eating In: Seed capital

Traditional ingredients such as poppy seed, buckwheat and bison grass are powering a radical renaissance of Polish cooking. Michael Bateman tastes the old and the new
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The Independent Culture
POLAND'S football skills are probably more familiar to Britons than Poland's food culture. For it is Poland which stands in the way of England's progress to the European Cup at Wembley on Saturday.

Of course, there will be some of you who are already familiar with speciality food shops selling Polish treats such as smoked pork and sausage (kilebasa), herrings pickled in oil, sour cream, the Krakus brand of pickled cucumbers and sauerkraut (pickled cabbage), bitter- cherry jam, rye breads and poppy-seed cakes and rolls.

And rolling back the years, you'll find that Poland has a fine gastronomic history. When the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the largest country in Europe, reaching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and taking in part of Germany and a large chunk of Russia, its court attracted the finest Italian and French chefs (the term polonaise is used in haute cuisine to describe the Polish garnish of fried breadcrumbs, which is often combined with chopped hard-boiled eggs.)

The past 60 years haven't been kind to Poland and its food but, since the retreat of communism, the country has been keen to raise its culinary profile. British-born Mary Pininska, who wrote the classic cookbook Polish Kitchen (Macmillan, sadly out of print) 10 years ago, has been leading the campaign.

She now works for Poland's top hotel, the Bristol in Warsaw, but recently visited the UK bringing with her the hotel's French chef, Bernard Lussiana, with whom she has written a book on the new Polish cooking, Another Landscape Revealed (pounds 20, available from Books for Cooks, 0171 221 1992).

This is Polish food that has gone back to school - in Paris, judging by the fancy photographs. The 50-odd recipes in the book, Pininska explains, represent a reworking of traditional ingredients and dishes.

Lussiana uses poppy seeds to make a crust for cooking fish. He presses common cabbage into service as a wrapping for venison and uses beetroot leaves in the same way. And beetroot, central to Polish eating (think of borsch), is transformed into a dessert, poached in a spicy syrup and filled with creme brulee.

He poaches the beetroot in sweetened red wine flavoured with cinnamon, cardamon, cloves and fresh thyme. Then he peels them, slices off the tops, hollows them out and cooks them with their tops until tender, leaving them to cool in the syrup. The creme brulee, (egg yolks beaten with cream and sugar) is cooked in a bain-marie and left to cool. This he spoons into the beetroot shells, sprinkles with sugar and puts under the grill to caramelise. Then he slips the lids back on and serves them with a syrup flavoured with elderflower.

Lussiana has also been experimenting with bison grass, a uniquely Polish flavouring. Bison grass, or zubrowska, grows in eastern Poland in a forest where the bison roam. In the wild, the tall, thin stems have no smell or taste. Only when dried do their pungent aromas emerge. Every effort to cultivate bison grass elsewhere has failed, and the sites where it grows are protected by rangers, who alone have the right to sell it.

Traditionally its rich, perfumed flavour has been used to flavour vodka. Bison-grass vodka is the nation's favourite, way ahead of chilli, caraway seed, rye, prune, blackcurrant, dogwood berry, and rowan berry. "But," says Pininska, "Bernard is the first to use it in the kitchen." His braised rack of suckling pig with bison grass won a silver medal for the Polish team in France at the First Regional Contest of European Flavours.

Other prime Polish ingredients Lussiana has been exploring include kasha, or buckwheat. Buckwheat is a staple food of Poland, growing where wheat will not. Although it is cooked like a starchy grain, it is actually the hard seed of a lovely plant with pink flowers and reddish, heart-shaped leaves. The grains are usually cooked with water (or stock) to make a risotto-like dish to accompany meat. When ground it becomes buckwheat flour, from which Poland's famous blinis are made.

Kasha, buckwheat flour and poppy seeds can be found in health-food shops, and may be the cheapest option. In the Polish Shop on King Street, Hammersmith, poppy seeds are pounds 4.10 per lb, down the road at the health-food shop they work out at about pounds 3.25 per lb, and at Harvey Nichols food hall, nearer pounds 15.

Lussiana uses buckwheat as well as poppy seed as a crust for fish. He combines buckwheat and buckwheat flour to make a thin paste which he then wraps round fillets of sander (pike perch), a freshwater fish.

To wrap six 175g (6oz) fillets, take 300g (10oz) buckwheat, 50g (134oz) buckwheat flour, 900ml (112 pints) water. Bring 600ml (1 pint) water to the boil, add a pinch of spices, cloves, allspice, ginger, a bay leaf, thyme, salt, pepper, and the buckwheat grains. Cook slowly until all the water is absorbed. Put the buckwheat flour and the remaining 300ml (12 pint) of water in another pan, and stir as you bring it to the boil. When dissolved, add to the cooked buckwheat grains, mix well, and leave to cool. Divide the paste into six pieces, roll each one out thinly and wrap round each fillet of fish. In an iron, oven-proof pan, fry the fillets in butter on both sides to colour them. Put the pan in a preheated oven (450F/230C/Gas Mark 8) for six minutes. Serve with a dill butter sauce.

Impressive though Lussiana's intricate dishes are, Pininska's earlier work, The Polish Kitchen, is a comforting standby. It records Poland's rich food traditions; classics such as pierogi (stuffed pastries like ravioli) and wintry soups such as borsch. Opposite is her recipe for a comforting poppy-seed roll, the nation's favourite cake.


Serves 12

For the roll

25g/1oz dried yeast

3 tablespoons lukewarm single cream mixed with 12 tablespoon lemon juice

450g/1lb plain flour

175g/6oz butter

grated rind of 12 lemon

25g/1oz caster sugar

2 eggs

2 egg yolks

pinch of salt

For the filling

450g/1lb poppy seeds

1 litre/134 pints milk

175g/6oz butter

225ml/8floz honey

12 vanilla pod, finely grated

110g/4oz ground almonds

175g/6oz raisins

175g/6oz chopped orange rind

3 eggs, separated

300g/1012oz caster sugar

1 tablespoon rum or brandy

butter for greasing

Sprinkle the dried yeast into the cream and lemon juice and stir to dissolve thoroughly. Mix with the flour and gradually work in the butter with your fingertips. Mix in the lemon rind, sugar, eggs and salt. Turn out onto a floured marble or wooden board and knead thoroughly. The dough should be quite loose and not too shiny. Roll out thinly to a 20 by 30cm (8 x 12in) rectangle and cover while preparing filling.

Scald the poppy seeds by pouring boiling water on them and leaving to stand for five minutes. Drain in a fine sieve and repeat. Boil milk, pour it over them, and simmer over a very low heat for 30 minutes. Drain and grind until smooth in a coffee grinder or pestle and mortar. Melt the butter, add the honey, vanilla, almonds, raisins and orange rind. Stir in the seeds and cook for 15 minutes, stirring to avoid burning. Leave to cool. Whisk egg yolks with sugar until pale and fluffy, and add to the cooled seeds. Whisk egg whites until stiff and mix in. Add the alcohol and spread the mixture over the dough, leaving a good 2.5cm (1in) gap all round the outside. Roll up carefully and place in a deep narrow loaf tin, well buttered or lined with buttered foil. Leave to rise for 1 hour in a warm place. Preheat oven to 200C/400F/Gas Mark 6. Prick the dough with a thin skewer to prevent cracking. Cook in the centre of the oven for 45 mins or until pastry is golden