Making a traditional leczo – a beef and sausage goulash – takes time. First you must make the sausages by hand, and smoke them over a fire. Next, you must collect the wild mushrooms. Finally, you must add the potato, garlic, mushroom, sausage and beef to the pot in turn, cooking them with paprika for at least three, preferably four, hours. Only then can you add the potato dumplings, and, at the last moment, a spoonful of sour cream before serving it to your guests. Patience is the secret.
When Jan Woroniecki opened his first Polish restaurant in London, Wodka, he took the same patient approach. He understood that the British would not immediately appreciate the subtleties of Polish cuisine. It was 1989. The Berlin Wall was coming down, but east Europe's reputation as the home of terrible food was not going to crumble so easily. There were already other Polish restaurants in London – such as the excellent Daquise in South Kensington – but they mainly catered for expats. Woroniecki, who is half-Polish, wanted to reach out to the Brits.
"In the early days, people used to come and get blind drunk. It was all about the vodka," he says, managing to smile at the memory of people throwing up on his upholstery. As with many Indian restaurants, people came not to delight their taste buds but to beat their chests. Woroniecki was not concerned. He put Polish classics such as flaki – an offal soup – on the menu and waited for the punters to appreciate its charms. For many years no one ordered it. "Only the staff would eat it," he says. "But, slowly, the food became more important than the drink, and now people wolf down the flaki."
Polish food is the product of a harsh climate and a close relationship with the soil. Many of its distinctive flavours – for example, the sourness of pickled vegetables and marinated fish – developed through the practical need to make it through the winter. "It is good country cooking," says Woroniecki. "It is food for working in the fields – full of flavour, infused with a generosity of spirit."
As a result of these rustic origins, many traditional Polish dishes do take time to prepare. For example, if you make barszcz – Polish borscht – the old-fashioned way, you need to ferment the rye flour for a week. However, Polish cooking need to not be laborious. For a start, you can buy barszcz from a Polish deli.
The expansion of the European Union in 2004 brought an estimated half a million Poles to Britain, and took us another step closer to fully embracing their national cuisine. There is now at least one Polish delicatessen in most cities. In the last five years, new delis have opened in Liverpool, Bolton, Crewe, Gateshead and Middlesbrough to name only a few. At the same time, major supermarkets such as Tesco and Sainsbury's have started to offer Polish products.
If we wanted to buy a Polish sausage or a jar of sauerkraut, most of us could now do so fairly easily. However, most of us do not. Tesco's most popular Polish products with non-Poles are drinks and sweets, while few of us have ever attempted a Polish recipe, including me. However, Woroniecki, and his head chef at Wodka, Andrzej Pastuszak, don't doubt that in time we could be eating barszcz with the same enthusiasm as bolognese. And, in order to speed up the conversion process, Andrzej has agreed to teach me how to cook three East European classics – pierogi, herring salad, and leczo.
If there's one Polish dish which can make the leap into our cooking pots, it is pierogi. These stuffed dumplings, similar to ravioli, are filled with anything from sauerkraut to cheese. They are the most popular thing on the menu at Wodka – the kitchen makes 300 of them every day.
"We are going to make them the way my grandmother and mother made them – by hand," says Pastuszak, rolling out the dough and cutting out circles with a glass. He then dollops a spoonful of filling (made of sauerkraut, ceps and onion) in the middle of each circle, folds it over and pinches around the edges – a satisfying process.
Andrzej tells me that, when he was a child in Poland, they used to put everything from oxtail to strawberries in them, and he still makes them with his own children today.
The pierogi are boiled for five minutes until they float to the surface, and served with fried onion and boczek (bacon). They are delicious.
The next dish is a herring salad. It is based, liked many east European recipes, on balancing sourwith sweet. The herrings are the sour, marinated for a week with vinegar, bay leaves, peppercorns and allspice. The sweetness is in the salad of red onion, green peas, boiled egg, sliced apple and sour cream. This is Andrzej's twist on the classic Polish combination of red onion, boiled potatoes, dill cucumber and sour cream. It's full of flavour, but too powerful for me. If you are new to Polish food, I would start with pierogi or another dish where the contrast of flavours is not so extreme.
Finally, the leczo. As a child in Poland, Andrzej used to make smoked sausages from scratch with his father because they were not available in the shops during the Communist era. Today, you can buy them from a Polish deli – just ask for kabanos. However, although Polish cooking has been sped up by the modern world, it is still slow food at heart. "The secret of the leczo is the cooking time," he says. "It has to be cooked very, very slowly. If you serve it too quickly, it will taste of nothing."
He gives me some to try from a pot which has been simmering all morning. It is wonderful – strong and rich, but not heavy. If I were going to cook one of these recipes at home, this would be it. It is straightforward to prepare and requires only that you sit and wait for it to be ready. I have been charmed by Polish cuisine, but not entirely seduced. However, there is no need to rush things. Perhaps in five years time I will have learnt to love pickled herring.
How to make leczo and pierogi
Leczo (a beef and sausage goulash)
Ingredients to serve 6
6 large unpeeled new potatoes, cubed; 15g butter; 2 cloves garlic, minced; 1 large onion, chopped; 3 green bell pepper, chopped; 455g smoked sausage (kabanos), sliced; 300g beef, diced; 1 (8oz) can stewed tomatoes; 500g fresh tomato; 7g paprika; 235ml water
In a large pot, cook the potatoes and garlic in the butter over a medium heat, stirring frequently. Stir in onion, bell pepper, beef, sausage, tomatoes, paprika, and add water. Cover, reduce heat, simmer for two to three hours.
Pierogi (stuffed dumplings)
Ingredients to make 12-15 pierogi
2 cups of flour (could be as much as 3 cups)
1 tsp salt
2 tbs. sour cream (preferably regular)
cup lukewarm water
1 lbs sauerkraut
lb fresh ceps
lb yellow onions
Wash the sauerkraut, tasting for desired sourness. Chop the onions, fry in butter until translucent, then add sauerkraut, ceps and sugar. Add more butter and fry until golden brown. Add salt and plenty of pepper to taste.
To make the dough, first mix all the ingredients together, and knead them a little. The dough should not be very smooth, and it should be quite sticky. Cover it with an inverted bowl, and let it stand for half an hour before using. Then take the dough and roll it out until it is about 1mm thick. Use plenty of flour to keep the dough from sticking to the rolling pin and rolling surface. You can also flip the dough several times – the thickness is very important. Take a drinking glass and cut out circles in the dough. Then, taking each circle, put approximately a desert spoonful of filling in the middle, fold the circle in half, and pinch around the edges to seal. It is important that no filling oozes out. Finally, boil the pierogi for five minutes until they float to the surface.
Château Maris, 2005, France
A smooth yet powerful wine from biodynamic, organic Syrah vines. Will counter spiciness of dish but not outweigh chicken or tomato.