We are honoured to be featuring Ren Behan as our first guest writer on Food Niche Collective. Ren is a food writer with a particular interest in seasonal and family friendly food. She has a section dedicated to Polish food, called ‘My Polish Kitchen’ on her blog at http://www.renbehan.com - packed with beautiful photography and evocative food writing, she shares with us some wonderful memories of growing up with her Polish upbringing where food was at centre stage and why her niche food experiences have mapped her love for food.
A Polish Kitchen – by Ren Behan
You won’t find a warmer welcome anywhere than in a Polish kitchen. My childhood and young adult life are filled with memories of welcoming and comforting Polish food. I would watch my mother and grandmother preserve memories of their past, memories of Poland, through the food, recipes and traditions of a homeland left long behind. They had resettled in England after the war, and my sisters, brother and I had all been born in Britain, but our Polish heritage and roots were central to our upbringing.
As a home cook and a mother now myself to two young children, I am a big believer in eating round the table as a family – it was how we were brought up. There was definitely a ‘no waste’ mantra, too, embedded in my parents after many years of living through the war on rations and entirely on what they could find nearby; mushrooms, berries, potatoes, nettle or wild sorrel soup. Eating was always a family affair at home and although times may have been economically tough with five hungry mouths to feed, there was always plenty to go round and there always seemed to be an occasion to celebrate and gather together. We would always start the day off with a hearty breakfast. Softly set scrambled eggs with Polish ham or snippets of fresh chives would always be my favourite. Rye bread studded with caraway, with a thick layer of butter and wild honey, to this day evoke the same feelings of home.
Year-round, fresh, seasonal vegetables would form the basis of traditional Polish savoury fare, from a warming bowl of beetroot or mushroom and barley soup, to baby carrots slowly cooked in butter and a sprinkling of sugar or stuffed winter cabbage leaves with tomato sauce. My mother’s cooking would often use cheaper cuts and big pans would bubble away on the stove for hours.
Today, I take inspiration from exploring old family recipes and ask my mother to show me the way to make particular dishes, such as handmade Polish pierogi – soft pillowy pockets of dough filled with cream cheese and potatoes that we would eat on an almost-industrial scale. In the summer months, I look forward to them being filled with blueberries and served with whipped cream.
We weren’t a particularly sweet-toothed family, but I do remember Polish inspired tray bakes, made with fruit from the trees in our garden that inspire my own baking, now, too. An apple cake with ingredients that my mother would always measure in a glass, or a cake made with plums sprinkled with cinnamon. At Christmas-time, cheesecake or a poppy seed roll, twists of pastry dusted with icing sugar.
Tapping into the food of my childhood brings me warmth and comfort. I am grateful that I was raised to have a deep sense of respect for Polish tradition, culture and food. We spoke Polish at home and still do. I was different to my friends. We ate food that was unfamiliar to them and at times, that would make me feel uneasy. Now, as I explore my Polish heritage through food, cooking and writing, I have a renewed sense of respect and understand that my ancestry and family stories are something to closely cherish.
You can follow Ren:
On Twitter: @RenBehan