Food Explorer #13: A South African food scientist does pork and pirogies in Poland

Lisa Ronquest is one of South Africa’s top young food scientists, now transferred to the Netherlands in a global food R&D role for Mars. She’s been sharing her European impressions, insights and travels with FOODStuff SA readers in a regular blog, and we’re proud here to publish her 13th episode. This time, Lisa explores Polish cuisine….

WINTER ski season this year took us to Poland and Slovakia as we chose to explore the heavy topic of World War II while getting some fresh icy air and the thrill of the slopes.

When I mentioned to my Polish colleague that I was going to to a ski resort near his home town and that I was keen to write my food blog about it, he looked at me rather sceptically. So I didn’t hold out much hope for what I would find in Poland…

The food we eat is shaped by many factors, political, geographic, economic, technological and social factors. Geographic and political factors were particularly evident during our visit to Poland.

As the country has cool, barren winters, traditional Polish meals consisted of vegetables, fruits and fish as these can easily be preserved and stored for months. Here is food science in action; drying, pickling and fermentation are all preservation methods that are commonplace around the Polish food aisles today.

These have resulted in the typical tastes of Polish cuisine today: salty, slightly fermented tart, sour flavours or marinated (such as dill pickles, cabbage), pungent spicy and herby flavours like horseradish, mustard and garlic, and sour-sweet flavours from apples, cranberries or other fruits added to food.

The large tracts of forest in Poland have also influenced diet and recipes. Berries like wild strawberries, blueberries and raspberries as well as edible wild mushrooms were gathered from the forest and incorporated into Polish cuisine.

When the Polish lost access to the Baltic Sea during wars, freshwater fish dominated Polish cuisine. As Poland regained access to the Baltic Sea, the saltwater fish, herring became the most popular fish. It’s simple to preserve with salt and easily transported around the country.

Pirogi dumplings are deliciously ubiquitous, equally so pork, the most popular meat in Poland. This Polish love of meat, dumplings and potatoes was never more evident than the night we decided to order The Wheelbarrow.

We braced ourselves for its arrival and when it did, it didn’t disappoint. There was PORK: crumbed, pork neck, ribs, boiled potatoes with bacon, chicken wrapped in bacon, sweet potatoes with sauerkraut and garlic dip. Not a fresh vegetable in sight and plenty of beer to wash it down.

Zywiec beerNow onto Polish beer. On advice from my Polish colleague we decided to visit the Zywiec Archduke Brewery, near where we were staying.

It is the largest brewery in Poland, which is no mean feat considering Poland ranks 6th in the worlds’ beer consumption, at 97.8-litres per capita. To put this into context, South Africa is ranked number 41st at 58.4-litres per capita.

Only 12% of their production is exported to 40 countries on five continents with styles of beer from lagers to ales and the majority sold to beer-quaffing Poles.

The story of this brewery really brought home the influence of the political landscape and ensuing wars on shaping the Polish brewing industry and people’s lives.

Started by Archduke Friedrich Habsburg of Zywiec over 160 years ago, the brewery flourished providing jobs and technology development in Poland until World War II. The atrocities of World War II were particularly real for me as a few days before we had visited Auschwich-Birkenau – the largest, purpose built death camp.

The Nazi’s took over ownership of the brewery during World War II with most of the Zywiec family fleeing to Scandanvia. The Archduke was captured and tortured to force him to give up his association with Poland. The Nazi’s were determined to eradicate any Polish allegiance. As he fiercely resisted and was a high profile Polish figure, the Nazi’s eventually released him and he, too, fled to Scandinavia.

After liberation, Poland was nationalised and the brewery was taken over by the Polish Socialist government. Now it is owned by Grupa Zywiec established in 1998 with Heineken the main shareholder.

The family have no ties to the brewery and received a nominal compensation for it from the government. Some things did stay the same, however, apparently the formula for the Zywiec lager (pronounced ‘zhivyets’) and the Polish dancing couple featured on the label, albeit with a little modernising over the years.

After a good day out skiing, we too easily slipped into the Polish beer drinking habit with Zywiec lager becoming a favourite.

Lagers are bottom fermented beers with yeast gathering at the bottom of the vessel. Fermentation takes place at temperatures below 15°C with large qualities of CO2 formed. Lager is actually a German term and in the 19th century, bottom-fermented beers were made exclusively in winter.

While I could hardly argue with my Polish colleague on Polish food being gourmet or fancy, it certainly was tasty, substantial and hearty for a cold winters’ day spent outdoors.

It made complete sense in the context of how it has evolved. It was a joy, though, to return to vegetables and salads on our return to Holland!

About this blog:

Lisa PolandLisa Ronquest is currently Head of Product Development – Global Food R&D at Mars, based in The Netherlands. The intention of this column is to be both a personal and professional account of a South African food scientist exploring life and work in a developed market.

You can contact her at [email protected].

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