Thursday, March 13, 2008
The Polish in Melbourne
Poles have a long and proud history in Australia; some well known people with Polish heritage are Michael Klim, Alicia Molik, Magda Szubanski and Karl Kruszelnicki, who it seems has given up on people ever pronouncing his name properly and calls himself Dr Karl. There are also some major geographical features with distinctive Polish names, such as Mt Kosciuszko and the Strzelecki Ranges; the way we pronounce some of these name causes some merriment amongst Poles, who have a language that is best described as having the sound of wind and rain.
Polish emigration here was fairly limited up till the end of the second world war, when two factors combined to increase their numbers dramatically, the Yalta Agreement in February, 1945 that forced Poland into the Soviet Bloc, causing many Poles to leave their homeland, particularly soldiers who feared persecution, and the Snowy Mountain Scheme, which, desperate for workers, offered good wages to people from anywhere in the world, who were willing to endure the hardships of building Australia’s largest hydro-electric plant in our isolated Alpine region. By the 2006 census, people of Polish descent were the 13th largest group in Australia, with about 140,000 in Melbourne alone.
It seems somewhat remarkable then, that so little is known here about Polish cuisine, with very few restaurants specializing in it and outside of filled dumplings (pierogies), beetroot soup (barsczc) and maybe jam doughnuts (paczki), no one knows much about the flavours of Poland, which is home to some quite wonderful dishes, not at all a dour meat and potatoes diet, which is a common perception.
The first thing to know about Polish food is that its meat cookery is based around pork, as it is in most East European countries. A whole spit-roasted pig is a classic Easter tradition, but apart from crumbed pork chops which they love with the same passion that Australians love crumbed lamb cutlets, it is what happens next that singles out the Poles as special. If their German neighbours to the west are considered the masters of fresh pork sausages in all their countless guises, the Polish are their equal with perfectly smoked dry sausages (kielbasa), also produced from pork. From slender, world famous kabanosy (cabana) to thick krakowska, Polish sausage reigns supreme.
That is not to forget their other smallgoods of the highest quality, cured and smoked hams and bacon that are carefully prepared and much sought after. A trip to the Polish Shop at the Queen Victoria Market is a must for its stunning array of smallgoods, though be prepared to line up for some time, it’s very popular, not just with Poles either. As you wait, you can see the various sausages and smallgoods, with the curiously named wedding sausage prominent; my sources tell me there is no such sausage bearing this name in Poland, it seems some wag here came up with the name, perhaps a boast about Polish manhood!
At another Polish butcher, Wisla, in Dandenong, they have an overflowing range of smallgoods, which are absolutely first class. It was in their sister shop in Windsor that I came to somewhat bemused by the names of some of their sausages. I ordered some frankfurters one day, only to discover that they had given me something other than what I expected, similar to a smoked kransky, only much thinner. Well, I wasn’t disappointed with this mistake for they were wonderful and we ordered them again and again after they explained that this is what they called a frankfurter, but when I tried to order some from the Polish Shop, they tried to give me a regular frankfurter. Sometimes pointing is the best option.
It is a combination of kielbasa, meat and kapusta (sauerkraut) that is bigos, the national dish of Poland. Whilst the French and Germans prefer to have large pieces of meat and sausage in their sauerkraut, the Polish version chops everything small and also relies on wild forest mushrooms for its character. Of course mushrooming is a national pastime, along with fermenting cucumbers and making jams and preserves; in the autumn, many of the people you see collecting mushrooms by the roadsides along the Mornington Peninsula and Mt Macedon are Poles and excess mushrooms are either dried or marinated, which leads to one of their very own tapas or meze – a shot of vodka with marinated mushrooms.
It’s safe to say that vodka arose somewhere in Eastern Europe, but Polish people think of themselves as its creator and it is their national drink, being relatively cheap and easy to make from just about anything, but the better versions are usually made from rye. There are flavoured vodkas as well with one, Zubrowka, containing a blade of an herb Hierochloe odorata, commonly known as bison grass, incidentally which, Poland is one of the few European countries that contains herds of native wild bison that were re-introduced from zoos, after being completely wiped out across Europe. Another flavoured vodka also popular is wisniowka, made with sour cherries steeped in pure spirit, mixed with sugar and diluted.
Soups (zupa) are much loved, from the aforementioned barsczc through to simple chicken soups with noodles or barley (krupnik). There are also some very unusual soups such as white barsczc, made with zur, fermented rye flour, which serves to not only thicken the soup but to give a pleasant, slightly sour tang, and zupa ogorkowa, which is made from fermented cucumbers and is very refreshing, especially in summer.
Vegetables are held in high esteem, from ubiquitous potatoes and beetroots through to little known kohlrabi and black radishes. Potatoes are most often simply boiled or steamed and sprinkled with dill, Poland’s number one herb, but no mention of them is complete without placki, the extremely popular potato pancake. Beetroot is also common, not so much boiled, but finely grated and mixed with horseradish as a salad dish; carrots are also finely grated along with apple and mixed with sour cream as another salad and kohlrabi is also grated and bound with mayonnaise. Another feature of the table is Polish vegetable salad, which consists of potatoes, carrots, fermented cucumber, peas and eggs, diced small and also bound with mayonnaise.
Saffron is a spice native to Poland and was very popular in the middle ages, but its use declined under communist rule, probably due to its cost, but all the other popular spices such as allspice, juniper and caraway seeds are a regular part of the Polish kitchen.
Poles are also excellent bakers as witnessed to by the number of bakeries and cake shops that have a Polish influence, especially around St Kilda, where in the early days, many Poles chose to settle. In Acland Street there is Europa Cake Shop and Monarch Cake Shop and in nearby Carlisle Street is the home of the well known Glick Bakery, all run or started by Poles. The pick of Polish desserts would have to be their creamy, dreamy cheesecakes, but in Europa they also have paczki, that irresistible yeast based doughnut, filled with rosewater scented plum butter, topped with lemon icing or just icing sugar, and on Saturdays, they also bake some of the best Polish bread you can find in Melbourne, a sourdough light rye loaf, tender crumb inside but with a wonderful chewy crust.
The Poles haven’t influenced food in Melbourne say the way Italians have, but their presence is all around, with some of the finest food in Melbourne. It is worth looking out for.