Strangely, the first time I tried Polish food, it was in Italy.
I was living with a Polish girl, Marta Brzoska, as part of a teach-abroad program in Sicily, who happened to have a mother who was an excellent cook. She would send her daughter back to the capital of gastronomy with jars full of her home cooking to make sure she got the best in Polish cuisine, even while away from home.One of Marta’s favourite take away treats was bigos, and to this day I can still recall the taste.
Bigos, which means ‘pie’ in the Polish language, is traditional Polish smoked meat stew with a sauerkraut base, also known as Hunters’s stew, as the meat content is said to be derived from the hunter’s daily kill. As a staple, bigos usually includes ham, bacon and sausage, but is also found to contain beef, veal, venison and other game.
As well as an abundance of flavoursome meat, the sauerkraut in bigos is barrel cured, giving an even stronger smoky flavour, which is irresistible to anyone who smells it.
Preserving the bacon fat to use for frying other ingredients is also key to intensifying the smoky flavour of this Polish masterpiece.
There is nothing more wholesome and satisfying than a plate of hot smoked bigos, especially in these cold winter months. However, I have also heard bigos referred to (by two Polish people) as a peasant’s dish! I found this unbelievable, not just because of the diversity of ingredients, including prunes and dried mushrooms, but also because of the length of preparation and richness of flavour.
Recipes vary greatly from region to region, as well as in other parts of Europe, as bigos has also been named a national dish of the Ukraine, as well as having very traditional ties to Lithuania and Belarus.
The usual accompaniment to bigos is mashed potato or rye bread, and having tasted traditional Polish rye bread I would highly suggest the latter.
Polish rye bread far surpasses more popular bread choices available in supermarkets and this is due to its extremely rich taste. Many of the popular loaves on the shelves are often extremely delicate in flavour, and one bite leaves the mouth full of air and little else. It has a deliciously malty taste, and thickly sliced with a knob of butter; this is the perfect snack.
So try a plate of bigos this winter, a dish so good it has made it into Polish literature!
But my advice is take the time to prepare a batch yourself. Upon my return to England I purchased a few different jars of ready prepared bigos, but none has surpassed that of Marta Brzoska’s mother!