Back to the forest, or the renaissance of Polish “wild cuisine”

The time of pizza and sushi has passed. Poles are now fascinated by food they can find in the forests and the meadows. You can get it in expensive restaurants, but if we can only regain the knowledge of our grandparents, we will all be able to taste these delicacies for free. This latest culinary trend is a Polish answer to the worldwide movement for self-sufficient ways of living.

Foto by Moyan Brenn on Flickr

Stefan Niesiołowski, a politician of the governing Civic Forum (PO) party well known for his sharp tongue, has somewhat unexpectedly become a centre of media attention and the subject of many internet memes. When asked in a TV interview to comment on data from an NGO claiming that 800,000 Polish children are underfed, Mr. Niesiołowski responded by saying that when he was a schoolboy, he and his mates were so hungry that they ate all the sorrel growing wild near railway lines. “Today nobody eats this sorrel”, he said, meaning that as long as sorrel (also known in English as “docks”, Latin scientific name Rumex L.) grows freely in meadows and is not all eaten, there is no real hunger in the country. The same rule, as Mr. Niesiołowski pointed out one minute later in the show, applies to wild pear and plum trees: once quickly deprived of their fruit by hungry schoolboys, today they can often be seen in villages heavily bent under the weight of fruit no one is interested in. Mr. Niesiołowski’s conclusion is clear: there is no hunger in Poland.

That sour taste of sorrel…

Although child hunger in Poland is a very distressing issue, the mention of sorrel in this story presents an interesting topic, especially for a foreign observer. Why did Niesiołowski specifically mention this plant, out of the hundreds of types of wild grass and weeds that commonly grow in Polish meadows and forests? The answer is simple: sorrel is well known to every Polish citizen. Every child occasionally plucks its long, sharp-pointed leaves while playing in a park or garden in search of its characteristic sour taste. Almost everyone – with the exception of perhaps the youngest generations – can recognize it in the grass, and it is common knowledge among Poles that sorrel, when added to salmon (grilled, fried or boiled) as the sole ingredient, creates the perfect dish. There are other popular dishes as well, such as the summer dish of sorrel soup with a boiled egg. Older generations like Mr. Niesiołowski’s may remember the difficult times of the Second World War and the years immediately after, when sorrel was an obligatory supplement to the daily diet of kids in the spring and summertime, a diet often lacking in many vital ingredients. They may well also remember “coffee” made of ground acorns – a frequent guest on any Polish table under the German occupation, and in some rural areas even later. Our grandmas were well acquainted with many other wild plants, grass species and berries in terms of their use in the kitchen. To name just a few: fried goosefoot leaves, resembling spinach; fresh young leaves of dandelion, providing a tasty salad; and birch tree juice obtained by notching the bark in February and March, similar to the sugar-rich syrup of maple trees highly appreciated by North American Indians. Wild mint leaves, camomile and linden flowers provide useful materials for making herbal teas. The fruits of the hawthorn, blackthorn and barberry can be used for preparing tasty jams. This is not to mention the wealth of rural knowledge on the medicinal use of herbs, as well as the application of several dozen wild species in preparing unique alcoholic liquors.

If someone told the hungry kids of the 1940s and 1950s that the stuff they were being fed – like sorrel – would in 60 or 70 years’ time become major elements of Polish haute cuisine, and that a grass-based dish in a restaurant in Warsaw would sell for 60 US dollars or more, they would surely not believe it.

My name is mushroom. Wild mushroom.

God-fearing and law-obedient citizens of England, Scotland and Wales have a difficult time coping with the “wild habits” of the Polish immigrants moving there in big numbers since 2004, when the United Kingdom opened its labour market to citizens of the new EU member states. One such habit is freshwater rod fishing, which in the UK is subject to many legal limitations. Also, much to the Brits’ dismay, Eastern Europeans tend to target carp, bream and pike – fish considered by British anglers to be hardly edible.

Even weirder to British people is the habit of collecting wild mushrooms in the woods. Now and then you read about some Poles being fined by Her Majesty’s game-keepers for collecting blueberries or mushrooms in public forests. The people being fined are often astonished; they did nothing wrong, only something they have done for years since childhood, every summer and autumn. The official reason for the penalty is “destruction of the forest undergrowth”. But we know – the accused ones might say – how to collect mushrooms without damaging the undergrowth. Every Polish child knows it. You suck this knowledge with your mother’s milk!

An average Pole – with perhaps the exception of the youngest generations – can recognize some six or seven species of edible wild (forest) mushrooms and distinguish them from their inedible or even poisonous cognates. (There are several cases of death every year from eating the wrong mushrooms, but considering the 15 million or more annual mushroom collectors in Poland, the proportion does not seem so alarming). Almost every Polish housewife knows how to prepare for instance:

– pickled Boletus badius,
– stewed Lactarius deliciosus,
– scrambled eggs with Cantharellus cibarius,
– dried Boletus edulis, and
– fried Macrolepiota procera, which perfectly imitates Wiener Schnitzel.

Some of the above mushroom species do not even have an English name in current use. Polish has approximately 5-6 names (including regional variants) for each of them, while some dialects – like the Kurpie dialect in the north-east – even have a special honorific way of distinguishing the more “noble” ones (like Boletus edulis) from the “common” mushrooms (like Agaricus L., or button mushroom).

Back to the… city

Younger generations, living under no threat of hunger (aside from the revelations of the aforementioned NGO) or even restrictions related to the delivery of basic food (as was the case in times of martial law in Poland in the early 80s), know little of the usage of wild plants or herbs, although most of them probably still enjoy autumnal forest strolls with their parents or grandparents in search of berries or mushrooms, a kind of hobby rather than an attempt to supplement their diet. The rapid pace of economic growth and civilizational progress has made the “primordial” knowledge of their ancestors somewhat obsolete.

Yet the taste for “wild cuisine” has come back to the Polish table as a food trend in recent years, propelled perhaps by nostalgia for older times and the currently prevalent “green thinking” and slow food mentalities. It seems to be another culinary style – in addition to sushi, hamburgers, veggie food, etc. – that is closely related to the social status of the eaters, especially popular among hipsters and young middle-class generations. The food is not cheap at all; the best-known Polish “magician” of forest-based fusion cuisine, Wojciech Modest Amaro, serves dishes at his Warsaw restaurant starting from 45 US dollars (for 3 combinations of “natural supreme Polish flavour diversity”) and going up to almost 100 dollars (8 combinations) per person. There is no such a thing in his restaurant as a fixed menu, and all Amaro’s “works of art” are ephemeral. Some recently served include:

– celery, kvass, Armillaria mellea mushroom (with the addition of, among other ingredients, 15 grams of moss)
– salmon, beet root, wild strawberry
– cabbage, Jerusalem artichokes, juniper fruits (with 5 grams of powdered burnt meadow hay)
– venison, oak leaves, pear (with 5 grams of nigella)
– pumpkin, quince, meringue cake.

It is exactly this place – Mr. Amaro’s Warsaw Atelier – which, out of all the restaurants in the country, obtained the first (and currently the only) Michelin star granted to a Polish restaurant, much to the envy and anger of other well-established Warsaw and Cracow chefs. It has also obtained a recommendation from the Slow Food Association, together with three other Polish restaurants (in Szczecin, Poznań and Ostróda) which also specialize in local natural products and partially use wild ingredients in their menus.

The popularity of the idea of “going back to the forest” is bringing significant income not just to the slow food business, but to other businesses as well. Łukasz Łuczaj, a young ethnobotanist and plant ecologist who has written an encyclopedia of wild edible plants in Poland (including more than 1,000 species), runs a sort of survival training course at his farm in the mountains of southern Poland. The course is centred around the idea of “wild cuisine”, with practical training in the recognising, collecting and cooking of forest and meadow plants, as well as… insects. The idea of eating worms seems somewhat revolutionary to the Polish palate, but the plant part of Mr. Łuczaj’s “green classes”, at least, supposedly uses local traditional recipes. The price for a two-day course is around 200 US dollars, yet there is no shortage of applicants. He has been quickly followed by others, and the number of natural food/wild summer workshops is now quickly growing.

As both Mr. Amaro and Mr. Łuczaj were born in 1972, it is highly unlikely that they had to eat sorrel to fight hunger as kids, although they both probably learned the taste of it from their parents or grandparents, if not from their schoolmates. Today they serve it on their tables as an expensive delicacy.

Cheaper, although no less ambitious, versions of Polish wild cuisine initiatives can be found on the internet, such as the very popular Facebook groups 1,000 edible plants (with 4,501 current likes) and city-vores ( 576 likes). While the former group’s activity is described as promoting the use of “wild edible plants of the Polish forests and meadows” in the kitchen, the latter has a somewhat unusual mission: finding edible plants and medicinal herbs that grow unnoticed in the cities. While possibly containing a few more harmful elements than their countryside counterparts due to the proximity of cars, these city-dwelling plants and herbs are definitely more ecological in terms of exposure to fertilizers. The group’s activity is also a great usage of the concept of “food for free”, more and more popular in green movements.

It remains to be seen whether this return to the forest – in both a culinary and perhaps a broader philosophical sense – is only a seasonal, passing fashion, or a permanent element in the new Polish middle-class identity. In either case, it confirms the fact that the wisdom of our grandmas can still be of some worth for the younger generations. Sometimes it may even grant us a Michelin star.

Stanisław Tekieli

Stanisław Tekieli

is a journalist, translator and researcher, specializing in ethnic issues in Central and Eastern Europe. He is a former head of the Central European department of the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, Poland.