It is extraordinary how foraging plays a central role in Polish cuisine. Mushrooms, berries, and wild plants are featured in everyday recipes and practices. Many of the people I have been meeting in my trips to Poland – and not all of them are operating in the field of food – have stories about gathering mushrooms with an uncle, picking berries with a grandmother for desserts and savory dishes, making preserves that sit in a cellar for years, saving flavors together with memories. Even people living in cities, although they may not practice foraging themselves, are familiar with it, and may receive food from friends and relatives in the countryside. Moreover, the market for wild mushrooms is quite active, especially in season.
Foraging is the expression of knowledge, skills, and cultural perspectives that are not transferred through formal education but rather through human interaction and shared experiences. Herbs and wild fruits – nettle, rowan, buckthorn and many others – find their way into soups and all kinds of preparations, from pierogis and sausages to pies. I was invited to the Festival of Taste, which took place on August 19th and 20th in Gruczno, in the Kujawsko-Pomorskie province, to be part of a jury for a nalewki contest. Nalewki(plural of nalewka) are infusions of various ingredients in alcohol, among which a great number of wild berries and fruits. I was amazed by the variety and the unexpected flavors of those spirits, and impressed by the expertise and the passion displayed by the judges in evaluating them. Closely connected to the foraging of products of forests and plains, the manufacture of nalewki is an artisanal activity that operates in the grey area between legality and bootlegging, yet is widely appreciated all over the country.
We cannot forget the enormous production of high quality honey in Poland. Although expert beekeepers and artisans harvest and sell most of it, honey maintains a close connection with the natural environment and the dazzling array of types and aromas derives precisely from wild plants. Furthermore, some wild honey is also gathered, of course available at quite higher prices. Honey is regularly featured in recipes and often constitutes its own category in festivals and culinary contests, as it was the case in Gruczno.
Such attachment to foraged products is visible not only in family traditions and domestic customs, but also in restaurants. The chefs that are exploring the Polish culinary heritage in new and creative ways often include herbs and plants from the forest and other ecosystems in their dishes. While such familiarity is solidly rooted in Polish culture, I suspect that the attention that the New Nordic Cuisine has been paying to foraging may have played a role in making old-school practices hot and current among Polish chefs, who inevitably look at the trends outside of their country.
Last but not least, hunting is widely practiced in Poland. The activity is not without its critics. The protests of environmentalists and animalists, as well as the sense that hunting is an activity for people of means, highlight tensions around hunting. Such frictions have recently increased due to the decision of the Polish government to continue logging in the Białowieża forest, a remnant of the European primeval woods, despite protests and an order to stop from the EU court of justice. Nevertheless, venison and other game are not a rarity on Polish tables. In Gruczno, I had the opportunity to speak with Piotr Beszterda, a specialist for game and hunting in the local division of the National Forests, a government organization. He was at the festival to present products such as smoked wild boar cure fat (a slice of heaven!) and deer ham, which are being sold to raise funds for the activities of the National Forests. Mr. Beszterda explained that hunter clubs pay his organization for the hunting rights in a certain area for a given length of time, with permission for a specific number of animals as a form of fauna control. In that case, what they hunt belongs to them and it is often distributed as gifts to family and friends, more rarely sold.
Foraging, hunting and, of course, fishing, are so ingrained in Polish habits that they are taken for granted not only in rural but also in urban contexts, where the products are widely enjoyed but personal connections with them are less direct. Precisely for their perception as ordinary and informal – at times even as backwards, the cultural value of these activities may not be fully appreciated. A pity, as they contribute enormously to the uniqueness of Polish cuisine and may help us rethink our relations with food production and the environment.