Showing posts with label Polish Christmas traditions. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Polish Christmas traditions. Show all posts

Lwow Pierogi for Christmas Eve

Every year, at this time, we spend at least half a day making the Lwow pierogi that my father loved. I can't believe that we used to make them on Christmas Eve itself, and then invite friends and neighbours in at 5 o'clock for mulled wine and pierogi. It was a fairly huge undertaking, and I don't know why we weren't more frazzled, especially when we went out to the midnight service in the local kirk afterwards. But perhaps we were just younger and more energetic. 

Now, even in a normal year, we make them in advance and freeze them. In yet another wretched Covid year, we're still making them and freezing them so that we and a few friends can eat them in stages. Not as difficult as last year though, when we sat in the garden in the freezing cold, wrapped up in coats and blankets, to drink wine with our next door neighbours, with whom we were in a 'bubble'. 

My mum and dad used to make these pierogi, and I've eaten them in Poland too. The traditional Polish Christmas Eve meal is meatless but consists of many courses, and generally includes carp. We always had pierogi. There are many variations on this recipe, and pierogi associated with different regions. But this is how to make Lwow Pierogi - with a few additions of our own. 

You begin by preparing the filling. It seems to be obligatory to make twice as much filling as you need, but that's OK, because you can bake or fry any leftovers as an accompaniment to other meals. 

We use any large all purpose potatoes - Maris Piper  - five or six depending on size. Peel and boil till tender. Meanwhile, finely chop 2 medium or 1 large onion and fry gently in a little oil till translucent, not brown. Grate about 200 grams of any good strong cheddar. NB, the genuine Polish cheese to use is Twarog, and Quark is a good substitute, but we like a stronger flavour. It would be worthwhile experimenting with Wensleydale or Lancashire, which have more of a curd texture, but are also quite sharp. Mash the potatoes while they're still hot, with the grated or crumbled cheese and stir in the onion. Set aside to cool while you make your dough. 

Sieve 500 grams of plain flour with a teaspoon of salt. Mix in two beaten eggs and enough cold water to make a soft but not sticky dough. It will be very elastic. Set aside to rest for half an hour or so. 

You'll need a cup of cold water, and a pastry brush. Divide the dough into two halves, and roll out on a very well floured board until thin, but not so thin that it disintegrates! Now for the fiddly bit. Use a fairly large biscuit or scone cutter to cut out your dough into circles. A cup or glass will work just as well. Holding the circle in your left hand, put a good teaspoonful of filling onto it, brush the edges with water, and fold into half circles, like a small pasty. Gently but firmly nip the two edges together all the way along the join. If you don't get this bit right, the filling will all boil out at the next stage. But luckily, the dough is very 'self adhesive' and should form a very good bond. It's a knack and once you've done a few, it becomes easier. Curve them slightly into an ear shape. Lay them out on a floured tray. Do NOT let them overlap, or they will form a horrible mass and you will have to start again. (The voice of experience!) 

You need a large pan of boiling salted water. Using a slotted spoon, carefully put the pierogi into the boiling water, five or six at a time, although a huge pot will take seven. Bring back to the boil, very gently keeping the pierogi moving so that they don't stick to the bottom, and once they are floating in boiling water, simmer each batch for five minutes, or a little longer depending on size. Take them out carefully with your slotted spoon, and lay them (still separately) on lightly greased oven trays. You'll find that you need to top up the water if you're making a large batch, and turn up the heat from time to time to keep it at a rolling boil. 

After that, there are options. These would traditionally be slightly dried out and kept warm in the oven on a very low setting, and then served as one of the courses on Christmas eve, liberally covered with melted butter. 

You can freeze them as soon as they have cooled -  freeze them on a tray before putting them into bags or packets once they are solid, otherwise they will stick together. Thaw them before you intend to use them. We fry lots of chopped smoked streaky bacon in a little oil, and then gently fry the pierogi until they are heated all the way through, the outsides are just becoming golden and the bacon is crisp. This wouldn't be done on a Polish Christmas eve - which must be meatless - but my dad was very fond of them cooked in this way and this is usually the way we make them. 

You can experiment with other fillings. Some regions use a combination of cabbage or meat and mushrooms. Lwow pierogi are made with traditional Polish curd cheeses.My dad used to make them in summer, filled with wild blueberries from the Galloway hills, served with powdered sugar and single cream. 

It is, let's face it, such a faff, that you're better to make a lot at the same time - the above recipe makes about forty. They keep well in the freezer. They are much easier to make if there are two or three cooks - one to do the fiddly bit with the dough and filling, and one to man the pan and kettle, so that you can keep the batches coming. We did it this year while Carousel was on the TV, so I put together forty  pierogi while weeping over poor Billy Bigelow. 

Good luck! And here's hoping for the return of proper Christmas Eve parties, as soon as possible We're heartily sick of restrictions. We're physical, social beings. Isolating is, for most of us, bad for our mental health. 

But Wesołych Świąt anyway!

If you want to read a bit more about a traditional Polish Christmas Eve, you'll find a country Christmas described in my novel The Amber Heart available as an eBook or paperback. And if you can wait until Christmas Eve, the eBook will be on a special deal for Christmas week.


An Extraordinary Christmas (or Two)

Aunty Wanda
This is a picture of my great aunt Wanda Kossak. She was the elder sister of my grandfather, Wladyslaw Czerkawski, the grandfather I never knew, and about whose life I'm writing a book.

I first met Wanda in the1970s, when I travelled by train to Poland and stayed with her and her watercolourist husband, Karol Kossak, the last in a line of distinguished Polish artists that included Karol's grandfather, Juliusz, and his uncle, Wojciech. My enchanted autumn with them is a subject for another post. My Polish was about as basic as their English, but my French was better, and as with many Poles of their generation, their French was good, so that was how we conversed most of the time. Over the weeks of my visit to their apartment in a spa town called Ciechocinek, I got to know and love them.

They were no longer young, and by the time I returned to Poland to spend Christmas there, Karol was dead, but Wanda had a long life, from 1896 to 1983. In fact, I had two Christmases in Poland, although they have somehow become fused in my mind and I will have to rummage through my box of old letters before I can properly distinguish one from another. 

The first time was when I was teaching English in Finland. Flights home to Scotland were very expensive so I travelled across the Baltic to stay with my Polish relatives. The second time was in the late 1970s, when I was working for the British Council, teaching English at Wroclaw University. Our longish winter vacation was in February, which meant that, once again, I headed for Warsaw, to spend Christmas with my father's cousin Teresa Kossak, her partner Andrzej, her mother, Wanda, and a whole heap of Kossak relatives, with whom, sadly, I have since lost touch. (If any of you are reading this, I'd love to hear from you!)

Those Christmases have become a series of vignettes of a time long past. So here's what I remember.

Warsaw was cold. Colder than Wroclaw, so much further south. There was frost and snow. There was a cheerful covered market, smelling of apples and dill pickles and cheap tobacco and that wonderful smoked 'mountain' cheese that I've only ever managed to buy in Poland. 

Teresa's tiny apartment was beautiful, with her collection of porcelain cups, her bright textiles, her books and artworks. In fact it sometimes strikes me that much of what I've decorated or planned since then, in our own house, has contained an echo of that time, in that warm, cramped, hospitable flat that I envied and wanted to emulate. She and Andrzej kept dogs that were much too big for the place, and since I was extremely allergic, they borrowed another apartment from a friend for me to sleep in, so that I shouldn't have to wheeze too much! 

I remember visiting the studio of one of their friends, an artist in amber, and the pungent scent of old forests from the polishing. He took me for a magical walk round the newly rebuilt old town. He must have been in his fifties, although he looked younger. It was evening, one of those clear, cold evenings, when the light leaches slowly out of the sky, and trees and buildings are sharply silhouetted against a golden sky. We walked and talked. His English was fluent and he told me something of the history of each place. He told me that he had taken part in the Warsaw Uprising when he was very young. Many corners of the rebuilt city held sad memories for him, where this or that friend or colleague had fallen. 
'I can still see them,' he said. 'Ghosts everywhere.' 

Warsaw was not bombed from the air. It was blown up from the ground, erased from the map. But it was rebuilt, and I was privileged to see it for myself, and to see it through his eyes as well. 

I had a proper Polish Christmas Eve at the Kossak house in - I think - Zoliborz. This is always a lengthy meal with many meatless courses, and makowiec - the most delicious Polish poppy seed cake - at the end of it. 

The house was crammed with Kossaks of all ages.  These included autocratic, intelligent Aunt Joanna Skarzynska, Karol's sister. She spoke excellent English, seemed to me a little like Lady Bracknell and quite as unnerving. She had worked in the American Embassy as a young woman, which was her post-war undoing, since she had survived, only to be imprisoned by mad, bad Stalin as a western spy. She survived that too. I got the impression that she could have survived almost anything. 

I remember a son - Wojtek? -who had been working as an archaeologist, I think, in the Gobi desert. He sailed sand yachts and gave me a little bronze Tibetan Buddhist platter with a sun symbol etched into it. There was a scientist daughter-in-law who worked her socks off in the kitchen, and there were assorted teens and children, and other more remote family members. 

The Kossak house was old and spacious and had survived the war relatively unscathed. There were polished wooden floors, lights, warmth, the inevitable pictures - and a tortoise that clip clopped about the floor, and tried to avoid being trampled underfoot. 

My dear, sweet, loving Aunty Wanda was my saviour, especially on the days following Christmas Eve when we went on family visits. I don't think I have ever met anyone whom I loved so completely after such a short acquaintance. She carted me about with her, while I felt the need to protect this fragile little lady on Warsaw's rickety trams. We laughed a lot. We visited relatives of whom - at this distance in time - I have completely lost track. But I know that, like the book of Genesis, or those Gaelic clan recitations, I could see that they were intent on fitting me neatly into the family genealogy. I was Wladyslaw's granddaughter, Wanda's great niece, Julian's daughter, the one who had fetched up in England after the war and married an Englishwoman. 

And I remember bigos. Every house offered bigos and every bowl was slightly different  - much as you'll be offered mince pies or Christmas cake here. It's good in reasonable quantities, but I also remember Andrzej who was brisk and sexy and very kind to an awkward young woman, who was a little in love with him, saying 'Poor, poor Kasia. Not MORE bigos!'

Only a few years ago, one of Teresa's friends wrote to tell me that she had died, and she sent me a book that Teresa had written about her family, including a chapter about her mother, Wanda Czerkawska. By that time, both my parents too were dead. This year, a Polish friend translated Wanda's chapter for me, which added another, even more intriguing dimension to what I already knew about my Polish family. 

But you'll have to wait for my next book to find out more! 

Writing Christmas

This piece of furniture, dated 1626, is 200 years old than the house!
I'm still in the middle of Christmas preparations here in this small Scottish village where I live and work. The tree is trimmed and so is the house. This old house seems to enjoy Christmas as much as we do. 200 years and the stones themselves seem to appreciate holly, ivy, the softness of candlelight. Whenever we have a powercut - and it happens from time to time in very windy weather -  I always feel that the house really loves a return to candlelight. You can almost feel it settling down with a sigh of contentment. And if you're as imaginative as I am, you can sense some of those previous inhabitants too, although the house has always felt peculiarly calm and happy.

It's a house in which people have stayed for a long time.

Sometimes, in a world where the news seems to be a constant barrage of devastating tragedy, political hatreds masquerading as religion, and misery of all kinds, this community seems like a sanctuary of sorts. Not always - because what place is? But mostly. And sometimes all you can do is gather friends and family about you, love and care for those closest to you, and hope, somehow, that the light spreads a little.

The old Polish setting for my novel: The Amber Heart
I miss my late mum and dad at Christmas. Well, I miss them all year round. But Dad loved Christmas and we always celebrated in the Polish as well as the British way. Christmas Eve was magical and a little of that magic still remains.

So when I was thinking about a Christmas 'special offer' for my readers, the book that came to mind was my novel set in mid nineteenth century Poland: The Amber Heart.

It isn't wholly set in winter, of course. There are plenty of summer scenes, plenty of Easter celebrations. But when I think of it, it seems to be a snowy landscape that comes into my mind. So much of it was based on the stories about my family that dad had told me over the years. I wrote them as fiction of course, changed them, shaped them, wove them into a different story entirely.

The Amber Heart is set in mid 19th century Eastern Europe - an unfamiliar but magical setting. It  follows the fortunes of an array of characters whose lives are disrupted by the turmoil of the times. But first and foremost it's a love story.

Maryanna is a Polish landowner’s pampered daughter, born and brought up in the beautiful 'pancake yellow' house of Lisko, while Piotro is a poor Ukrainian estate worker. The lives of these two people from vastly different backgrounds are destined to become hopelessly and tragically entwined from the fatal moment of their first meeting. 

At one point in the  novel - after a series of devastating events - Piotro is travelling hopelessly, painfully on foot, through a wintry landscape, when he is given traditional hospitality by a Polish family on Christmas Eve: 

'After the meal there followed a convivial few hours with vodka and violin music. One or two of the women lead the company in singing traditional Christmas songs. They were mostly sweet and sad lullabies to the Christ Child: ‘sleep baby Jesus, my little pearl, sleep my heart’s darling.’ Piotro recognised the melodies and even knew the words of some of them, but he was shy of singing aloud and he only mouthed the words along with the singers. They made him sad, brought a lump to his throat, though he couldn’t have said why.'

For the week beginnning 24th December, The Amber Heart will be on special offer in Amazon's Kindle Store - a big book at a bargain price. Or here, if you're reading this in the US. A good, long Christmas read. 

Meanwhile, let me take this opportunity to wish all my readers and subscribers a very happy Christmas and may the New Year bring you all you could wish for yourselves.