Our idea of the so-called traditional Małopolska cuisine is a bizarre collage put together from crumbs of old recipes adapted to today’s tastes and dishes. In the dishes served in traditional inns, we seek out the flavours of the past, often without being aware of what regional culinary culture was like even 100 years ago. The culinary heritage of the Małopolska region has two significantly different facets. In peasant huts, people ate very simply, relying on what the land yielded on their own farms, while in the manor houses, palaces, and wealthy bourgeois townhouses, people enjoyed elaborate specialities, different kinds of meat and spices from distant parts of the world. Małopolska culinary tradition isn’t homogeneous; it’s a mixture of recipes with different origins.
Historically, however, the majority of the population of the Małopolska region was made up of poor peasants, so the basis of the local cuisine has always been simple recipes and products that, depending on the season, are readily available. Any story of an idyllic, self-sufficient village abundant with food products (and populated by happy people spending time dancing and singing) rings false. In the countryside, it wasn’t even appropriate to eat sumptuously unless it was a special occasion. Extreme care in the preparation of food was seen as an unnecessary waste of time. Everyday meals included dishes prepared with flour, cabbage, various groats, potatoes, peas and pickles, while festive meals included meat, which was a luxury item. Dairy products derived from the milk of animals raised on the farm were also fairly common in the diet. Simplicity and monotony reigned. A major challenge was the turn of winter and spring, when larder stocks were running low and harsh winters, especially in mountainous areas, mercilessly shortened the life of the vegetation. The best morsels on the peasant table were reserved for the most deserving members of the family and the local community. Those less respectable had to make do with more modest food. The frequency and timing of meals were dependent on the rhythm of work. Usually early in the morning, the housekeeper would prepare food for the day. Very interestingly, there was no division between breakfast, lunch and dinner dishes. Sour rye soup with potatoes was eaten at different times of the day. A pan of bread, a scone, proziaks, or some other type of bread and a pot of milk may have been eaten for breakfast, dinner or a so-called quick lunch, e.g., at harvest time. Simple things were eaten, like egg nodles, porridge on milk or water, or potatoes with fat and milk. Wasting even a tiny bit of food was out of the question. Modest living and sustenance were often explained by religion. Fasting and forgoing meals were justified by prayer and penitential mortification. By giving mystical meaning to such a difficult situation, it was easier to overcome hunger. Fear of crop failure and famine meant that folk cuisine went hand in hand with numerous magical practices and rituals. Bread, as a symbol of prosperity and daily food, enjoyed a particularly devout reverence. Most customs and superstitions were associated with flour production and the art of baking itself. The most important and common way of preparing meals was cooking. It was economical because it made the most of the available produce, and it was practical because it helped keep food warm for a long time. Food was usually prepared in the morning (possibly twice a day – morning and evening) and kept all day in the oven or under a featherbed. This first meal was supposed to be hearty and warm. Before a hard day’s work, the body was fortified with liquid pottages and thickened mash – filling and warming, as well as groats (made from barley, buckwheat, millet) and noodles, which were close in consistency. Meat, cheese and fish used to appear on the table only on festive occasions. Shared meals have always had an integrating function for the family and the local community. However, the meal was not always eaten at the table. It was often consumed casually, at work or in the field. Simple wooden or clay vessels, made from commonly available materials, were used.
If you want to get a closer look at what life in a peasant’s cottage, meals and their preparation were like centuries ago, be sure to visit museums and open-air museums:
– Museum of the Western Małopolska in Wygiełzów
– Museum Orava Ethnographic Park in Zubrzyca Górna
– Galician Town in Nowy Sącz
– Sądecki Ethnographic Park
– Painted Zalipie
Court and palace cuisine
The situation was definitely different in manors and palaces. There, meals were served on porcelain and drunk from glass or crystal. Court cuisine consists of the traditional dishes and products that were on the tables of castles and palaces, the cuisine of the elite. It was based on meat, often game, as well as luxury goods imported from abroad. Spices absent from peasant meals were added to dishes, including salt sourced from the Bochnia and Wieliczka mines.
People ate twice a day, the basic meals being an early lunch and an evening meal. There were at least a dozen dishes to choose from. Interestingly, the historical literature makes no mention of breakfasts. As in the villages, the elite fasted for religious reasons: limiting the amount of food or giving up certain groups of animal products. The meals differed little from one other. Three courses were served: soup, roasted meat or fish, and leguminas, or vegetables. Various types of meat reigned supreme on the tables: pork, veal, less frequently mutton, lamb and skopowina or game. Fowl were often put on the plates: chickens, capons, ducks, black grouse, quail, pigeon and snowbird, as well as swan and peacock at feasts. On fast days, fish and crayfish were eaten. Salted herring and cod were also imported from Pomerania. Vegetable accompaniments included mainly onions, beetroot (chard), spinach, turnips, green peas, radishes, carrots, parsley, parsnips, watercress, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, horseradish, cucumber. The meals also included bread, seasonal fruit (dried in winter) and groats, noodles and even rice, which was very expensive due to its remote origin. For the most part it was wine and beer that were drunk; water meant purely for drinking was rare. The spices added to dishes were sometimes so precious that they were kept in vaults among the valuables. The earliest recipes for court dishes can be found in the 1682 edition of the Compendium ferculorum, or a collection of dishes – the first fully preserved Polish cookbook. Feasts and banquets were beloved at the courts. They had an integrative function for families and communities, but also a cultural one. Tables laden with food, covered with fine tablecloths and elegant crockery were often used for several days.
If you’re curious about court cuisine and palace customs, be sure to visit: