Wild Honey & Rye comes at a good time, and no, not because the wonderfully bat shit crazy mistake of Brexit and what might happen here. No, it’s because I’ve been having a real hankering for pierogis of late.
Admittedly ‘Polish cuisine’ is not one that comes readily to mind when you think of the great cuisines of the world or, indeed, modern cuisines. The image conjured is of stodgy dumplings, picked vegetables and cabbage soup, washed down with vodka that could strip paint from walls and all served up in the grey drab world of the Communist Party and the Iron Curtain. Behan works to disprove this with Wild Honey & Rye, and it doesn’t take long for her to convince you of this ludicrous and out dated stereotype.
Wild Honey & Rye’s author, Ren Behan, has clearly become one of the most effective foodie champions of her parents’ native land and is adept at bringing new readers to Polish cuisine. A child of an émigré family that came to Manchester following fighting for the Polish army, imprisonment and forced their deportation during the war, she is one of a recent wave of new mothers who have chosen to leave their high powered jobs to cook, write and explore food, wanting a change in pace, to spend more time with their family, and have the chance do something they truly love.
The first great realisation about Polish food that emerges from Behan and her book comes right out of the gate with the breakfast section. You might not think it, but those trendy breakfasts you find all over Shoreditch and in artisan coffee houses the length and breadth of London all have some relationship with the Polish breakfasts Behan includes, especially the soft (cream) cheese on toast with honey and walnuts.
Wild Honey & Rye takes honey to a new level with ideas for infusing it. Which is an idea we at London Lamppost love (we love infusing things, especially alcohol – links to infused gin recipes and Dean’s vodka and my gravlax), given the usual stuff you get in supermarkets can be dull and sickly sweet with no great flavour from the pollen the bees have been feasting on.
But the London Lamppost office favourite has to be Behan’s fruit soufflé omelette. I challenge you to try it and it not become your new favourite weekend breakfast. You’ll be arranging weekly brunches with all your friends, showing off this new dish that’s like French toast on steroids (perfect too for the non carb eaters among you), quicker than you can say ‘omlet soufflé z owocami’ (granted though, it might take you a while to say it).
Wild Honey & Rye is a book of cosmopolitan Polish food reflecting and embodying the new cosmopolitan Poland Behan discovered a few years back, a Poland of the EU not USSR, a Poland obsessed, like many of us, with street markets, new takes on old dishes and reviving old food and drink industries. The dishes covered by Behan show the rich influences from Poland’s somewhat sad and chaotic history. Throughout its existence the borders of Poland have grown and shrunk, it has been invaded by other cultures, been the connection between Europe and Eurasia, neighbour to the Holy Roman Empire, played a central role in the Turkish spice trade into Europe and invited a French prince to be King.
Despite the population being historically poorer than its neighbours, the food thus comprising simpler versions of dishes that were common in the wider region, Polish food has gone out and conquered the world without our realising it. Mac and cheese or a bagel anyone?
Wild Honey & Rye is packed with dishes that you will know and recognise versions of. Yes, the dreaded Russian salad of childhood picnics makes an appearance, but there are wonderful and on trend raw salads. The rainbow beetroot, buckwheat and asparagus salad looks amazing and will be firmly on my picnic list while, like all good Polish books, there’s a recipe for pickles.
For those of you who took to the kale trend with gusto but don’t know how it grows (its not like a head of cabbage sitting above the soil) there’s a stunning pic of a full kale tree on p.68
Soups, of course, make an appearance – apart from being important in Polish cuisine, no cookbook is complete without them – including a sour cucumber and pork rib one that looks intriguing. Apples are the largest food export from Poland, so play a key role in the food, and the apple mashed potato is a great idea as an alternative to go with your next Sunday roast pork or even duck.
As you would expect, herrings are also in attendance, as is steak tartare. Yes, I know you’re saying ‘but that’s a French dish’ and classic tartare is, but it’s a dish with its own long history in Eastern Europe; in fact I first had it in Austria as a child. The tartare is evidence of what’s happening and helping develop Polish food – the chef who prepared it in Warsaw for Behan is a Pole who was born and raised in Manchester, as she was, but has moved to Warsaw and made a life there modernising the cuisine.
Like all good cookbook writers, Wild Honey & Rye’s author has a recipe bearing her name, and what a recipe! Ren’s Reuben is now a sandwich I dream of. Meanwhile, the Polish gnocchi with bacon and mushrooms is a dish I remember fondly from my travels years back in the country. Continuing with the meat theme, the hunter’s stew is a pork and sausage lover’s dream come true, while the subtle understatement of the grilled Polish charcuterie board is whimsically delightful (it’s just a grilled sausage with bread). The venison recipe is a lovely, light, simple way to have this wonderful game meat rather than requiring a whole heavy roast. Veal chops, duck breast and legs are all there and, something that Eastern Europeans do better than most, the use of the spices makes the dishes different from the way you find them in Western Europe.
It’s not all meat though. The pan-roasted cod is a real delight of a dish and the Polish deli section reads like the most amazing picnic. The pierogi section is small but spot on, teaching you the basic technique to make them and different savoury, sweet and dessert fillings. Desserts of course feature: Polish apple cake, apple pancakes, and a celebration torte that puts the Victoria sponge to shame. Liquor and flavoured vodka recipes
Full of wonderful photos from Poland that reflect this new cosmopolitan culture and make you want to hop on a plane and jump on one of the tours, if Wild Honey & Rye and Ren Behan are to be believed, Polish food is a rich and varied cuisine. Even if that’s not the case, it doesn’t matter as this book is packed with plenty of great dishes to add to your repertoire.
Wild Honey & Rye: Modern Polish recipes by Ren Behan
Published by Pavilion Books
Image credit to Yuki Sugiura
Available to purchase here.