Polska by Zuza Zak

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Reviewed by Hayley Anderton

It’s no secret that I have a weakness for cookbooks, I love them, love the way that they give me a window into other worlds of flavour, and other lives. If I had more space I’d have lots more of them, but I don’t so each new book has to earn its place on the (already overcrowded) shelves. Arguably I could stop collecting them; I’ve already got enough inspiration for more than a lifetimes cooking, but then it’s not just about the cooking.

I’m currently really quite excited by the growing trend in cookbooks that look to Eastern Europe and one reason for that is summed up in the opening paragraph of Polska: Zuza Zak chooses to start with a quote:

The most vital attribute of food is its placement precisely on the border between the world of nature and the world of culture….to understand a cuisine is to understand a culture. To understand a culture is to understand the spirit of a nation.

It’s a romantic notion (and surely half the charm of a new cook book lies in its potential romance) but one that holds up to scrutiny. What Zak sets out to do in Polska isn’t to faithfully record typical traditional recipes ‘but to create something contemporary, a love letter to the country I left behind.’ There are traditional recipes of course, along with looser adaptations of traditions, family favourites, and recipes that celebrate what Polish cuisine is becoming as well as what it has been. It’s a wonderful celebration of a country that has managed to survive despite the best efforts of History (Poland was wiped off the map between 1795 and 1914, never mind the upheavals caused by Nazi invasion and Soviet rule).

On a practical note for the UK based cook, there’s little that can’t easily be picked up in any Polish shop or the international section of a supermarket. Lovage and lemon balm might be hard to find, but as both are easy to grow they don’t present much of a challenge. Handily the names which will appear on the packets/tins/jars/tubs are also given, which makes navigating shelves of unfamiliar sounding products far easier. Acceptable alternatives are also suggested which helps too.

Other things I like about this book are that a lot of the meat and fish recipes serve two or three (the puddings on the other hand are designed to feed ten to twenty…). As someone who habitually cooks for only two or three people at a time it’s refreshing not too have to think about scaling recipes down (I always find it easier to scale up). The breakfast and bread chapter has all sorts of good things in it; scrambled eggs with caramelised onions, semolina and honey porridge with raspberries (semolina pudding, but why not have it for breakfast?) a cinnamon apple bake which is basically a rice pudding with thick layers of juicy sweet apple sandwiching thin layers of soft sticky rice (which sounds like a great autumn winter breakfast). It’s a slight readjustment of ideas towards familiar ingredients, and that’s something that I always find exciting.

The cocktail chapter is also intriguing – a spiced chocolate martini made with cardamom infused vodka sounds very good, mulled beer has possibilities, and so does a bilberry or blackberry concoction with lime, vodka, brown sugar, and soda water. There are lots of dumpling recipes which beg to be made too, and those huge puddings are surely a perfect excuse for some proper hospitality.

Finally, the photographs and bits of history, family memories, quotes, and other snippets give context to the recipes without overwhelming them. The overall effect really does feel like a love letter to Poland. It’s a beautiful book.

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader, and loves cookbooks even more than cooking (which is a lot).

Zuza Zak, Polska (Quadrille, 2016). 978-1849497268, 256pp., hardback.

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