Inside the old kitchen #1 What did the inhabitants of the Commonwealth eat?

Inside the old kitchen #1 What did the inhabitants of the Commonwealth eat?

Foreign cuisine always fascinates us. Intuitively, we know what to expect from French, Portuguese, or Italian cuisine. In the past centuries, just like today, learning about culinary habits was an essential part of the journey. Let’s sneak into the old kitchen and see what inhabitants of the Polish-Lithuanian  Commonwealth did eat!

Inside the old kitchen is intended as a series in which I will exhibit the secrets of the long-gone pantries of the lost kingdom. From the bottles of wine, beer, and meads, to the scenting world of spices and weird combinations of flavors and ingredients: we will experience the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the different side.

In the first installment, we will dive into the 17th-century relation of the Gaspard de Tende. This Frenchman was a personal treasurer to the queen  Marie Louise Gonzaga. After spending almost 30 years at the court and election of king John III Sobieski, de Tende finally retired and poured his memories onto paper. In 1686, as Sieur de Hauteville, he published  Relation historique de la Pologne, which quickly became a very popular source of knowledge about the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. 

Usually, we have French cuisine in a quite high regard. Let’s check how this gentleman saw Polish customs. Maybe he wasn’t right after all? 

“Feast of the Radziwiłł”, Aleksander Orłowski (1777-1832), National Museum in Warsaw. Public domain.

 Breakfast isn’t the most important meal of the day?

Poles do not eat breakfast at all, or they do it very rarely, and they don’t like meats served cold. Men and women usually consume a warm beer mixture each morning with ginger, egg yolks, and sugar.

In the middle ages and early modern period, the most important meals were mid-day dinner and evening supper. Some scholars even considered breakfast as the sin of gluttony, because it was, well, breaking the fast. 17th century brought the change, and the first meals of the days became popular, also in France. In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth breakfasts were eaten, but the food was different than the Frenchman saw in his homeland.

This warm beer mixture de Tende described was indeed a very popular morning meal. Poorer used only beer and bread crumbs, however in richer households eggs, butter and milk were used as well. The recipe for this dish can be found in old cookbooks. However, in richer households eggs, butter and milk were used as well. The recipe for this dish can be found in old cookbooks. Beer, apart from being the most popular alcoholic beverage, also was an important part of the cuisine.

“They would rather eat a cat than a rabbit…”

During meals, they usually eat beef and veal, which are delicious in Poland. on the other hand, lamb is not as good as in France (…). They have lots of grey partridges (but no red-legged partridges), lots of hares, and no rabbits: they would rather eat a cat than a rabbit…

In Poland, you can also find a lot of red deers, but not many roe deers, a lot of boars and pigs, a lot of capons, roosters, hens, chickens, turkeys, pigeons, ducks, and geese. For when it comes to wild ducks and geese, as well as common snipes, they are not here at all in winter, but during summer there are plenty of them. The reason for this is that in winter all ponds and rivers are frozen, and these birds love to always be in the water.

“Partridges” Józef Chełmoński, 1891, National Museum in Warsaw. Public domain.

Meat in the diet of the nobles played the most important role because it was not only food but also a sign of prestige. The selection of the right meat was also very important because each food had its own symbolism and cultural connotation. For example, flying birds were held in high esteem, as they were seen as noble creatures of the skies. Another example of this prejudice was the noble’s reluctance to eat pork. Pigs were seen as (literally) unclean animals, better suited for the tables of the peasants than magnates. Exception was made for lard.

Mushroom hunting: our national sport

To this day, mushroom hunting is jokingly called “Polish national sport”. And this is true! Just after summer ends, thousands of Poles are getting up very early (or very late) and go to forests in search of delicious fungi. Many of them have their own, secret spots, which are guarded with envy…

Everyone wants to find porcini or golden chanterelles, but a common slipper jack is fine as well! Today mushrooms are eaten raw, fried, or dried, and used in many traditional meals. They play an important part during Christmas Eve supper. If you will ever visit Poland during autumn, you have to try mushroom picking: it is free, you don’t need any kinds of special permission, but be sure to avoid poisonous ones!

Let’s see what Sieur de Hauteville had to say about this:

Poles also eat all kinds of mushrooms that grow in forests, even those dwelling on the trees – they collect and dry them so that they will not spoil. . In France, nobody dares to eat mushrooms of this kind for fear of poisoning. It is possible things that would be poisonous in France are not in Poland. This is the case with poppy seeds, which everyone here eats like millet.

“Still life with mushrooms,Jan Baptiste Bouttats (1706-1740), National Museum in Warsaw. Public domain.

All that spices!

One very distinctive difference between Western and Polish-Lithuanian cuisine was the use of spices. A lot of spices were added to all kinds of foods, including meats. The cooks of the rich households used even the most expensive seasonings, for example, saffron: the most costly splice of the early modern period.

Also, their sauces are very different from ours. The yellow sauce is made with saffron, white with heavy cream, gray with onions, and black is made with plum juice. Besides, they add a lot of sugar, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, olives, capers, pine cone seeds, and Corinthian raisins to all of these sauces. They add even more spices to the fishes, which are prepared better than in France. Poles consume so many spices that there are lords who spend more than 50,000 French livres each year for them!

Polish-Lithuanian nobles loved to show off their wealth. In many cases, their behavior was a wasteful and sheer extravagance. Comparing the glamor of magnates’ lives and the poverty of peasants, it is not difficult for us to understand the social struggles and social inequality within the state. Food and feasts were part of this culture, where spending more meant to be higher in the social hierarchy.

Some foreigners did not like the dishes served in this way at all, which was a problem for many foreigners who came to the Commonwealth in search of happiness and good fortune.

“The Spice Shop”, Paolo Antonio Barbieri, 1637. Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Part 2 will be posted soon!

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