“The Christmas Eve of our forefathers meant white snow, the dark sky speckled with stars, a white tablecloth and wafer, everyone wearing their best clothes, the home smelling clean and of gingerbread and all the delicacies made for only the one meal, … there is our Polish snow, frost, sheepskin coats, and warm hats. We can read from them a piece of the lives of our ancestors. … Christmas Eve is still a ”magic” day, … We still get together, forget all our worries for a while, and smile at each other.” Magdalena Znamirowska, from Polish Origins ™ 2015
Shopping, Food and the Polish Christmas Feast
Writing about and visiting the Christmas markets has kept me busy. I’m wondering: which market is my favorite? With Christmas approaching so quickly, I tore myself away from my computer, to see what was happening at our neighborhood market here in Kraków, a place where we shop every other day. The Hala Targowa, is a combination outdoor food market and general all-purpose household goods bazaar and, add ‘flea market’ on Sundays. This is the place for fresh veggies, grains, and the highest quality meats. It could be our Polish “Whole Foods” with old world character and, unlike “Whole Foods”, you can buy socks, batteries, extension cords, nail polish, household soap and that elusive little thing that you haven’t been able to find in any other store. There are small boutique shops that edge the curbs at the perimeter of the Hala Targowa. They house the butchers, the deli, the bakers, the confectioners, and the florists. Everything you can possibly need day-to-day in an outdoor space that is half the size of a very small Walmart. So compact, so useful, so colorful, so economical, so entertaining.
Right next door to the market, across the pavement and up the stairs, in a large clean building that looks like a holdover from communist times, there is a bright, shiny, modern supermarket where you can find anything else you could not find at the Hala Targowa. Or you can shop there if you just prefer pushing a cart around a supermarket rather than buying things small scale and loading them into your handy-dandy shopping bag that you must always remember to bring with you.
This market is not like the fine and sparkling Christmas market in the main square of the Old Town. This is the local place for shopping and in the last week, it’s been bustling. The displays of merchandise now include novelty items added especially for the holiday. There are Christmas huts set up at the edge of the market selling decorations and lights almost as nice as the fancy market in the old town. There are live trees, wreaths and pine boughs being sold in every corner, nook, and sidewalk space. The florists here have gone whole hog spreading their mind-boggling arrays of goods into the walking paths. They display ornamental wreaths, holiday centerpieces, pine cone trees, candles, live flowers and decorative items for the cemetery plots, in any style you can possibly want from traditional to glitzy to natural. My head spins with the choices whenever I float by the florists. I was finally able to make a selection but there were 10 others that would have made me equally happy.
The excitement in the market is all about getting ready for the most important event of Polish Christmas: the Christmas Eve supper, called ‘Wigilia’ (Vee-gee-lee-a). This is the pivotal celebration event of Christmas for Poles. In olden days, the tree was brought into the house and decorated on December 24th. Throughout the day, the women and girls cook the traditional dishes and prepare the table. The supper begins at the rising of the first star. As children, my brothers and sisters and I were sent out of the house in our coats, hats and boots to find that star on Christmas Eve. We would return running into the aromatic steamy kitchen to announce that we had seen the star and the supper could begin. The Polish Wigilia is a warm, conciliatory, festive, formal supper where the family and guests break bread together. The bread is ‘opłatek’ (o-pwa-tech), a special Christmas wafer. Everyone at the table must interact as each guest and family member break a piece of the others opłatek and wish them good cheer and health in the coming year. (*See history of Opłatek)
Then the eating begins. Traditionally, it is said there must be 12 dishes for the 12 apostles. But there is another tradition, that the number of dishes must be an odd number. Or is it the number of guests at the table must be an odd number? We Poles are a superstitious lot. When I was growing up, our family tradition was that it had to be 9 dishes, an odd number; 9 for the months that Mary carried the baby Christ in her womb. This ‘odd number’ tradition could be a far eastern Polish variant as my mom was from the Kresy which are the lands that lie between Poland and Russia. Her Polish village, Derewna, is now in Belarus. I often find differences between our family traditions and those practiced here in Kraków.
Preparing for the Wigilia is a very big deal. My mom started cleaning house weeks before the 24th. Polish tradition states that every nook and cranny of the house must be cleaned before the feast. The shopping for the food was when the fun started and as the oldest child, I accompanied mom on her shopping expeditions. And so at the Hala Targowa, our local market, my personal feelings of Christmas are tied up with the poignant memories of my mom (Helen) and my aunt (cioci Stasia), the women who planned and cooked our childhood feasts and were responsible to pass the tradition to my generation.
Our neighborhood market is a one-stop shopping expedition for every food you could possibly need for Wigilia. There are dried seasonal fruits of every variety that are not packaged in plastic or cardboard (except for the imported figs) but displayed in their naked glory brimming over the edges of open white cloth sacks or plastic blue bins. Apricots, four varieties of prunes, six varieties of raisins, pears, apples, cherries and figs all destined to be incorporated into a variety of Wigilia dishes.
I remember that the fruit was for the ‘kompot’ (com-poh-t) a punch simmered with dried fruit, sugar, water and sweet aromatic spices. Mom served it as part of the main course. This fruit punch has been part of Polish cuisine since the 15th century. It is sweet and refreshing and served at room temperature or cold. As a kid, I always thought that this was the special drink of Wigilia. We kids could not find milk or juice on the table that night just ‘kompot’ and my father’s ubiquitous Manischewitz wine (which is the wine we underprivileged folk in the U.S. drank with Wigilia).
The market (targ) also offers a comprehensive diversity of rice and grains including kasha (buckwheat), which is used in many of the seasonal Polish dishes of late autumn and winter. It is often served just like oatmeal with milk and dollops of butter instead of sugar. Or it can be cooked with fruit, made into pancake batter or used as stuffing. Buckwheat should be one of those ‘yuppie’ fad foods because it has been acknowledged as the world’s healthiest food*.
The wheat grains and/or rice are used in one of the traditional dishes called the Kutia. Kutia is a sweet dish that includes honey, nuts, dried fruit and raisins as well as the wheat grain or rice. One of the nicest ingredients in Kutia (besides the raisins) is honey. There was an old woman at the Targa Halowa who had a little card table set up and from it, she was selling only honey. The varieties included linden, rapeseed, heather, buckwheat, acacia, clover, raspberry and honeydew (from coniferous trees that produce some therapeutic elements used to treat respiratory diseases). I bought the linden (lipowy). A small jar, about 14 ozs (400 gr) cost 15 złoty, which is less than 4 US dollars. I will be back for more soon.
Every nut you can imagine was on display in sacks, bins and trays . There were also countless types of beans of familiar and unfamiliar varities. There were beans that looked like fava, great northern, pea and navy and others in shapes and sizes you won’t find in the Goya aisle.
One of the favorite items on our shopping list was freshly made sauerkraut and newly brined pickles. The aroma from the brining jugs piled high with luscious, white, finely grated, clean, sauerkraut was fresh, briny and addicting. I didn’t really need sauerkraut to stuff the pierogi (dumplings) this year but could not resist its bouquet. The vendor scooped my sauerkraut into a plastic bag and weighed it. Greg secured some pickles out of another jug on the table. The pickles smelled like my cioci (aunt) Stasia’s pickles. She was a master of brine and pickle.
Finally, there was the carp, the signature traditional dish of the meatless meal of Wigilia. Herring is also served however carp holds a higher honor. There is much joking about how Poles love the ‘carp’. It is a peasant’s fish but here in Kraków, a rather aristocratic city, carp rules just like it does in the villages. Large, yellow, swimming pool-like basins had been set-up at the edge of the market where hundreds of carp were swimming freely and awaiting their fate. Tradition holds that the woman of the house must kill and clean the carp herself in order to ensure prosperity or luck in the household for the coming year. Hah!! Another responsibility for the woman of the house as if expectations for keeping the holiday weren’t high enough for her already. At the Hala Targowa, you select your swimming fish and then the fishmonger asks: “You want it dead or alive?” I mostly heard “dead’ as the answer. I guess the guys (there were mostly men shopping for the carp) don’t want to bring a large wet live wiggling fish home in their Fiat. Anyhow, if you choose ‘dead’ they take the poor carp into a little covered hut and slug it over the head until it expires.
What else do you need for a good Wigilia besides sauerkraut, dried fruit and beans, grains, nuts, carp, and herring? Well you must have pierogi (pee-rug-ee); that is a no-brainer. The pierogi are stuffed with potatoes and onions or sauerkraut and mushrooms and my mom always made sweet cheese pierogi, too. Fried onions go with the pierogi, so onions and potatoes go in the shopping bag. Then there are the beets for the salad and the soup pot. Dried mushrooms are very special. They go into a lot of dishes including the stuffing for the little dumplings (uczki) that are floated in the clear beet soup (think beet consommé), which is the traditional way to serve ‘barscht’ (beet soup) for Wigilia.
Mushroom soup can also be served. Wigilia is a 2-soup event. Mushrooms are brought into the market from the forests and countryside in the late fall. At that time, the market is teaming with fresh wild mushrooms of different varieties. The mushrooms at the market now were all dried (except for the white ones). The dried fungi are neatly run through a string and hung from the roof of the stall. Or arranged to brim over containers and bags. Either way, they are an attractive staple.
You can also buy poppy seed and yeast for the Polish poppy seed cake called ‘makowieć’ (ma-cove-vee-ets) which the hostess is also expected to make from scratch. I had ordered a beautiful poppy seed cake from the local bakery and can’t wait to take it to my hostess for Wigilia this year. We will be celebrating with our good friend, Basia (Barbara). Basia is mom to our beloved friend, Dominika in Bar Harbor. What a blessing to have such strong Polish connections in Maine. Our first Wigilia away from the U.S. will be like being with family.
This is the part when we send our best wishes for your holidays in whatever form they take this season. Virtually, we can break ‘opłatek’ with you regardless of ethnicity or religion as the breaking of this wafer is a custom connected to the conciliation of grudges, anger, paranoia and discord … between family and friends. So, our wish for you in the coming year: health, fortune, joy and love. Wesołych Swiąt and peace, friends, peace.
Most of the Photo Credits and Rights are to Greg Spring Photography
*”Before the Wigilia begins, pieces of ‘opłatek’ are handed around … Thoughts turn to those members of the family who are not present, and an intensely reflective atmosphere takes hold. The tradition of opłatek took off during the nineteenth century when many Polish families were separated, most famously after waves of patriots were dispatched to Siberia for rising up against Russian rule. Blessed wafers were sent to relatives in exile and divided families held parallel observances. … ” from Polish Christmas Traditions: Cracow http://www.local-life.com/krakow/articles/polish-christmas-krakow
**The George Mateljan Foundation for the World’s Healthiest Foods was established by George Mateljan to discover, develop and share scientifically proven information about the benefits of healthy eating. They have declared buckwheat to be the world’s healthiest food. See www.whfoods.com