A word of Yuletide caution. If you happen to be celebrating your first Christmas with Poles this year, abstain from eating and drinking 24 hours in advance. Trust me: you will be grateful for this advice.
Readers have commented on the many food (and drink) references in ‘Where the Devil Can’t Go’ – my ebook, a crime thriller set among London’s Poles. From the first slice of Napoleonka – a millefeuille pastry slice, served by a Polish matriarch in her Islington restaurant – to the kotlety, or minced pork meatballs, that my wheeler-dealer/private detective knocks up for a ferry crossing picnic with his mate Oskar, food is ever present.
It’s not just that I’m an incorrigible smakosz (greedy person): it’s because, as a Brit married to a Pole, I’ve long been struck by the importance of food and the rituals around it in Polish culture – especially at special events like Christmas. My first Polish Christmas with my parents-in-law at their London flat was a bit of an eye-opener. The family left Poland in the Eighties, during the Solidarnosc uprising against the Communist regime, but still celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve with a supper known as Wigilia – the ‘vigil’ awaiting the birth of Jesus. My husband did tell me there would be a lot of food – one dish for each of the twelve apostles – but I laughed off his warning.
Because Christmas is still so infused with religious significance for Poles, the evening had a poignant magic about it long ago lost from the modern British version. Wisps of hay representing the manger poked from beneath the candlelit tablecloth, and we broke and shared oplatki, communion-type wafers with holy images pressed into them. In the old days, these wafers were even shared with the household’s pigs, cows and chickens, in remembrance of their presence at Jesus’s birth. The feast began with a spread that covered the entire table, although there were only four of us. Plates of giant prawns, smoked salmon, rollmopsy and otherfishy titbits – Catholics traditionally forego meat on Christmas Eve – plus a loaf of rye and giant bowl of Polish salad (a bit like Russian salad and utterly delicious).
Next came plates piled with hot pierogi, ravioli-like parcels filled with mushroom and cabbage, dripping with melted butter, followed by golabki – stuffed cabbage rolls. I didn’t have a lot of room left for what my husband described as the main event: a thick and delicious wild mushroom ‘soup’, thick with pasta and streaked with double cream. My attempts to resist seconds were charmingly ignored – but somehow I forced down the last rich, slippery spoonful and folded my napkin feeling utterly bloated. Then my mother-in-law set down yet more serving dishes. Two hefty tranches of cod apiece, battered and deep-fried, served with a heap of mash and vegetables.
Last year marked my fifteenth Polish Christmas. These days I like to think I’m a Wigilia veteran, so I barely pick at the fishy hors d’oeuvres, and sternly refuse all second helpings. This time I was ready for the fried cod – an Anglicised version of the jellied carp that my husband recalls being bought live and fattened in the bath a week ahead of Wigilia. And although the last mouthful left me uncomfortably full, I was relieved to have survived another food marathon, Polish style. Until I caught my husband smirking.
His mother burst out of the kitchen in a cloud of savoury steam, bearing a huge platter. “Roast goose!” she announced triumphantly. “This Christmas, in honour of our dear daughter, we decide we will observe English tradition.”
You have been warned.
Anya Lipska’s ebook is available for Kindle at Amazon. Find out more about the author and the book at the author’s site here, as well as enter a competition to win a Kindle 4/cash alternative (closing date 15 January 2012) here.
Drop by from later this evening for a review of the novel.