What should you buy in a Polish deli, and what should you make with it?
- Credit: Archant
Jack Monroe shares her Polski sklep shopping list and favourite Polish recipes
The first time I noticed my local Polski Sklep was in 2013, in Southend-on-Sea. I was a local paper journalist, sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a small bedroom that I ate, worked and slept in, with my son occupying the single bed beside me. I already had signed my book deal for A Girl Called Jack, and people assumed I was rolling around in luxury, but in reality, I was sleeping on a floor. I shared that house with three other young women, and one of their mothers, all of them Polish, and all had cleaning jobs in the nearby town centre.
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We generally kept ourselves to ourselves, but shared the same fridge and kitchen, as is common in houses of multiple occupancy, and it was with great interest that I would watch the girls unload their daily shopping – rolled up poppy seed cakes, jars of pickled everything-imaginable, unfamiliar chocolate bars, rose jam, kabanos sausages, and oh, the pastries. We were a genial bunch, and I was writing a cookbook, so occasionally would trade some Greek potato salad for a bowl of chlodnik or a handful of pierogi, and stepped into a whole new culinary world.
I discovered that pierogi – the little stuffed potato dumplings – are dead simple to make and an excellent vehicle for leftovers that may be too meagre to fashion into another meal. My favourite recipe is by Nigel Slater, and I often make my own when I have a few spoons of curry kicking about, or bolognese, which isn't strictly traditional but is very good!
My son developed a fairly instant taste for dark chocolate coated gingerbread, and sauerkraut, although not together. We would pop in after nursery school for a Princesa bar or a some krowki, fascinated by handwritten notes pinned everywhere that neither of us could understand, and conversations we could hear and yet know nothing of. I still drop in regularly and wander around, picking up pickles and marvelling at tiny delicate pastries that my huge clumsy hands could never replicate, like a micro-holiday from the predictable homogeny of the supermarket express store.
I taught myself to make sauerkraut that summer, stuffing it into large emptied jars that had previously held baby cucumbers and mustard seeds and dill. Cabbage is cheap, as are salt and vinegar, yet this tangy little condiment is so much more than the sum of its parts. Ditto chlodnik – the chilled beetroot soup – and the much-loved pierogi. In fact I would say that is true of Polish cuisine in general; made of good but widely-available ingredients, simple but not basic, healthy without the side order of smuggery. Peripatetic. Honest. The building blocks of a decent diet.
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If you're curious – and you should be – the Polish cookbook scene is a bright and vivacious one. My favourites include Polska by Zaza Zat, Mamushka by Olia Hercules, and The Art Of Polish Cooking by Alina Zeranska.
You don't have to find your local Polski Sklep to locate the ingredients either, as many large supermarkets have dedicated areas for varying cuisines nowadays, but I would definitely recommend finding your nearest one and having a firkle around, especially in the wake of post-Brexit smashed windows, graffiti and violent attacks on local independent shops. Stick your head in and show solidarity in sauerkraut, and welcome to a whole new culinary experience.