Real Poles make bigos. And these words have been written just because I can’t make a neat pun with its name as if I would in Polish – where it is synonymous with a large mess. Also, it wasn’t a mess at all. It was a finely cooked, perfectly sour, warming up hunter’s stew.
Go straight to the recipe
It is deeply rooted in Polish culinary tradition. There’s no Christmas party without bigos, no family celebrations without it – the king of the table, prepared usually in amounts for the entire army (and indeed for the whole family getting together). I wouldn’t be myself without going nerdy, so there comes a bit of the history. We’ve had our own parliament, one of the first examples of modern democracy, however oligarchic, with the king and the noble, formed of around 10% of society to be a decisive force. Every single one of the noblemen, those richer or those poorer than wealthy townsmen, all equal in their rights, could stop the entire resolution with a “liberum veto” – “freedom not to allow”. And that was a disaster for the empire, but let’s set this aside.
Winged hussars were the best cavalry in the world at the time, bearing a noble background and a pair of angel-like wings on their backs. They picked the tribe of Sarmatians as their patrons, and assumed that the Sarmatian blood flows in their veins, too. Very exclusively, nevertheless: it was just a privilege of “szlachta”; plebs, remaining Slavic, seemed not to have such deeply rooted traditions. Even the traditional, off-battlefield attire was modelled on what they could wear: and soon, the so-called Sarmatian culture grew to become, in conjunction with the following years of Romanticism, Positivism, Young Poland, Second Republic, the War and communism, the background of our national identity. And a part of it is plentifulness of food prepared for dinner parties, hunting parties, wedding parties, et cetera. Even one of our national bards, Adam Mickiewicz who wrote an epic poem about the dawn of “gentlefolk” in the 19th century portraying traditions in-depth, mentions exceptional food. He pays tribute to the gentle village life, with the descriptions of wonderful parties, with true richness of food on the tables, where pitchers of mead and bottles of wine were passed around and vodka was drunk instead of water, as it was believed to give you “gastric problems”. The funny thing is – we were never first in European statistics, as historians say; the Czechs, Hungarian and English apparently extended every limit, however strong heads, real cockiness, promptness to beat somebody up and unique creativity (which coined a later phrase “ułańska fantazja” describing cavalry in 19th-20th century, if you know what I mean lol) made the myth of nobilited drunkards unusually common among the historians and laughed off by witty writers like Krasicki. Hunters cherished delicacies after the lengthy chases around forests, like Mickiewicz claimed, and here’s what he said about bigos:
“In words it is hard to express the wonderful taste and colour of bigos and its marvellous odour; in a description of it one hears only the clinking words and the regular rimes, but no city stomach can understand their content. (…) However, even without these sauces, bigos is no ordinary dish, for it is artistically composed of good vegetables. The foundation of it is sliced, sour cabbage, which, as the saying is, goes into the mouth of itself; this, enclosed in a kettle, covers with its moist bosom the best parts of selected meat, and is parboiled, until the fire extracts from it all the living juices, and until the fluid boils over the edge of the pot, and the very air around is fragrant with the aroma. The bigos was soon ready. The huntsmen with a thricerepeated vivat, armed with spoons, ran up and assailed the kettle; the copper rang, the vapour burst forth, the bigos evaporated like camphor, it vanished and flew away (…)”
In the fever of referencing for the end of the semester, I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t reference this post to something. So I just did. Sorry not sorry. But, wait, back to the recipe.
This recipe makes a huge pot of bigos and fills your kitchen with its unique flavour – this is an unmissable thing. Plus, loads of vitamin C – it is going to boost your immunity and keep the flu away.
Serves: 6-8 | Preparation time: active ~25 min, total ~1 hour
1 medium cabbage
1 jar of sauerkraut (1kg)
400g of fresh mushrooms
a handful of prunes
1/2 glass of red wine
4 cups of vegetable stock
2 large carrots
1 large onion
2-3 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon of butter
1 can of peeled, chopped tomatoes
selection of 3 types of meat (I used chicken breast, pork sausage – if you can get the Polish smoked one you’re gonna get more of the real deal – and leftover steak)
1 teaspoon of dried marjoram
1 teaspoon of rosemary
1/2 teaspoon of allspice
2-3 large bay leaves
salt and pepper, to taste
Chop the onion, shred the cabbage or cut its leaves into very thin stripes. Cut mushrooms into small pieces. Dice carrots and apples. Cut meat into smaller pieces.
In a large pan, heat the butter. Add the onion and fry until it’s golden. Add the garlic, fry for a few more seconds. Toss the chopped mushrooms and meat in and fry until they start releasing juices. Add the wine and chopped apples and simmer on lower heat for around 5 minutes.
Add the cabbage, sauerkraut, prunes, carrots, chopped tomatoes, vegetable stock and all the spices. Mix everything together and cover. Simmer on medium heat for around 45 minutes, stirring from time to time.
Eat with bread, or with potatoes on the side. Bigos is the tastiest when it rests for about 2 days in a cold place – reheat and enjoy!