Contributor: Ewa Czernuszewicz
As a child, Christmas Eve was that magical time when the evening began when the first star was seen in the sky with the most important meal of the whole Christmas celebrations - Wigilia. Having been born in a refugee camp in England of Polish parents I was more Polish than those born in Poland! We moved out of the camp and continued living in England but we adhered to all Polish traditions with a passion. Preparation for Wigilia would start back in September when our normal looking garage attached to my parents' house in Yorkshire would be transformed inside into a culinary grotto. My friends would beg just a glimpse inside to see wooden barrels of herrings being salted, barrels of cabbage fermenting to make sauerkraut, cucumbers salted with dill, mushrooms which we had been to Scotland to collect, drying on net frames along with drying apples, pears and plums as well as a whole array of sausages hung from the wooden roof struts.
Wigilia is a meatless feast. Advent does not finish until midnight so according to Catholic traditions no meat can be eaten until then. All vegetables used for this meal would have been grown by my grandmother in a small allotment close to our house. About a week before December 24th a working frenzy would descend on the kitchen, beetroot to grate, potatoes to prepare, soured milk to be hung up in muslin bags to make a hard cottage cheese, poppy seeds to grind with honey, dried mushrooms to sort and grade, herrings to soak in fresh water over several days, not to mention the organising of fresh carp to be delivered on the day itself.
In our house Wigilia would consist of twelve courses beginning with barszcz (beetroot soup) followed by uszka (mushroom pasta parcels). A variety of herring dishes would follow, herrings with tomato puree, minced herrings with onions and oil and rollmop herrings with salted cucumber. Then would come the tureens of carp in an aspic jelly. Pierogi (Pasta cheese and potato parcels) would follow as the last savoury course. The fruit compote made from dried fruits would follow as well as other desert treats. Even though the food was always amazing, as children we were waiting for the last course of poppy seeds ground with honey poured over a sweet biscuit base because we knew that then Swiety Mikolaj (St Nicholas) would soon be visiting our house with our presents which he would leave under the Christmas tree!
* (c)Copyright 2008 Ewa Czernuszewicz, Helen Macbeth. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce and distribute copies of this Introduction to recipes for Poland solely for the purposes of non-profit domestic use or non-profit educational purposes in either case provided that copies are distributed at or below cost and that the author's source and copyright notice are included on each copy.