A Polish Christmas Eve: Then, There & Now

I recently realized that the only memory I actually had of Christmas from childhood was that of a photograph – the one where we were all sitting on the couch, my two cousins and I, my aunt and my uncle and my grandparents.

Moments earlier, someone had rang the doorbell, and when we three young’uns returned from checking who it was, we returned to a mountain of presents under the Christmas tree (!). Settled down, we were now waiting for the first star to appear – the star of Bethlehem – to signal the birth of Jesus and the beginning of Wigilia (vigil), one of the most important holidays in Poland.

This was the Christmas I had longed for since we moved to Canada, and this year, since I was ‘in the area’, I decided to celebrate the supper, held on Christmas Eve, Poland-style.

The day starts out with all eleven of us running around – there is a lot to prepare and everyone’s contribution is required. The children dress the tree, hang up some mistletoe, and spend the rest of the day playing computer games.

The table is prepared with hay under the table cloth, traditionally to bring good crops for the year, now mostly as a reminder of Jesus’ manger birth, and fish scales, symbolizing affluence, scattered under the plates to be later placed in respective wallets.

An extra setting is arranged at the table for a lost family member, or a wandering soul.

The beginning of Wigilia is set for 5:30pm: carols, no longer sung, are played quietly in the background, the birth story is read from the Bible, the Lord’s prayer is said by everyone, and then the oplatek – the Christmas wafer – is broken between each person as they wish each other good tidings for the year to come. There are twelve dishes as there were twelve apostles, and each one has to be tried. 

There is never red meat, but there is always fish (carp & herring) which symbolizes life, pierogies with cabbage and various mushrooms, barszcz (beetroot soup) with uszka (‘little ear’ pierogies), compote of dried fruit, and homemade desserts with mak (poppy seeds), which, through their ability to reproduce from one seed, symbolize abundance.

The uszka are missing but the ryba po grecku (fish ‘greek’ style), ryba w galarecie (in jello) staples are all there along with some new spins like herring rolls with plums and masala, and with apples and onions.

The children push for present time and when it comes, they run handing out presents like mad until everyone has a pile in front of them. When they’re all open, everyone finds their way back to the table to enjoy more pastries with compote and wine. And at midnight, the family goes to Pasterka – the midnight mass, originally to commemorate the three wise men paying homage to the baby Jesus, now done largely out of tradition.

I liked it. I liked how full of tradition it was. It was so different from my Christmases ‘at home,’ in Vancouver, where I always thought our table of four always felt so incomplete.

In Vancouver, we start out in a mad rush to finish with just the four of us there. There is no need to set up the Christmas tree – this was done by us all weeks ago and has been giving the whole house a feeling of festivity and warmth since. The carols are put on the radio, the table is cloaked with a white tablecloth, and an extra setting is arranged for a wandering soul.

Wigilia is begun when preparation is finished. The oplatek is shared amongst the four of us and well wishes of happiness and success are shared. There is never red meat, but there is always fish ‘po Grecku’ and ‘w galarecie,’ barszcz with uszka, pierogies with cabbage and various mushrooms, wine, compote, and makowiec from the Polish store for dessert.

When we’re ready, we hand out the presents one by one and take our turns opening each one. One of the presents is inevitably a movie from Santa for the whole family and when all the presents are opened, we grab our wines, aperitifs and poppy seed cakes and let the movie play. We eventually retire to our respective rooms, or go off to visit other friends.

And I like it. I like how full of comfort it is. It’s different from the Christmas in Poland, but it’s a tradition that we had made our own, one that grew and changed along with us.

The Christmas from my childhood, the one from the photograph, from my hometown, when we all still believed in Santa Claus and my grandfather was alive, was always the one I had longed for, but I was never going to be able to recreate it.

We weren’t in my hometown, I no longer believed in Santa Claus, and my grandfather was gone. And when we finally got hold of the photograph I found out the biggest reason of all: turns out the photograph was taken during summer vacation one year – it wasn’t a Christmas photo at all!

My one memory of Christmas was one that didn’t even exist!

But the thing is, Christmas is huge in Poland, and it’s particularly important as quality time spent with people you love. That’s exactly what the photo resembled for me, and it’s exactly the thing I can always strive to recreate.

the appeal of the café

“Vuoi un café?” You’re asked as your empty piatto secondo is taken from the table. It is the next logical step in the sequence of servings; the question is never of content, the answer is always a given, and within minutes a small tazzini is placed in front you, espresso within.

So is espresso a brewing method? Or the drink? Technically, it’s both.  Espresso is made by forcing steam through finely ground and compacted coffee beans, thereby “expressing” its flavour. [1][2] But it is also the default setting for the Italian coffee – the technical term rather than the everyday one [3] for the frequently consumed and culturally essential “café.” Continue reading the appeal of the café

Buona Pascua: We are gluttons

Day 1:

With Good Friday and Easter Monday taken up by Italian lessons, it was plain Saturday that we decided to celebrate Easter. easter basketThat weekend it was lazy and murky, and my cousin and I woke up late and took our time getting ready before heading over to her friend’s place to finish making “Easter Sunday dinner” – żurek, bigos, sałatka and mazurek – that we would scarf down later that evening.

We were a gaggle of girls concocting a rambunctious dinner over Ukrainian rap, German jokes and Polish movies. Continue reading Buona Pascua: We are gluttons

Recipe: Pasta Maria

You know what’s awesome? When the Italian guy you thought you’d be learning how to cook from calls you the “better chef of the house” and asks what you’ll be making. And then wants seconds. And then thirds. And then asks you for the recipe.

I made the best pasta last night. It wasn’t my usual favorite type of pasta (super stuffed and gooey and creamy and alfredo-ey) but for some reason we couldn’t stop eating it. We joked it must be the mushrooms. Allora, I thought I’d share the recipe.

Now, in Italian cuisine, everyone expects the food they’re eating to have a name. You can’t just call it chicken and say you threw in some mushrooms, they don’t understand that. No, you need to say you made Pollo con funghi. And then it’s delicious. However, such practices are much too restricting for my cooking creativity, so the only fancy name I care to give my pasta is ‘Maria’ (“La Chiave!”) because I think the key to the whole thing was the last ingredient.

Pasta Maria

Makes: Roughly 4 servings if you’re not one to stuff your face.

Ingredients | Ingredienti

  • ~375g Pasta (eliche, fusilli, etc.)
  • 1 can Tomato pulp (polpa di pomodoro)
  • ~8-10 Mushrooms (funghi), chopped
  • 3 slices Prosciutto crudo (I prefer cotto myself), sliced and diced
  • 1/4 Red onion (cipollina), minced.
  • 2 cloves Garlic (aglio), minced (by hand, not garlic press!)
  • 1.5oz Olive oil (olio di oliva) – enough to cover the bottom of the pan, plus
  • 1/2 tsp. Regular salt (sale)
  • Coarse salt (sale grosso) – I figured out the how much salt to put in to make the past delicious even on its own. How much? Too much. Delicious.
  • Black pepper (pepe nero)
  • Basil seasoning (basilico)
  • twig Rosemary (rosemarino), fresh if possible, diced

Directions | Direzioni

1.Put water into a pot. How much water? Enough for the amount of pasta you’ll need.

2. Add sale grosso and a small blob of olive oil to the water.

3. Bring to a boil.

4. Put pasta into boiling water and lower to a simmer. You can keep boiling technically, I was just behind on my vegetable cutting and wanted to give myself more time.

Unlike the fancy cooking shows, I like to peel, cut and dice while other things are boiling and simmering. Allora,

5. Start peeling, cutting and dicing the veggies and prosciutto for the sauce.

6. Cover bottom of decently large pan (which needs to be enough for all your pasta!) with olive oil, and put on low setting.

7. Throw in minced onion and garlic and let simmer. Make sure the heat is low enough for these to cook and not burn!!

8. When onions and garlic start smelling delicious and are cooking but haven’t started to bronze too much yet, add all mushrooms into pan. Stir so that they are all at least somewhat covered in oil, but don’t worry about adding more if they’re not. Mushrooms eventually release their own water so they shouldn’t burn.

9. When nearly bronzed, sprinkle a dash of basil seasoning and a teaspoon of salt on top.

10. Add in prosciutto. Let simmer for a few minutes, stirring occasionally.

11. Add tomato pulp. Stir so everything is mixed. Let cook for a couple minutes.

At this point, I gave the sauce a try. Everything was great but it tasted too tomatoey. So I racked my brain for what counterbalanced tomato and added in another pinch of basil and then a larger dash of rosemary and stirred. And let me tell you, the rosemary did it. So good.

12. Taste sauce, add in large dash of fresh rosemary and stir.

13. Assuming the pasta is cooked by now, add pasta. Mix everything together.

Serve immediately and enjoy!

the first month: a little bit of honesty [various, italy]

Today marks the end of my first month living in Italy.

A month ago, I left with the expectation of traveling for a year, the hope of continuing for five and the dream of doing this forever.

Within a week I wanted it to be over, wanted the lessons to be learnt so I could be back in the comfort of something familiar.

Except of course I never want it to be over

So far Italy’s been marvellous.

mailbox in veniceMouth watering pastas and pizzas with ingredients that roll on and off the tongue – fiori di latte, erba cipollina, pomodori, aglio, pepe nero…

Architecture and monuments that actually take my breath away – the grandiose duomo in Florence, the barricaded old town of Lucca, the surreal leaning tower in Pisa, the luxurious Venice, the quaint riviera…

And the little moments that make me feel like I’m right where I’m supposed to be – walking around at night delighting in cioccolato-stracciatella gelato, jogging through Tuscan olive groves while “buon giorno”-ing everyone I pass, enjoying real homemade Italian meals cooked for me in little Italian towns… absolutely marvellous.

But it’s also been hard.

I’m not quite where I want to be just yet. I’ve made some progress (like living with some Italian guy in a little Tuscan town), and I suppose a month out of forever isn’t even that long, but being the magical thinker and type A personality that I am, well, trying not to fail at my own expectations for myself – that’s the hardest.

But today marks the beginning of my second month living in Italy. AND, as a totally amazing sidebar, I feel like my big picture is coming together and that’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever known: I always knew what I wanted, but now I can see it happening and know who I want it to happen with.

I can handle a bit of discomfort for enlightenment like this.  Off I go.