Preserved in memory
Never-forgotten flavours of a loving childhood in a Polish village
IT was my job, aged five, to gather rose petals to make jam. Each day, together with the local bees, I carefully inspected the deep green, wild rose bushes around the house to search for any newly opened buds. I had to be patient and wait for the June sun to assert itself, and the mountain winds to stop howling at the fragile, early summer days. Finally, one magic morning, a bush would wake up from its sleep and large pink flowers would greet the rising sun.
The silky soft petals, sparkling with dew, came away easily in my hand and landed gently on the bottom of my wicker basket. Their rosy fragrance lingered on my fingers for the rest of the day — a true perfume of summer. My grandmother Jozefa simply put the petals in a large stone mortar, covered them with lots of sugar and blended them into a thick, magenta-coloured paste. She gave me a teaspoonful to savour while she carefully placed every last speck into one of her ready jars. Rose petal j am was her most precious preserve — a dollop of summer to be released in the long winter months when the rose bushes hid under a quilt of snow.
I spent the first summers of my life in a tiny village in Lower Silesia in rural Poland. Our house was surrounded by fields of wildflowers so tall a small girl like me could easily disappear from sight.
My mother was studying in Krakow, my father doing his compulsory military service, so I was looked after, much of the time, by someone who was to become a big influence on me. Jozefa was my grandmother, but I called her ‘‘my second mum’’, Mama Druga.
Jozefa worked as a professional chef, but she also cooked for our family, often using many fresh ingredients from her garden. The house was always full of the sweet aromas of food. Nettles and mint hung drying in the attic alongside bunches of chamomile flowers and poppy-seed husks. Yeasty doughnuts (paczki) were laid out on every flat surface, stool, and armchair, slowly puffing up under starched white tea towels. Though I was almost too small to hold a rolling pin, Jozefa let me roll out the pastry dough to make pierogi — the ravioli-like pasta that Poles are addicted to — and taught me cooking secrets told her by her grandmother.
When I was as young as four, Mama Druga took me on long walks up into the foothills of the Karkonosze Mountains. I followed close behind, watching the bright flowers on her full skirt dance in front of my eyes.
Together we collected herbs and flowers, and she found plants in the woods to make her own medicines and face creams. She taught me the name and use of each one, in cooking and in healing, and did not laugh when I announced my own childish ambition to be a doctor. I only have to close myeyes to remember the smell of her peppermint stomach syrup, valerian heart drops and stinging-nettle arthritis unguent — a potent mix of herbs and compassion that made everyone feel instantly better.
A grandma in her 40s, it was as if she was a white witch with shoulder-length chestnut hair and I was her proud apprentice, confident every illness was curable with her herbs, barks and ointments.
Every inch of our garden was cultivated with all sorts of vegetables and fruit. Carrots, celeriac and beetroot would fight for ground space, while dill, peas and beans knit a tight canopy above them. Calico sacks full of home-grown potatoes, beetroot and apples were lined in rows on the concrete floor of the cellar, forming secret corridors for me to explore.
Throughout the summer Jozefa and I would hunt for wild strawberries, blackberries and raspberries in the mountain forests. Upstairs in the kitchen, recycled glass jars of odd shapes and sizes would clink together in huge tubs of boiling water, ready to be filled with the garden’s spoils. The steam glistened in the afternoon sun, casting a silvery web over the windows, the white porcelain cups on the oak dresser and the large yellow radio in the corner.
Today when I turn a yellowed page filled with my grandmother’s neatly written recipes it is as if I am touching her hand, covered with flour and speckled with diamonds of sugar. I can hear the floorboards creaking under Jozefa’s feet as she moves between the table and wood-fired stove; I shiver at the sound of a sharp knife scraping the dough from her fingers; I can smell the sweet perfume of her rose petal jam. These memories are so vivid I can almost fool myself that she is still alive, working as usual at her large oak table, getting her preserves ready for next winter.
Jozefa took care of the farmhouse and the cooking, while her mother, my great-grandmother Julia, looked after the cellar, the garden and our 10 precious chickens. Nothing was thrown away; even the stinging nettles that constantly invaded the garden through the gaps in the fence would be cut up and dried for chicken feed. Julia wedged her gumboots in the mud as she pulled at the nettles with bare hands, cursing the weed in Russian (saving Polish for her prayers).
In the attic, Julia hung poppies out to dry. Only she knew how to crack open the dried husks to extract the seeds, which Jozefa then made into poppy-seed cake (makowiec). Down stone steps in the cellar, hundreds of j ars of preserved fruits and vegetables were stockpiled for winter. Like precious jewels found at the back of a dark cave, the jars would glow in the light of my torch: golden pear kompot, ruby beetroot soup, emerald dill cucumbers, amethyst prune paste.
Three women and a cat, we felt secure in this house, safe from winter’s bad temper, global depressions and fumbling regimes.
Birthdays, ‘ ‘ name days’’, or special family gatherings were always a good excuse to try Julia’s latest homemade, alcoholic concoctions. Her speciality was creating fruit liqueurs (nalewki) from blackcurrants, sour cherries or any fruits she could find in our garden. She drowned the fruit in sugar and spiritus — a form of rectified spirit that is nearly pure alcohol. I clearly remember the intense, sweet flavour on the tip of my tongue: I must have once licked the empty liqueur glasses when no one was looking.
To mark each vintage of her nalewki, Julia tied different coloured threads round the necks of her bottles, as if awarding stars to a fine cognac. She hid them in remote corners of the house, telling the family there was nothing left until next summer. The men soon learned that the best way to coax some out of her was to criticise the latest vintage, saying it wasn’t as good as last year’s.
Provoked, Julia would proudly produce the ‘‘last’’ bottle, miraculously found in an abandoned piano, cupboard or wardrobe, to prove them wrong. But before anyone was allowed the smallest drop, Julia would sample the liqueur herself, sipping it slowly, checking its colour, enjoying centre stage and the impatience of her thirsty audience. Finally the bottle would be placed on the table, to be shared around immediately and the empty flask recycled for next season. This is an edited extract from Rose Petal Jam by Beata Zatorska and Simon Target (Tabula Books, $60). On sale in September. More: tabulabooks.co.uk.
Beata Zatorska spent the first summers of her life in in rural Poland with her grandmother and great-grandmother in a house surrounded by fields of wildflowers
The author, aged two, in the kitchen with her grandmother Jozefa