Pre­served in mem­ory

Never-for­got­ten flavours of a lov­ing child­hood in a Pol­ish vil­lage

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - BEATA ZA­TORSKA

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: tab­u­la­

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

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