BBC Good Food Magazine
MY FAVOURITE DISH
We celebrate the world’s best comfort food by asking chefs and food writers from diverse backgrounds to nominate the dishes they love. Here, Damian Wawrzyniak of House of Feasts shares a recipe that is a long-held Christmas Eve tradition in Poland
Tony Naylor talks Polish comfort food with Damian Wawrzyniak, who shares his recipe for Greek-style fish
Carp is popular at Christmas, and we’d always buy it alive. In Polish homes, there’d always be a carp swimming in the bath before Christmas
From washing pots in an Indian restaurant in Freiburg, to opening venues in Hong Kong and Pakistan, Polish chef Damian Wawrzyniak travelled the world before finding his groove at Peterborough’s House of Feasts (houseo easts.co.uk).
It was another foreign adventure – six months at Copenhagen’s Noma – that persuaded this 40-yearold son of chefs that he could channel his food heritage into something unique: ‘Rene Redzepi created modern Danish cuisine using techniques – brining, curing, ageing, preserving – similar to eastern Europe. Why can’t I do that with Polish cuisine?’
Like most chef-owners, Damian has had a trying 2020, but what he has done – opening two mobile branches of Pierogi Kiosk, and a deli/takeaway at House of Feasts alongside the restaurant – have worked. ‘We used to have £85 tasting menus. Now, I sell sandwiches for £7, but the bread is house-made sourdough, the pastrami is smoked in the garden, and the sauerkraut is made here. We do everything.’ It has been tough, but he is confident: ‘Because we’ve diversified so much, it’s always busy.
‘Dad was a cruise ship chef and often away, so mum – a good cook, they met at catering college – was boss in the kitchen. Dad would only jump in for big family parties of, like, 50 people. My parents each had seven siblings. There was a wedding every Saturday!
‘In the early 80s, we lived on my grandparents’ farm, and mum cooked mostly from our livestock and garden. My memory of Fridays, when Catholics are not supposed to eat meat, was mum making fermented cherry soup – slightly sweet with massive acidity, a special flavour – that I could eat by the litre. My sister hated it. I also loved Kuyavian polewka (I was born in Radziejów), a fermented milk soup with potatoes and cottage cheese. I still make a version of it at House of Feasts.
‘Even when we moved to a town, Sompolno, there were small shops but no supermarkets. They came after the Solidarity movement and Lech Wa sa in 1989. It was a massive contrast. Dad would bring me Coca-cola, Mars bars and Levi’s jeans home from cruises, but post-communist Poland and western Europe were di erent worlds.
‘Christmas Eve, wigilia, is the big night in Poland. Making borscht, makoweic poppy seed cake or cured fish starts days before. Made-from-scratch, old Polish cooking is time-consuming. Carp is popular at Christmas, served jellied or pan-fried with onions and potatoes, and we’d always buy the carp alive. In Polish homes, there’d always be a carp swimming in the bath before Christmas.
‘Wigilia isn’t traditionally a huge family gathering – more for households, maybe with grandparents – and it’s not boozy. I’ve never had a glass of wine or vodka on Christmas Eve. You wait for the first star to come out around 7pm, then eat and later open presents. We always had a mix of 12 hot and cold dishes served together – all meat-free, eaten in small-ish portions – to represent the 12 apostles. Every dish has its meaning. For instance, cured herring with pickled onions represents the understanding of pain, because it’s a strongly flavoured, acidic dish.
‘There would also be a luxurious bigos stew and mushroom dishes, including pierogi with sauerkraut, handmade by all the family. The recipe I’ve chosen, Greek-style fish (I prefer haddock, but people will use any white fish ) is always served. Having researched it, it could be called “Greek-style” because of the oregano and basil, which were possibly among the Mediterranean ingredients brought to Polish cuisine by the Italian-born, 16th-century queen, Bona Sforza d’aragona. But, really, nobody has a clue!
‘I love it, maybe because I like sweet dishes, and the addition of sugar sweetens the fish mixture. In some areas of Poland, it’s served warm, but my family serves it cold, almost like a side salad, from the middle of the table so everyone can help themselves.’