With carp scaring the living daylights out of most, herring becomes an unlikely hero on Christmas Eve. Too bad that, in the words of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, much of it comes “pickled in brutally acidic vinegar, which obliterates their oily succulence and flavor.” Instead, try marinating your own, while also escaping the monotony of the usual ‘dill and gherkin’ combo by mixing it with diced apple and sour cream. And don’t eat it all at once: with (heavy) boozing on Wigilia largely frowned upon, save some for the less formal family get together the next day – there is no happier coupling than vodka and herring.
Soup will always play a roll in Wigilia, and while some households might go for an almond soup, and others mushroom, most will opt for barszcz. Something of a classic, this beetroot soup is said to have been kicking around since the 16th century. To score the best results, try fermenting your peeled beets with garlic and water several days beforehand to ensure maximum taste. To go completely native, you’ll be wanting to serve the soup along with small mushroom dumplings (uszki) floating about.
Onto the bit everyone fears: carp. Often kept in the bathtub in the days preceding Christmas (to filter out the mud), most carp in Poland is corn-fed and that taste often comes through. With this in mind, source your carp carefully: our recommendation, search out Dorota (a.k.a Pani Karp) at the Fortecca farmers’ market. Even with a quality fish secured, keep in mind there’s still plenty of scope to go wrong. Common mistakes include overcooking the beast and frying it with oil rather than clarified butter.
Pierogi need zero introduction: the matriarch of each household will usually have her own highly confidential recipe, though one secret trick involves switching out the milk used in the preparation of the dough with sour cream – you’ll tell the improvement right away. Where fillings are concerned, the most popular on this meatless day include cottage cheese & fried onion (pieorgi Ruskie) or bigos (the Polski take on sauerkraut).
While it was traditionally said that the consumption of poppy seeds would lead to prosperity and fertility, the latter day popularity of makowiec (poppy seed cake) is explained in more prosaic terms: it’s tasty! With sweet sensations in relatively short supply, it goes without saying that this becomes one of the most coveted dishes on the dinner table. If you’re in luck, the final act might also include plum tart, apple cake and old-style Toruń gingerbread: you’re in good company there, fans of the latter have included Napoleon, Chopin and Pope John Paul II.