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Christmas flavours are made mainly out of borscht, pierogi, gingerbread, and poppy seed cake. But they are also made out of special atmosphere, magical ornaments, and quality family time. There are also two more things: childhood memories and flavours. We spoke to several head chefs in Tri-City, and they told us about their associations, Christmas preparations and dishes.

The head chefs: Marcin Popielarz, Biały Królik restaurant, Gdynia

Fot. Joanna Ogórek

For the head chef of Biały Królik restaurant, who was born in the Żuławy region, Christmas memories are those of a true melting pot. His home saw the influence of cuisine from the Polish former Eastern Territories because of his grandmother, born in the Lublin region. Ukrainian and Belarusian neighbours also dropped by with their specialities. Christmas Eve dishes included pierogi filled with buckwheat and mint leaves or cabbage and mushrooms, dried fruit compote, and kutya.

“Christmas at home wasn’t lavish, but it was always merry. I spent this time with my large family: two brothers and countless cousins. We always had a full house. Because my father’s name is Adam, and his name day is on Christmas Eve, we’d have spontaneous evening visits from people who wanted to wish him all the best. We spent our Christmas according to tradition. There was a glistening Christmas tree, an empty chair for an unexpected guest, and hay that stuck out from under the tablecloth. We were all excitedly waiting for gifts: oranges and tangerines, walnuts and hazelnuts. Today, all these are freely available. Back in the day, these were all considered luxury goods and were rationed. We also attended Midnight Mass, we just didn’t sing Christmas carols. In a family filled with sports spirit and run by a father who was a sports coach, signing was a sign of weakness, so we avoided carols like the plague,” recalled the chef.

Fish were the main food during Christmas in the Popielarz family. Housewives served Żuławy-style herring and salted salmon with onions and oil. Since the family lived four kilometres from the sea, the household kitchen always had plenty of fish. A bathtub of herrings or Baltic cods didn’t surprise anyone. Some of the required ingredients came from their own harvests, or from neighbours and acquaintances.

“In autumn, my parents foraged for mushrooms in the forests of the Vistula Spit. They would then dry them, and used them as filling in pierogi. We also made our own sauerkraut. If my mother made borscht, she would usually do it using sourdough starter from our neighbour. Our Christmas number one was always the dried fruit compote. My grandmother spent the entire summer gathering apples, pears, and plums. She would then grind them and leave them to dry in the sun, on a well. On Christmas Eve, she added hot water, 27136752star anise and cloves, and this is how the delicious compote was made,” said the head chef of Biały Królik restaurant.

This year’s Christmas, Marcin Popielarz will spend at work, where he will prepare specialities for hotel guests. He is preparing a 12-course, Christmas Eve tasting menu. However, it won’t include strictly Christmas flavours, but rather sophisticated, winter dishes. This is what the guests expect. When asked for his Christmas dream, the head chef said: “I would wish for the pandemic to end, and the hotel to come back to life, so I could treat our guests to delicious food without restraint”.

The head chefs: Bartosz Czyżyk, 5 piętro restaurant, Gdańsk

The head chefs: Bartosz Czyżyk, 5 piętro restaurant

For any head chef, Christmas equals double the workload.  It is a truly intense period in gastronomy. Luckily, in this busy period, chef Bartosz can count on the support of his wife, who prepares some of her favourite dishes at home. The chef is also keeping himself busy. He prepares pierogi with cabbage and mushroom filling, and borscht made from sourdough starter, which is prepared beforehand. He sometimes makes cream of porcini soup. His Christmas Eve is meatless, according to Polish tradition, it’s not typical. It is of Polish-Mediterranean character.

“We used to live for five years in Italy with my wife, and we took quite a few ideas from Italian cuisine. Christmas is quite crazy when it comes to our kitchen. There are some typical Polish dishes, but also specialities from the south of Europe. For instance, pierogi dough is strictly Italian, and stuffing is Polish. Instead of the traditional Greek-style fish, I serve cod with vegetables and Italian peperonata sauce, which is made from bell peppers, purple onions, zucchini, aubergine, and tomato pulp. We also have seafood for Christmas: shrimp tempura, octopuses, and stuffed calamari.   Our guests are always curious of these dishes, and are glad they can try something different. I stick to tradition when it comes to the sweet part of Christmas. I prepare poppy seed cake and orange cheesecake, and, for several years now, gingerbread cookies. If they aren’t devoured by my children, we put them on the Christmas tree as ornaments,” said the chef.

The Christmas tree has to be real and fragrant. There was always a freshly cut tree at the chef’s home.

“When I was a kid, I waited for Christmas so much. Not only for the traditional, first Christmas Eve star, but also the food and the magic that lingered in the air. I participated in preparations for as long as I remember. I was drawn to the kitchen. My father was always sparing with cooking, whereas my mother was an authority. I eagerly helped her: chopped vegetables for salads, prepared pierogi. Christmas was always special to me. I try to cultivate family traditions. I always spend Christmas with my close family: my wife, kids, and parents. We share the traditional Christmas wafer, sing carols, put hay under the tablecloth, and an additional plate on the table,” said the head chef of 5. Piętro restaurant.

This year’s Christmas, he will be staying at home. He hopes that despite the pandemic, he will be able to visit extended family. What does he wish for Christmas?

“I would like for things to go back to the days from before the pandemic. COVID has changed our lives. Restrictions have influenced human relations. I dream of a peaceful Christmas, and meeting up with relatives without the pressure Covid exerts,” he admits.

The head chefs: Damian Mazurowski, Kubicki Restaurant, Gdańsk

The head chefs: Damian Mazurowski, Kubicki Restaurant

Christmas is an extremely busy period for Damian Mazurowski. Looking from the professional point of view, it brings a lot of stress, but also plenty of positive energy. Christmas period in gastronomy always means that people work even harder than usual, to make it in time with all the orders. It’s no different in Kubicki restaurant. The amount of catering orders can be counted not by the dozens, but by the hundreds. Despite the Christmas craziness, hustle and bustle, and exhaustion, the chef enjoys this time.

“I always enjoyed Christmas. Even if they weren’t white, they were always merry. My grandparents organised Christmas, and were its binding. Today, our seigniory also attract us like a magnet, but because of their age, it’s the younger generation that engages in Christmas preparations. My grandmother specialised in pierogi with cabbage and mushroom stuffing, dried fruit soup, poppy-seed cake, yeast strudel, and gingerbread cake made with honey from my grandfather’s apiary. While my grandma bustled in the kitchen, my grandpa, a passionate storyteller, told us story after story. For a couple of years now, we have been sharing tasks. My mum makes dressed herring, I prepare pierogi, my aunt bakes the cheesecake. There is always carp on our table, which I, personally, hate, but also cabbage with peas, or roasted pickled herrings,” says the head chef of Kubicki restaurant.

In his family, Christmas preparations were a joint venture. It was a time of family bonding.

“For as long as I remember, everyone took part in Christmas preparations. We all received knives and cutting boards. Vegetable salad was a joint effort. This brought us together. On every Christmas Eve morning at our grandma’s, we would together decorate the Christmas tree, and then set the table.

Christmas is always traditional. Grandmother reads passages from the Bible, everyone sings Christmas carols, and after dinner we attend the Midnight Mass.

“Christmas in the countryside have a different touch to those spent in the city. The house can always accommodate a large group of guests. For years, we have been meeting in a large group of around 25 people who represent different generations. Grandparents, who are 93, are now surrounded by a flock of grandchildren. We fool around, sing Christmas carols. It’s merry and bright. I’m happy that we stick to old customs, and there is no one in this crazy world that tries to change this,” says Damian.

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