Beata Zatorska left Poland for Australia in 1981. Her parents – Solidarity activists – travelled with her. She was already studying medicine, so finished her studies in Sydney, Australia, and for many years has worked there as a family doctor. ‘I once went to a Polish club in Sydney and saw a group of elderly immigrants who had never made it back to their beloved country, and clearly never would. I fell into despair’ said Beata during our meeting in a small cafe in Shepherd Market in Mayfair. She had come to London with her husband for a few days to promote the book they wrote together. Our meeting turned into a fascinating conversation about Poland, homesickness, Poles living in London - the lovely waitress who gave us tea was, of course, a Pole - you cannot escape the topic. And the fact that we London Poles don’t really know homesickness. You miss home, you go buy a ticket on Ryanair, spend a couple of hours on a plane, problem solved. For those from more distant continents, there’s no such simple cure. Unable to return for so long, Beata has expressed her longing for Poland in this sublime book.
Beata’s family were displaced by the war and moved to Poland’s recovered territories. The same war cost young grandmother Jozefa her husband, and great grandparents Julia and Dimitry their home in the kresy. They fell in love with a beautiful new place at the foot of the Karkonosze mountains and made a home in old farm that belonged to a German barrel maker, with whom they shared the house for a few months. Grandfather Dimitry founded a small business, using the equipment left behind, but was soon declared a ‘kułak’ by the communist authorities. In protest, he refused to work for the rest of his life.
In this multi-generational family little Beata grew, under her grandmother’s supervision. While her mother was finishing her studies, Beata was discovering the magic of unspoiled mountain forests, collecting mushrooms and learning about the medicinal use of herbs. She made pierogi with her grandmother and gathered rose petals from the garden, to make the best possible jam filling for donuts.
When, after twenty years away, Beata came back home to Jelenia Gora, grandmother Jozefa was no longer there, but the smells and tastes of her childhood remained. Into Beata’s hands fell her grandmother’s notes of culinary lore - deepest secrets she had learned not just from home cooking, but also working as a professional cook in a nearby castle/hotel. To Beata’s mind this is the best traditional Polish cuisine. There’s herring in sour cream, pancakes, pierogi, poppy seed cake, potato pancakes, pickles, vegetable salad, chicken soup and a duck stuffed with apples. And much more, although you will not find any nouvelle cuisine from the latest Polish television cooking shows.
Beata connects each story with a particular food, taste or fragrance. Such as the aroma of tea with confiture during private violin lessons from her teacher who left Warsaw after the uprising and moved to Lower Silesia. Sacked from his job at the Academy of Music for making a joke about Stalin, he was allocated work in a meat processing plant, and gave music lessons on the side for free – so he could not be accused of running a business. Parents paid him in kind – with hand knitted jumpers and jams. As he could not afford sugar, he gave his students the luxury of cups of tea sweetened with home made jam.
You could argue that Polish history is treated very superficially in this book, that we are shown only a few charming corners of our country. I’d say that’s great! Our history is in reality so convoluted it’s better not served up whole. It could cause indigestion. In her book, Beata Zatorska gives us the most important moments to build a clear picture of our contemporary history, just enough not to scare off visitors – on the contrary, after such an intriguing snack most will be happy to reach for the main course. It might spark the desire to explore this beautiful, though still not very popular country. That’s just what happened with Beata’s husband, Englishman Simon Target, who became so fascinated with Poland when they drove without any particular plan, far and wide across the country. We therefore get not just Beata’s personal childhood memories woven with food and recipes into our history, but also this romantic trip around Poland today, at its most beautiful summery best. We visit not just the iconic travel spots but many forgotten, out of the way places, such as shrine in the middle of nowhere – all captured in the remarkable photographs taken by Simon, a professional filmmaker.
Bogdan Becla, director of the Polish National Tourist Office, revealed to me at the book launch at Ognisko that he had bought ten copies. I think he should buy half the edition and give the book as a gift to every non-Pole he does business with. The book is in fact quite contagious in the way it spreads word of our country’s beauty.
‘I just have to go there!’ I kept hearing at the London launch of Rose Petal Jam - Recipies and Stories from a Summer in Poland. ‘Poland seems such a beautiful country’ I am surprised to hear a beautiful Englishwoman observe. ‘I did not realize that you have so many charming places to visit. One rather associates Poland with shipyards and coal mines. But it seems to compete with Provence or Tuscany’ she says, clutching a copy in her arm. ‘When is the best time to go?’
Beautiful photographs, excellent design by Miranda Harvey - buy this book if you want to go on a sentimental journey. If, however, you are not sentimental, and your taste is not for wild roses from fragrant gardens and (always organic) roadside vegetable stalls, but for Tesco and Auchan and multi-level malls with multi screen cinemas and Pizza Hut, then buy it for your English friend, your French boss, your mate from Jamaica or your Indian neighbour. Show them that our country, apart from those famous shipyards where communism was dismantled, has so much more to offer. The sooner they go and look the better.
For me, Rose Petal Jam is a sentimental journey to the kitchen of my grandmother Emilia. It reminds me of her, and transports me to a distant world of nutmeg, cardamom and coriander (though we could only buy salt and pepper back then, and vinegar with 10% alcohol). I clearly remember the taste of mint, homemade cherry liqueur, rolled meats and poppy seed cakes with the poppy seeds ground in a stone makutra. Just like Beata’s Proustian memories.