What is fascinating is that on one hand, Podhale cuisine is quite well-known and valued, and on the other, it is not particularly sophisticated. It is rather simple and uncomplicated, based on a few basic ingredients; and yet it manages to delight with flavour and aroma. Highland dishes are also quite calorie-rich and heavy, but after all, there’s no sense in counting calories after hours of mountain hiking, climbing, or a big burst of active recreation – imagine the calories you’ll have burned!
It is worth emphasising that the simple traditional recipes and the filling meals did not come from nowhere and have their origins in the living conditions of the highlanders. Because of the harsh climate, long winters, and short growing season, as well as the rocky ground and poor soil, only grains (mainly oats and rye), potatoes (known as grule in the highland subdialect), and basic vegetables (especially cabbage and turnips) were grown here. They became the plant base for meals. Centuries-old shepherding traditions have made sheep farming widespread. It is to the migration of shepherding tribes that we owe the development of cheese-making, as well as the use of mutton and lamb in many dishes. In addition, the daily hard physical work demanded a high-calorie diet; the highlanders have always had to have the strength and stamina to cope with the challenges of everyday life, which is why traditional highland cuisine is not among the lightest fares. The gifts of the forest and the seasonality associated with them were also important influences on what ended up on the tables of the highlanders. In summer, their diet was supplemented with forest raspberries, wild strawberries, common bilberries, as well as blueberries. In autumn, the dishes were complemented by aromatic mushrooms, particularly saffron milk caps and porcinis; fried in butter, they tasted great with bread or were used as an ingredient in traditional soups and sauces. For centuries, bread has been the basis of meals in the Małopolska region, but it is interesting to note that it was not baked very often in Podhale. Instead, potato-based pancakes and noodles were eaten. Dairy products were also consumed, usually in the form of żętyca sheep milk whey drink, buttermilk, or curdled milk. Meat was only eaten on festive occasions and important family celebrations, and sheep’s cheese, contrary to popular belief, was usually made for sale; it was not eaten on a daily basis.
One of the most popular dishes was kluzka, which was made by pouring oat flour (possibly also barley or rye flour) over boiling water and then salting it. The gruel was placed in a bowl, a dip was made in it with a spoon, and milk, browned butter, or melted lard was poured in. Splashed grule, i.e., potatoes mashed with a special stirrer, with the addition of cracklings, herbs, and onions, eaten accompanied by sour milk, was often on the tables. Potatoes are also one of the main ingredients in moskole pancakes, mixed with flour, water and salt, and then baked on a baking tray or griddle; they can be eaten with butter, sour milk, cabbage, bryndza, or pork fat. Cabbage was also a staple food. It was usually eaten after being pickled. The water from the sauerkraut was eaten under the name of kwaśnica, drizzled with melted fat when possible, and combined with flour dishes as well as potatoes. Cabbage from the barrel was cooked in potato water, drizzled with fat when possible and thickened with flour. Rennet cheeses made from sheep’s milk in shepherd’s huts played a special role in the households of the Podhale highlanders. Rennet from calves’ stomachs was used to curdle the milk. It is interesting to note that cheeses also served as a means of payment. Redykołki, small cheeses with fancy shapes, were a reward for shepherds. On the day of the autumn return from the mountain pastures, it was common for shepherds to distribute gifts of redykołka cheeses. Game also played a role in the menu of the highlanders. Hunters went in search ofhares, roe deer, deer, bears, marmots, and chamois goats, as well as some birds (mainly geese). Fish, such as grayling and trout, were caught in streams and rivers. For serving and storing food, mainly wooden utensils were used – kneading troughs, bowls, pails. Food was cooked in earthenware, cast iron or copper vessels. Even today, if you visit the numerous tourist resorts, you will find places with rich and varied menus, offering a taste of homemade grule, moskole, kwaśnica, trout or real Podhale lamb. This will be a real journey into the local culinary tradition. But if you’re ever hosted by a gaździna (i.e., a highlander homemaker), eat your fill and do not leave anything on your plate. Not finishing your meal is a significant faux-pas and cause for offence.
Highland specialities can also be the perfect souvenir of a trip, a gift for loved ones, or a tasty extension of a successful outing. Did you know that four highlander products have been included on the EU’s list of regional products?
Podhale lamb – the subtle and distinctive taste of the meat here is determined by the mountain flora consumed by the sheep on the mountain pastures, the climate conditions, and the breeding traditions that have been cultivated for centuries.
Oscypek – a hard sheep’s cheese, salty, spindle-shaped, smoked with beech smoke, keeps fresh for a long time – perfect for a culinary souvenir. This famous cheese even has a dedicated museum,(description of oscypek museum) be sure to visit when you are in Zakopane.
Podhale Bryndza – the first Polish regional product to be included on the EU list, a soft, rennet cheese with a spicy and salty taste. Made in Podhale from sheep’s milk or from sheep’s milk with an admixture of milk from the Polish Red breed of cows.
Redykołka – this is nothing more than a mini version of oscypek in various fancy shapes, just as tasty as its bigger cousin.
If while in Podhale you are looking for a place with good cuisine where you can feast with your family and friends in a highland atmosphere, check out the venues on the Małopolska Gourmet Trail. You will find tried and tested addresses there. You can also follow the Oscypek Trail to visit traditional shepherd huts and enjoy mountain cheeses. There is also the Tastes of Podhale Trail, where you will find places serving dishes prepared on the basis of traditional products and recipes.
So, start your engines and enjoy a culinary journey through the Małopolska region!