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Award-winning Suffolk food writer Nicola Miller from Bury St Edmunds takes inspiration from a traditional Polish dish to make a meat and potato soup with a difference





When I visit a winter fair, I don’t want to eat burgers, fries or pizza.

I want proper cold-weather food, the kind of meals one might eat after a long day chopping wood in the forest: think steaming cups of soup, bowls of stew and thick crusts of bread to sop them up with.

I want heart and brightness. Sadly, this kind of open-air food is rare in my neck of the woods.

Zurek
Zurek

So when I found myself in my town’s Abbey Gardens at the last Christmas Fair before lockdown and spotted a small trailer serving soups and stews, I made a beeline for it.

The trailer was operated by a Polish restaurant in Newmarket called Pod Orłem (Under the Eagle) on Crown Walk, and it sold small bowls of a soup named Zurek for just a few pounds.

“Polish food is not light and fluffy; it is made to fill the inner man, and it does,” says one of the restaurant’s online reviewers.

This is true, but it is not the whole truth.

Contemporary Polish food writers like Zuza Zak and Michal Korkosz are the authors of cookbooks that combine traditional country food and the exciting, lighter contemporary developments found in city-based restaurants.

Zak’s first book, Polska, covers Polish food of all kinds. Korkosz’s book, Fresh From Poland: New Vegetarian Cooking From the Old Country, is filled with deft and lively plates of meat-free food. Both books defy stereotypes.

If I told you Zurek tends to be made from a combination of carrots, onions, potatoes, mushroom, celeriac, horseradish, sausage, cream and bacon, what comes to mind?

You probably wouldn’t think “perfect for spring and summer!”

But what makes Zurek so different to other ‘meat and potato’ soups is that it has a liquid base of fermented rye, buckwheat or oat flour called ‘zakwas’.

This adds a great deal of brightness, a theme in Polish cooking.

No matter what part of Poland you’re in, you’ll encounter all kinds of vegetable and meat-based meals paired with fruit sauces, pickles and ferments.

Even the puddings have a deceptive brightness: think cherry-stuffed pierogi served with a thin sour cream sauce, Paczki (doughnuts) filled with plum and wild rose flavour jam, and Racuchy Z Jabłkami (little apple pancakes).

My first bowl of Zurek was a revelation.

It was a cold and dank night in December, but in front of me was a soup that was both hearty and effervescent (and by effervescent, I mean in the enthusiastic and vivacious sense).

There was savoury smokiness from the meat, allspice and pepper, the delicate sweet greenness of marjoram and a lightly acidulated flavour like the twang of an electric guitar.

Each spoonful held a suggestion of the spring to come. The sour rye base tasted familiar, too. Crème fraîche, sour cream, buttermilk, young goat’s cheese, sauerkraut, sorrel, dill pickles, yoghurt, biscuity champagnes, sour beer, sourdough bread, and skyr are similarly tangy.

Many food writers suggest making your zakwas.

Ren Behan, author of Wild Honey & Rye: Polish Recipes, told me she did and suggested a helpful guide on Polonist.com for first-timers.

And quite a few recipes suggest making your starter too, but after speaking to Polish and Poland-adjacent cooks on Twitter, I learned that many of them buy their zakwas bottled from the local store.

Anna Maria Tuckett, the Salisbury-based writer, told me that most of her friends and family do this. “My mother used to make her own, but now it’s widely available, and she lives alone; she buys bottled.”

Nathan Young, the writer of 365 Days of Nigella, is married to Marcin, who is Polish. “ I buy it bottled,” he says. “Mostly because I’m not organised enough to plan the rye starter.

Marcin’s Mum and sister in Poland say they use the bottled stuff too if that helps.”

Yes, this does help, and it’s a relief because I also lack the time and organisation (and shelf space for yet another pot of ferments), but I do have a Polski Sklep just down the road.

It is staffed by men and women who do not mind helping me as I bumble around clutching Google Translate to augment the few food-related Polish words I know.

From there, I bought my bottled zakwas, biala kielbasa (the sausage used in the soup), a satisfyingly rustic-looking slab of smoked bacon and a sachet of dried marjoram because my marjoram bush is looking a bit sorry for itself.

It’s important to say that this is ‘my’ version of Zurek; its making varies from one region of Poland to another, and the time of year and occasion. Mine contains potatoes; some do not. Some have celeriac or parsnip, and some don’t, and the spices used can vary, as does the consistency of the soup.

Some recipes use pre-made vegetable broth, while others cook the vegetables in water before straining them.

I fry the sausages before adding them to the broth, but some Polish cooks add the raw sausage to the broth, where they cook in the simmering heat.

Pod Orłem serves Zurek with quail eggs and forest mushrooms.

Michal Korkosz adds dried porcini and soft-boiled eggs, and Zuza Zak suggests adding the brine from a jar of pickled gherkins.

I have eaten Zurek as a smooth broth with and without chunks of sausage and served versions where some of the soup’s ingredients are left whole.

I like them all. The sklep even sells pouches of fresh soup for heating at home. These are good when you need emergency Zurek, but they’re not a patch on homemade.

ZUREK

You will need a frying pan and a sizeable 3-litre soup pan. Serves six to eight, depending on appetite.

Ingredients:

Two large brown onions, one peeled and cut in half and one peeled and finely sliced

2 litres of salted water

1 tablespoon dried marjoram

2 bay leaves

2 large carrots, roughly chopped, peel left on

One small celeriac, peeled and diced

Teaspoon of vegetable oil

3 biala kielbasa left whole

75g Polish-style smoked bacon or smoked English bacon, chopped into fat dice

600g small new potatoes, scrubbed but left unpeeled

3 berries of allspice

Black pepper

1 teaspoon creamed horseradish

400ml bottled zakwas

60ml single cream

Fresh sprigs of marjoram (optional, according to season)

Method:

Pour the water into the soup pan and add the uncooked onion halves, carrots, celeriac, marjoram and bay leaves. Bring to a boil before lowering the heat to a simmer. Cook for 60 minutes or until the vegetables have collapsed. At this point, strain the broth, discarding the vegetables. (Or eat them from a bowl while you finish cooking your soup!) Wipe out the saucepan and return the broth to it. Set aside while you fry the sliced onion and meat.

Heat the teaspoon of vegetable oil in a sauté pan and fry the sliced onion until it is soft and light brown. Remove the onion from the heat and save it for later. Now fry the biala kielbasa in the pan you fried the onions until they start to colour. Add the bacon dice and fry until they start to crisp. Don’t let either of them burn, though. Remove both from the pan and cut the sausages into chunks. Leave the bacon as it is.

To the vegetable broth, add the allspice berries, a good grind of black pepper and the horseradish. Add the uncooked potatoes, the fried onion, the bacon and the sausage. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer until the potatoes are done (around 15-20 mins). Thoroughly shake your bottle of zakwas, then slowly stir it into the soup, tasting as you go. Simmer for another five minutes. There’s no need to add all the 400ml if you prefer a less tangy soup, so don’t pour it all in at once.

Remove the bay leaves and allspice berries from the soup with a slotted spoon, then stir in the cream. Serve your Żurek in individual bowls, dividing the meat and potatoes between each person or pour the soup into hollowed-out sturdy bread rolls, one per person. Garnish with fresh marjoram sprigs or leaves if you have them.

Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale

Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020

Fortnum & Mason Cookery Writer of the Year 2022