28 January 2019

Genuine Old Polish Bigos

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The Christmas-carnival period is a time when Poles eat particularly large amounts of bigos – assorted meats that are chopped up and stewed for hours with sauerkraut and shredded cabbage. It's a dish that you can prepare in ample quantity in advance, then freeze it (formerly, by simply storing it outside; today, in a freezer) and then reheat it multiple times, which – it is known – only improves the flavour. Bigos (pronounced BEE-gawss) is commonly regarded as one of the top dishes in the Polish culinary canon; one would be hard pressed to name a more typically Polish food. This is how American food historian William Woys Weaver described it:

Bigos is one of those Polish dishes that has been romanticized in poetry, discussed in its most minute details in all sorts of literary contexts, and never made in small quantities. Historically, it was served at royal banquets or to guests at meals following a hunt. It was made invariably from several types of game and served during winter. Bigos has gradually assumed the character of a Christmas and Easter dish in Poland, and today recipes are as varied and as complex as any Italian recipe for tomato sauce. In fact, some Poles even add tomato sauce to the mixture. (It does not need it.)
Maria Dembińska, William Woys Weaver: Food and Drink in Medieval Poland: Rediscovering a Cuisine of the Past, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999, p. 169

But is the bigos, as we know it today, really the ancient and specifically Polish dish we take it to be?


I'm sorry to report that etymologists agree: this epitome of Polish cuisine is referred to by a word of foreign, non-Slavic and – what's even worse – German origin! They are not certain, though, which German word exactly the Polish bigos derives from, but they have no doubt that some German word it is. Aleksander Brückner, a famous prewar scholar of Slavic languages, maintained that bigos comes from German Bleiguss, or "lead mold". The idea was that if you pour molten lead on water (as many Poles still do with wax for divination on Saint Andrew's Eve), you're going to get a shape that resembles bigos. Other linguists are quite unanimous in their view that this etymology makes no God-damned sense.

Suggestions that are somewhat more logical from a culinary point of view include the archaic German verb becken, "to chop", and the Old German noun bîbôz (or Beifuss in modern parlance), which refers to mugwort, a plant once used for seasoning. Others propose the Italian bigutta, or "pot for cooking soup", which supposedly entered Polish via German. But the etymology thought to be most likely is that bigos derives from bîgossen, an archaic form of the participle beigossen, from the verb beigießen, "to pour". To make a long story short, bigos is something to which someone (probably some German) has added some kind of liquid.[1]

Minutal alias siekanka[edit]

Now, the problem is that ever since the word bigos has been used in the Polish language, it had more to do with the action of chopping than with pouring. The earliest known mention is a bigos recipe found in a herbal by Stefan Falimirz published in Cracow in 1534, entitled Of Herbs and their Potency. It was a work on medicine rather than a cookbook, so this oldest known bigos wasn't so much a dish as a medicine against "Saint Valentine's illness", or epilepsy.

You may also douse wolf lungs with pure wine, then chop them up into bigos and cook with pepper, ginger, cloves, saffron; eat this for a few days. This has been tried on one wife.
Stefan Falimirz: O ziołach, oprac. Anetta Luto-Kamińska, Krzysztof Opaliński, p. 1441, own translation
Może też, opłukawszy płuca wilcze winem czystym, potem je uwarzyć zsiekawszy na bigos i okorzenić pieprzem, imbirem, goździkami, szafranem, a to jeść przez kilka dni. Jest rzecz doświadczona na jednej białej głowie.

There are two interesting things we can notice here: first, 16th-century requirements regarding sample sizes in clinical studies were a lot less strict thatn they are today. And second, it was possible to make bigos without cabbage or sauerkraut. You didn't need a variety of meats either. All you needed to do to make bigos was to chop something (say, wolf lungs) up and season to make it sour, sweet and spicy.

From: Gregorius Cnapius: Thesaurus polonolatinogræcus, Kraków: 1643, p. 30

A 1621 Polish-Latin-Greek dictionary defines bigos simply as ferculum ex concisis carnibus, or "a dish of chopped meat" and provides the word siekanka ("something chopped up") as a Polish synonym. It also gives minutal as the Latin equivalent. As it turns out, Poles were not the first to enjoy sweet-and-sour chopped-meat delicacies; these were already known to ancient Romans. We can find some recipes for minutal in De Re Coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking), a cookbook that has been traditionally credited to Apicius, but is in fact a collection of formulae from various authors compiled in the 4th–5th centuries CE. What follows is a recipe for minutal ex praecoquis, or chopped pork with apricots.

A modern reconstruction of pork-and-apricot minutal
Combine olive oil, fish sauce and diluted wine in a pot. Add chopped dried shallots and diced pork shoulder. Cook all this with crushed pepper, cumin, dried mint and dill. Add some honey, fish sauce [again], raisin wine, vinegar and broth. Mix well. Add stoned apricots and bring to boil again. Thicken with crushed flatbread, sprinkle with pepper and serve.
Apicius: De re coquinaria, own translation
Adicies in caccabum oleum liquamen vinum concides cepam ascaloniam aridam spatulam porcinam coctam tessellatim concides his omnibus coctis teres piper cuminum mentam siccam anethum suffundis mel liquamen passum acetum modice ius de suo sibi temperabis praecoqua enucleata mittis facies ut ferveant donec percoquantur tractam confringes ex ea obligas piper aspargis et inferes

I've found an interesting attempt at reconstruction of this dish. The author of the Pass the Garum blog, devoted to cooking according to ancient Roman recipes, hints that you can replace liquamen, or Roman fish sauce, with store-bought Thai nam pla mixed with reduced white-grape juice; and instead of tracta, or Roman flatbread, you can use cornstarch as an equally good thickener.

And here's a Polish recipe for "Jesuit bigos" from a manuscript cookbook written at the court of princes Radziwiłł at the end of the 17th century:

Take some good beef, roast it nicely, frequently dousing with butter. Once it roasts nicely, cut into sizeable chunks; chop up a large amount of onion and fry it in butter. Put this bigos and onion into a nice fish pan. Pour in a quart of wine, half a quart of wine vinegar and half a quart of malmsey. Add small and large raisins, a sliced lime, a handful of olives, a handful of sugar; add enough [crushed] pepper to make it well spicy, a few cloves, some peppercorns, diced fresh lemon and two spoons of fresh butter. Let it boil well in the pan, so that only a little sauce remains.
Jarosław Dumanowski, Rafał Jankowski (red.): Moda bardzo dobra smażenia różnych konfektów, Warszawa: Muzeum Pałac w Wilanowie, 2011, p. 139, own translation
Weź pieczenią dobrą wołową przerastałą, upiecz ją pięknie, a polewaj masłem onę często. Kiedy się upiecze pięknie, pokrajać w niemałe sztuki, nakrajże cybuli niemało i smaż ją w maśle. W panew rybną piękną włóż ten bigos i cybulę. Wlejże wina kwartę, octu pół kwarty winnego, małmazjej pół kwarty. Rozynków drobnych i wielkich wsyp, limonię całą w talerzyki [plasterki] wkraj, oliwek garść, cukru przygarstnie, pieprzu wsypać, coby było dobrze korzenno, goździków całkowych kilka, pieprzu całkowego trochę, cytryny świeżej w kostkę, masła młodego łyżek dwie. Niechże wre dobrze w panwi, coby jeno trochę polewki było.

Nice! As you can see, this recipe is quite similar to the Roman one, even though it calls for beef, which Polish magnates valued more than pork. Again, we've got here a fusion of sour (wine, vinegar, lime, lemon), sweet (sugar, raisins, malmsey), spicy (pepper, cloves, more pepper) and fatty (butter, olives, more butter) flavours. This combination of tastes had not changed since ancient times and can be seen in all Polish recipes for bigos (and other dishes) from that time.

Modern crêpe bigos

What's more, not only did Old Polish bigos contain not even a soupçon of cabbage, but even meat was only optional. As long as bigos meant "something chopped up", you could make it out of anything that could be chopped. So apart from veal, capon (castrated cock), wether mutton (castrated ram), rabbit, hazel grouse or beef marrow bigos, we also know recipes for carp, pike, crayfish, oyster or even crêpe bigos (or bigosek, a diminutive form often used back then).

Buttery crêpe bigosek: fry some crêpes, cut them into squares, add wine, a little wine vinegar, sugar, small raisins, cinnamon and butter, and fry them in a pan.
ibid., p. 173
Bigosek maślny z naleśnikami: Upiekłszy ich, nakrajać w siateczki i wlać wina, i octu kąszek winnego, cukru, rozynków drobnych, cynamonu i masła, i przysmażyć tego na rynce.

As long as you don't overdo the wine and the vinegar, then even modern children would find it palatable! By the way, one must have always been wary when it comes to vinegar. This is how Wacław Potocki warned against lack of caution when seasoning your bigos with vinegar:

A maid, who hastened some bigos to season,
Rushed to the pantry, wherein, for the reason
Of frost, among bottles, stood ink in a cruet.
She brought the pot with her and poured ink into it
In vinegar's stead. Then I gave it a look;
The dog wouldn't eat it! So I called for the cook:
Bigos in mourning is a novelty, but
Don't you dare make an inkwell out of my butt!

Wacław Potocki: Bigos w żałobie, in: Ogród fraszek, red. Aleksander Brückner, vol. I, Lwów: 1907, p. 56, own translation

Chcąc panna bigos w kuchni zaprawić co prędzej,
Pójdzie z garnkiem do szafy po ocet, gdzie między
Flaszkami stał inkaust, bo już były mrozy.
Nalawszy go, daje mi bigos nowej fozy,
Skosztuję: pies by nie jadł i pomyślę sobie,
Jako żywem bigosu nie widział w żałobie.
Więc spostrzegłszy omyłki, wskażę do kucharza:
Niech mi złodziej nie robi z zadka kałamarza.

Bigos them up![edit]

Apart from bigos, there's also the quaint Polish verb bigosować, which means "to chop" or "to hack". And it wasn't only used in culinary contexts; it also referred to one of the favourite methods of torture and execution used by Polish gentry; to "bigos someone up" was to hack him to pieces with sabres. "Bigos them up!" is a call we can find in the 17th-century diaries of Jan Chryzostom Pasek and in the historical novels by Henryk Sienkiewicz that Pasek inspired. Valiant Polish nobility apparently kept abreast of times and even learned to bigos with the use of firearms, as we can see in another of Wacław Potocki's poems, where he mentions "hot bigos of lead and gunpowder".

Centuries later, Polish President Bronisław Komorowski (a historian by training) made a reference to this tradition in his famous speech to the German Marshall Fund in Washington, D.C.

President Bronisław Komorowski and his wife chopping some meat up
There used to be three phases of arriving at a political decision in the Polish parliament. The first phase was that of presenting views. Everyone could present any opinion they wanted. Then came the grinding phase. Grinding as in a great mortar, where you grind until you produce a uniform mass. Opinions were ground through a long-term discussion. But if this didn't help and if at least one person remained unconvinced or opposed, then he could take the floor of the Polish parliament, shout, "liberum veto!" and scurry away – thus dissolving the parliament. So Polish noblemen came up with a third phase: it was the phase of making bigos. Bigos is a peculiar dish: shredded cabbage and chopped meat, stewed for a long time. So the third phase – that of making bigos – meant that the rash nobles would grab their sabres and hack him to pieces, the one who upset the government, who upset the law, before he could get away.
— Bronisław Komorowski, quoted in: Kontrowersyjne przemówienie prezydenta w USA. „Bigos to szczególne danie. Kapusta siekana i siekane mięso długotrwale gotowane”, in: wPolityce.pl, 19 December 2010, own translation
Były w polskim sejmie trzy fazy dochodzenia do decyzji politycznych. Pierwsza faza to była faza zgłaszania poglądów. Każdy mógł sobie zgłosić, jaki chciał. Druga faza to była faza ucierania poglądów… Ucieranie to jest coś jak w wielkim tyglu, jeżeli trze się, aż się zrobi jednolita masa. Ucierano poglądy przez długotrwałą dyskusję. Ale jeśli to nie pomogło i niech choćby jedna osoba [była] niezdecydowana albo przeciwna, to mogła wstać na sali parlamentu polskiego, krzyknąć „liberum veto” i czym prędzej uciec. Zrywała w ten sposób sejm. Więc polska szlachta wymyśliła trzecią fazę działania: to była faza bigosowania… Bigos to szczególne, specyficzne danie: kapusta siekana i siekane mięso długotrwale gotowane. No więc trzecia faza – siekanie, bigosowanie – polegało na tym, że krewka szlachta chwytała za szable i takiego, który psuł ustrój państwa, który psuł prawo, po prostu brała na szable, nim zdążył uciec.

The above translation is mine, but during the actual speech, by the time the president had got to the third phase, the poor interpreter got so lost that she rendered bigosować as "stewing". Well, bigos is a kind of stew, but it didn't make any sense in this context, so I'm not sure whether the American audience ever understood this short lecture in the history of Polish cuisine and Polish parliamentarism.

Novel bigos[edit]

The 18th century introduced a kind of bigos that was a little more like the one we know today. It was made from a variety of meats, with exotic spices replaced by domestic herbs and veggies, but still no cabbage. We can find the following recipe in Kucharz doskonały (The Perfect Cook) by Wojciech Wielądko, the second-oldest fully-preserved cookbook printed in Polish:

Veal bigos for a starter: Take some veal or other butcher's meat, or some poultry or game; you may also mix various kinds, if you do not have enough of one kind; chop it up, put in a pot together with butter, parsley, onion, chopped shallots, put on a fire, add a pinch of flour, pour in half a glass of boullion and as much [meat] juice, salt, pepper, boil for a quarter, add some coulis [thick sauce of puréed vegetables]. Serve with fried croutons.
Wojciech Wielądko: Kucharz doskonały, Warszawa: 1783, p. 98, own translation
Bigos z cielęciny na przydatek: Weź cielęciny lub innego mięsa jatkowego, albo też z drobiu lub ze zwierzyny pieczonej, możesz różne pomieszać, jeżeli jednego nie masz dosyć, usiekaj, włóż w rondel z masłem, pietruszką, cebulą, szalotką siekaną, przystaw do ognia, wsyp szczubeć mąki, wlej pół szklanki bulionu i tyleż soku, osól, opieprz, gotuj przez kwadrans, przydaj trochę gąszczu. Na wydaniu obłóż grzankami smażonymi.

But if you think that we're finally going to prove the Polish origin of one of Poland's most famous dishes, then think again. Wielądko didn't write about Polish cuisine; his book was a translation of La cuisinière bourgeoise by Menon. He modified the book's title to better suit his Polish readers' expectations (the cook in the original title is an urban woman, but the one in Wielądko's translation is a man of unspecified origin), but the recipes themselves remained French, even if much abridged. So does it mean that bigos is originally a French dish then? Yes and no. Wielądko simply used the word bigos as the Polish equivalent to what Menon referred to as hachis (pronounced ah-SHE and derived from the verb hacher, "to chop", which is related to the English "hatchet"). We could probably trace the origins of that dish also back to the ancient Roman minutal. Minutal, hachis, salmigondis, hutsepot, hodgepodge, bigos... they all belong to one big family of chopped dishes, once featured on tables throughout Europe. Which is not surprising, if you think about it: chopping, dicing or mincing was the only way of processing meat before the first half of the 19th century, when the German inventor Karl Drais built the first meat grinder. It was only then that pâtés, sausages and fillings in the form of a uniform mass became possible.

Besides, as I've mentioned already, it wasn't only meat that was being chopped. Both in Menon's book and in Wielądko's translation we can find a recipe for a purely vegetarian dish made from diced root vegetables. Wielądko calls it "carrot-and-parsnip bigos".

Cut onions into thin slices, brown them in butter with flour, add some bouillon, bring to boil; then add precooked and diced carrots, parsnips, celeriacs and rutabagas; salt, pepper, add a little vinegar and serve with mustard.
— Wielądko, op. cit., p. 260
Cebule pokraj w zraziki, zrumień w maśle z mąką, zalej bulionem, dogotuj, wrzuć w to potem marchwi, pasternaków, selerów, brukwi wprzód gotowanej i krajanej, osól, opieprz, wlej odrobinę octu, na wydaniu przydaj musztardy.


And now it's time for my own interpretation of a 17th-century recipe for a genuine Old Polish bigos – without meat and without cabbage! I've started by cutting a cod fillet into bite-sized morsels and marinated them in a mixture of olive oil, apple vinegar, lime juice, honey, cinnamon and nutmeg. The least Old Polish element in this mix was honey, which I used instead of sugar, the favourite sweetener of the Polish nobles of yore. On the next day, I removed the fish from the marinade and baked it in an oven.

In a wok, I browned some chopped onion in butter and then added some (wait for it!) gooseberries (at this time of the year only frozen ones were availabe, but it doesn't matter in this case) as well as some port-soaked raisins and dried cranberries. Once the gooseberries were reduced to a pulp, I added the fish, some olives and heated the wok a little more. As for olives, they do crop up in Old Polish bigos recipes, but I think this dish would have been just as good without them.

The sides were purely my own idea, not based on any old recipes: sautéed buckwheat-flour drop noodles and caramelized kohlrabi on puréed parsley root. I told my guests that what they were having was a kind of bigos; they did notice the fish flavour, but were certain that they could also taste some sauerkraut.

In my next post we're going to see how bigos – finally, with cabbage! – kept evolving beyond its Old Polish stage.


  1. More on this topic in: Mirosław Skarżyński: Polish (?) Bigos: About the Thing and About the Word, in: Michał Nemeth, Barbara Podolak, Mateusz Urban: Essays in the History of Languages and Linguistics, Kraków: Księgarnia Akademicka, 2017, p. 609–617, doi:10.12797/9788376388618.37

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